Time to go long Bitcoin?

It’s fashionable these days to dunk on Bitcoin and cryptocurrency more generally. Charts like the one below lend themselves to dunking. And I must confess some schadenfreude as certain crypto shills and charlatans get some well-deserved comeuppance.

181130_BTC_1YR_Chart
Source: WorldCoinIndex.com

I’ve written about crypto on several occasions on this blog. While I’ve enjoyed following the space from a distance, I’ve never put real dollars on the line. As I wrote last year in my Bubble Logic post, I just can’t get my head around how to judge when the stuff is cheap or expensive.

Are cryptocurrencies actually worth anything? If so, what are they worth?

I took a stab at this myself not too long ago. It was a useful exercise although it did not exactly end with concrete results. So despite having learned even more about blockchain and cryptocurrencies in the meantime, I remain stuck.

How am I supposed to invest in something that I cannot value?

Now, there is a pragmatic solution I have not really discussed (also mentioned by one of Patrick’s interviewees). That is, you can simply look at cryptocurrencies as call options (or, if you prefer less financial jargon, as lottery tickets). Viewed through the lens of portfolio construction this is far and away the best way of approaching the problem given the dramatic skew in the distribution of potential returns. Max downside is 100% of the original investment. And max upside is what? A 1000x gain? More? That is a pretty attractive option.

Yet it still doesn’t sit right with me. It feels too much like gambling. Which isn’t the worst thing in the world. I enjoy the occasional trip to the casino. However, conflating investing and gambling does not seem like a real answer. In fact it seems like bubble logic: gamble a little so you won’t miss out and regret it.

I wrestle with the same dilemma today.

On the one hand, the narrative around crypto has definitely shifted. It’s gotten extremely negative. I’d say it’s bordering on capitulation. If valuing this stuff were as straightforward as valuing stocks, it would be time to go bargain hunting.

Unfortunately, valuing crypto is not as straightforward as valuing stocks. You don’t have cash flows to look at. You don’t have hard assets to look at. All you’ve got is supply and demand.

For what it’s worth, I don’t believe Bitcoin is a zero. Bitcoin is ultimately a faith-based asset. It has value to the extent other people believe it has value. There’s probably always going to be at least some subset of the population that believes Bitcoin has value. But as a potential investor, I have to suss out whether the size and enthusiasm of that faith community translate to a price of $0.001, $1,000,0000, or something else entirely. Then I have to assign probabilities to those outcomes. That’s simply not something I’m able to do with any real confidence.

That said, I’m not ready to write all crypto off as an investment fad or fraud.

I’m interested in applications for distributed ledgers that aren’t built on a narrative of “get rich or die tryin’.”

I’m interested in crypto (and Bitcoin specifically) as a potential financial hedge against kleptocracy and economic mismanagement (China, Zimbabwe, Venezuela).

I’m interested in crypto’s potential to democratize and decentralize the issuance and trading of securities that can be valued using traditional means.

I do think crypto is here to stay, in some form or fashion. But I’m still not prepared to make financial bets on those outcomes.

Futures Did Not Crash The Bitcoin Price

Longtime readers know I am largely a crypto skeptic. Specifically I am one of those annoying the-principles-underlying-crypto-are-undeniably-transformational-but-I-am-skeptical-of-the-investability-today people. However, there is one crypto myth I cannot really abide and that is the myth that the start of futures trading is responsible for the crypto drawdown that started in January 2018.

I first wrote about this issue of Bitcoin futures here.

But this isn’t that complicated. The reality is that BTC futures volumes are low. Like really low in comparison to volumes for BTC overall. Below is the data for BTC:

BTC_Trading_Volume
Source: data.bitcoinity.org

And here is the data from CME Group for its contract (note: multiply by 5 because each CME contract is for 5 BTC):

CME_BTC_Futures_Volume
Source: CME Grou

Let’s double that to account for the fact that CBOE offers its own Bitcoin futures. Even then you are talking about maybe 30,000 BTC worth of total volume. I struggle to believe these meager volumes are pushing the market around.

