Bursting Bitcoin Bubble?

Author: David R. Kotok, Post Date: July 6, 2018

Fundstrat Daily reports that “YTD, the crypto market is down -60.7%” as of July 2.

We have been asked again about Bitcoin and “bubbles” following the recent gyrations and the plunge. “Should I buy it?” asked a reader.

First, we offer the required disclosure: We don’t own any cryptocurrency in any Cumberland managed account. And we don’t own any derivative or other form of crypto. We have avoided the group. We don’t see crypto as a deep-enough and mature-enough assemblage of tokens to qualify as an asset class – yet. That assessment may change at some point but not likely soon.

Nick Colas and Jessica Rabe have been tracking Bitcoin for a while. They write about it from time to time. See http://datatrekresearch.com.

“We’ve been tracking Bitcoin wallet growth and Google search term volumes… as the carnage has unfolded. Our repeated message in these pages: the former is growing only slowly, and the latter is in outright decline. Bitcoin is ultimately a technology, and without incremental adoption growth it has a tough row to hoe.”

Later in their research they add the following warning: “To be clear: we’re not calling a bottom on Bitcoin, but its complete decoupling from stocks may be one sign of a washout [s]ince it now resembles the time before anyone but computer nerds really cared about it.”

Thank you, Datatrek, for keeping us up to date.

Readers may recall that in previous writings we argued that the world wants the use of crypto and security of blockchain linkage in a secret transaction. Illegal use is one reason. Privacy is another. So is having a wealth-hoarding mechanism that cannot be confiscated if the owner has to flee. As Fundstrat Daily noted (on July 2), “When comparing Bitcoin to other major asset classes (stocks, bonds, hedge funds, oil and gold), Bitcoin has the highest correlation to Gold (4.4%) and the lowest correlation to S&P 500 (-15.2%).”

We also see the eventual rollout of credible asset-backed crypto as an evolution in progress. Many gold-backed tokens are in the works or are in the start-up phase of issuance. That activity is mostly outside the US. We think it will expand and will intensify once the Venezuelan selling of gold has run its course. For more information about gold-backed crypto, see Goldscape’s weekly blog and guide at http://www.goldscape.net.

Note that Russia and China are continuously buying gold, according to official reports. Also note that a Sharia-approved, gold-backed crypto called OneGram (https://onegram.org/whitepaper) has launched in the Arab world. (This link is provided so readers can see this evolutionary development in crypto. It is not an endorsement.)

In sum, crypto is not over, though the Bitcoin bubble, having burst, may yet have more deflating to do.

The bursting of bubbles has a long history in finance and economics. That means the making of those bubbles is equally long in history. For a great recitation of bubble history see Charles MacKay’s famous classic, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (https://www.amazon.com/Extraordinary-Popular-Delusions-Madness-Crowds/dp/1539849589/ or find the PDF online.)

Commodities have bubbles. Silver, gold, copper and oil are examples.

Real estate has bubbles – housing, shopping centers, offices, the Florida land boom a century ago. The Florida condo boom today may become a future bubble.

Stock market bubbles are renowned –  bowling alley stocks, casinos, tech stocks, home builders, banks, savings and loans. From tulips to Trump’s Taj Mahal, the history of bubbles is littered with casualties.

Could FAANMG be the current stock market bubble? Is the hotel, leisure, cruise ship sector about to become a bubble, too?

Note that the bursting of a bubble doesn’t mean the selloff goes to zero. When the Nasdaq bubble burst 18 years ago, the Nasdaq lost two thirds of its value from peak to trough, but it didn’t go to zero. Some of the start-up companies that traded at price/fantasy ratios went to zero. Similarly, some start-up crypto ventures are now at zero.

In the end, markets clear to reasonable values, and the range of those reasonable values includes zero if the value is worthless.

Some have argued that Bitcoin’s rise was tied to stock market success and that the cryptocurrency’s subsequent decline portends a stock market crash. We’re not so sure of that linkage. We agree with the Datatrek conclusion: Despite occasionally looking like a barometer for systematic risk appetite, there continues to be no proof that Bitcoin’s price presages where the S&P 500 may go in the near term.”

We’re a lot more worried about the consequences of a trade war than we are about Bitcoin. We think the US economy is peaking in growth rate in Q2. The Trump-Navarro policy and an escalating trade war are already starting to bite. Ask Harley-Davidson. Ask a soybean farmer. Ask a Maine lobsterman. This is only the beginning.

We have some cash reserve. We took a defensive position in consumer staples. We favor small and midcap and domestic US versus international. We sold the overweight tech exposure.

David R. Kotok
Chairman & Chief Investment Officer
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