Archives for posts with tag: bitcoin

It’s been a terrible week for me. I was pretty much in bed for the first two days of the week and I couldn’t eat much until Thursday. Thankfully, I’m feeling close to a 100% now.

Hope your week ahead won’t be anywhere near as bad as mine was this week.

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The Big Read: Cryptocurrency crash offers industry the reality check it needs (TODAY Online)

Great read on the aftermath (yes, you’ve read it first. I’m calling it an aftermath) of investing in Cryptos with accounts from those who had substantial (relative to probably their own net worth) skin in the game.

Good lessons abound and I wish I had kept better records or accounts of what was happening in ’07, ’08 and ’09. I was only in university then and beginning to start learning about the markets but I remember how some guys were trading warrants and making/losing 5-figure sums in the room that us Honours year students were given to use.

That was in ’07 and of course, we know what came after. I would have liked to remember a little better how I felt about the markets in ’08 and ’09 because the sentiment now in 2018 certainly fits those times better.

Of course, in recent times, we haven’t seen the participation of the masses in any widespread, crazy speculation (apart from a tiny group in crypto) so my question now is: What is the next shoe to fall?

As Singapore’s population ages, I suspect we’ll see this sort of thing start to pop up as well. I mean, we hear of elderly folks being conned of their CPF savings through various means (appealing to their vices, taking advantage of their less-than-once-stellar mental faculties etc.) but I’m waiting to see if it happens at the financial institutions level.

I suspect it’ll come from the financial institutions offering a product that isn’t actually designed to give returns much better than the risk-free rate but with all the “protection” of a bond. That sounds like Structured Products which kind of gave banks a bad rep but if you know of anything new, do let me know. It’s fascinating stuff really.

Russell Napier: Equity Markets and Structural Change (Enterprising Investor)

A plausible sounding narrative for where U.S. markets are headed in the longer term. Not optimistic but if it does happen, it would provide a good buying opportunity.

Could we Model Our Retirement Spending like Endowment Funds? (Investment Moats)

Sharing this not because it’s a new idea to me but I think it could be a paradigm shift for many people.

Most people aim to accumulate a certain sum before they retire and upon retirement, spend down the sum and upon their deathbed, leave the rest for their beneficiaries.

It’s not that I think that’s wrong but I think the pros of acting as if your money should last forever outweigh the idea behind spending it down.

For starters, aiming to have the accumulated sum grow/last forever means greater prudence in spending. It also means greater prudence in investing as it requires a proper plan for investing the money instead of sticking to investments that guarantee the principal at the expense of purchasing power.

The biggest downside is what the growing sum of money is meant to do. If the beneficiaries are too few, you end up with a generation of spoiled heirs who will eventually squander it all.

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In case you weren’t following the crypto scene, “hodl” is a typo for “hold” and someone that became a meme for crypto fanboys to buy and hold crypto for the long run.

close up of coins

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As Josh Brown reminds us, this week is roughly the one year anniversary of when most of the world suddenly realised that people were “making tons of money” from investing in something called “bitcoin”.

Plenty of other cryptocurrencies followed but we haven’t really heard of the widespread use case being implemented. That basically means that the usefulness of bitcoin and other cryptos have not been proven yet. The only thing that has been proven is that the technology consumes a shit ton of energy.

I hate to say I told you so but I told you so (here, here, and here).

The next shoe is already dropping

airport bank board business

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By the way, remember when I said that bitcoin and cryptos were just a symptom of easy money going into certain areas of the market and those areas ride a lot on optimism which has a high chance of not coming true?

That whole setup largely explains why tech has been getting hammered the way it has. Just a few months ago, we were talking about companies with trillion dollar market caps. As of today, Apple’s market cap has fallen to just under $750b and is no longer the largest publicly-traded company as measured by market cap. As of writing, that honour belongs to Microsoft.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Apple is a lousy investment or a company on the brink of disaster. What I’m saying is that the fact that what’s happening in the markets right now is all a reflection of Mr. Market’s mood swings. Just a few months ago, he was totally positive on tech which propelled Apple and Amazon to trillion dollar market caps. Right now, the bipolar Mr. Market is obviously running the other way.

 

In local news

So what does all the above mean for the local market?

Surprisingly, the STI has held up relatively well despite the carnage in tech. Possibly because the STI is financials-heavy and our markets don’t really have a huge pie in the tech sector. The property and financial sector will hit the STI much harder than anything in tech and to be honest, those sectors have been hit pretty hard already in the last few months.

However, MAS has come out to warn that interest rates are on their way up and that households need to “be prudent”*. For some months now, I’ve been saying the same thing. That if mortgage holders aren’t able to service their loans with an interest rate of at least 3%, then they need to be very careful.

