I have been writing about Bitcoin and Cryptocurrencies for over a year now. The jump in prices in 2017 has been staggering, an order of magnitude. Now, with crypto between half and three-quarters of a trillion USD, the question in everyone’s mind is the same. Is it a bubble? What should I do about it?
I don’t have the answer and no one has. We are looking at an unprecedented phenomenon. It will be easy to explain in hindsight but right now we are completely at a loss to predict the future. There are two compelling and competing explanations out there about what is happening. They are making testable predictions that lead to diametrically opposed advice. The two theories are the bubble and the adoption curve.
Nasdaq Bubble and burst. Source: FedPrimeRate
The Bubble: Internet Boom all over again
The Bubble is the most widely spread explanation. It says this has happened before, many times. A new asset class is created, it starts to rise fueled by speculation and at some point, everyone buys into the game. Fear of missing out takes the best of caution and more and more people start to invest. The scarcity of the asset class drives high apparent valuations that are not real, but rather just predicated on the transaction prices of the few people that are selling vs. the crowd trying to get in. First, it is just the techies, then the financiers jump in, then the broader public and then there is no one left to jump in and prices collapse. Afterwards, the technology takes its time to develop and a small part of the asset class becomes very valuable over time.
The first bubble of this kind was the famous Tulipmania in 16th century Holland, then there was the South Sea Bubble, the 1929 stock market peak, the go-go years in the 1960s, the internet boom in the late 1990s and several real estate bubbles, the latest finishing with the 2008 crash. It is pure human mass psychology and begets stock phrases like “prices can never fall”, “this time is different” or a “we have reached a permanently high plateau of valuation”.
The facts are also consistent with the explanation, but with a much more radical speed and depth to it compared to other bubbles. The NASDAQ 1990s bubble took around a decade to form with an x11 price increase in the period from the ~500 trough in October 1990 to its ~5000 peak in February 2000. The crypto craze has done much more just during 2017, going from a ~20 billion valuation at the beginning of 2017 to a ~600 billion valuation at the end of the year. Approximately an x30 during 2017.
As more and more people have gotten into crypto prices have skyrocketed, leading to more people to get into crypto. Most people are buying and holding crypto, so there is scarcity to enter the asset class, a very small door to enter Bitcoin that bids prices ever upward. In the western world, we are living the start of the “financiers” and “everyone else” phase, with still plenty of people left to enter the cryptocurrency craze. However, in Korea, China or Japan we have been in the “everyone else” phase for a while, with governments deeply concerned about the speculation’s impact on their elderly or young.
If the bubble theory is correct there are three questions worth answering: When? How much? and How long? When will the crash come? Is what all speculators are thinking about, impossible to answer as it depends on crowd psychology. The Rockefeller anecdote about selling all his stocks when a shoeshine boy gave him a stock tip thus avoiding the 1929 crash seems a good warning sign. In some countries, taxi drivers are already recommending bitcoin investment, which could be a modern-day equivalent. How much will it collapse? Is another great question. The NASDAQ bubble collapsed to ~1200-1500 (-80%) twice, once in September 2002 and another one in February 2009. Of course, cryptocurrencies have no bottom at all, as there is almost no intrinsic value behind them, while the NASDAQ had real companies with real earnings. How long could it take to recover? The NASDAQ only confidently recouped its peak and went beyond last year, 17 years after the 2000 peak. This puts into perspective how much risk there really is. This is how long the internet’s real value took to catch up with its hype, even if there has obviously been a lot of real value. Blockchain will be a game-changing technology, but real applications are still few and far between.
4 famous S-curves. Source: Quora
The S-Curve: A New World of Value
Of course, there is an alternative explanation to the Bubble, the Adoption Curve (or S curve given its shape). The adoption curve is very widespread among starry-eyed crypto enthusiasts. It has also precedent. Eternal September is September 1993, when internet usage started growing significantly thanks to AOL (that is the bottom of the S) and it has only grown exponentially since. Of course, once the whole of the world uses the internet growth flattens (the top of the S) and it stops at that permanently high plateau.
Adoption curves or S-curves are prevalent in the adoption of technology, and for the most part have been tried and true ways of predicting technology adoption. Initial adoption is slow (bottom of the S) with innovators and enthusiasts, once the majority comes in it grows fast (slope of the S), finally the last laggards take a long time to adopt as they are anti-technology (top of the S). TVs, Trains, Electricity, Cars, and many other technologies can be explained with the S curve.
The rationale behind the S curve for cryptocurrencies is assuming that Crypto is a new asset class that is being adopted, not a stock or bond that is being subjected to an irrational euphoria. It took a long time to get started (~9 years until ~20 billion market cap) but now it is in the explosion phase and it will continue to grow until it flattens out once it reaches saturation. Where does it flatten will depend on what percentage does crypto attain as an asset class. Total wealth in the world is ~250-300 trillion USD depending on the estimates. So we are now at approximately 0.2% penetration, if it gets to 1% we still have an x5 run and if it gets to 10% we still have an x50 run, to close to $1 million Bitcoin.
The Adoption Curve has a number of important questions to be considered: How? What? and Which? How much penetration? Will it be 0.1%, 1% or 10% of the wealth? Depending on what you believe there is a big difference in potential. Real Estate is ~60% of the total wealth while Hedge Funds are 1%. What path will it take to the final penetration? S curves are about usage, not value. So a crash or correction could be consistent with it as long as usage and ownership continue to grow. Which cryptocurrencies will be used in the long term? Are Bitcoin and Ethereum Webvan and Pets.com or Amazon and Google? Crypto might be 10% of the wealth and you might still lose everything if you choose the wrong cryptocurrencies. Choosing between Friendster and Facebook is easy in hindsight, but very hard in advance.
So what should I do?
Don’t invest more than you are willing to lose, diversify and hedge your bets are always good paths to follow if you feel you don’t have an edge over others. It hurts when you hedge and miss the bull run, but it hurts more when you plunge in and lose what you cannot afford to lose. 2% of your assets or one month’s salary will be substantial but not take you to bankruptcy in most situations. Go beyond that at your peril.
The bar for beating the cryptomarkets is really high. People who are really investing in cryptocurrencies are dedicating a significant amount of their time to them, doing things like participating in Slack groups, trying out every new token out there and talking to founders. If you are not doing that you don’t have an edge and will be probably better off with a diversified portfolio and limited exposure.