Bitcoin goes big: Wall Street, Silicon Valley aboard

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Scoff if you like but bitcoin, despite its myriad defects and detractors, is getting an increasing level of focus in high finance.

Just a few recent examples:

Reports surfaced this week that JPMorgan Chase has been pursuing the development of a cryptocurrency for at least 14 years.

In a recent analysis for clients, Bank of America Merrill Lynch called bitcoin a potential “major means of payment for e-commerce and may emerge as a serious competitor to traditional money transfer providers.”

And Fidelity is now reportedly allowing clients to put bitcoins in their 401(k) plans, adding a little risk to the retirement picture, according to financial website MarketWatch.

(Read moreCashless society: A huge threat to our freedom)

Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency created by online “miners” who solve complex math problems, is gaining as much acceptance as skepticism these days.

The digital currency alternative has been a favorite target of speculators, who pushed the price as high as $1,240 earlier in December and as low as $365 just a month ago. It traded around $850 midday Thursday, according to the Mt.Gox exchange.

Along with wild price fluctuations has come intensified interest.

“Bitcoin is the first to market with this concept,” banking analyst Dick Bove at Rafferty Capital Markets said in a note to clients. “It is not the last and there will be other more refined approaches, but make no mistake one or many digital currencies, which are not controlled by governments, are coming.”

Bove believes the success of bitcoin will hinge on its ability to weed speculators out of the cryptocurrency market. Price stability, even at lower levels, will help it project a higher caliber of legitimacy.

(Read moreIs Bitcoin the fad of all fads?)

At the same time, should JPMorgan’s patent application get approval, that could be a game-changer for the virtual currency world.

“We suggest that investors, particularly those in banking, must stay aware of developments in this market,” Bove said. “It will be a factor in valuing certain banking products related to the payment system.”

There have been other intriguing developments as well.

Bitcoin Foundation announced Thursday that it has opened chapters in Canada and Australia. The advocacy organization, which boasts hundreds of members and dozens of exchange and support sites, said it seeks “to build a collaborative and supportive relationship to address (countries’) unique issues and priorities through localized leadership.”

(Read more: Don’t rule out a ban on virtual currencies: Peercoin)

In addition to Wall Street, Silicon Valley also is getting geared up over bitcoin.

Coinbase, a San Francisco company, has raised $25 million in venture capital money as it seeks to expand. The company helps facilitate bitcoin transactions between buyers and vendors that accept the currency.

Various funds have been raising significant amounts as well, with SecondMarket reporting earlier this week that it was holding $65 million worth of bitcoins. Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss are perhaps the most recognized names involved in supporting bitcoin, with their Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust.

(Read moreBofA: Bitcoin could hit $15 billion market cap)

Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts believe that bitcoin’s big advantage is early entrance to a market that is likely to grow. Criticism of bitcoin as an allure to criminals looking to conduct illegal transactions is largely unwarranted, BofA said, because of the ease in tracking usage.

On the downside, BofA rates strategist David Woo believes the continued price volatility and likelihood of regulation in the future cloud bitcoin’s chances for success.

“To the extent that bitcoin offers users many benefits and efficiencies as a medium of exchange, this means it possesses some fundamental value that may increase over time as it gains wider use,” he said. “However, as a unit of account and store of a value, it has considerable shortcomings which we believe will ultimately hinder it from ascending to international currency status.”

—By CNBC’s Jeff Cox. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxCNBCcom.

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