Cryptocurrency staying power has certainly been challenged these last few weeks. There is been a general market drop (even correction), but crypto has been collapsing in value and, to many, is in a death spiral. Of course, reality is more nuanced, and with more detailed analysis, a broad brush hardly seems appropriate. Certainly, the weakest and, honestly, craziest portions of the crypto world have been exposed to be nothing more than silliness. But some components remain resilient. The market is quite effective at sorting the specifics of an otherwise overgeneralized sector. There is no such thing as “crypto.” There are stable and valuable digital assets, globally exchangeable and disruptive. Others have nothing but fluff. Of course, government should insist on more reliable information, and institutions should guard more effectively against fraud. But, there is wheat among the chaff, and it continues to have the potential to be disruptive, create substantial value, and enhance global prosperity.
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The world may appear to be a rational, deductive place if you are a scientist. But not if you are an investor attempting to understand how markets work. Financial markets are human creations, and humans are irrational. Economics, a truly dismal social science, is an attempt to look backward and create explanatory algorithms about what happened and why. They may have some success with this. But as predictive models, they are mostly useless. More often, they destroy value versus conveying any understanding about economic and business functions, and therefore, give not only useless but awful and typically value-destroying predictions. Participating in the markets requires a broader, more methodical and disciplined approach. Since irrationality pervades most activity, markets move dramatically with uncertainty, and investors react with dramatic moves based on even more uncertainty and lack a reasonable level of understanding and longer-term perspective about what is going on. The world now is more dynamic, volatile, uncertain, and unpredictable. Irrationality drives most market decisions and rising above the noise to be more thoughtful, think deeply and slowly to understand what’s going on, and identify the handful of factors (typically very few) that make all the difference to investment success is the true challenge we face today. That challenge takes work and thoughtful strategies in our irrational world. That world will remain fundamentally irrational from now on, and thoughtful strategies are the only way to succeed in this irrational environment.
Super lofty ideas get attention and publicity, but they are not real. Narrow, specific applications are where true foundational value is created. The financial revolution will certainly not be based on a process where someone buys coins or tokens and simply waits for them to increase in value. On top of that, despite the belief that there will be frictionless peer-to-peer transactions, purchasing any cryptocurrency requires a crypto exchange like Coinbase or FTX that charge high trading fees and have questionable security. Blockchain is an evolution for businesses, it is not a disruption or a new infrastructure. It will improve user experiences, regulatory clarity, and interoperability. Crypto proved that digital transfers and settlements were possible, it is the blockchain platform that enables this efficiently and securely. It may be boring and we’re not going to have any stadiums or arenas named after a technology platform, but real change will be driven by a blockchain. The rest is a noisy sideshow.
Beyond 2022, higher interest rates and slower global growth most likely trigger a market correction, perhaps at an exorbitant cost. As discounts rates rise and growth assumptions lower, many stocks based assumptions that low interest rates and high growth would sustain for many years will see dramatic repricing and much lower valuations.
Energy and commodities, and the businesses associated with them, are in for a very bumpy ride, but there is a fundamental sustainability to their cash flow and long-term attractiveness as world supply reorders. That which is essential prevails.
The luxury of thinking we have halcyon days of global growth and geopolitical stability may not be with us for some time to come. It is perhaps time to plan for that now.
Investment models that account for uncertainty, volatility, and failure succeed in the long term. Events in Ukraine, oil and natural gas markets, commodities, supply chain disruption, and spiking inflation highlight that, while none of these were predictable, all represent increasing uncertainty permeating all markets. The pandemic and war in Ukraine were unforeseen, but that’s just the point, unforeseen events will occur. It is a waste of time to try to predict the specifics, it is an essential investment strategy to manage risk to not only withstand but profit from “certain uncertainty.” Irrationality, not only in human behavior (with unfortunate, often tragic results) but market movements, investment volatility, and bewildering prices, is another certainty. “Mr. Market” as Benjamin Graham said, “is an irrational schizophrenic.” Investing as if he is not assures an investment strategy that will ultimately fail. An increasing number of growth and momentum investment funds are shutting down after sustaining significant losses recently, a sign of the severe pain the selloff in growth stocks is inflicting. More importantly, it signals an inability for investment funds to manage risk and understand that markets and investments do not move in a singular direction for long, and the correction is sudden and painful – regardless of how compelling “momentum” may seem. Risk management is the key to investment sustainability, but this seems to go ignored among most investment professionals. Frequent and extreme volatility is here to stay, and that is likely to decimate growth and momentum funds, as well as highly leveraged equity investment funds (from LTCM in 1998 to Archegos in 2021, the lesson is never learned for long – and there will be more examples to come). Clear and coherent markets, free from political agenda, bad compromises, and ineffective regulation are almost nonexistent. The consequences continue to be pyrotechnic.
Collectively, the world is good at screaming about all sorts of immediate and looming crises, whether that is climate change, totalitarian governments abusing civilians and trampling on personal rights or outright genocide. A speech and a prayer suffice but we’re not going to do anything. Donation websites, lighting buildings in flag colors of abused nations, and sending hopes and prayers accomplish nothing. We send prayers. We just won’t answer them. The Ukraine war’s consequences are severalfold. Economically, global consequences may be slower and less spectacular than the dramatic Russian military invasion. But, the effects will permeate the global economy, and Russia will be the biggest long-term loser. While this does not comfort families suffering and dying in the streets of Ukrainian cities, it realigns global industries and economies, strengthens the West, and is likely to galvanize United States’ leadership in the global economy – setting up even more intense rivalry China. A big uncompromising response now is the most likely strategy to settle these dramatic issues – and if it leads to regime change in Russia, that helps everyone, especially the Russians. The US and the EU need to grow up and start acting like global leaders.
Transformation, Valuation, Employment, and Deflation
Disruption to some of the world’s most important industries, deflationary pressure caused by scaling lower-cost businesses, and sustained low interest rates challenge traditional valuation models. Technological platforms, from blockchain-based businesses to energy storage to DNA sequencing, enable unprecedented disruption to business and economic models.
Interest rates will remain low, equity values will remain high, innovation will drive deflationary pressure, and volatility will be intense and frequent. A new approach is required to understand dynamic global competition and sustainable value.
Investors expected that the Fed would not only end its bond buying program, but many believed it would also raise interest rates. While the Fed did agree to taper its bond buying, essentially decreasing its $150 billion monthly bond buying program by $15 billion per month, ending the program in 2022. However, the Fed kept interest rates the same and clearly signaled that it would not raise interest rates anytime soon, and almost definitely not until the taper of its bond buying was completed – in other words, not for at least one more year.
Investors who had been betting on the Fed raising interest rates wagered on the yield curve flattening for Treasuries. Therefore, they invested in short-term Treasuries believing those would outperform longer-term Treasuries, as well as 10-year and 30-year bonds. Instead, we are seeing the opposite happen. Short-term bonds are dropping in price and yields are approaching their highest levels since March 2020. Meanwhile, prices for long-term bonds have climbed. This same phenomenon is happening for government bonds that only in the United States, but also in the UK, Canada, and elsewhere.
There are warning signs that the stock market is transitioning from some form of reality to misguided euphoria. The S&P 500 is up almost 10% in the last 30 days. However, this broad optimism doesn’t seem to be matched by many forms of fundamental reality.
Earnings are barely moving, and profit margins are under pressure from higher wages and rising product costs. However transitory one imagines supply chain constraints and lack of available workers, the situation has certainly extended much further than most predicted.
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.