Is Bitcoin A Bubble?

One key hallmark of Bitcoin’s price rise from the beginning of 2013 to now, where it has just crept above $240 a coin — up $100 a coin from the last time I wrote about Bitcoin — has been the oft-repeated mantra that Bitcoin is in a speculative bubble, and its price may be due to imminently collapse. This has spawned article after article after article after article — people were calling Bitcoin a bubble at $30 a coin, at $60 a coin — yet the price keeps climbing (and those who were discouraged from investing at lower prices missed out on spectacular gains). It is certain that at some stage the sellers will outnumber the bidders and the price will fall or crash. But when?

I ended my last article on Bitcoin joking that Bitcoin had a much better chance of being part of the monetary future than Groupon did being part of the future of commerce, and that I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bitcoin at some stage trading at Groupon’s record market cap — enough to price Bitcoin at $2,000 a coin. But this was a joke. Bitcoin and Groupon are fundamentally different investments; Bitcoin is an experimental deflationary crypto-currency instrument and anonymous payments system, while Groupon is the equity in an experimental company. That means Bitcoin is a whole new asset class. And not a fantasy asset class, but one that is rapidly permeating the spheres of human consciousness, an idea that is replicating and multiplying at a rate far beyond its original audience of crypto-anarchists, heterodox monetary theorists, and black marketeers.

I don’t really see Bitcoin (and its crypto-currency siblings) facilitating trade a great deal in the future (although, its deflationary-nature might make it attractive to merchants who wish to hoard it). During Bitcoin’s recent run (or more accurately, hyper-deflation) Bitcoin’s velocity has actually fallen sharply as its rising value has encouraged hoarding. Gresham’s Law implies that whenever possible Bitcoin’s deflationary nature will subordinate it to fiat currency for transactions. State-backed currencies tend to depreciate year-on-year, encouraging spending and discouraging saving. That is treated by central bankers as an imperative of monetary policy. Yet Bitcoin’s deflationary nature encourages the opposite, implying that Bitcoin is not a threat to state-backed fiat but a complementary currency, an intangible, anonymous, global and infinitely mobile counterpart to tangibles like gold.

Gold remains a part of the global financial system, a savings instrument alongside its tiny role as an industrial metal and its larger role as jewellery. Credit-Suisse estimated that total global financial assets in 2012 were $223 trillion, of which gold makes up 0.6%, translating to a $1.338 trillion market cap for gold as a financial asset, (although a larger amount of gold — around $8 trillion total at current prices — exists in other forms like jewellery).

There are no fundamental ways to estimate the value of assets like gold or bitcoin, and their values are entirely in the eye of the beholder. But we know Bitcoin is presently vastly outperforming gold as a speculative savings vehicle, and in spite of the fundamental differences (particularly that one is tangible, and one is not) this may drive more and more investors — including institutional investors and funds looking to diversify into something slightly futuristic — into Bitcoin. If Bitcoin’s market cap were to rise to equal that of gold’s as a percentage of global GDP today, that would imply a price of $160,650 per Bitcoin, far, far higher than any price target I have yet seen. Even if Bitcoin were only to rise to 10% of gold’s market cap, that would imply a Bitcoin price of $16,065, still far higher than any price target I have seen. Even at 1% of gold’s market cap, Bitcoin would still fetch $1607 per coin, an almost-sevenfold increase over today’s price.

And gold is by no means a widely-held asset in today’s global financial system. If Bitcoin grew to 1% of the global financial system today each each coin would reach $267,600 in price.

These are, of course, fantasy figures based on back-of-an-envelope calculations, and should not be taken seriously. But what they show is that if the idea of Bitcoin continues to flourish — and if fund managers, and institutional investors begin to hunger for a slice of yield — then there is more than enough liquidity out there today to drive Bitcoin far, far higher.

On the other hand, if Bitcoin is outlawed worldwide by governments (perhaps due to concerns over money laundering and tax evasion) then of course any chance of it beginning to attract any such levels of interest are nil.  But the current government approach to Bitcoin so far appears to be one of attempted regulation rather than outright warfare.