The STI is going to fall much further if an economic downturn happens and interest rates in the U.S. continue to march upwards as that will directly impact defaults in the loan sector. I mean, what could be worse than losing your job while your loans get more expensive?

Having said that, valuations on the STI are not demanding. If you ask me, it’s on the cheap side (but not dirt cheap!) but the macro headwinds seem to be blowing hard.

Notes:

*It’s nice that MAS gives a mention that interest rates in SG are closely linked to rates in the U.S. If you want to know why, here was my take on it.

It’s the weekend! There was a public holiday, mid-week, in Singapore so this feels like déjà vu. Anyhow, here are my picks for the week.

 

coffee magazine

Some great reads to start your Sunday

After the Bitcoin Boom: Hard Lessons for Cryptocurrency Investors (New York Times)

I hate to say I told you so but…I told you so. (here, here and here for example. For a complete list, see here.)

It’s not surprise that some people have been burnt quite badly by the Crypto boom last year. Also not surprisingly, the ones hurt bad (i.e. relative to their income or net worth) are the ones who can least afford it. These are usually the least informed people in investing and when these people come onto the bandwagon, please get off.

That aside, I’ve noticed how many people are writing about their portfolios these days. It’s a trend that Financial Horse (whom I’ve never actually heard of until a few months ago but is pretty famous) has written this. I’ve been investing and writing about these things for almost 11 years now so I don’t think I qualify as new blood.

Of course, most of them write more about Financial Independence rather than investing per se so I don’t think that qualifies as a sign that we’re at the top. Valuation-wise, the STI is nowhere near exuberant levels.

 

A VISIT TO THE LAND OF A MILLION SHOKUNINS (The Food Canon)

While the subject of the article is about food, the idea of craftsmanship applies to all professions. I’m probably the worse person to tell you about craftsmanship because I’m impatient and lazy.

However, craftsmanship is probably going to be more and more important in the future. Why? Because machines are getting much better at doing the tasks that are routine and mundane. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Mechanization started with the industrial revolution and now, with A.I, I suspect it’s going to move into the realm of white collar jobs.

All the routine and mundane administrative jobs can (and should) go. I love the people in the admin department in my school but seriously, most of their job revolve around filing paper and “copying and pasting” stuff in emails.

The good education Minister actually has a point about emphasizing skills over paper qualifications. The problem is that most parents still have this mindset that qualifications matter. I suspect that that will change quite soon because we now have more and more people who are graduates (thanks SUTD, SIT, SUSS, and all the other private education providers!) but will not be able to find jobs that (1) pay well and/or (2) are interesting to do over a long period of time. It’s not really the fault of anyone but that’s what the world’s going to be like.

If I were a graduate today, I would make sure that I’m also a craftsperson of some sort. I might make good food, good beer, woodworking, an artist, photographer etc. Just make sure you’re really, really good at something that few people are good at. Just like this guy — The Secret Instagram Account Selling Black Metal–Inspired Biryani.

That said, damn…I need to make a trip to Hokkaido.

 

Steve Einhorn’s Bear Market Checklist (The Big Picture)

Recently, I wrote about having an investment plan. Part of the plan is having criteria to know when you should buy or sell. Howard Marks has also written about this before and I can’t wait for his new book to drop in October. Steve Einhorn, an investor and hedge fund manager, has this version which looks nice and simple to follow.

Long story short, it doesn’t look like we’re anywhere near a recession in the U.S. And I guess by now, we all know what that means for Singapore.

Markets in this region have been tanking and the STI has fallen below the 200-day EMA to the point that it’s about to pull the 50-day EMA below the 200-day. While this isn’t a perfectly reliable indicator in itself, this could present a good buying opportunity if this trend continues for another 6-9 months.

Anyway, if you’ve had a tough week, here are some reads to make it better.

 

‘Stingy’ millionaire donates S$3.35 million from S$20 million fortune to charity after his death (TODAY)

I’ve written about people like Agnes Plumb and Ronald Read. Finally, there’s an example from our local shores. Mr. Low Kum Moh was a sub-accountant who was born into a family of fishmongers. The secret to his wealth? Frugality and investing in the stock market over a long time-frame. This is pretty much the same story as the other ones I’ve featured here. The point of it all is that great fortunes can be made by people that most would consider very normal. The trick is to find a strategy that works and keep plugging away at it.

Which brings us to the second read.

 

In Praise of Incrementalism (Rebroadcast) (Freakonomics)

Freakonomics was the book that convinced me that economics could be interesting and that probably saved my university life.

