Monthly Archives: October 2017

Why Buffett Doesn’t “Get” Bitcoin

Warren Buffett is the most famous name in stock investing, the second richest person in the world, and a leading expert in valuing companies and securities. He also is a big investor in banks, including Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and Bank of America. So he has a lot of vested interest in the current monetary and financial system.

He recently said that bitcoin is in a bubble, which may well be true. He also said “You can’t value bitcoin because it’s not a value-producing asset”. This is not correct. Bitcoin can be valued, but not like a security or a company, which is what Buffet does so well.

As we have written elsewhere, bitcoin is a currency, money, a cryptocurrency. Some will say it is a digital asset, like a digital gold. We say it is Money 3.0 (fiat is Money 2.0, gold and silver coins were Money 1.0).

Do these have value?

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Yes, money is designed as a store of value, a medium of exchange, a unit of account. Cryptocurrencies have the same design goals.

Bitcoin is a unit of account in a secure, distributed ledger. It has been a much better store of value than fiat currency in recent years.

In fact in 2014, Buffet said “It’s a mirage”. And yet, the value of a single bitcoin has increased 16 times since late October, 2014 to about $5800 today.

Money is valued by what you can exchange it for, its utility. It is valued against other currencies. Bitcoin is valued the same way, and by the vitality of the bitcoin economy.

Within the cryptocurrency world, bitcoin is the reference benchmark, just as the US dollar is globally. Bitcoin gets valued every single day, every minute of the day, against all major fiat currencies and against hundreds of cryptocurrencies. Like those currencies it has an economy and a turnover (or velocity) of the currency.

One thing we don’t normally think of with respect to cryptocurrencies is interest, or dividends. It is possible to lend out bitcoin for interest, as one can do with dollars, euros, or even gold. But bitcoin has effectively thrown off two special dividends this year, in the form of forks of the bitcoin blockchain. These are known as Bitcoin Cash (forked in August) and Bitcoin Gold (forked in October). Collectively, those two are worth close to $500, representing over 8% dividend rate to date during 2017, based on the current bitcoin price.

And for someone who bought at the beginning of the year, when bitcoin was under $1000, the dividend is around 50%. Not shabby, and a very reasonable reward for accepting the volatility.

Bitcoin is a technology for internet money, network money that is independent of any government, and can be hard to fathom for the newcomer. Buffett has always said he does not understand technology. He has not examined the technology and potential of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies sufficiently to have an informed opinion.

Bitcoin’s future value? It all depends on how the economy around bitcoin develops, but it will be quite an adventure. And bitcoin to bagels it will increase in value over the next several years.

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Evolutionary Forks and Dividends

What is a fork?

It is early days in evolutionary terms for cryptocurrency. Bitcoin has not been around even a decade. Ethereum has only been here for a few years. The respective economies of these and other cryptocurrencies have been growing at triple digit percentage rates.

A given blockchain can be thought of as a continuing line of a particular species. A new blockchain, e.g. Ethereum with new attributes is a new species of cryptocurrency. A fork in a blockchain, such as the recent Bitcoin Cash, is also a new species, but perhaps one can say that it belongs to the same genus.

Mayr’s concept of species is that of representatives of the same breeding population. They are in some sense on the same continual chain.

A fork is an evolutionary branch in response to environmental pressure. The pressure arises due to the developing needs of the ecosystem for cryptocurrencies overall and for individual cryptocurrencies.

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Pressure

The pressure that gives rise to evolution in the cryptocurrency ecosystem arises from the need to scale cryptocurrency to higher transaction rates and to more diverse use cases. For example, there is the very general use case of smart contracts, that led to the creation of Ethereum.

How new currencies are created or are forked results from the technological requirements and how those are interpreted and implemented by particular members of the development community. This is a political arena since miners, developers, exchanges, merchants, and other groups have different interests.

We have just had the Bitcoin Cash fork and are now facing possible forks for Bitcoin Gold and Segwit2x (Segwit was adopted without a fork in August).

It is difficult to determine which fork or species will be the most successful in the long run; but the original or main branch can have an advantage. Overall forks can be seen as strengthening the ecosystem as a whole since total value seems to rise after forks. After the Bitcoin Cash (BCH) fork the original Bitcoin (BTC) increased in value, and one could also collect the BCH on a one per one BTC held basis as a dividend. 

More generally, this has been borne out by the continually increasing market capitalization of the set of cryptocurrencies, currently having reached around $160 billion (roughly a Buffet plus a Gates).

