Curious about cryptocurrency: Mark Lister bought a small exposure to Bitcoin. Photo / Getty
I bought some cryptocurrency last week. Just a small exposure to Bitcoin, which I’m prepared to lose if it all turns out to be a flash in the pan.
I probably didn’t buy it
for the right reasons. It certainly wasn’t because I think it’s a great investment or because I have any expertise in blockchain technology.
If I’m honest, I have no real clue about any of that. Bitcoin is down more than 50 per cent from where it was in mid-April, and your guess is as good as mine about where it goes next.
However, I’m increasingly curious about the whole space. I find it fascinating how this all came out of nowhere and despite a landslide of negativity from most traditional investors, it’s muscled its way into the mainstream (or at least into the fringes of the mainstream).
I’m not a huge fan of throwing money down a hole, but on the off chance there’s something genuine to this whole crypto craze, I want a (small) piece of that action.
Bitcoin, Ethereum and the dozens of other cryptocurrencies out there certainly polarise people, especially those in the investment community.
Warren Buffet famously said in 2018 that Bitcoin was “probably rat poison squared”, and I wouldn’t need to look too far to find a colleague who wholeheartedly agrees with that.
JP Morgan, one of the world’s biggest banks, held a conference last month for 3200 investors from across the globe. They surveyed the attendees on a wide array of topics, and the results made for intriguing reading.
When asked if their firm invested in or traded crypto, 89 per cent said they didn’t. At the same time, when asked if they personally did, 40 per cent said yes.
Slightly more than half of respondents said cryptocurrency was here to stay, with about a fifth suggesting it would become an important asset class in the future. In contrast, a third agreed with Buffet’s analogy and another 16 per cent viewed it as a temporary fad.
Even the world’s biggest professional investment firms are divided when it comes to cryptocurrencies.
It’s easy to see why many people are so sceptical about Bitcoin. You can’t really buy anything with it, at least not in traditional shops, or on the likes of Amazon (directly, at least). It’s also not backed by anything, so it doesn’t really have any intrinsic value.
All of this makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to put any sort of fundamental valuation on it. Many would argue that the greater fool theory applies, which means the only possible reason prices will only go up is because there’s an even bigger fool down the track who might buy it from you at some point.
On the other hand, is Bitcoin really a world away from the currencies we regularly use? Is it that far-fetched to imagine it one day becoming a part of the financial ecosystem?
After all, only 10 per cent of all New Zealand money is physical cash anyway, and the rest is electronic. The ratio is about the same for the US dollar.
These days, our regular currencies aren’t linked by anything tangible either. Once upon a time the US dollar was backed by gold, although this changed in 1933 and the gold standard was abandoned completely in 1971.
Today these are simply paper currencies, or fiat money. These are government issued and controlled, which means policymakers have the power to control their supply, and to create more (or less) of them, as we’ve seen in recent years.
We shouldn’t underestimate how important this government backing is. However, in truth the whole system is held together by our collective belief that the coins in our pocket or the digits in our bank account will be accepted by others, in exchange for the goods and services we really want.
If the masses become similarly confident in their ability to exchange Bitcoin for something useful (either goods, services, or other currencies), is it really that different?
I’ll stop now. I can feel the emails rolling in as we speak, from both sides of the crypto debate.
Mark Lister is Head of Private Wealth Research at Craigs Investment Partners. This column is general in nature and should not be regarded as financial advice.