More importantly, just because I sell a BTC futures contract does not mean the spot price of BTC automatically drops.

Someone has got to push the sell button in the spot market for that to happen. My selling of BTC futures does not in and of itself compel anyone to sell spot BTC. It may encourage someone to to come in and take a position based on how my order impacts the term structure of BTC futures in relation to the spot price. But that is a very different proposition from “I am short Bitcoin futures so now the spot market is falling.”

Now maybe there is data out there beyond someone lining up dates that shows a clear causal relationship between the BTC selloff and the start of futures trading, but I have yet to see it (if you have such data please get in touch).

Otherwise, repeat after me: correlation is not causation.

Blood In The Water

I was reading a cryptocurrency report from Goldman Sachs this morning and stumbled upon the following chart:

ICO_vs_Venture_Capital_GS
Source: Goldman Sachs

Now, put those dates in the context of the Bitcoin price action (which I think is a fair approximation of investor appetite for cryptos more generally):

ICO_vs_Venture_BTC_Price_Chart
Source: Bloomberg / coindesk

This speaks to a corollary of The Golden Rule:* The market supplieth what investors doth demand. If people are willing to throw billions of dollars at crypto lottery tickets, you can bet they will find an ample supply of coins and tokens to invest in.

Another, perhaps more intuitive way of thinking about this is that “easy” money attracts “investors” like blood attracts sharks. The sharks come swimming, and if there is enough blood in the water a feeding frenzy will ensue.

This description from Wikipedia is rather evocative:

In ecology, a feeding frenzy occurs when predators are overwhelmed by the amount of prey available. For example, a large school of fish can cause nearby sharks, such as the lemon shark, to enter into a feeding frenzy. This can cause the sharks to go wild, biting anything that moves, including each other or anything else within biting range. Another functional explanation for feeding frenzy is competition amongst predators.

In boring old non-tokenized finance, this dynamic drives the credit cycle. Suppliers of capital get good deals when capital is scarce. They get crap deals when capital is plentiful. When capital is plentiful, and investors are overly trusting, capital ends up in the hands of miscreants and value destroyers (though admittedly, many value destroyers are well-intentioned). In fact, driven wild by greed and vying for deal flow, investors compete aggressively to offer capital on favorable terms to miscreants and value destroyers.

What kind of deal do you suppose you are getting when you exchange cold hard cash for a token with no protective covenants, that gives you no claim on equity or future cash flows, and which may not even exist yet?

1024px-White_shark_(Carcharodon_carcharias)_scavenging_on_whale_carcass_-_journal.pone.0060797.g004-A
Source: Wikipedia

* The Golden Rule: He who hath the gold, maketh the rules.

Every time you want to give someone pushing cryptocurrency the benefit of the doubt, remember this video

As it stands, LFIN has a market cap of about $6.5bn. Average trading volume is 4.5 million shares per day. For perspective, that is nearly twice the market capitalization of aerospace manufacturer Embraer, which does $6bn or so in revenue per year.

We have entered a new phase of cryptomania. This is the part where retail investors start bidding up the prices of anything even tangentially associated with cryptocurrencies, and fraudulent penny stock operators steal from them.

There is blood in the water. The sharks have sensed it. Now comes the feeding frenzy.

Please, please, please. If you are interested in this stuff, stop and think before you buy. Better yet, consult with a trusted financial advisor. Do not become an investing statistic.

No one is looking out for you. That may be painful to hear, but it is true. The SEC is always slow in catching these things and anyway you will never recover your losses even if the scammer is prosecuted. Many of your fellow crypto enthusiasts are incredibly naive about the pervasiveness of financial fraud, particularly in the world of microcap stocks. Do not give penny stock operators the benefit of the doubt.

 

A Winner’s Curse

I have been having some interesting conversations recently regarding the latest trials and travails of cryptocurrency investors. The issue many of them are facing is what to do now having made returns of 5x, 10x, or more.

