There’s a good chance that you’ve heard of Bitcoin before. In fact, lately, there’s a good chance you can’t avoid hearing about it. As its price has skyrocketed over 1,000 percent in 2017, with much of those gains in just the past few months, Bitcoin has been a daily presence in financial news. Apparently, it was also a common topic at Thanksgiving tables the other week (it was at mine), considering one of the main platforms from which you can buy it saw about 100,000 accounts open around the Thanksgiving holiday. After fielding multiple questions about the cryptocurrency from clients, we decided to share our thoughts with you in this blog.
First, let us answer the question of whether you should view Bitcoin as an investment strategy: No, you should not. Bitcoin and crypto-currencies in general are an unproven concept. Sure, you can use your Bitcoin for transactions at a number of select businesses in the U.S., but at this point it is a fringe aspect of the economy, at best. And sure, the number of businesses that accept Bitcoin will grow over time as we are already witnessing. But it seems a near certainty that the U.S. government, and governments around the world, will step in with regulations, special taxes or an outright ban before Bitcoin ever really becomes mainstream. Governments don’t want a monetary system to exist in which they have no say.
These obstacles—lack of consumer adoption and potential government interference—are part of why the price of Bitcoin has been so volatile. There are periods, like we have seen in recent weeks, where the price volatility of Bitcoin is magnitudes greater than even the riskiest equity asset classes, like Emerging Markets or the Biotech sector. That degree of volatility is yet another reason why consumers aren’t rushing to buy groceries with Bitcoin and why governments would step in if they did. That type of volatility is also another reason why it’s a bad idea as an investment strategy. Not only would you put your investment goals—retirement, home purchase, etc.—at risk by investing a significant portion of your assets in Bitcoin, but you could also probably get better risk-adjusted returns elsewhere by taking on a ton of leverage (debt) and buying a more traditional asset class, like stocks. Not that that’s a smart idea, either.
Bitcoin is a bad investment strategy, but here is the plot twist: I recently bought some. Why would I, an investment professional who clearly believes Bitcoin should stay out of investment portfolios, buy any? There are a few reasons.
First, I feel comfortable buying Bitcoin because I know that the amount I bought is inconsequential to my long-term financial success. I’m not draining my savings account and my 401(k) to buy as many Bitcoin as possible. Instead, I chose an amount that, if it were completely wiped out, wouldn’t come close to affecting my lifestyle now or in the future.
Second, I bought Bitcoin knowing full and well that my decision to do so was complete speculation. I’m familiar with the severe ups and downs of the price, and I’m fine with that. Because I invested such a nominal amount, I can almost laugh it off when I see my position lose 10 percent in five minutes.
Third, I’m hedging against the minute chance that Bitcoin does take over the current monetary regime. After seeing several reports of teenagers who bought into the crypto-currency when it cost $3 per coin, I decided I didn’t want to live in a world in which these kids who can’t legally drink a beer are mega-billionaires and I’m a relative pauper. If the price of Bitcoin ever gets into the millions of dollars, I’ll at least have a stake in the game. And who’s to say it won’t go that high? It’s not a traditional investment for which modern finance has provided tools for valuation, so there’s no reference point for what one Bitcoin is even worth. It could be millions of dollars. It could be utterly worthless. No one knows, which means that if you plan on buying some like I did, you had better not stake your retirement on it. Bitcoin shouldn’t have a place in your goals-based asset allocation, but should be approached with the same attitude that you have when you buy a lottery ticket or head to a casino.