Being Digital

“Being Digital,” the groundbreaking book by Nicholas Negroponte described what happens to a global economy when all assets can be digitized. Presciently predicting the impact on music, film, retailing, and commerce in general, Negroponte intuitively understood the disruption and the creative/destruction that would be unleashed when a globalized infrastructure could deliver all products and services, including assets and intellectual property, instantly via a worldwide digital infrastructure and network.

The same “digital” effect is impacting global finance today. Now, all financial assets are “being digitized” and can be delivered instantly on a global infrastructure, fundamentally upsetting the world’s largest industry with unprecedented creativity and destruction.

Crypto assets are the manifestation of that digital form. While there is debate about whether or not an asset can truly be “digital,” the market has spoken. While there will be continued volatility, speculation, creation, and destruction, a digital platform for financial transactions ranging from the simple transfer of funds to complex financial transactions, investment, and lending are here, disrupting a multiple trillion-dollar industry.

It’s a Cryptoasset, not a Cryptocurrency

Bitcoin is an innovative, rapidly expanding network for storing and exchanging value among investors.If it’s an asset, does it have an inherent value, like gold? Arguments about “inherent value” are, and always will be, meaningless. Is there really some kind of “inherent value” in gold? We just decided it was valuable to us. The same is happening with Bitcoin.

It’s a cryptoasset that has the safe haven characteristics of gold and will potentially compete with it for a place in portfolios. Bitcoin is not a currency and will not be adopted as a new medium of exchange. It is not a stable store of value, nor can it be easily transmitted and exchanged for any good or service at a consistently predictable value. But, that’s not important from an investor’s perspective. Bitcoin remains incredibly volatile, and its correlation with other major assets has been inconsistent, but allocations are seen as suitable among an increasing number of investment professionals, and, increasingly, it is seen as an alternative investment equivalent to a derivative or other call options, given the potential for spectacular returns. The downside is well-defined while the upside can be asymmetric and significant.

Digital Assets: Terror and Opportunity

Cryptocurrencies Hit New Highs. Should we be terrified?

Probably.

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?

Probably not.

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
Despite making inroads, Bitcoin and other digital currencies are still only a tool for speculators. There is no prospect of stable value enabling the fair exchange of assets for goods and services. It is a store of value, but much like any speculative asset, it can be a store value that fluctuates wildly.

That is not to say that some speculative assets, whether they be works of art, sports cars, or digital currencies can’t ultimately have long-term value and generate excellent investment returns. But digital coins are only one part of the digital asset platform, and will most likely prove to be a sideshow. The real opportunity for value creation, sustainability, and appreciation is the right business model and digital platform for the creation of digital assets that are easily and securely exchanged

Digital Central Banks

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

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.

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.

Inequality and Wealth Creation

Inequality is not an appropriate measure of economic performance or wealth creation.

Inequality is a relative and comparative statistic. It shows how wealth is distributed, which is not that meaningful, and certainly should not be the basis of economic policy. Essentially, inequality is a comparative metric and not an absolute one. That is, if everyone does better but a few people do much better, inequality increases, and this is seen as something bad even though everyone is better off. It is used to create misleading policies that focus on redistributing wealth that is created versus policy that should be focused on enabling greater and more distributed wealth creation – not wealth capture. Policy should focus on how to best create wealth for more people. The absolute degree of wealth creation is beside the point relative to other people. Creating opportunity for the most people is what matters.

As an example, overall wealth has increased over the last 30 years for every population group, but for the highest group, it has increased more substantially. But, why is that a problem? Instead, it is a natural and unavoidable outcome of the free market.

Here’s the analogy: if you want to hold a lottery, the prize has to be disproportionately large to have the most participants to raise the most capital. The simple goal is that net outflows (prizes) are smaller than the net inflows (contributions or purchased tickets). This is very similar to business opportunities and wealth creation.

As an economy, we want as many contributors to wealth creation – entrepreneurs and new businesses driving economic growth – as possible. The only way to do this is to enable market participants to have the greatest possible reward without restrictions. Most businesses will fail (much like most lottery tickets lose). But, because we have increased the number of willing participants, we also increase the opportunity to create the most wealth – the most businesses, jobs, and economic growth, as well as increasing the tax base from both businesses and individuals. So wealth creation, even if it is concentrated mostly in a handful of people, benefits the overall economy and society much more effectively than any attempt to limit that upside or redistribute it through politically popular but inefficient and demotivating policy.

Stimulus and Silliness

The world economy is struggling to escape the Covid-19 economic shock. During the worst of this pandemic, the world’s developed economies provided an enormous fiscal stimulus on a scale not seen since the second world war.

Now, however, the US is proposing to more than double its already generous fiscal stimulus. Is this a good idea or excessively risky?

Go Big, But Where?

For its proponents, the idea of “going big” is designed to be a transformative political moment. But too much appears allocated inefficiently, and it may simply be irresponsible.

An easy money era produced only anemic growth. But the scale and direction of additional stimulus look more like irresponsible fiscal policy leading to significant overheating and the waste of resources. While there is a strong case for a more aggressive approach to fiscal policy, that policy still needs to be grounded in economic realities and reasonable priorities. These are not.

Understanding Risk

Risk is the permanent loss of capital.

It is not volatility, nor is it uncertainty. It is the realization of a loss. Therefore, risk is hard to understand because it is only clear with hindsight that a loss has occurred. Understanding how risk works can avoid this permanent loss by avoiding the mistakes that cause the permanent loss of capital.

Risk can also be used advantageously. Knowing that there is the prospect of loss, planning, and investment strategies that profit from these losses put you on the right side of the equation. Risk can be used to an investor’s advantage.

