Decentralized finance (DeFi) can disrupt global finance – but only if Defi systems and central governments cooperate. Yes, sworn enemies cooperating for the greater good.
While each seems to be the sworn enemy of the other, ultimately, a cooperative relationship between decentralized and efficient (versus anachronistic and cumbersome) financial infrastructure and government central banks with stable currencies is absolutely necessary.
Defi transactions, to scale globally, require stable and predictable value. Government-issued currencies are the only reliable and foreseeable foundation. Cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin were never currencies. They are a sideshow that will remain a speculative asset, and increasingly unimportant.
Cryptocurrencies represent an architectural shift in how financial infrastructure and technology interact, and therefore, it is disrupting how the financial industry works globally. It is neither a new kind of money system nor a danger to economic stability. It is more important than that.
Investors have been swept up in the notion of “philanthropic capitalism” and have targeted life-sciences as an avenue that can fulfill this benefit to society. While laudable in concept, this is non-scientific surrealism. “Hoped-for” is not a reliable business model, and most of the unrealistic goals would not be sustainable even if achieved. Real science and innovation are more impactful and substantial and make life sciences even more.
Distinguishing what’s happening in the market and the direction of important market metrics – the signal – from garbled, inconsistent, and mostly useless data – the noise – is extremely challenging today. Information is contradictory and transient making data and critical events more confusing and indistinguishable. Unusual circumstances brought about by the pandemic, subsequent supply chain interruptions, inconsistent production and demand, and unclear economic forecasts combined for almost unprecedented uncertainty and unpredictability.
Typically, near-term predictions are reasonable and reliable because we have immediately available and fairly accurate data making short-term predictions reasonably accurate. In other words, we can estimate what will happen because we have a good idea what just happened. But this is not the case today. Predictions based on the near-term past are more muddled now than ever. While we used to be able to say we can see a trend, whether that’s inflation, economic growth, or some other important metric, too much volatility, irrelevance, and lack of applicability (after all, who is going to project from a base that includes a pandemic impacting global supply chains and production?), we really can’t reasonably rely on any of that data to try to find a trend or connect the dots generating a near-term forecast with any meaningful depth of data and understanding
More intense volatility occurring more often will be characteristic of this market from now on. An investment strategy must withstand and profit from this. The only clear signal from the market is that there is far too much noise and not enough of a clear signal. Without clarity, determining an investment strategy is flying blind with no instruments.
Core holdings combined with an ability to withstand and profit from volatility and unpredictability are essential for investors today.
Assume nothing, new models and analytical tools, coupled with constant revision, questioning everything, reassessing, and re-analyzing, are essential to success in today’s markets. Often, and we are seeing that in today’s market, relying on bad assumptions, dogma, or prior belief can be disastrous.
This story about medieval astronomy applies directly to investment strategies, market valuations, and portfolio construction today. It’s the same lesson –begin by questioning the very assumptions on which an entire system is built. There is also a very specific application of this model that is particularly current.
One of the most valuable lessons is to assume no knowledge and analyze closely every initial assumption. Nothing is so obvious that it can’t be questioned. Unexamined ideas and assumptions will eventually be useless. Any assumptions and any model used to explain and predict anything (whether it’s the movement of planets or financial markets) needs to go back to first principles and discard any assumptions, preconceived knowledge, or bias.
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Technology is facing a substantial crossroads as policy changes with global resonance, such as China’s new crackdown on the country’s big tech companies (such as Ant Financial and Didi Global), the rising resistance to social media behemoths like Facebook, and the need for governments, whether in the United States, Western Europe, or China, to manage and control technological development. Regardless of any good intentions, this will add friction, inefficiency, and underperformance to the most dynamic global industry. The best intentions usually bring disastrous consequences. China cannot escape the law of unintended consequences. Trying to “manage” innovation and creativity takes away the often unplanned and serendipitous breakthroughs that make many significant advancements possible in the first place. From an economic perspective, capital is not going to invest in an uncertain environment where prosperity is managed and, despite great risk where most ventures will fail, the truly successful ones which make up for the losses and encourage capital to keep investing, will be mitigated. The vanguard of capital flight from China is beginning, and it will not ease if this policy and attitude are not revised. This attempt at “fairness and more equal distribution” will do nothing more than keep capital away and stifle any attempt at creativity, technical innovation, and economic advancement. The intention of this policy will yield the opposite outcome as a consequence. The signal means substance. Substance means innovation, creativity, and competitive dynamics that create the most effective innovations, the best solutions, and the most sustainable companies. Central planning, bureaucratic industrial policy, government-led economic management, and dictatorial focus have always failed, and always will. The US should not fall into this trap, regardless of how appealing it may be.
It is only noise.
Separating signal versus noise is challenging these days because today’s signal is more muddled than ever. One of the more unusual circumstances, which I covered in more detail in the article “Important and Unknowable” is that the immediate past is telling us extraordinarily little about the near future. That is unusual because we can typically estimate the near-term by connecting the dots with reasonable depth and data from the recent past.
One of the reasons why people have inflation fears, currency tremors, market jitters, and emotional vacillation between joy and terror is that all these outcomes seem equally likely that any sense to realistically gauge the directions of these key metrics. We can usually rely upon near-term data to predict the near-term future, and that usually gives us a reasonable sense of comfort about the markets, and how to plan, prepare, predict, and withstand anticipated market moves. But that does not seem to be the case now.
The “Thucydides trap” is where a rising nation-state – for Thucydides it was Athens – must eventually have a violent confrontation with the existing dominant nation-state – Sparta in his time. It is a zero-sum game where there can be only one dominant nation-state as the eventual winner – and it is usually assumed to be the rising nation-state outdoing the dominant nation-state.
