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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Bitcoin’s most significant code improvement in years won a key stamp of approval this weekend, reports CoinDesk’s Christie Harkin.

Why it matters: Over three years in the making, Taproot represents the ability for bitcoin to one day do more than be a store of value: think more nimble smart contracts (similar to those on Ethereum) and better usability.

The intrigue: The thing that stands out to industry observers is an added level of obfuscation that will make the protocol more private. In short, “mixed” bitcoin transactions will look the same as regular transactions on the blockchain.

  • What’s bitcoin mixing? Bitcoin is an open ledger that is fairly easy to track. Bitcoin mixers bundle transactions in such a way that most sleuths are thrown off the trail of where an individual transaction is being sent. Depending on your view of privacy, mixers are favored by the prudent or the criminal.

Between the lines: That’s why the new Taproot upgrade slices two ways.

  • It’s great if you think digital cash should function like actual cash: greenbacks don’t leave much of a trail for digital surveillance.
  • It’s potentially worrisome if you view the pseudonymous traceability of bitcoin as an asset: Colonial Pipeline, anyone?

What to watch: Either way, it will be months until Taproot is alive in the wild. The upgrade will kick in when bitcoin reaches a specified “block height” in November, giving miners and anyone operating a node — from Coinbase to your next-door neighbor — ample opportunity to update their software.

  • After that, developers will pick up the baton to integrate Taproot’s new features into products bitcoiners will actually use.

The bottom line: Is this a new Bitcoin? No, despite some new functionality (and potentially bitcoin-native decentralized finance, or DeFi) the original cryptocurrency will likely continue to do what it does best: Be an internet-native store of value that exists outside the purview of pesky central bankers.

Go deeper

Felix Salmon, author of Capital
Sep 8, 2021 - Economy & Business

El Salvador's bitcoin experiment has rocky start after sell-off

Data: FactSet; Chart: Axios Visuals

It was a rocky start: Bitcoin suffered a disorderly sell-off on Tuesday, alongside most other cryptocurrencies, to mark the day on which it officially became legal tender in El Salvador, along with the more widely accepted U.S. dollar.

Why it matters: While a 17% daily swing is far from unprecedented for bitcoin, it's not the kind of thing most citizens want from their currencies. Neither is having a payments mechanism that can be unplugged by the government at will.

El Salvador buys 400 bitcoin ahead of making it legal currency

President Nayib Bukele in the Legislative Assembly building in San Salvador, El Salvador, in June. Photo: Camilo Freedman/Bloomberg via Getty Images

El Salvador bought its first 400 bitcoins on Monday, and President Nayib Bukele pledged to buy "a lot more" ahead of adopting the cryptocurrency as legal tender.

Why it matters: El Salvador will become on Tuesday the first country to formally adopt bitcoin — marking the "biggest test" the digital currency has faced in its 12-year history, per Bloomberg.

Stock buybacks boom as corporate cash piles grow

The Delta variant is keeping more companies cautious about how to invest the mountains of cash they have at their disposal. That hesitancy has led, in part, to corporate spending on stock buybacks outpacing capital expenditures this year. 

Why it matters: Companies hoarded cash and raised prices over the past year — leaving them with a lot of money and decisions about what to do with it.