Essentially, anti-fragile (to coin Naseem Taleb’s term) strategies can benefit from volatility, uncertainty, and loss. Randomness permeates all markets, which means risk is always present. Knowing that, investment strategies need to be able to withstand unpredictable or unforeseen stresses. Not all risk factors can be known, or even if potential risks are identified, the magnitude and timing are unknown. What can be certain is that they will occur, and a portfolio that is “fragile” can be devastated

Inflation, Profits, and Bitcoin

“I believe that the present, accurately seized, foretells the future.” V.S. Naipaul

There is a lot of uncertainty today in the markets, but there has always been uncertainty in the markets. We have never had certainty regarding the economy or the future. The most reasonable exercise, as V.S. Naipaul reminds us, is simply to understand the present. So what’s going on? The economy is accelerating. Inflation isn’t a problem. The Fed is going to keep interest rates as close to zero as possible for the foreseeable. These components are driving valuations higher, and in some cases, approaching stratospheric levels. Some concern is warranted in certain sectors, but overall, things seem to be relatively steady and not too overblown. Earnings appear likely to grow, and in many cases, quite rapidly, for the next couple of years – assuming something unforeseeable does not occur (but this probability is not zero). Bitcoin has a few interesting characteristics worth understanding. It is a decentralized, permissionless, peer-to-peer network of computers that’s permanent and unhackable . An investment in Bitcoin is, in reality, a part of the peer-to-peer computer network (essentially, a slot on the database), and almost all of those slots have been allocated. Only 21 million Bitcoins will be produced and 18.5 million have already been mined and circulated. Price is a function of supply and demand (see Economics 101). Arguments about “inherent value” are, and always will be, meaningless. Is there really some kind of “inherent value” in gold? We just decided it was valuable to us. The same is happening with Bitcoin. Bitcoin supply grew 2.5% in 2020; it will grow 2.0% in 2021.The question for Bitcoin valuation is simple: Is demand growing faster or slower than 2.0% annually?

Coinbase, Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Dogecoin

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.

Predictability and Panic

Prepare for more frequent and extreme volatility. New and powerful influences, ranging from social media and financial technology to algorithmic trading and esoteric valuation models, will increasingly upset market stability and bring unprecedented rewards and unpredictable disaster.

Predictable market conditions will be upset by sudden unpredictable movements.

Financial markets can be predicted reliably only when the world does not change. Even during periods of stability, judgment based on expectations and assumptions as much as hard facts and economic analysis, form the basis for buying and selling decisions. Market crashes and financial crises are a continuing and breathtaking reminder that markets are irrational and uncertain. Taken to an extreme, the combustible combination disrupts global markets and societies. New analytical tools and technologies appear to make worrying about unforeseen risks obsolete. But this naïve belief in technology’s ability to understand and predict catastrophic risk is a fundamental cause of that very catastrophe.

Stability is illusory because in an uncertain world, unforeseen changes can have seismic effects. The pandemic is only the latest example, but there are always greater risks inherent in markets than is acknowledged, and most investment strategies do not accurately reflect the risk that certain investments are assuming for a given return. Safety can be an illusion if the risks are not well understood, both systemic and undiversified.

As we have seen, oversight, regulation, or any sort of self-imposed moderation will continue to be ineffective or nonexistent, and always trail behind the most dangerous and detrimental market developments. Financial weapons of mass destruction continue to multiply and are now available via smart phone in everyone’s pocket. Expect more and greater turbulence.

Uncertainty and Irrationality

Clear and coherent markets, free from political agenda, bad compromises, and ineffective regulation is almost nonexistent. The consequences are usually pyrotechnic. It is not as if the world hadn’t provided ample warnings about the risks associated with irresponsible finance. History has centuries worth of such examples, but even looking at recent events over the last 25 years is illuminating.

In spite of Alan Greenspan acknowledging the “irrational exuberance” of the markets in 1996, stock market valuations continued to rise. The warning signs of unstable economies were believed to be localized and the broader markets decoupled from this turbulence. This was naïve thinking then and outright irresponsible now.

The idea that markets are uncertain, and consistent prediction is essentially impossible, is not new. John Maynard Keynes published a book on probability and uncertainty in 1921, with this concept of uncertain and irrational markets forming the basis of his general theory of financial markets. So, years before the stock market crash of 1929, and almost every 10 to 15 years afterward, the cycle of financial crashes and panics was predicted by a well-publicized thinker, and then, as is typical, ignored. The lesson is simple, and Keynes laid it out 100 years ago: markets seem rational but only during periods of stability. Markets are uncertain. Predictive models work most of the time, and that is their fundamental flaw. They will fail. Investment models that account for uncertainty and failure succeed in the long term.

Abundant Cash Is Not Cash Available Abundantly

The pandemic, Fed interest rate policy and bond purchases, restrictive banking regulations, and banks’ swelling cash balances will have a lingering impact on liquidity and produce some mind-bending policies to deal with this uncharted territory. As the pandemic emerged in March 2020, strange things happened: Bond markets seized up and investors panicked. Bond yields spiked causing severe price declines. Credit default swap prices (debt protection derivatives) rose 100x in less than a month. The dollar rose and liquidity dropped for U.S. Treasuries, usually the world’s most liquid security. There was substantially lower demand at U.S. Treasury auctions. The Federal Reserve responded with an almost never-ending pile of cash, buying vast quantities of bonds with newly created cash. It has continued its purchases, at a pace of at least $120 billion a month. But this has not resulted in “happy days are here again.” This mountain of dollars is limiting liquidity and constraining markets. That’s right, read that again if you must – too much cash can constrain the economy.