The Bitcoin Boom: Asset, Currency, Commodity Or Collectible?
As I have noted with my earlier posts on cryptocurrencies, in general, and bitcoin, in particular, I find myself disagreeing with both its most virulent critics and its strongest proponents. Unlike Jamie Dimon, I don't believe that bitcoin is a fraud and that people who are “stupid enough to buy it” will pay a price for that stupidity. Unlike its biggest cheerleaders, I don't believe that cryptocurrencies are now or ever will be an asset class or that these currencies can change fundamental truths about risk, investing and management. The reason for the divide, though, is that the two sides seem to disagree fundamentally on what bitcoin is, and at the risk of raising hackles all the way around.
Assets, Commodities, Currencies And Collectibles
Not everything can be valued, but almost everything can be priced. To understand the distinction between value and price, let me start by positing that every investment that I will look at has to fall into one of the following four groupings:
- Cash Generating Asset: An asset generates or is expected to generate cash flows in the future. A business that you own is definitely an asset, as is a claim on the cash flows on that business. Those claims can be either contractually set (bonds or debt), residual (equity or stock) or even contingent (options). What assets share in common is that these cash flows can be valued, and assets with high cash flows and less risk should be valued more than assets with lower cash flows and more risk. At the same time, assets can also be priced, relative to each other, by scaling the price that you pay to a common metric. With stocks, this takes the form of comparing pricing multiples (PE ratio, EV/EBITDA, Price to Book or Value/Sales) across similar companies to form pricing judgments of which stocks are cheap and which ones are expensive.
- Commodity: A commodity derives its value from its use as raw material to meet a fundamental need, whether it be energy, food or shelter. While that value can be estimated by looking at the demand for and supply of the commodity, there are long lag and lead times in both that make that valuation process much more difficult than for an asset. Consequently, commodities tend to be priced, often relative to their own history, with normalized oil, coal wheat or iron ore prices being computed by averaging prices across long cycles.
- Currency: A currency is a medium of exchange that you use to denominate cash flows and is a store of purchasing power, if you choose to not invest. Standing alone, currencies have no cash flows and cannot be valued, but they can be priced against other currencies. In the long term, currencies that are accepted more widely as a medium of exchange and that hold their purchasing power better over time should see their prices rise, relative to currencies that don't have those characteristics. In the short term, though, other forces including governments trying to manipulate exchange rates can dominate. Using a more conventional currency example, you can see this in a graph of the US $ against seven fiat currencies, where over the long term (1995-2017), you can see the Swiss Franc and the Chinese Yuan increasing in price, relative to the $, and the Mexican Peso, Brazilian Real, Indian Rupee and British Pound, dropping in price, again relative to the $.
Between January 1995 and September 2017, the Swiss Franc and the Chinese Yuan rose in price, relative to the U.S. Dollar, the Franc because of lower inflation than the U.S. Dollar and the Yuan because of stronger growth (and wider acceptance).
Between January 1995 and September 2017, the Mexican Peso, the Brazilian Real, the Indian Rupee and the British Pound fell in price, relative to the U.S. Dollar. All had higher inflation than the U.S. Dollar.
- Collectible: A collectible has no cash flows and is not a medium of exchange but it can sometimes have aesthetic value (as is the case with a master painting or a sculpture) or an emotional attachment (a baseball card or team jersey). A collectible cannot be valued since it too generates no cash flows but it can be priced, based upon how other people perceive its desirability and the scarcity of the collectible.
Viewed through this prism, Gold is clearly not a cash flow generating asset, but is it a commodity? Since gold's value has little to do with its utilitarian functions and more to do with its longstanding function as a store of value, especially during crises or when you lose faith in paper currencies, it is more currency than commodity. Real estate is an asset, even if it takes the form of a personal home, because you would have had to pay rental expenses (a cash flow), in its absence. Private equity and hedge funds are forms of investing in assets, currencies, commodities or collectibles, and are not separate asset classes.
Investing Versus Trading
The key is that cash generating assets can be both valued and priced, commodities can be priced much more easily than valued, and currencies and collectibles can only be priced. So what? I have written before about the divide between investing and trading and it is worth revisiting that contrast. To invest in something, you need to assess its value, compare to the price, and then act on that comparison, buying if the price is less than value and selling if it is greater. Trading is a much simpler exercise, where you price something, make a judgment on whether that price will go up or down in the next time period and then make a pricing bet. While you can be successful at either, the skill sets and tool kits that you use are different for investing and trading, and what makes for a good investor is different from the ingredients needed for good trading. The table below captures the difference between trading (the pricing game) and investing (the value game).
As I see it, you can play either the value or pricing game well, but being delusional about the game you are playing, and using the wrong tools or bringing the wrong skill set to that game, is a recipe for disaster.
What Is Bitcoin?