At some stage Bitcoin may be supplanted by competitor crypto-currencies, but so far it is by far the most widely-adopted, and cryptography experts agree that its cryptography is sound, so there is no reason to assume that this may occur anytime soon. But judging by the birthrate and deathrate of social networks in recent years, a fast birthrate and deathrate for crypto-currencies is by no means out of the question. Technology is a fast-paced world where yesterday’s prize-pig is today’s turkey, and already there exist currencies built on similar technology to Bitcoin trading at much lower levels — Litecoin, Namecoin, Freicoin, PPCoin, Novacoin, etc. Whether these act as supplements or competitors remains to be seen, but it may be helpful to remember that while social networking sites today remain hugely popular, the early leaders in that field like MySpace and Friendster are nowhere to be seen. Is it possible that Bitcoin is the MySpace of decentralised crypto-currencies, and that the Facebook and Twitter are just around the corner? Yes — perhaps a platform with a more consumer-friendly interface than Bitcoin will come to dominate the field, making up a sizeable chunk of global financial assets, and Bitcoin itself will dwindle.  Certainly, the source code is available to larger organisations (Facebook? Google? Amazon? Banks?) who may wish to experiment with their own decentralised crypto-currency systems.

It is really hard to say what ultimately will occur, but Bitcoin does demonstrate the principle that anonymous, deflationary crypto-currency can be an attractive complementary proposition in a world where inflationary state-backed fiat currency has become the norm. I would caution that holders of Bitcoins — particularly those sitting on large long-term profits — should seek to diversify both into real-world assets like real estate, productive assets like farmland and factories, and index funds, as well as into new crypto-currencies as they emerge, particularly ones built with more consumer-friendly interfaces that may come to dominate the market. Bitcoin could easily end the year below its current price, but as Bitcoin grows in the public awareness this is decreasingly likely. In the long-term, a market cap target of 1% of gold’s market cap (currently, that would yield a price of $1607 per coin) seems viable, especially if larger players including institutions begin to experiment in the strange new world of crypto-currency.

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2008 Again?

The so-called recovery is built on sand, and as stock markets climb and climb, and more traders and investors turn bullish, we come ever-closer to a new 2008-style collapse.

Markets have already gone far, far higher than many expected on a drift of reinflationary central bank liquidity. Yesterday the DJIA hit a new post-2007 high:

fredgraph (14)

The same day, it was revealed that the big Wall Street banks are gambling again with billions and billions of dollars of clients’ funds. Goldman Sachs are back to pre-crisis-style profits. Again and again — from the LIBOR scandal, to MF Global, to the London Whale, to Kweku Adoboli — the financial sector has illustrated that it has learned very little from 2008, and is still practising many of the same hyper-fragile ponzi finance practices that led to the subprime bubble and the 2008 collapse.

Soaring markets, and soaring speculation. Big finance using loopholes to speculate bigger and harder. Mainstream financial journalists becoming more and more complacent about the “recovery”.

We’ve been here before. Isn’t repeating the same behaviour and hoping for different results the very definition of insanity? 

I don’t know exactly how the next crash will occur — although there are many potential ignition spots including a severe trade or energy shock, or a Chinese real estate and subprime meltdown, or a natural disaster, or a new Western financial crisis.  I don’t know when the next crash will occur, or how high the markets will climb before it does (DJIA 36,000 maybe? That would be hilarious).

But I know that if markets and regulators continue to repeat the mistakes that led to 2008, we will be back in a similar or worse hole soon.

Is Apple Really Worth More than the Sum of Microsoft, Dell, Google, Facebook and HP?

Because that’s what the market cap suggests:

But not the book value:

Nor revenue:

And nor earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation:

The data suggests that relative to other tech companies AAPL is significantly overvalued. And going forward there is no guarantee that AAPL can justify today’s value by keeping up its dominance of the sector. Tech is an extremely fickle and fast-changing sector where one year’s turkey can be next year’s prize pig. And AAPL’s product lineup is still dominated by products developed under the charge of Steve Jobs — it will take a while longer to fully assess whether or not AAPL can succeed at the same magnitude over the entire product cycle from conception to sales without his leadership.

But I doubt that anything like a sober look at the data will stop the Apple bulls. Because this time is different, right?

 

Warren Buffett Priced in Gold

Can you say bubble? Or, more to the point, can you say bursting?


Warren Buffett loves to bash gold — claiming that stocks are inherently superior, because they produce a return, whereas gold just sits.  Trouble is, stocks (and all paper assets) are subject to counter-party risk, whereas physical gold isn’t. Gold doesn’t overcompensate its CEOs, it doesn’t leverage its productive capital in toxic derivatives, it doesn’t cause industrial disasters like Deepwater Horizon, its value isn’t dependent on central banking, or securitisation, or American imperialism, or the machinations of the military-industrial complex. It just sits, retaining its purchasing power.

