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No, bitcoin is not “the ninth-most-valuable asset in the world”

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You might have noticed that the bitcoin is . . . mooning.

No, we don’t mean that the bitcoin bros are showing their bottoms to the rest of the world (well, not literally anyway). What we mean is that bitcoin has been on a skyward trajectory ever since it climbed above $20,000 for the first time ever in mid-December, and on Wednesday morning reached an all-time-high of $35,751, according to Coindesk.

Here’s a chart showing bitcoin’s path over the past 12 months (screenshot also from Coindesk):

Pretty tasty huh? Hardly surprising, then, that there has been so much giddiness and excitement in cryptoland in recent days. And one of the things the bros seem most animated about — apart from their swelling digital fortunes and imminent lambos/Teslas — is the idea that bitcoin is now the 9th-most-valuable asset in the world.

Sounds like a nice idea, but how does this work? Well, it’s a matter of doing an easy calculation. Just like you would calculate a company’s market capitalisation by multiplying its stock price by the number of shares outstanding, with bitcoin you just multiply its price by its total “supply” of coins (ie, the number of coins that have been mined since the first one was in January 2009). Simples!

If you do that sum, you’ll see that you get to a very large number — if you take the all-time-high of $37,751 and multiply that by the bitcoin supply (roughly 18.6m) you get to just over $665bn. And, if that were accurate and representative and if you could calculate bitcoin’s value in this way, that would place it just below Tesla and Alibaba in terms of its “market value”. (On Wednesday!)

The only problem is, as you might have already guessed, that’s not accurate or representative and you cannot calculate bitcoin’s value in that way.

The idea of a “bitcoin market cap” makes no sense

The first problem is that bitcoin is not of course a company — nor even, we would argue, an asset — so working out its “market cap” is a non-starter. As some of you might remember, it was originally designed to be a currency that could be used to buy actual things! And although it fails to meet all the criteria that would make it a currency, it does have one thing in common with it: its price is underpinned by sheer faith. The difference being that with fiat currencies, that faith is effectively placed in the governments of the nation states who issue them, whereas for bitcoin, the faith is placed in . . . the hope that other people will keep having the faith. A faith in faith, if you will.

In the context of companies, the “market cap” can be thought of as loosely representing what someone would have to pay to buy out all the shareholders in order to own the company outright (though in practice the shares have often been over- or undervalued by the market, so shareholders are often offered a premium or a discount).

Companies, of course, have real-world assets with economic value. And there are ways to analyse them to work out whether they are over- or undervalued, such as price-to-earnings ratios, net profit margins, etc.

With bitcoin, the whole value proposition rests on the idea of the network. If you took away the coinholders there would be literally nothing there, and so bitcoin’s value would fall to nil. Trying to value it by talking about a “market cap” therefore makes no sense at all.

Another problem is that although 18.6m bitcoins have indeed been mined, far fewer can actually be said to be “in circulation” in any meaningful way.

For a start, it is estimated that about 20 per cent of bitcoins have been lost in various ways, never to be recovered. Then there are the so-called “whales” that hold most of the bitcoin, whose dominance of the market has risen in recent months. The top 2.8 per cent of bitcoin addresses now control 95 per cent of the supply (including many that haven’t moved any bitcoin for the past half-decade), and more than 63 per cent of the bitcoin supply hasn’t been moved for the past year, according to recent estimates.

What all this means is that real liquidity — the actual available supply of bitcoin — is very low indeed. That’s quite obvious even without knowing the stats above from the price moves — you don’t see smooth ups and downs like you might expect in other markets where the demand is coming from real supply-and-demand dynamics rather than speculation, but sudden lurches upwards and cliff-like drops.

So the idea that you can get out of your bitcoin position at any time and the market will stay intact is frankly a nonsense. And that’s why the bitcoin religion’s “HODL” mantra is so important to be upheld, of course.

Because if people start to sell, bad things might happen! And they sometimes do. The excellent crypto critic Trolly McTrollface (not his real name, if you’re curious) pointed out on Twitter that on Saturday a sale of just 150 bitcoin resulted in a 10 per cent drop in the price. As Trolly said to us over the phone:

If you can destroy the market like that in the space of seven or eight minutes, that shows there is no liquidity and no depth — nobody is there to take the other side of the trade when things start moving. You have these extreme moves because everyone is on the same side.

