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 worthless market.
In crisis there is opportunity. The infrastructure of modern society – utilities, telecom systems, energy systems, highways, and other components – is essential for global economic development, unavoidable, demanded by many, poses seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and is poised at the edge of transformational change. Emerging economies need a range of basic infrastructure and services, especially in fast-growing cities – now becoming megalopolises. They will not wait for a “green future” to develop. Carbon footprint reduction is not a priority and is independent of emerging economies’ government policy. On top of this, developed economies are not done building and increasing energy usage. Aging essential infrastructure, such as bridges and water utilities, needs upgrades. The move toward a greener global energy future, and a more advanced and digitally connected society, needs to be built. Domestic energy development, energy security, affordability, fossil-fuel-based infrastructure, and other infrastructure development will be part of the global energy mix for decades. It is another example of private markets drawn to attractive investment opportunities to increase efficiency, lessen carbon footprints, and lead to independence and security. It’s all about economics, profits, global opportunities, and private capital enabling fundamental change. Governments can talk, and people can whine, but the capitalists will make the real difference. That’s how the world changes; it has always been this way.
Stunning capabilities are emerging from large language models like GPT 4 that, until very recently, were thought to be only theoretical. We could never have the data sets or the processing power to generate real and usable results. Well, all that has changed – rather suddenly.
But is it time for the torches and pitchforks? What are the serious risks that accompany this technology?
There will be good and bad, like every new era. Will it be the Middle Ages all over again and we’ll experience The Plague before the Renaissance, or will it be more balanced and reasonable? There are good, bad, and many things in between whenever humanity advances.
Let it happen. Put down the pitchforks.
Our most intractable problems cannot be solved with behavior modification, conservation, or our existing technology, regardless of its advanced or widespread applications. Only new knowledge creating innovative solutions can address our most intractable problems. This can only be achieved through basic scientific discoveries and then combining these discoveries with enterprise-based innovation, commercial discipline, and competition. Innovation, creativity, and competitive dynamics create the most effective innovations, the best solutions, and the most sustainable companies. Developing the best public policy as well as the best structure to enable innovative and creative solutions, as well as the economic incentive to scale these opportunities and make them economically sustainable. Central planning, bureaucratic industrial policy, government-led economic management, and dictatorial focus have always failed, and always will.
Zero-sum thinking has begun. Despite comparative advantage, mutual cooperation, and specialization proving indisputably more beneficial than any other approach to economic interaction, this ideal is under threat. Rules and norms for economic integration lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, created an order-of-magnitude increase in the average wealth of the Western population, and benefited countless hundreds of millions enabling a way of life otherwise unimaginable post-World War II. Now that system is under threat as developed countries subsidize alternative energy, attract manufacturing via expensive subsidies, and restrict the flow of goods and capital. Mutual benefit is out; national gain is now the highest priority. In other words, stupidity and zero-sum thinking have taken over. A handful of bureaucrats, regardless of how brilliant each may be, can never equal the mind of the market. Management and control usually spell disaster eventually. Managed focus on technological development for products and services the central government believes have greater substantial benefit to the overall society may not be calamitous, but the law of unintended consequences has not been repealed. It will be inefficient, substandard, and create potentially dangerous side effects. Innovation, creative freedom, and unstructured thought are essential components to the development of any technology of substance and disruptive benefit.
In his preamble to “The Theory of Relativity,” Einstein implored his reader to, “set aside your proud certainty” because he was about to present something quite revolutionary, iconoclastic, and, as he discovered for many years after publication, challenging to be broadly accepted. Of course, his insights would be vindicated, and would soon be considered one of the leading minds of the 20th century, and perhaps one of the great minds in scientific history. Einstein knew things that everybody else was ignorant of and was ignorant of things that everybody else knew. That was probably the key to his great thinking – he assumed no knowledge and didn’t confuse himself with the trivial or unimportant. Always explore, race to keep up, clear the field, and let other vibrant minds pass. It is the spark of human creation, analysis, and understanding that gives us a glimpse of nature’s fundamental beauty. We only touch a small fraction, and our hardest work and most diligent thinking expose a little bit more – and that is one of humankind’s most worthwhile pursuits. Set aside proud certainty; be indifferent to your failings and the cacophony of critics. See, question, verify, and question again.
This book explores the next decade’s more frequent and intense economic, geopolitical, fiscal, and market volatility, technological innovation, disruption, and hype.
Long-term opportunity exists, and this book uses a 10-year horizon as a surrogate for a long-term perspective. Some of the world’s most important industries are being disrupted, especially finance via digital assets and Blockchain-based businesses, life sciences via gene editing, DNA sequencing, and CRISPR, and communications via advanced wireless data networks, software technologies including artificial intelligence, and new interactive platforms such as the Metaverse.
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.
The onslaught of market-making bad news seems almost a daily event. A gloomy picture of slowing economic growth, elevated inflation, and confusing fiscal and monetary policy has added a lethal mixture to the market’s performance. Fiscal stimulus is sidelined, and monetary policy is constricting economic growth and entrepreneurial innovation. It makes for a gloomy outlook and an even more depressing long-term perspective. The next 10 years look more like a lost decade. High-growth company valuations have been significantly discounted, and over time as discount rates drop, their valuations are likely to increase substantially. Higher-yielding fixed income securities will be a standout performer as interest rates are reduced, the higher-yielding BDCs, REITs, leveraged loan securities, and high cash flow instruments, along with high-dividend equities, will prove extremely attractive and are currently available at bargain prices. Providers of value and users of value will be the winners for the next decade. Those generating real cash flow and disruptive innovation will define the next decade.
Predictions usually end up being nonsense. We simply draw a trajectory from what we know today. But innovation is a discontinuity. Things are unpredictable because innovation does not come from consensus thinking. It comes from small groups and individuals with a spark of entrepreneurship, intelligence, and vision. One of the fundamental tenets of predicting technology is that most forecasters get things spectacularly wrong.
The rewards for innovative success have become enormous and unpalatable, especially among the five technological giants (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft) forcing these firms to spend absurd amounts of money on lobbying in Washington DC. It’s an expensive and wasteful distraction, but essential in this brave new world. If nothing else, it clogs innovation. It is to our detriment – and the world is literally burning while politicians fiddle – and even more disastrously – impede innovative activity. Applying friction to free thinking and new ideas never ends well.
Brilliance combined with quirkiness and rule-breaking perpetuates an image of daring entrepreneurs and risk-taking capitalists generating outsized wealth. This simply doesn’t happen unless what is created matters. While we might question how much one needs to play a videogame or interact with social media, an advanced society needs advanced solutions to the intractable problems it faces. As John F. Kennedy said, “Our problems are man-made, mankind can solve them, as well.” Perhaps. The harsh reality is that brilliant, hard-working entrepreneurs and thoughtful investors lose much more often than they win. We need their risk-taking and willingness to lose. It’s how we win. We need the benefits technological innovation delivers even if we don’t understand that innovation’s ultimate purpose.