From Bitcoin to no coin

Falling down

Things are stirring in the cryptocurrency world. There is a burgeoning debate about central bank issued digital currencies, and in the past month bitcoin has fallen by over twenty percent.

In its short life as a trading asset, bitcoin has appeared to move in sync with equities, so this recent move may spark some concern. A more intriguing, related question is whether bitcoin is an indicator of risk appetite or a beneficiary of risk aversion. Indeed, within the less ‘independent’ crypto currency community there is a view abroad that bitcoin and crypto currencies are a ‘safe haven’ in the same way people might for instance, regard gold.

My own sense is that crypto currencies in general and bitcoin specifically are not safe havens. They have failed the purpose they were intended to fulfill in that they are not actively used as a means of exchange. Few retailers accept them, fewer consumers actively use them and transaction costs are still very high.

The technology associated with cryptocurrencies is also complex enough to dissuade most households from using them. For many people the process of setting up a crypto wallet, and mentally translating crypto prices into everyday currencies is too demanding to bother with. This ‘ease of use’ is a cognitive barrier to entry and something that will take time for many to overcome, even Millennials.

In addition, the infrastructure around cryptocurrencies is fragile in at least two respects. Parts of that system, such as exchanges are prone to hacking and ransoming, and can also be shut down at the whim of governments.

From the point of view of cryptocurrencies as assets, very basic data analysis suggests that optically bitcoin has a low correlation with safe havens like gold. This does not mean that bitcoin is a good diversifier or a safe haven. It has been highly volatile over the past two years and is subject to trading and liquidity risks not normally associated with safe havens.

A further clue as to the true nature of cryptocurrencies as investable assets comes from the community of people who hold and trade them. The micro-structure (or plumbing) of markets, as well as the anthropology and sociology of those who populate them (which will have to be the subject of a future missive) is crucial to the way they behave and subsequently to their risk characteristics.

In this light the fact that the biggest holder of bitcoins is apparently the FBI says a lot. A good deal of trading in cryptocurrencies takes place in Asia, other emerging markets like Russia and in hubs like Zug.

Though admittedly not scientific, nor thorough, I suspect that many bitcoin traders also trade equity futures and currencies and use the same equity trading rules (technical) to buy and sell bitcoin (cryptos now have their own rating system, FCAS). If this generalization holds, it suggests that risk budgeting may drive a positive correlation between cryptocurrencies and equities, especially at market highs and lows.

Another observation is that for its size (the top ten cryptocurrencies barely add up to the market cap of Citigroup) the crypto market attracts an inordinately large amount of attention, which may draw money in at high points. To my mind this points to bitcoin having a pro-cyclical bias in terms of its riskiness as a trading asset.

On a structural basis the fall in bitcoin may also signal trouble in the cryptocurrency world, which effectively exists to create means of exchange beyond the normal frameworks of governments and central banks. Note that bitcoin rallied to its year high in the immediate aftermath of Facebook’s announcement of the Libra project in mid June.

The current disarray surrounding Facebook’s Libra project is a sign of the operating and regulatory complexities facing cryptocurrencies. More powerful still is the incentive that central banks and fiscal authorities around the world have for the bitcoin not to succeed. Witness as an example the vigour with which the Chinese – who tightly control money flows – have clamped down on cryptocurrency exchanges.

The next steps in the crypto or digital currency (they are almost the same in that crypto currencies are digital currencies that use cryptography) industry for central banks to issue their own coins, and for the digital payments industry. More thorough regulation, cleaner cross-border payment processes and more reliable identification mechanisms will be part of the workload of central banks and governments.

It all suggests that instead of being a safe haven, bitcoin may become extinct.

Have a great week ahead

Mike

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