Warren Buffett had a great ride: he grew his wealth and businesses in an era of unprecedented growth powered by OPEC oil, and later by Chinese industrialism. That era — the era of the American free lunch — is coming to an end.  His insights are applicable to that era. Today is a different world.

Those Lazy Greeks

Or, not.

From the Guardian:


Sadly, it’s not quite as simple as that.

From the BBC:

Greeks are working longer and harder than anyone else in Europe. But they’re still producing less than many other nations who are working a lot less hard. The OECD suggest that this is due to the shape of the Greek labour market:

Pascal Marianna, who is a labour markets statistician at the OECD says: “The Greek labour market is composed of a large number of people who are self-employed, meaning farmers and – on the other hand – shop-keepers who are working long hours.”

Still, I think it’s high time we put the lazy Greek myth to bed, because the evidence just doesn’t support it.

Is China a Bubble?

Hedge fund manager Jim Chanos (among others, including Nouriel Roubini) says that China is a giant wreck due a hard landing.

From Zero Hedge:

On the Chinese government’s balance sheet:

“The Chinese government’s balance sheet directly does not have a lot of debt. The state-owned enterprises of the local governments and all the other ancillary borrowing vehicles have lots of debt and its growing at a very fast rate. The assumption is that the state stands behind all this debt. We see that the debt in China, implicitly backed by the Chinese government, probably has gone from about 100% of GDP to about 200% of GDP recently. Those are numbers that are staggering. Those are European kind of numbers if not worse.”

On how a Chinese property bubble will play out:

“I think that will be the surprise going into this year, and into 2012 – that it is not so strong. The property market is hitting the wall right now and things are decelerating. The CEO of Komatsu said last week that he is having trouble getting paid for his excavator sales in China. Developers are being squeezed. They’re turning to the black market for lending, this shadow banking system that is growing by leaps and bounds like everything in China.

“Regulators over there are really trying to get their hands around the problem. In the meantime, local governments have every incentive to just keep the game going. So they will continue with these projects, continuing to borrow as the central government tries to rein it in.”

Chanos on his long and short positions:

“We are short Chinese banks, the property developers, commodity companies that sell into China, anything related to property there is still a short.”

“We are long the Macau casinos. It’s our long corruption, short property play. We feel that there’s American management and American accounting. They are growing at a faster rate even than the property developers.”

On the IMF lowering growth estimates for China:

“A lot of people are assuming that half of all new loans in China are going to go bad. In fact, the Chinese government even said that last year relating to the local governments. If we assume that China will grow total credit this year between 30% to 40% of GDP, and half of that debt will go bad, that is 15% to 20%. Say the recoveries on that are 50%. That means that China, on an after write off basis, may not be growing at all. It may be having to simply write off some of this stuff in the future so its 9% growth may be zero.”


Is he right?

Absolutely not.

China has a property bubble, resulting from excess supply. It is also the world’s greatest industrial behemoth, controlling the world’s supply chains in many key components, and is becoming an increasingly powerful player in energy markets thanks to its buy-out of Venezuela and its close ties to authoritarian Eurasian energy powers like Russia, Iran and Pakistan. This means that it’s probably not the best place for Westerners to park capital in the short term. But it has no bearing on China’s strategic standing in the medium to long term.

A comparison with America is inevitable. The United States destroyed its industrial productive capacity, has a zombified financial system , a stagnating labour market, stagnating infrastructure, a clueless establishment, and its currency is about to lose global reserve currency status.

Every day, America becomes more dependent on foreign oil and resources.

America needs the global resource and trade infrastructureThat’s why America is in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan. That’s why there are hundreds of bases around the world and why America spends trillions policing the world.

The counter-argument I often hear is “but America has nukes, America can order other countries to do things and they will do it”. But ever since mutually-assured destruction that hasn’t been true.

If you don’t control your supply chains, you have a geostrategic problem. China grasped the importance of supply chains, and through cunning use of long-term planning has made itself the spider at the centre of the web of global trade. America grasped they could get a free lunch with US treasuries and that free lunch destroyed their productive capacity.

China has a cold. America has congential haemerrhoids, restless legs syndrome, diabetes, and autism.