I was going to do a piece of bitcoin as an asset class but this morphed into a very long piece so I’m splitting this up into two parts. This part covers how to value bitcoin and a guess on what the future holds for bitcoin speculators. Catch up on part 1 here.

Putting a value on bitcoin

If bitcoin is unlikely to be the next form of a widely accepted currency, then why has the price gone up so much? Well, the short answer to that is that the price has gone up because the demand for it has done up relative to the supply.

In economics, the theory goes that there are three reasons why people demand any sort of money:

  1. Transactional purposes
  2. Precautionary purposes
  3. Speculative purposes

The above is for money in general but it’s useful to think along those lines for the demand of any particular form of money. And since almost all societies already have an accepted form of payment (the local currency or a foreign one), the demand for bitcoin is mostly confined to the last purpose- the opportunity cost of holding money is low, therefore, let’s hold in the form of a moonshot such as cryptocurrencies.

The next question, then, is whether buyers of bitcoins are buying it cheap, fair or at ridiculous prices? The only way to answer this question is to figure out what is the intrinsic value of a bitcoin and what is the price today relative to the value.

With asset classes as such bonds, equities or real estate, the typical way to value these assets is to ask ourselves: what are the payoffs (coupons, dividends, rental) over the remaining life of the asset, the associated probabilities of those payoffs and arrive at a value of the asset as it is today. Comparing that with the price one would pay for the asset, we can then determine if the asset is priced fairly or not.

In contrast, valuing an asset class such as commodities or foreign exchange is inherently more tricky. After all, before bitcoin, there was another commodity that was a darling for some “investors”. Unfortunately, this is what Warren Buffett has to say about it:

“I will say this about gold. If you took all the gold in the world, it would roughly make a cube 67 feet on a side…Now for that same cube of gold, it would be worth at today’s market prices about $7 trillion – that’s probably about a third of the value of all the stocks in the United States…For $7 trillion…you could have all the farmland in the United States, you could have about seven Exxon Mobils (NYSE:XOM) and you could have a trillion dollars of walking-around money…And if you offered me the choice of looking at some 67 foot cube of gold and looking at it all day, and you know me touching it and fondling it occasionally…Call me crazy, but I’ll take the farmland and the Exxon Mobils.” – Warren Buffett on CNBC, March 2, 2011 (source)

If you think about the amount of utility by investing in an asset that doesn’t provide any income, then you better be darn right about the capital gains. Unfortunately, none of us are time travellers (if you are, please get in touch!) or have a crystal ball so betting the farm on an outcome that is speculative in nature is a fool’s errand.

Don’t misunderstand, I think gold has some utility. It has served as a hedge against inflation, is used in jewellery and as insurance in the event you need to escape your country but the price of gold beyond the costs associated with those options is pure speculation. bitcoin, I believe, has even less utility apart from being a conversation at a cocktail.

Prof. Aswath Damodaran has a fantastic post on bitcoin and cryptocurrencies and how to think about the definitions of various asset classes (read the full thing here) but I present his brilliant summary of my point:

 You cannot value Bitcoin, you can only price it: This follows from the acceptance that Bitcoin is a currency, not an asset or a commodity. Any one who claims to value Bitcoin either has a very different definition of value than I do or is just making up stuff as he or she goes along.

In short, what a bitcoin is worth is only as much as the next person willing to pay for it.

Will it end well?

This is where things get interesting. What I’ve covered so far shows that bitcoin has value only insofar as people’s willingness to pay for it and the willingness to pay for it, right now, seems to be pretty much only because people think that it’ll continue to go up further. Why would it go up further? Simply because it may gain widespread acceptance and be the currency (amongst many others, crypto or otherwise) of choice.

The last line hints at a plausibility of reality or what Howard Marks calls a “grain of truth”. Unfortunately, Marks was referring to how bubbles form and in his checklist, he listed nine bullet points that lead to a boom/bubble:

  1. A benign environment
  2. A grain of truth
  3. Early success
  4. More money than ideas
  5. Willing suspension of belief
  6. Rejection of valuation norms
  7. The pursuit of the new
  8. The virtuous cycle
  9. Fear of missing out

Of course, Marks was referring to the investment climate in general but when applied to just Cryptocurrencies, I think 2, 6 and 7 have either already been covered or are pretty obvious. What some people don’t realise is that 1, 3, 4, 8 and 9 have played out in some fashion.

The general investment environment has been pretty positive since Trump’s election with equity markets all up substantially since the beginning of the year (point 1). The price of bitcoin going up 700% in one year has already given plenty of laypeople some success (think bitcoin jesus and Ms bitcoin Mai) and that the feeling that the only way for bitcoin is up (point 3 and 8). After all, when civil servants (that’s referring to me, by the way) in the education sector start about bitcoin, beware.

As for point 4, the whole concept of Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) just underscores how there is too much money floating around that people are willing to part with money* for nothing more than a digital representation to an idea. The worst part about the idea is that the startup is practically joining a space that is already crowded with a thousand other similar ideas. And that’s just in the cryptocurrency space. Softbank has a 100 billion dollar venture capital fund which just shows how much money there is floating around to fund ideas that are probably more moonshots than sure things.

As for point 9, there are now traditional Wall Street firms getting in on the boom (admittedly, they are just dipping their toes there) and there are cryptocurrency hedge funds and even fund-of-funds. If you don’t know what those mean, no worries. Basically, it just means that more money is being channelled towards cryptocurrencies.

Closer to home, just a few months ago, a student of mine was looking into buying bitcoin and while my school may not be looking to buy the currency, the fact that suddenly interest in the subject has increased drastically shows that no one wants to miss out on knowing what this exciting, new thing is all about. News about Google searches for buying bitcoin getting more popular than buying gold just strengthens the point that there are many people who are trying to get on board a ship that (perhaps?) has sailed.

Well, that’s just Howard Marks’ checklist. I saw a chart (it’s a little dated) that compared the rise in the price of bitcoin to other bubbles that have come before it.

 

bitcoinVsBubbles

The thesis here is that most bubbles increase a 1000% over 10 years before popping.

Well, from the chart, bitcoin rose a 1000% in just three years. And with the benefit of hindsight, we now know that the bubble hasn’t burst but has expanded further to 3700% since 1 Jan 2015.

So, that’s it from me. I think I’ve pretty much convinced myself that while the technology underlying bitcoin has its use, I’m not so optimistic on the token itself given the competition from existing currencies as well as new cryptocurrencies. And it’s ironic that the price of bitcoin is still quoted in USD so that says a lot about what our anchor still is.

Furthermore, the psychology behind bitcoin has pretty much fueled a buying frenzy (as evidenced by the exponential increase in price) and has checked off a lot of boxes that have plagued other manias before it. I’m not sure if the bitcoin/crypto boom is over but I’m pretty sure it’s not going to end well.

 

 

snarky notes:

*remember, money can be used to consume goods today or invested for surer returns.