More than 2,000 wallets contain over 1,000 bitcoin in them. What would happen to the price if just one of those tried to unload their coins on to the market at once? It wouldn’t be pretty, we would wager.

What we call the “bitcoin price” is in fact only the price of the very small number of bitcoins that wash around the retail market, and doesn’t represent the price that 18.6m bitcoins would actually be worth, even if they were all actually available.

So the “market cap” is in this way nonsense multiplied. You times two things together that don’t reflect what they claim to — the “circulating supply” and the “price” — and voilà!

Bitcoin > Apple?

© REUTERS

In other news, remember when JPMorgan said bitcoin was a fraud (or their CEO Jamie Dimon anyway)?

Well they’ve changed their minds. As of January 4 2021, bitcoin is in fact akin to “digital gold” for millennials, according to the bank, which has a long-term price target for the cryptocurrency of . . . $146,000. (To be fair the note has been slightly over-egged by the bloomin’ MSM and the bank does also talk about a “speculative mania” having taken hold among retail investors, but still, the price target is there for all to see.)

So let’s do the math on this one! If bitcoin did reach $146,000 then its “market cap” would be . . . about $2.7tn. That would make it, on paper, the most valuable asset in the world. Bigger than Apple, Amazon or Microsoft! Who can argue with that?

Related links:
“Cryptoassets” are crashing again. Is it time to start calling them cryptoliabilities instead? — FT Alphaville
What happens when bitcoin’s market cap overtakes world GDP? — FT Alphaville





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European markets recover after tech stock fall

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European equities rebounded from falls in the previous session, when fears of a US interest rate rise sent shares tumbling in a broad decline led by technology stocks.

The Stoxx 600 index gained 1.3 per cent in early dealings, almost erasing losses incurred on Tuesday. The UK’s FTSE 100 gained 1 per cent.

Treasury secretary Janet Yellen said at an event on Tuesday that rock-bottom US interest rates might have to rise to stop the rapidly recovering economy overheating, causing markets to fall.

Yellen then clarified her remarks later in the day, saying she did not think there was “going to be an inflationary problem” and that she appreciated the independence of the US central bank.

Investors had also banked gains from technology shares on Tuesday, after a strong run of quarterly results from the sector underscored how it had benefited from coronavirus lockdowns. Apple fell by 3.5 per cent, the most since January, losing another 0.2 per cent in after-hours trading.

Didier Rabattu, head of equities at Lombard Odier, said that while investors were cooling on the tech sector, a rebound in global growth at the same time as the cost of capital remained ultra-low would continue to support stock markets in general.

“I’m seeing a healthy correction [in tech] and people taking their profits,” he said. “Investors want to be much more exposed to reflation and the reopening trades, so they are getting out of lockdown stocks and into companies that benefit from normal life resuming.”

Basic materials and energy businesses were the best performers on the Stoxx on Tuesday morning, while investors continued to sell out of pandemic winners such as online food providers Delivery Hero and HelloFresh.

Futures markets signalled technology shares were unlikely to recover when New York trading begins on Wednesday. Contracts that bet on the direction of the top 100 stocks on the technology and growth-focused Nasdaq Composite added 0.2 per cent.

Those on the broader S&P 500 index, which also has a large concentration of tech shares, gained 0.3 per cent.

Franziska Palmas, of Capital Economics, argued that European stock markets would probably do better than the US counterparts this year as eurozone governments expand their vaccination drives.

“While a lot of good news on the economy appears to be already discounted in the US, we suspect this may not be the case in the eurozone,” she said.

Brent crude, the international oil benchmark, was on course for its third day of gains, adding 0.7 per cent to $69.34 a barrel.

Despite surging coronavirus infections in India, the world’s third-largest oil importer, “oil prices have moved higher on growing vaccination numbers in developed markets”, said Bank of America commodity strategist Francisco Blanch.

Government debt markets were subdued on Wednesday morning as investors weighed up Yellen’s comments with a pledge last week by Federal Reserve chair Jay Powell that the central bank was a long way from withdrawing its support for financial markets.

The yield on the 10-year US Treasury bond, which moves inversely to its price, added 0.01 of a percentage point to 1.605 per cent.

The dollar, as measured against a basket of trading partners’ currencies, gained 0.2 per cent to its strongest in almost a month.