The first step towards a serious debate on bitcoin then has to be deciding whether it is an asset, a currency, a commodity or collectible. Bitcoin is not an asset, since it does not generate cash flows standing alone for those who hold it (until you sell it). It is not a commodity, because it is not raw material that can be used in the production of something useful. The only exception that I can think off is that if it becomes a necessary component of smart contracts, it could take on the role of a commodity; that may be ethereum's saving grace, since it has been marketed less as a currency and more as a smart contracting lubricant. The choice then becomes whether it is a currency or a collectible, with its supporters tilting towards the former and its detractors the latter. I argued in my last post that bitcoin is a currency, but it is not a good one yet, insofar as it has only limited acceptance as a medium of exchange and it is too volatile to be a store of value. Looking forward, there are three possible paths that I see for bitcoin as a currency, from best case to worst case.
- The Global Digital Currency: In the best case scenario, bitcoin gains wide acceptance in transactions across the world, becoming a widely used global digital currency. For this to happen, it has to become more stable (relative to other currencies), central banks and governments around the world have to accept its use (or at least not actively try to impede it) and the aura of mystery around it has to fade. If that happens, it could compete with fiat currencies and given the algorithm set limits on its creation, its high price could be justified.
- Gold for Millennials: In this scenario, bitcoin becomes a haven for those who do not trust central banks, governments and fiat currencies. In short, it takes on the role that gold has, historically, for those who have lost trust in or fear centralized authority. It is interesting that the language of Bitcoin is filled with mining terminology, since it suggests that intentionally or otherwise, the creators of Bitcoin shared this vision. In fact, the hard cap on Bitcoin of 21 million is more compatible with this scenario than the first one. If this scenario unfolds, and Bitcoin shows the same staying power as gold, it will behave like gold does, rising during crises and dropping in more sanguine time periods.
- The 21st Century Tulip Bulb: In this, the worst case scenario, bitcoin is like a shooting star, attracting more money as it soars, from those who see it as a source of easy profits, but just as quickly flares out as these traders move on to something new and different (which could be a different and better designed digital currency), leaving bitcoin holders with memories of what might have been. If this happens, bitcoin could very well become the equivalent of Tulip Bulbs, a speculative asset that saw its prices soar in the sixteen hundreds in Holland, before collapsing in the aftermath.
I would be lying if I said that I knew which of these scenarios will unfold, but they are all still plausible scenarios. If you are trading in bitcoin, you may very well not care, since your time horizon may be in minutes and hours, not weeks, months or years.
If you have a longer term interest in bitcoin, though, your focus should be less on the noise of day-to-day price movements and more on advancements on its use as a currency.
Note also that you could be a pessimist on bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies but be an optimist about the underlying technology, especially block chain, and its potential for disruption.
Combining the section where I classified investments into assets, commodities, currencies and collectibles with the one where I argued that bitcoin is a "young" currency allows me to draw the following conclusions:
- Bitcoin is not an asset class: To those who are carving out a portion of their portfolios for bitcoin, be clear about why you are doing it. It is not because you want to a diversified portfolio and hold all asset classes, it is because you want to use your trading skills on bitcoin to supercharge your portfolio returns. Lest you view this as a swipe at cryptocurrencies, I would hasten to add that fiat currencies (like the US dollar, Euro or Yen) are not asset classes either.
- You cannot value bitcoin, you can only price it: This follows from the acceptance that bitcoin is a currency, not an asset or a commodity. Any one who claims to value bitcoin either has a very different definition of value than I do or is just making up stuff as he or she goes along.
- It will be judged as a currency: In the long term, the price that you attach to bitcoin will depend on how well it will performs as a currency. If it is accepted widely as a medium of exchange and is stable enough to be a store of value, it should command a high price. If it becomes gold-like, a fringe currency that investors flee to during crises, its price will be lower. Worse, if it is a transient currency that loses all purchasing power, as it is replaced by something new and different, it will crash and burn.
- You don't invest in bitcoin, you trade it: Since you cannot value bitcoin, you don't have a critical ingredient that you need to be an investor. You can trade Bitcoin and become wealthy doing so, but it is because you are a good trader.
- Good trader ingredients: To be a successful trader in bitcoin, you need to recognize that moves in its price will have little do with fundamentals, everything to do with mood and momentum and big price shifts can happen on incremental information.
Would I buy bitcoin at $6,100? No, but not for the reasons that you think. It is not because I believe that it is over valued, since I cannot make that judgment without valuing it and as I noted before, it cannot be valued. It is because I am not and never have been a good trader and, as a consequence, my pricing judgments are suspect. If you have good trading instincts, you should play the pricing game, as long as you recognize that it is a game, where you can win millions or lose millions, based upon your calls on momentum. If you win millions, I wish you the best! If you lose millions, please don't let paranoia lead you to blame the establishment, banks and governments for why you lost. Come easy, go easy!
Aswath Damodaran is an academician and management expert who is currently a professor of finance at the NYU Stern School of Business.
The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Bloomberg Quint or its editorial team.