Independent, Fee-Only Financial Advisor

Independent, Fee-Only Financial Advisor

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Tales from the Crypt

 Is Bitcoin and its sister digital currencies really money? 

Money represents work and earnings on that work or skill. It has 3 functions. It’s a medium of exchange. You can buy stuff with it-- trade it for food, housing, clothing, etc. Certainly, we are hearing more and more about cryptocurrency being accepted as a form of payment.

Money is also a store of value. The money I make today doesn’t have to be spent today. I can put it in the bank or under my mattress and store those earnings for another day. Okay, so crypto qualifies here.

Money is also a unit of account. That means the number of dollars, euros, renminbi, required to purchase something has meaning. When I travel overseas and find myself looking at price tags in another country, I’m clueless. They have no meaning to me, but prices in dollars and cents help me to peg a value on a good or service. Wow! That’s a good deal. Or, wow! That’s expensive. This is where crypto falters. Valuations fluctuate so widely that it is hard to translate the numbers to real value. Cryptocurrency lacks stability, and, so, fails the test on this function.

But crypto is pushing the bounds of our definition of money. We have used many types of currency through the ages. Maybe this is just a new one taking hold. At one time, we used whale teeth for money. Of course, the precious metals have had their run—gold, silver, copper. We’ve even used salt for money! Heaven help you if you had a hole in your pocket. Money has gone through many iterations as we humans have looked for ways to move beyond bartering as we trade goods. For a look at a really strange currency, check out The Island of Yap.

Money has 2 forms: commodity money and fiat money. Commodity money has value in and of itself. Think of gold and silver and even that salt. But fiat money has no real intrinsic value. Its value comes from the entity backing the currency. 

Anyone with old Confederate dollars in your attic? They only had value when the Confederacy was alive. Now, they are worthless (thank goodness). Ever pull out some coins from your trip to Canada at the convenience store? Sorry, worthless here. When it comes to fiat money, location is everything. Euros in Europe. Pound sterling in London. Renminbi in China. Each government issues its own currency, and the strength and stability of that currency is correlated to the strength and stability of that government.

But crypto is different. It isn’t issued by a government. As such, it’s not confined to a location and particular borders. And that’s what makes it so appealing. No converting from Euros to dollars and back again, with all the requisite fees in between. Supposedly, it would be universally accepted. No banker is keeping track of your account. The system is self-contained to assure coins are transmitted appropriately.

And crypto seems the natural transition as fewer and fewer actual coins and dollars are used. Rarely do I have actual dollars in my purse. My money is recorded in an account somewhere, and I pull out a debit card or use PayPal or Venmo to make purchases. The currency in my name is just a number on a computer screen somewhere, and isn’t that what crypto is? It’s just a digital currency.

In 2009, someone or some people with the name of Satoshi Nakamoto invented the first truly digital currency called bitcoin. The ability to move vast sums across borders very quickly made it quite appealing to the criminal element. The dark side of this currency caused it to languish until recently. More and more, reputable businesses are trading in and accumulating digital currency.

New digital currencies have sprouted up with names like Dogecoin, Ethereum, and even Polkadot. None are related to a particular government, but each serves different functions. Recently, we heard a presentation by an investment group solely focused on cryptocurrency. They have created exchange traded funds that own crypto and are encouraging advisors to include this in a diversified portfolio. We’re not convinced yet.

Implicit in our current system is the position of an intermediary. These are the folks who are in between each transaction as money changes hands throughout the day. They are the bankers. A digital currency that is self-contained does not need an intermediary. That sounds appealing since it would reduce cost and increase speed. Imagine going to your house closing and pushing the button at the table to transmit your down payment. Voila! Deal done.

But we still worry about the security of such a system. And we worry that the crypto we own today will lose value overnight. So, maybe it’s just not money… yet.

Certainly, crypto investors have been reaping big benefits in the last couple of years. Our presenters from Bitwise Asset Management told us to NOT think of it as a medium of exchange. They describe it as a new technology that can speed up the pace of business while keeping costs low. They also said to think of different types of crypto like different types of software.

It’s all so bizarre! Programmable money? Coins created from mining. Mining is just the solving of a puzzle. Coins stacked in blocks to create a blockchain. Money or not? Sort of. Maybe. But it’s crazy popular right now.

So how do you get your hands on (computers on) some crypto? Well, you can’t go through your regular brokerage account. You’ll have to go through a crypto-exchange like Coinbase or Gemini. Robinhood can give you access. You can also sign up with an investor group. There are several private crypto funds. BITW is the publicly traded exchange traded fund that we heard about.

But be careful. This is new. It’s exciting. It’s cutting edge. But it’s risky. As for us, we’re taking a “wait and see” approach. Digital currency may be the wave of the future, but, right now, it just feels like a tsunami.