Do you let it ride and shoot for 1000x?

Do you lock in your profits now?

Something else?

In traditional markets, such as equity and fixed income, fundamental analysis helps with these issues. If you own Proctor & Gamble (PG) stock, and one day PG falls 50% for no reason other than that traders are bouncing the stock price around, you either: a) do nothing, or b) buy more. Although the market price has plummeted, there is no change in the intrinsic value of what you own (a slice of PG cash flows). In this case your valuation anchors you on what is important (intrinsic value) instead of the noise (the change in market price).

The challenge with cryptocurrency is that there is no intrinsic value for you to anchor on–at least not in the conventional sense. Holding forever and collecting your cash flows is not an option. There are no cash flows to collect. All you’ve got are supply and demand, and supply and demand are notoriously fickle over short time periods.

I have a pet theory that despite the meteoric rise in the price of Bitcoin, the average investor return is much, much lower. This would be consistent with investor behavior in traditional financial markets:

Morningstar_Investor_Returns.PNG

Of the municipal bond category, Morningstar’s Russ Kinnell wrote:

It’s surprising that the rather stable muni-bond fund group could be so misused, but it has been going on for a while. The problem here is that there are very risk-averse investors and a sector with scary headlines. The good news rarely makes headlines. Rather, investors hear about Puerto Rico’s crushing debt and Meredith Whitney’s ill-informed doomsday call. Those news events spurred muni investors to sell, which led to a drop in muni-bond prices and a spike in yields. Thus, they created a buying opportunity just as investors were fleeing. This speaks to the downside of trying to time the market and the benefit of staying focused on the long term.

Some Thoughts On Bitcoin Futures

I am increasingly involved in discussions about how futures trading will impact the spot price of Bitcoin. While I am far from a Bitcoin bull, I have attacked the notion that futures trading will somehow trigger a major correction in spot Bitcoin prices. This post will explain why.

First things first.

This is an intellectual exercise. It is not an investment recommendation. Do not under any circumstances make any decisions with real money (crypto or fiat) based on what you read here. See also my disclaimer at right. If you are serious about putting money into cryptocurrency, do yourself a big favor and consult with a professional advisor who can provide guidance based on your unique circumstances.

Also, if you are not familiar with futures terminology, you are going to have to bone up on the following:

  • Futures
  • Term Structure of Futures
  • Contango
  • Backwardation
  • Futures Arbitrage

Khan Academy has a series of videos that looks decent. I simply don’t have the time to post a comprehensive introduction to futures on this blog. And frankly, if you are not willing to invest some time learning about markets and investing, you probably shouldn’t be spending time reading about digital lottery tickets in the first place.

Now, if you can explain to me why there is no arbitrage opportunity available on a 1-year Bitcoin forward priced at $12,600 with spot Bitcoin at $12,000, assuming a riskfree interest rate of 5%, you will follow my argument.

Why Bitcoin Futures Trading Will Not Trigger A Selloff

Whether the addition of futures trading will be bullish or bearish for Bitcoin depends entirely on the marginal trader of Bitcoin futures. The bear case assumes the market for Bitcoin futures will be dominated by hedgers and short speculators, and that this in turn will exert downward pressure on spot Bitcoin prices.

I disagree for two reasons:

First, market sentiment is euphoric. While there are certainly Bitcoin bears out there, it is difficult to imagine that they will dominate in futures trading. More likely futures will be viewed as a cheap way to get (leveraged) exposure to Bitcoin without the custody issues associated with owning Bitcoin outright in the spot market. I simply do not believe a bunch of professional traders are going to come out of the woodwork to short an asset with no intrinsic value, that people feel justified owning at $10 or $400,000. As a directional short Bitcoin is potentially lethal. Doubly so due to the leverage embedded in futures trading.

