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Cryptocurrencies, Network Effects, and Switching Costs

William J. Luther

Kenyon College

July 17, 2013

Mercatus Center Working Paper No. 13-17

Cryptocurrencies are digital alternatives to traditional government-issued paper monies. Given the current state of technology and skepticism regarding the future purchasing power of existing monies, why have cryptocurrencies failed to gain widespread acceptance? I offer an explanation based on network effects and switching costs. In order to articulate the problem that agents considering cryptocurrencies face, I employ a simple model developed by Dowd and Greenaway (1993). The model demonstrates that agents may fail to adopt an alternative currency when network effects and switching costs are present, even if all agents agree that the prevailing currency is inferior. The limited success of bitcoin — almost certainly the most popular cryptocurrency to date — serves to illustrate. After briefly surveying episodes of successful monetary transition, I conclude that cryptocurrencies like bitcoin are unlikely to generate widespread acceptance in the absence of either significant monetary instability or government support.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 45

Keywords: bitcoin, cryptocurrency, currency competition, lock-in, medium of exchange, monetary standard, money, network effects, path dependence, spontaneous switching, standardization

JEL Classification: E40, E41, E42, E49

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Date posted: July 18, 2013 ; Last revised: June 6, 2015

Suggested Citation

Luther, William J., Cryptocurrencies, Network Effects, and Switching Costs (July 17, 2013). Mercatus Center Working Paper No. 13-17. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2295134 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2295134

Contact Information

William J. Luther (Contact Author)
Kenyon College ( email )
Gambier, OH 43022
United States
HOME PAGE: http://www.wluther.com
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