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29 November 2017

Tulip Mania? Buyer Beware?

This article was written by Richard Horswill. All views and openions expressed are strictly his own.

This year, the increasing valuations of Bitcoin and other crypto currencies has been truly remarkable. Bitcoin specifically, as the first mover and thus predominant crypto, has its foundation rooted in the guise of gold. Digital gold. Both time and energy combine through an open source software download digitally to “mine" Bitcoin. Ultimately its restriction of supply and pure accounting mechanism combine to make it an honest but mostly misunderstood currency. Since its inception in 2009 about two thirds of all Bitcoins have been mined; however the final number of 21 million will not be mined until 2040. Due to the parabolic nature of the rise in the value of Bitcoin, questions have been asked as to the possibility of a speculative bubble being created which could leave many late arrivals to the party out of pocket. Should investors be concerned?

Bitcoin's principles are founded in pure free market thinking. A libertarian construction which is in great part an attack on the global central banking system of money and the control thereof. Decisions made by a small number of unelected elite economists who determine the value of money by attempting to set arbitrary interest rate levels has led the global economy to an unparalleled point in financial history. Nominal interest rates at zero there or thereabouts (with some negative rates thrown in) and the creation of huge pools of capital through money printing (QE) ultimately devalue fiat currencies. This has all been done in order initially to halt the inevitable bankruptcy of the system but is now being used to game the same system by the very elites that run it. Thus, Bitcoin has placed itself front and centre in the push back of the current financial model and attempts to provide an alternative that puts the control back in the hands of the user and out of reach of the current entrenched authorities, due to its decentralised nature .

So, does Bitcoin have the attributes needed to propel it into the mainstream? 

It is principally acting as a store of value in its current guise just as gold does. It is also a payment method but as yet lacks a critical mass of users to make it a relevant medium of exchange. However, it has great potential with each Bitcoin being divisible to eight decimal places giving 100 million units of exchange per Bitcoin, meaning that the expansion of the system could easily be facilitated. Therefore, based on its attributes, at what point should the valuation be considered stretched to the point that it is perceived to be in "bubble" territory?

Currently there are a number of drivers of demand. These include, firstly, China. This has probably been the most significant initial driver. Capital flight from China has led the Chinese authorities to impose capital controls on money leaving mainland China. The fear of Yuan devaluation in order to support the Chinese manufacturing economy and global competitiveness has pushed investment into Bitcoin's borderless and anonymous hands. It has been used to circumvent government controls and as such has benefited from the tight reigns of control that Chinese leaders have attempted to put on their people.

Bitcoin is also being used to protect the purchasing power of savings. Countries such as Venezuela with its hyper-inflated currency is a good example as to why Bitcoin is a valid necessity as a means of protection against governmental stupidity. Another example of government over reach and dishonesty against their citizens has been India and the virtual overnight removal of legal tender in the form of 500 and 1000 rupee notes. As a consequence, faith has been diminished in government money and a move into cryptos is on the rise. However, these cannot solely be considered responsible for the recent parabolic moves which emulate price actions history has demonstrated before. Bubble events, such as Tulips, South Seas, Nasdaq and housing to name a few, have all had the same shape chart patterns and all have led to significant price crashes if not all out busts.

Market capitalisation may give us more of a clue as to whether Bitcoin is in bubble territory. What if we compare the gold market to Bitcoin? What we already know is that gold represents about $7 trillion in market cap. An estimated 170,000 metric tonnes of globally mined gold at about $1300 per Troy ounce. Bitcoin’s market cap represents at the time of writing about $115 billion, 14 million Bitcoins at $ 8200 per unit. This shows that Bitcoin as a global currency has a long way to go before it can be even considered a relevant competitor to gold. But of course, each Bitcoin is divisible by 100 million. Therefore, maybe we are valuing Bitcoin incorrectly. Based on a 100 million divisibility we could well be undervaluing it,  particularly if critical mass acceptance and usage accelerates. 

People who have already invested in Bitcoin may certainly be nervous of the volatility and the possibility of bubble talk, particularly as critical mass usage looks unlikely anytime soon. A large driver of demand does on the surface of it seem to be an "irrational exuberance" within the crypto space which is in part contrived by the profit/greed motive. 

Something else to consider is the cost of mining Bitcoin. Initially cheap and easy based on software program puzzles, now Bitcoin has become much harder to mine as hash rates have increased exponentially with suggestions that the cost of mining is now above the value of the coin itself. This could work for or against Bitcoin depending on the psychology of the miners.

Additionally, the powers that be continue to seek to discredit cryptos as supporting criminal endeavours, which is certainly a headwind to the overall acceptance and success of Bitcoin. However, there is the realisation of those that want to stop the crypto movement that the block chain ledger technology is an extremely important mechanism within the construction of the crypto currency and governments will almost certainly attempt to replicate their own centrally controlled crypto currency

To conclude, as a consequence of all of the uncertainties that exist, it is certainly set to make Bitcoin an extremely interesting yet volatile asset class. In answer to the "bubble" question, it is almost impossible to say that a bubble currently exists. Given the way that previous bubbles have developed and persisted historically a crash could be imminent, but if we consider modern bubbles that currently exist in global bond markets, property and stock markets due to the easy money policies our financial masters advocate, one might have to say that there is still a huge amount of room for cash to get pulled into Bitcoin and other crypto markets. With this in mind, it is always worth remembering that the trend seemingly continues to be our friend!!!

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