In this episode of their podcast, they make the point that lots of progress in this world are based on incremental progress. The problem with most of us is that we tend to view great events or inventions as if they happened miraculously.

In particular, I love this example that their guest, economist David Laibson points out:

LAIBSON: One has the impression that it’s impossible to save enough for retirement — and to a certain extent, it is impossible if you start at age 50. But if you start early in life, and every year, you contribute let’s say 10 percent of your income, and maybe there’s an employer match, so now we’re up to maybe 15 percent, and you invest that savings in a diversified mutual fund, stocks and bonds, and you have low fees, and you keep going at that year in and year out, and you don’t decumulate prematurely — it’s amazing how that process produces millions of dollars of retirement savings. So it’s kind of hard to imagine how you go from what seems like a little bit of money each year to being a millionaire but that’s exactly the way it works when you work out the math.

Instead, most people often aim for that lottery ticket like buying bitcoin. Most people who do this put very little at the beginning (like a lottery ticket) and when it starts to pay out in a substantial way, they then proceed to bet the farm thinking that what has happened will go on indefinitely.

Unfortunately, this is almost always precisely the time when things start to go bad. Think of someone who bought bitcoin at $500 or $1,000. After seeing the price of bitcoin go to $10,000, they feel like a genius and proceed to place even bigger bets. Well, the bet may have paid off temporarily but look at how it’s turned out.

Which brings us to…

 

Bitcoin Bloodbath Nears Dot-Com Levels as Many Tokens Go to Zero (Bloomberg)

I’ve been writing about the problems with Cryptos since late last year (see here, here and here). To be honest, I’m not as pessimistic about crypto now as I was last year. Of course, there’s nothing fundamental to base my thoughts on but buyers are surely not as euphoric about cryptos as they were late last year.

I suppose the article compares the crash in cryptos to the crash in the tech sector during the dot-com era as prices in both situations have nothing fundamental to support them but I would argue that bitcoin is in a worse situation because, in case of the dot-com stocks, you could at least see if things were getting better based on a turn-around in cashflows and profits.

For bitcoin and cryptos, you have to track whatever these cryptos are meant to replace and see if those things are getting replaced at all.

Anyway, here’s the million-dollar picture from the article above.

bitcoinCrashJun18

 

Have a great week ahead!

close up of coins

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

Today, a friend brought to my attention my calls on bitcoin.

To be fair, I didn’t call anything. It’s not like I had a price target on bitcoin or a specified timeframe for the collapse in prices but I did say that it was a mania and the whole damn thing was overhyped as an asset class.

When I began writing about bitcoin (see here and here) in November of last year, bitcoin was approximately US$7000. As of today, bitcoin is roughly US$6,400. In the span of just a few months, Bitcoin has reached a high of US$20,000 and fallen back to slightly less than when I started writing about it.

I don’t know if bitcoin and other cryptos will continue to fall but I’m pretty sure the naive, retail investors aren’t really in the thing any longer. The good news is that unlike the US housing market, I don’t think the institutions are levered up to their eyeballs with derivatives related to crypto. It’s too soon for another financial crisis and crypto seems unlikely to be the kind of asset class that would lead us to one.

I wrote a whole bunch of stuff on crypto which you can read as well.

If the value of a thing can vary so widely in just a few months, can you really use it as money? Can it hold value? Was the fervour speculative?

I think the answer to those questions is pretty obvious.

I’m pretty sure all the students and common folk in South Korea who put their life savings in crypto are regretting it now. They regret their folly which was fueled by greed.

It’s sad that people who obviously don’t know what they’re getting into, lose money on things like this. It’s not much different from those ‘investors’ who bought into structured products during the GFC.

Unfortunately, these things are as old as the hills. We would be wise to know the difference between investing and speculation.

So, the price of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have taken hit once again.

I’m not surprised at how things have turned out. I can say that I’m kind of glad that the vindication in my view that it’s a mania has come so quick but who knows, bitcoin and other coins could easily bounce back up 50% from here.

Some signs that cryptos as asset (*cough cough) have been been much too popular of late:

  • A colleague and I are supposed to give a presentation for the economic and financial aspects of cryptos tomorrow.**
  • I recently heard (from two different sources, no less!) that Singaporean civil servants have been punting on cryptos.*** It’s literally a punt because these people are just putting in a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, at best and monitoring the prices a few times a day.
  • Bitcoin and strip club? Anyone remember the days before the GFC when bankers were throwing parties in Las Vegas?
  • Lastly, anyone remember this guy? I was just telling my colleagues how people like Roubini and John Paulson have fallen off the radar since the GFC. It’s quite telling that the bears have been mostly forgotten which shows how positive it’s been for investor sentiments.****

I’m not saying that financial markets are any safer but let’s not deny how overhyped cryptos were in 3Q and 4Q of last year. If cryptos were in a bubble and that bubble has now burst, then I suspect the prices of cryptos should have a lot more room to fall.