The euro lost 0.2 per cent against the dollar to purchase $1.199.



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Yellen says rates may have to rise to prevent ‘overheating’

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US Treasury secretary Janet Yellen warned on Tuesday that interest rates may need to rise to keep the US economy from overheating, comments that exacerbated a sell-off in technology stocks.

The former Federal Reserve chair made the remarks in the context of the Biden administration’s plans for $4tn of infrastructure and welfare spending, on top of several rounds of economic stimulus because of the pandemic.

“It may be that interest rates will have to rise somewhat to make sure that our economy doesn’t overheat, even though the additional spending is relatively small relative to the size of the economy,” she said at an event hosted by The Atlantic magazine.

“So it could cause some very modest increases in interest rates to get that reallocation. But these are investments our economy needs to be competitive and to be productive.”

Investors and economists have been hotly debating whether the trillions of dollars of extra federal spending, combined with the rapid vaccination rollout, will cause a jolt of inflation. The debate comes as stimulus cheques sent to consumers contribute to a market rally that has lifted equities to record levels.

Jay Powell, the Fed chair, has said that he believes inflation will only be “transitory”; the central bank has promised to stick firmly to an ultra-loose monetary policy until substantially more progress has been made in the economic recovery.

The possibility of interest rates rising has been a risk flagged by many investors since Joe Biden’s US presidential victory, even as markets have continued to rally.

Yellen’s comments added extra pressure to shares of high-growth companies, whose future earnings look relatively less valuable when rates are higher and which had already fallen sharply early in Tuesday’s trading session. The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite was down 2.8 per cent at noon in New York, while the benchmark S&P 500 was 1.4 per cent lower.

Market interest rates, however, were little changed after the remarks, with the yield on the 10-year Treasury at 1.59 per cent. Yellen recently insisted that the US stimulus bill and plans for more massive government investment in the economy were unlikely to trigger an unhealthy jump in inflation. The US treasury secretary also expressed confidence that if inflation were to rise more persistently than expected, the Federal Reserve had the “tools” to deal with it.

Treasury secretaries generally do not opine on specific monetary policy actions, which are the purview of the Fed. The Fed chair generally refrains from commenting on US policy towards the dollar, which is considered the prerogative of the Treasury secretary.

Yellen’s comments at the Atlantic event were taped on Monday — and she used the opportunity to make the case that Biden’s spending plans would address structural deficiencies that have afflicted the US economy for a long time.

Biden plans to pump more government investment into infrastructure, child care spending, manufacturing subsidies and green energy, to tackle a swath of issues ranging from climate change to income and racial disparities.

“We’ve gone for way too long letting long-term problems fester in our economy,” she said.



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Senior Fed official in line to lead top US banking regulator

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Michael Hsu, a senior Federal Reserve official responsible for supervising the largest US banks, is poised to become the next acting comptroller of the currency, ending weeks of uncertainty over the US financial regulator’s leadership.

Janet Yellen, the US Treasury secretary, was set to tap Hsu for a senior post at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency that would pave the way for him to become acting chief, according to people familiar with the matter. The timing of the announcement could not be determined.

Hsu is currently associate director of the Fed’s bank supervision and regulation division.

He has emerged as a more technocratic choice to lead the OCC compared with other possible choices with higher political profiles, such as Michael Barr, a professor at the University of Michigan and former Treasury official under Barack Obama who was a leading contender for the job. Some progressive Democrats have also been pushing for Mehrsa Baradaran, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, to be selected for the job.

President Joe Biden has not yet chosen anyone to permanently fill the post, which requires Senate confirmation. The White House declined to comment. Yellen’s decision to choose Hsu to lead the agency on an interim basis was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

Through his role at the Fed, Hsu has great familiarity with the health of the largest banks. The mission of the OCC, which is housed within the Treasury department, is to ensure that national banks “operate in a safe and sound manner, provide fair access to financial services, treat customers fairly, and comply with applicable laws and regulations”, according to its website.

The Biden administration is expected to take a tougher approach to financial regulation than Donald Trump’s officials, amid concerns that hefty doses of fiscal and monetary stimulus flowing through the US economy as it rebounds from the pandemic is fuelling greater risk-taking on Wall Street.

Blake Paulson, the current acting chief of the OCC, was installed by Steven Mnuchin, the former US Treasury secretary, on January 14, less than a week before he left office.



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