For investors in cryptocurrency one can view forks as special dividends. Those who held Bitcoin through the Bitcoin Cash fork received a dividend of several hundred dollars per BTC. Sometimes numbered prints or copies are valuable as well.

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Above is not our view, but that of @BitcoinWrld

What you do (hold, sell all, sell half) with your dividends is up to you and your views on individual forks; we make no recommendations here. But the dividends are there to receive, along with possible capital appreciation as the cryptocurrency economy continues to grow rapidly.

Ethereum: Smarter than a Fifth Grader?

Ethereum is described in Wikipedia as an “an open-source, public, blockchain-based distributed computing platform featuring smart contract functionality“.

How does it differ from Bitcoin? Well Bitcoin is open-source, public, distributed, and block-chain based. The difference is principally found in the terms “computing platform” and “smart contract functionality”. And there are other differences as well.

Ethereum is only two years old. It was the brainchild of wunderkind Vitalik Buterin, a Bitcoin developer, and while initial funds for the project were raised in mid-2014, the network went live in mid-2015. A foundation under Swiss law manages Ethereum.

The motivation was to have better scaling than Bitcoin, both horizontally, in terms of transaction speed, and vertically, in terms of use cases supported (implemented via smart contracts). It also has a better specified development plan, with 0, 1, and 2 versions of the software having been implemented, and version 3 (Metropolis) currently in testing.

It has been a great success, and Ether, the coin of Ethereum, now has the number two market cap among all cryptocurrencies at around $29 billion. Its value has risen dramatically during 2017, rising from $8 to $300.

 

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Ethereum logo CC-BY-3.0

Contracts

There are two types of accounts in Etherland. One can have a regular cryptocurrency account, or an account can represent a smart contract. There is a virtual machine (EVM) that is said to be “Turing complete” and that supports multiple scripting languages in which contract rules can be specified.

The idea of smart contracts has been around for over two decades; blockchain with broad programmability on the chain provides a very useful technology for their implementation.

Smart contracts allow value to be exchanged between agents without existing trusted relationships. Sort of like escrow, but much more streamlined. The basic idea is to cut out the expense and complications associated with middlemen.

Use cases being explored for such smart contracts include:

  • Real estate leases or purchases
  • Securities settlement
  • Supply chain management
  • Governance, including voting
  • Intellectual property protection

The number of currently existing use cases is few at present, however, and they tend to be simple and related to the Ether coin itself. Some have argued that smart contracts are much harder to implement in practice than many imagine. A recent interesting one is Prism Exchange, which allows you to hold a variety of altcoins across multiple exchanges from a single application.

Mining

Ether is much quicker to mine than Bitcoin, and can process 25 transactions per second. Transaction fees are also much lower than Bitcoin, around 8 times lower currently. Blocks are generated every 12 seconds, as opposed to the 10 minute target with Bitcoin.

Like Bitcoin, Ether is mined via Proof of Work, but the intent is to move to Proof of Stake (some measure of ownership) over time. A different cryptographic hash problem, Ethash, is solved, and with this hash Ether does not benefit greatly from mining with ASICs and is therefore accessible to CPU and especially to GPU mining. “Ethash PoW is memory hard, making it basically ASIC resistant.”

Basically the algorithm is designed to consume memory bandwidth and to be GPU-friendly. So it is good news for Nvidia and AMD and Intel.

Enterprise Ethereum Alliance

The Enterprise Ethereum Alliance has grown to over 150 organizations as members and includes some of the most important technology companies and largest banks. Its purpose is to address enterprise requirements for smart contracts and blockchains. The founding members are shown in the graphic below. Mastercard and Cisco are two major companies who have also joined recently.

Banks, in particular, have interest in permissioned blockchains, so that they can retain control of their customer relationships. There is a natural tension between open distributed trust of the blockchain and centralized trust that banks provide today.

It is an exciting time. How blockchain will be deployed by the financial industry, and how it will disrupt the industry are open questions. Smart contracts allow blockchain to be even more disruptive because they provide the tools for disintermediation. Jamie Dimon may not want his traders to trade Bitcoin, but he sure wants a seat at the Ethereum “smart contracts” table.

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A Golden Fork

What do Bitcoin and Gold have in common? They are both assets. Both have limited supply that grows only slowly. Both can be seen as a form of money since they are stores of value and can be used as a medium of exchange. Both are liquid and divisible, although Bitcoin is much more easily divided. And both are unlike fiat money, in that they are debt-free. Both are ‘mined’, gold is physically mined, and Bitcoin is ‘mined’ via cryptographic hash algorithms (proof of work).