Notes:

*Any sound financial advisor wouldn’t advise his/her client to take this on in a portfolio in a huge way.

**When Singaporean pseudo-academia is interested in something, it should set alarm bells ringing.

***These aren’t public servants who have any expertise in the matter by the way. They probably have no idea what’s the difference between each coin and at the moment, it’s not like the differences matter much anyway. If more than a handful of public servants are into something, it’s probably the end of the party.

****Even the latest drop in the financial markets (minor relatively to history) are being framed as a good thing. That’s how positive things are right now.

I chanced upon this clip the other day while listening to Ben Carlson’s and Michael Batnick’s excellent podcast. If you haven’t been in the markets for more than 10-15 years, you should watch it. If you have, you should watch it anyway.

The clip is about 30mins long and is a good look at what the psychology in the markets are like during a boom. These were times when most new investors (in their 20s) were barely born or those who have limted investing experience (like myself) were still in the early days of our schooling life.

Amazingly, there were quite a few people interviewed who called it fervour and so many of the new participants in the stock market were people who had never touched the markets before (there was a cop, owners of a carpet business) and these people were doing incredibly stupid things (day-trading, buying stocks without even knowing the name of the company or what it does, buying on rumours etc.). Problem is, they made money doing these stupid things. And as anybody will tell you. If you get rewarded doing stupid things, you keep doing more of it.

The problem, as pointed out in the episode (#9, in case you’re curious) is that all the people who called it were basically early. I don’t know the exact date that the show was broadcast or when the people were interviewed for the show but let’s assume that the show was broadcast in mid-1997, that would still have made all the experts in the show who were calling it a bubble early by about 2.5 years.

The amazing thing, as I watched the clip, is how many parallels I could see with 1997 and markets in 2007 and markets today. While the S&P 500 and Dow has been climbing new heights many times over this year, I don’t think there’s a bubble in equities. Stocks aren’t cheap but how many people who have never touched the stock market in their life are coming to the party? Not many. Many people are still scarred by the Global Financial Crisis of ’08/09.

So where is the bubble? The obvious answer for me is in the startup scene and the cryptocurrencies.

The startup scene

Startups or Venture Capital is a brutal game where the odds of finding a success story is probably 1 in 20 or worse. Yet, SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son managed to raise a $100b Venture Capital fund.

Even the ones that ‘succeed’ are still burning through investors’ monies at an incredible rate. Take Uber for example. As recent as Aug 2017, Uber was estimated to be burning through cash at a rate of $2b a year. If Uber’s business model is anything like Grab’s, I’m not sure how they are going to ever make money. Grab’s model is basically predicated on subsidising both the consumer and drivers in order to grab (pun intended) market share.

So, if all these ride-sharing/hailing companies aren’t making money right now? What happens when investors get sick of throwing good money after bad? For one, those companies have to start monetising their customers. Maybe they raise money through selling ads on their cars? Or they raise prices of the rides and reduce the incentives given to drivers? The question is how much profit will they have even after doing all that? Will that be enough to give a significant rate of return to investors?

Cryptocurrencies

I cannot even tell you how ridiculous this one is. The bubble in crypto is painfully obvious for anyone who has studied markets.

  • Buyers who don’t even know what they’re buying? Check.
  • Unregulated asset class? Check.
  • Totally unrelated businesses trying to ride the crypto wave? Check.
  • Institutional investors coming late to the party? Check.

It’s painful to see how some people who are only about 20 years old think that they are going to become multi-millionaires in just a few weeks when they’ve never had more than a few thousand dollars just a few months ago. I guess this is what older investors mean when they say that there are no old and brave men on Wall Street. The markets are where brave men die young and cautious people live longer.

What to do about all this?

The best thing to do about all this is to stick with the strategy that you already have. As an investor, it’s not easy to find bargains in the market as it was a year ago when things were murkier and when almost everyone thought that things were going to get worse.

I don’t know if the bubbles pointed out above will pop soon or they will go on for some more. All I know is that I’m staying away from those places.

So bitcoin has blasted off to more than 15,000 USD. At one point it almost hit 20,000 USD but quickly fell back to around 16,000 USD where it stands today. The ride so far has been really volatile; Major papers were talking about bitcoin as a mania when the prices were around 7,500 USD and then prices took off even more from there.