Thus, the term structure of Bitcoin futures is likely to be contango. Other than volatility and uncertainty there isn’t much reason for Bitcoin futures to trade in backwardation. If the spot market were wavering there might be an argument otherwise. But as noted above the spot market is euphoric. Therefore, futures traders looking for arbitrage opportunities will most likely be shorting longer dated Bitcoin futures and buying spot Bitcoin as a hedge (the goal being to earn roll yield with no directional exposure to Bitcoin prices). This argues for upward pressure on Bitcoin prices in the short term.

In order for futures trading to pressure spot Bitcoin downward, the term structure of Bitcoin futures will have to backwardate. This will encourage arbitrageurs to sell Bitcoin in the spot market and go long Bitcoin futures, putting downward pressure on spot Bitcoin prices.

What would cause the Bitcoin futures curve to backwardate? The Bitcoin narrative would have to break. Apologies in advance to enthusiasts but Bitcoin doesn’t trade on fundamentals right now. It trades on momentum (a.k.a sentiment). Skilled short sellers are not going to put big positions on unless the narrative breaks and sentiment turns. Otherwise they are going to get squeezed. Hard.

As equity short seller Marc Cohodes puts it:

I never, ever, ever get involved in what I would call open-ended situations. . . . I have avoided pie-in-the-sky names. To use an analogy, I’m not interested in climbing into a tree and wrestling the jaguar out of the tree. I’m interested in someone shooting the jaguar out of the tree, and then I will go cut the thing apart once it hits the ground. Instead of open-ended situations, I like to short complete pieces of garbage with fraudulent management and horrifically bad balance sheets. I look for change, I look for ‘if this goes away tomorrow will anyone miss them’?

The Dumbest Friend Test

Conceptually, cycles might be the most important thing in finance and economics. There are lots of cycles in finance. Probably the most important of these is the credit cycle. If you would like a fun and easy-to-follow primer on the credit cycle you should watch this video from Ray Dalio:

Anyway cycles are pervasive in financial markets and in my view it is as important to watch qualitative indicators as quantitative indicators to mark a cycle’s progress. As an example, I was recently in a meeting with a successful investment manager who said “it was not time” to short stocks again (the last time he shorted stocks heavily was in the early 2000s as the technology bubble collapsed). I asked him what would indicate “it was time” to short again. “When clients are calling me with stock tips,” he said.

I am fascinated by the cryptocurrency phenomenon partly because I have not seen a market run really, really hot since I have been investing (though I sure have seen some faddish silliness). People talk about the S&P 500 being overvalued these days but the S&P 500 has got nothing on crypto when it comes to sheer investor euphoria.

So I propose a simple qualitative test to help determine whether a market is running really, really hot. Ask yourself: what is my dumbest friend doing? If your dumbest friend is “easily” making money hand over fist it is probably safe to say that market is running hot. To illustrate here is Simon Black via Zero Hedge:

I vividly remember having a conversation several years ago with a woman about her real estate investments in the United States.

It must have been around 2005 or 2006… the peak of the property bubble.

She was a psychologist from somewhere in the midwest, telling me about how she was flipping off-plan condominiums in Florida.

Basically she would put money down to secure a condo unit in a building before it broke ground, then sell her contract to someone else at a higher price when the building was closer to completion.

I remember as she told me this story she was practically cackling at how quickly and easily she was doubling and tripling her money, and at one point said, “It is just soooo easy for me.”

Those words stuck.

I remember thinking, “Investing isn’t supposed to be easy. There’s supposed to be risk and hard work involved.”

But she wasn’t alone. Legions of amateur investors were piling into the market doing exactly the same thing.

Everyone seemed to be flipping condos. And everyone seemed to be making money.

It didn’t add up.

I remember one investor explaining to me how he would flip his condo contract to someone else when the building was 30% complete. Then that buyer would flip the contract to another investor when the building was 60% complete. Then another sale when the building was 80% complete, etc.

“But who is the person at the end of the line?” I asked. “Someone has to eventually live in all of these condos and be willing to pay the highest price.”

“Oh there will ALWAYS be plenty of people who will live here,” he told me.