Cryptocurrencies soar in value, plunge, hit new highs, are written off, rebound, and hit new highs again, and the cycle repeats. We should be terrified. Over the last five years, cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ether have outperformed the overall market. However, can the general trend of outperformance last, or will these digital assets drop over 90% like some of its other crypto brethren? Is there a sustainable performance that creates the foundation for either a new currency or a valuable asset class? Probably not. Forces that drive these eye-watering returns seem to be the same as those that drove the social media-driven insanity behind meme stocks such as GameStop. We are seeing social media mobs controlling demand to a limited supply, creating price spikes that look attractive to any speculative investor. Unfortunately, demand can dry up quickly and the price subsequently falls through the floor. Financial markets ruthlessly sort nonsense from substance. Volatility and existential threats have been brutal and extreme for digital assets and the reckoning for crypto has been predicted for some time. However, digital assets are not on their way to history’s dustbin. Reality is more nuanced, and I try to provide a more detailed analysis since a broad brush hardly seems appropriate. The weakest and craziest portions of the crypto world have been exposed as nothing more than silliness. But some valuable components remain resilient and offer tremendous opportunity. I will explore these in detail. There is more cause for optimism than pessimism among the best and the brightest. We will explore these opportunities while harshly dismissing the hype and silliness – avoid the terror of a worthless market.
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.
Recently, I gave a lecture at a graduate program focused on innovation, technological disruption, and the impact on global industries and investment opportunities. My lecture focused on digital assets and attempted to draw distinctions between disruptive and substantial opportunities and hype, nonsense, and unsustainable business models. This is a quiz given to the students that reflects the main points raised in this lecture. For fun, I am including it here because it makes a series of fundamental points that I think are especially important, and the true-false construct conveys those points with clarity.
Transformation, or euphemistically, “disruption,” creates great opportunities to capture newly created wealth. But, as industries are transforming and strategic disruption is occurring, quite a lot of absurdity and certainly enough terror are associated with some of these extraordinary opportunities to require much greater analysis and understanding. There are extraordinary risks associated with anything disruptive and transformational. The first disruptor isn’t always the one who creates the most value or is even a sustainable competitive entity. Innovation does not mean competitive sustainability. Digital platforms, ranging from the internet to digital assets and cryptocurrency are transforming industries globally. But, along with that comes a lot of hyperbole and typically that is followed by very little substance. Great companies use technological disruption, innovation, and transformation to establish themselves and thrive. But they rarely last. Every company, even the most valuable companies such as Apple, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, etc. must dynamically transform to stay competitive and valuable. Transformations are certain. New entities will become very valuable, legacy companies will diminish, and a handful will transform and thrive. Transformation and sustainability create and capture great wealth, but are far more challenging to identify, and even more challenging to sustain.
Digital assets are disrupting finance – the world’s largest industry. All assets, intellectual property, and even currency can now be digitized, and anyone can access anything from anywhere. The finance industry is being this intermediated and globalized, economic development and policy will be forever changed.
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.
Coinbase, Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Dogecoin
Everything you don’t understand about money combined with everything you don’t understand about computers.
Bitcoin and other digital currencies are going mainstream, and along with that, increased volatility. Last week, cryptocurrencies jumped in value as Coinbase, a cryptocurrency exchange, became a publicly traded company worth approximately $100 billion. In other words, trading in digital currencies, with all the expected volatility and unpredictable nature such securities bring, is here to stay.