The collapse of FTX shows how easily crypto is manipulated and the “crypto ecosystem” is fundamentally driven by centralized players and not any true form of decentralized or digital assets. Cryptocurrency is a sideshow and benefits no one other than speculators hoping for a greater fool. However, the combination of digital asset regulation, central-bank cooperation, and distributed assets via decentralized platforms still represents one of the most intriguing opportunities, and, with the potential disruption of global finance, one of the most exciting investment areas today.
Cryptocurrencies Hit New Highs. Should we be terrified?
Bitcoin, Ether and, the most recent joke, frenzy, and punch line, Dogecoin, have increased 10x to 20x over the last 12 months. A spectacular return, but can it last?
The forces driving the eye-watering returns are the same as those that drove the insanity behind GameStop: the equivalent of a trading floor in every pocket funded with excess cash looking for disruptive investment opportunities and charging forward like an out of control herd – or lemmings – however you want to envision it. Cryptocurrency became the overwhelming target of Reddit day traders and mobs. Social media influencers, led by various forms of PT Barnum imitators like Elon Musk and many less sophisticated contributors, combined with the public listing of Coinbase to create a massive rally.
Initiative, savvy, luck, circumstance, and convolution have taken over currencies – or at least digital creations purported to be currencies (but in reality don’t, and never will, quite fit the bill). Those entities that create and support real currencies are taking notice. In other words, welcome to government in action. Here come central bank digital coins. Now imagine these “developed” governments (of whom France is probably not the worst offender) trying to deal with a global currency, currency exchanges, and the transfer of funds internationally. We don’t have to look too far to find the convoluted rules behind Bretton Woods, the WTO, and other international absurdities to recognize that this problem is not easily solved, or even understood. Bureaucrats are generally better at devising rules, charging fees, and collecting taxes and information than making anything that is useful or even comprehensible.
Luck rather than leadership, circumstance rather than foresight or political skill, seem to have been more helpful in triggering these developments. Digital coins (while loosely described as “currency” are more like a digital asset easily transferred and accounted for in a digital ledger) represent a handful of rather clever people taking on central government’s mighty bureaucrats. Armed with simplicity, clarity, and algorithms, they are defeating all administrations’ fondness for complexity, confusion, and rules.
In general, bureaucrats are masters of the art of convolution. Essentially, governments work overtime to create farce in the spirit of precision. An example of bureaucratic absurdity can be found in France (admittedly, a country that has taken bureaucracy to an art form – perhaps more so than art itself). When the government started a new lockdown because of the pandemic, they devised a two-page permission form to leave home, with 15 different justifications, before, thankfully, shelving it in the face of ridicule. The French can buy alcohol, for instance, but not underwear. These rules were simply to be able to walk out the front door, and the government imagined that this kind of detailed process was somehow useful, and not the bewildering reality it represented.
“I believe that the present, accurately seized, foretells the future.” V.S. Naipaul There is a lot of uncertainty today in the markets, but there has always been uncertainty in the markets. We have never had certainty regarding the economy or the future. The most reasonable exercise, as V.S. Naipaul reminds us, is simply to understand the present. So what’s going on? The economy is accelerating. Inflation isn’t a problem. The Fed is going to keep interest rates as close to zero as possible for the foreseeable. These components are driving valuations higher, and in some cases, approaching stratospheric levels. Some concern is warranted in certain sectors, but overall, things seem to be relatively steady and not too overblown. Earnings appear likely to grow, and in many cases, quite rapidly, for the next couple of years – assuming something unforeseeable does not occur (but this probability is not zero). Bitcoin has a few interesting characteristics worth understanding. It is a decentralized, permissionless, peer-to-peer network of computers that’s permanent and unhackable .An investment in Bitcoin is, in reality, a part of the peer-to-peer computer network (essentially, a slot on the database), and almost all of those slots have been allocated. Only 21 million Bitcoins will be produced and 18.5 million have already been mined and circulated. Price is a function of supply and demand (see Economics 101).Arguments about “inherent value” are, and always will be, meaningless. Is there really some kind of “inherent value” in gold? We just decided it was valuable to us. The same is happening with Bitcoin. Bitcoin supply grew 2.5% in 2020; it will grow 2.0% in 2021.The question for Bitcoin valuation is simple: Is demand growing faster or slower than 2.0% annually?