Today, many “experts” (and I have great disdain for self-proclaimed experts) believe this is the circumstance between the US and China. We are headed toward violent confrontation where there can be only one winner. I read the book by Thucydides about the conflict between Athens and Sparta (I cannot be dispassionate here about that outcome because my family is from Sparta on my father’s side). But I fundamentally disagree with Thucydides’s historical descriptions being used as analysis by anyone to describe global events, especially those between the US and China.
Economic predictions have always been highly variable and uncertain, and, for some reason, relied upon as if the future were a magical algorithm. Essentially, economists would make one fundamental mistake. They thought they were practicing a science. Data could be collected, inputted, and a predictive algorithm could be generated. Even Nobel Prize winners like Paul Samuelson believed that with enough data we could come to understand the economy and how it functioned.
This is nonsense. As Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have shown us, human behavior and irrationality, combined with unpredictability and randomness (thank you Naseem Taleb) make this even a questionable social science. Using existing analysis and algorithms to reliably forecast is a fool’s errand, essential for someone’s tenure, and maybe even a Nobel Prize, but doesn’t add much that is useful. Some of the more laughable Nobel Prizes have been given to people who determined that markets were efficient. They are not. Economies can be predicted with useful data input. They cannot. A couple of inputs about inflation and the unemployment rate, and we know how to manage an economy. We can’t. That last one is the Philip’s Curve – true for a limited time and then it goes spectacularly wrong – a lot like most risk and market prediction models.
One thing we can add is that most predictions seem too good to be true, and almost always are. The economy is not a perpetual motion machine, nor is it a credit card with no limit and no requirement to pay the balance. The current notion that “deficits don’t matter” seems patently silly and naïve to think that we can simply print money without any economic discipline to generate sustainable profitable businesses with the efficient use of capital.
“Money goes where it’s needed, but it stays where it is treated well.”
Walter Wriston (former CEO of Citicorp)
That means it has to generate a return and not be co-opted by governments and public policy, nor be flooded by capital with no economic discipline.
Deficits may be a reasonable way to jumpstart a sluggish economy, but they are not sustainable. Current thinking is that fiscal discipline, debt repayment, and the idea of a balanced budget are anachronistic and useless. It is dangerous to stress test this idea because the downside is potentially cataclysmic. Capital likes a free market, but we hardly have a free market with money today. Constant stimulus does not create economic discipline.
Digital currencies, crypto assets, digitized securities, and distributed ledgers require an enormous amount of power. While the combination of these assets is subject to tremendous hype, the environmental impact has been mostly ignored. However, this is changing because there has been increasing alarm about crypto’s carbon footprint and environmental impact. While there are attempts to use alternative energy, such as solar farms, thermal heat, and wind farms, sustainability for processing digital assets is still evolving. One thing is clear, as advancements are made in clean and renewable energy, digital asset mining will reduce its requirement for carbon-based energy. This is an essential trend if digital asset processing is to be sustained as an important component of global finance. The trend toward digital assets disrupting global finance is irreversible, thus green energy solutions are essential, and a condition precedent in order to participate and profit from this economic opportunity. It is crucial for crypto mining to address the environmental concerns attached to digital asset processing and creation. There is an irreversible shift to decarbonization and lower carbon footprints. The digital asset market is not going to go away, but since energy is such a critical component, energy efficiency and green energy are the essential components to any long-term perspective of a digital asset strategy. The low-cost provider wins. With digital assets, that means the combining lowest carbon footprint with scale and the ability to connect to the electrical grid.
“Distributed ledger technology and digital assets have the potential to dramatically disrupt global equity and debt markets.” (World Economic Forum, May 2021)
Distributed ledger technology (DLT), otherwise known as Blockchain technology, will radically simplify financial markets and, more importantly, fundamentally change the market’s infrastructure. Specifically, distributed ledger technology decentralizes critical data and enables an entirely new financial system where capital flows without the need for traditional intermediaries.
While there are challenges and numerous detractors, DLT is an irreversible disruptive force transforming capital markets and the global financial system.
Regulators (a potential obstacle) are increasingly comfortable with this technology. Distributed ledgers, decentralized finance, and Blockchain-based platforms are creating products and services evolving from exploration and experimentation to commercialization. DLT will be transformative to the world’s largest industry and represents an unprecedented opportunity. New digital platforms created by decentralized finance companies integrate securities and other digital assets comprehensively. The platforms enable market participants and intermediaries to issue, trade, settle, and provide custody services for digital assets, usually consisting of digitally native equity tokens (ICO’s).
These digital asset and financing platforms exist in parallel to existing market infrastructure and securities markets, in many cases offering an alternative digitized version of a standard asset class. Fundamentally, what is disruptive is that this new technology disintermediates all parties, creating effectiveness and efficiency in the transfer and recording of transactions that is unprecedented in legacy infrastructure
Gold is built on a collective belief in its value. There is nothing fundamentally “inherent” in the price attributed to gold other than an agreed-upon value. The same is true with Bitcoin and other crypto. In fact, it’s fair to say that all asset prices are fundamentally based on the collective belief about value regardless of some perceived upon “inherent” value.
The pervasiveness of crypto as it exits a somewhat self-contained digital world and has institutional investor attention forming a basis for far-reaching financial transactions establishes it more as an economic force much more than a financial sideshow.
Game Theory contends that people act collectively if they believe others are doing the same. Essentially, the theory holds that many situations provide a clue, called a “focal point” around which people coordinate their actions, even if there is no explicit agreement to do so. As John Maynard Keynes has said, picking investments is much like guessing the winner of a beauty contest. It is not a matter of what you think, but it is predicting who most people think the winner should be. This is how markets move and it is based on a fundamental tenet of game theory.