The question I have is: how many people will actually become permanently more well off due to the rise in bitcoin prices? Given fact that only about 1,000 people own 40% of all bitcoin so far (source here), that seems like a paltry number of the total people who have bought some bitcoin.

So here’s what I think.

Many people bought too few bitcoins

A core group of bitcoin buyers who were early probably bought too little too early. So even if they were in the game as an investor (I’m leaving out the miners for now), they probably saw this as nothing more than a novelty and probably have nothing more than $10,000 invested. Some may even only have a few hundred and the majority probably have a few thousand invested. This is true especially for younger people who don’t have much moolah, to begin with.

So let’s take the middle and saw that most of them have $5,000 in bitcoin and that they got in somewhere at the beginning of the year. To make things easy, let’s say that they bought it at a $1,000 per bitcoin. As it stands, these people have turned their $5,000 into $75,000. That’s a great return and no small sum but in the great scheme of life, that’s not life-changing. Even $10,000 turning into $150,000 is fantastic but once again, that’s not the kind of money one retires on. That kind of money is just a nice bonus for the year which people will probably spend on holidays, a nice meal, or a new toy (e.g. car, yacht etc.)*

How many cashed out along the way?

And the above is assuming no one cashed out along the way. Someone who bought at $1,000 would have been extremely tempted to cash out way before the prices hit $15,000. We see this is stock markets all the time where people buy a stock at 10 and cash out way before the stock even hits 20. So I’m willing to bet that a good majority of people who bought at $1,000 might have even cashed out at $2,000 or $3,000.

They would have then experienced serious sellers’ regret as they price continued to climb and maybe they would have got in again at $5,000. Thing is, they probably got out again at $7,000 or $8,000. Want to guess what price they recently got in again at?

The point is, guessing how much returns someone made by comparing prices now and at the beginning of the year is quite futile as most buyers probably never hung on long enough to enjoy the full run-up. And for all you know, they ploughed ever greater sums at much higher prices based on the early success of their trade.

How many are ready to handle their new found wealth?

Even for those who were in bitcoin from the early days and have held on until know, how many of them are now facing the agonising decision of whether to continue holding the coin or divesting?

You have to remember that the swings in bitcoin prices will make some people very nervous. Imagine having 10,000 bitcoins and seeing your wealth change by $30,000,000 in a matter of hours when the price of bitcoin increased to 19,000 USD and then fell to close at 16,000 USD.

And how many of these newly made multi-millionaires are ready to deal with this amount of money? We have to remember that there have been many others like them in the form of lottery winners, NFL players and NBA stars who suddenly came into wealth and then saw they wealth all evaporate in just a few months or years.

Tough choices to make

Many people in the investing community are looking really dumb right now for saying that bitcoin is a bubble and that it’ll burst or that the price cannot go any higher (I actually think it can) but that’s always the case before the bubble has burst.

But if you’re holding on to bitcoin, you have tough choices to make:

  • Do I cash out now and gain some utility from spending my gains?
  • Do I hold? Just in case bitcoin prices go up further?
  • Should I go back in/ go in now in case I miss the boat?

I wouldn’t want to be in bitcoin given the current environment.

Notes:

*Which is good for businesses.

So, today’s that kind of day where there’s a bunch of interesting stuff on bitcoin.

First, there’s this fantastic piece by Josh Brown that sums up a lot of what “investing” in bitcoin right now is like.

For the Bitcoin price to remain at $9,250 it requires approximately US$16,650,000 per day of capital inflow from new hodlers.

That’s a snippet of a quote from a commentary he has in his piece. Together with lots of examples about how some penny stocks have seen an influx of investors just by becoming associated with bitcoin, how the bitcoin mania resembles the dot-com bubble (early 2000s) as well as Thanksgiving-fuelled bitcoin conversations. There’s a lot more where that snippet came from so if I were you, I’d go read the whole thing. (full link here)

Anecdotally, I shared something about bitcoin on facebook with the caption saying how the new wave of people with some money to buy into bitcoin are probably too young to remember what the last crash looked like. A former student who’s now serving his National Service (NS) commented saying how half his bunk is already in bitcoin and that one of them is a trader of cryptocurrencies and is saying that “the price will never go down”.

Now, we just have to wait till the mainstream media* picks up stories of how 20-something-year-olds have “helped” their parents “invest” their entire life savings in bitcoin.

 

*You know it’s too late to join the party when the mainstream media puts it on their front page. In 2007, there was a story of how a university student was making tons of money and helped his family invest their life savings. Subsequently, he lost it all. Personally, I saw many others like the student in the story when I was at the university in late 2007.

 

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.