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But what is Bitcoin Gold? It is neither gold, nor the current Bitcoin. Rather it is a proposed fork of Bitcoin, designed to make mining easier, and accessible to more people. And it could happen very soon, just three weeks from now.

The chief backer is CEO of a Hong Kong-based company, Jack Liao, and he indicates the motivation behind Bitcoin Gold is for it to be complementary to Bitcoin and to grow the community of miners, to allow the Bitcoin ecosystem to move away from its present centralization in a few mining pools.

It is not clear how well the proposal has been developed, and how many miners, current or new, will back it. But the intent is to allow mining by GPUs, rather than the specialized ASICs highly optimized for the SHA-256 hashing used by both Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash.

Instead it will use the Equihash algorithm, that is GPU-friendly rather than ASIC-friendly, since it demands substantial utilization of memory and memory bandwidth. This could allow for a much broader community of miners since GPUs from Nvidia and AMD are so widely deployed.

The primary cryptocurrency usage of GPUs today is for mining Ethereum. But since Ethereum is scheduled to move away from proof of work and to adopt proof of stake next year, Bitcoin Gold could be the most important new target for GPU-based mining.

The developers of Bitcoin Gold intend to remain aligned with Core and Segwit roadmaps.

Everyone holding Bitcoin, with a suitable private wallet at the beginning of August, received a ‘free’ dividend of Bitcoin Cash. The major exchanges ended up supporting access to users’ Bitcoin Cash, some sooner, others later. Now everyone holding Bitcoin with a suitable private wallet on October 25th stands to receive a free dividend of Bitcoin Gold (BTG) as well.

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Cryptocurrency a Bridge to the Future

Bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies more generally, can be a bridge to a better monetary future for the globe. In almost every nation today, fiat currency managed by a central bank is the norm. This is money that is inherently inflationary by design. Since central banks are controlled by national governments, and governments routinely run substantial deficits, the banks promote inflation in order to benefit their governments.

In our current low growth environment, the Federal Reserve has grown the money supply (M2 money stock) 4.9% during the past year when inflation is running at 2% or less. They are operating on an equation of around 2% inflation plus 2% to 3% GDP real growth for about 5% monetary growth.

Bitcoin has a very controlled and low absolute inflation, much less than 1%. There are currently 16.6 million bitcoins available, and there will never be more than 21 million, and that does not occur until over 100 years from now. In practice, Bitcoin is currently deflationary since the economy around Bitcoin is currently increasing very rapidly, at triple digit rates. It has been gaining value against fiat currencies rapidly, albeit with very high volatility.

Bitcoin meets the attributes of currency, see Money 3.0 article. It is not debt-based, as are all currently circulating fiat moneys, paper and digital money backed by nothing but debt (Money 2.0).


Akashi Kaikyo bridge is the world’s longest suspension bridge. GFDL license.

The entire financial system was at risk of collapse in 2008 due to accumulated debts and risky and fraudulent derivatives built on top of those debts. Trillions of dollars of wealth were destroyed, with Americans losing 40% of their net worth during a 3 year period.

In addition, the system is well-designed for the money center banking elites to pull more and more wealth into their own hands, through financial techniques that create no real wealth. Those who get to create the money lend it out and accrue the highest benefits.

A more stable system is required, and Bitcoin could play an important role, as an asset-based, not debt-based, currency. Dollars and Euros come into creation as new loans are issued by commercial banks. Central banks manage the reserve and equity requirements of those banks, but a large amount of leverage is inherent in the fractional reserve system.

Bitcoin comes into creation as a result of the mining process, that occurs as new transactions are forged into the blockchain. Bitcoin creation is a direct result of the operation of the economy around the cryptocurrency. Bitcoins are ‘minted’, not ‘printed’. Like fiat currency they have value due to scarcity and utility, and dependent on the growth of their economy.

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies can be the basis for more honest money, as well as for decreased transaction costs, and higher efficiency. Banking will change forever. Like fiat currency, bitcoin can be borrowed and it can be lent.

Those who are involved in Bitcoin today, a “peer-to-peer cash” are pioneering a future that could be a more stable, more honest monetary system. Today Bitcoin is young, has plenty of growing pains, and volatility, but it is now 8 years old and maturing rapidly.