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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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US stocks rise as investors weigh strong earnings against spread of Delta variant

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Equities updates

Stocks on Wall Street edged higher on Tuesday as strong company earnings and economic data offset worries about the spread of the Delta coronavirus variant and fears over another regulatory clampdown from Beijing.

The blue-chip S&P 500 was up 0.7 per cent by mid-afternoon in New York, its best performance in more than a week. The tech-focused Nasdaq Composite climbed 0.3 per cent.

Investor sentiment was lifted by June data for US factory orders, which typically feed into estimates of gross domestic product. New orders for goods rose 1.5 per cent on the month before, well above the consensus estimate of 1 per cent.

In Europe, another wave of strong earnings results helped propel the continent’s stocks to a fresh record. The region-wide Stoxx 600 index rose 0.2 per cent after Paris-based bank Société Générale and London-listed lender Standard Chartered reported profits that beat analysts’ expectations.

London’s energy-leaning FTSE 100 index rose 0.4 per cent, aided by oil major BP, which rallied after announcing a $1.4bn share buyback programme and an increase in its dividend.

Line chart of Stoxx Europe 600 index showing Strong earnings help propel European shares to record high

On both sides of the Atlantic, earnings have been strong. More than halfway through the US reporting season, 86 per cent of companies have topped expectations on profits, while in Europe 55 per cent have outperformed so far, according to data from FactSet and Morgan Stanley.

“The continued healthy earnings outlook is a key driver of our view that the equity bull market remains on solid footing,” analysts at UBS Wealth Management wrote in a note. Such a growth rate is, however, “flattered by depressed levels in the year-ago period,” they said. “But the results are still impressive compared with pre-pandemic earnings.”

Oil slipped in a choppy session as the global benchmark Brent crude fell 0.7 per cent to $72.37 a barrel on fears that the spread of the Delta variant could depress demand for fuel.

The seven-day rolling average for new coronavirus cases in the US, the world’s largest economy, have hit nearly 85,000 from about 13,000 a month ago, according to the Financial Times coronavirus tracker. Similar trends have taken hold in other countries as well as authorities race to vaccinate larger swaths of their populations.

A log-scale line chart of seven-day rolling average of newcases showing that US coronavirus case counts rise from just over 10,000 in mid-June to nearly 100,000 by early August

In Asia, investors were again focused on regulation after Chinese state media criticised the online video gaming industry, calling it “spiritual opium”. Shares in Tencent, the Chinese internet group, fell 6 per cent before announcing it would implement new restrictions for minors on its gaming platform. NetEase and XD, two rivals, dropped 7.8 per cent and 8.1 per cent, respectively.

The Hang Seng Tech index, which includes Tencent and its peers, dropped 1.5 per cent, lagging behind the wider Hong Kong bourse, which slipped 0.2 per cent. The CSI 300 index of large Shanghai- and Shenzhen-listed stocks was flat.

Unhedged — Markets, finance and strong opinion

Robert Armstrong dissects the most important market trends and discusses how Wall Street’s best minds respond to them. Sign up here to get the newsletter sent straight to your inbox every weekday



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Why it might be good for China if foreign investors are wary

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Chinese economy updates

The writer is a finance professor at Peking University and a senior fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy

The chaos in Chinese stock markets last week was exacerbated by foreign investors selling Chinese shares, leaving Beijing’s regulators scrambling to regain their confidence while they tried to stabilise domestic markets. But if foreign funds become more cautious about investing in Chinese stocks, this may in fact be a good thing for China.

In the past two years, inflows into China have soared by more than $30bn a month. This is partly because of a $10bn-a-month increase in the country’s monthly trade surplus and a $20bn-a-month rise in financial inflows. The trend is expected to continue. Although Beijing has an excess of domestic savings, it has opened up its financial markets in recent years to unfettered foreign inflows. This is mainly to gain international prestige for those markets and to promote global use of the renminbi.

But there is a price for this prestige. As long as it refuses to reimpose capital controls — something that would undermine many years of gradual opening up — Beijing can only adjust to these inflows in three ways. Each brings its own cost that is magnified as foreign inflows increase.

One way is to allow rising foreign demand for the renminbi to push up its value. The problem, of course, is that this would undermine China’s export sector and would encourage further inflows, which would in turn push China’s huge trade surplus into deficit. If this happened, China would have to reduce the total amount of stuff it produces (and so reduce gross domestic product growth).

The second way is for China to intervene to stabilise the renminbi’s value. During the past four years China’s currency intervention has occurred not directly through the People’s Bank of China but indirectly through the state banks. They have accumulated more than $1tn of net foreign assets, mostly in the past two years.

Huge currency intervention, however, is incompatible with domestic monetary control because China must create the renminbi with which it purchases foreign currency. The consequence, as the PBoC has already warned several times this year, would be a too-rapid expansion of domestic credit and the worsening of domestic asset bubbles. 

Many readers will recognise that these are simply versions of the central bank trilemma: if China wants open capital markets, it must give up control either of the currency or of the domestic money supply. There is, however, a third way Beijing can react to these inflows, and that is by encouraging Chinese to invest more abroad, so that net inflows are reduced by higher outflows.

And this is exactly what the regulators have been trying to do. Since October of last year they have implemented a series of policies to encourage Chinese to invest more abroad, not just institutional investors and businesses but also households.

But even if these policies were successful (and so far they haven’t been), this would bring its own set of risks. In this case, foreign institutional investors bringing hot money into liquid Chinese securities are balanced by various Chinese entities investing abroad in a variety of assets for a range of purposes.

This would leave China with a classic developing-country problem: a mismatched international balance sheet. This raises the risk that foreign investors in China could suddenly exit at a time when Chinese investors are unwilling — or unable — to repatriate their foreign investments quickly enough. We’ve seen this many times before: a rickety financial system held together by the moral hazard of state support is forced to adjust to a surge in hot-money inflows, but cannot adjust quickly enough when these turn into outflows.

As long as Beijing wants to maintain open capital markets, it can only respond to inflows with some combination of the three: a disruptive appreciation in the currency, a too-rapid rise in domestic money and credit, or a risky international balance sheet. There are no other options.

That is why the current stock market turmoil may be a blessing in disguise. To the extent that it makes foreign investors more cautious about rushing into Chinese securities, it will reduce foreign hot-money inflows and so relieve pressure on the financial authorities to choose among these three bad options.

Until it substantially cleans up and transforms its financial system, in other words, China’s regulators should be more worried by too much foreign buying of its stocks and bonds than by too little.



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Square to acquire Afterpay for $29bn as ‘buy now, pay later’ booms

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Square Inc updates

Payments company Square has reached a deal to acquire Australian “buy now, pay later” provider Afterpay in a $29bn all-stock transaction that would be the largest takeover in Australian history.

Square, whose chief executive Jack Dorsey is also Twitter’s CEO, is offering Afterpay shareholders 0.375 shares of Square stock for every share they own — a 30 per cent premium based on the most recent closing prices for both companies.

Melbourne-based Afterpay allows retailers to offer customers the option of paying for products in four instalments without interest if the payments are made on time.

The deal’s size would exceed the record set by Unibail-Rodamco’s takeover of shopping centre group Westfield at an enterprise value of $24.7bn in 2017.

The transaction, which was announced in a joint statement from the companies on Monday, is expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2022.

Afterpay said its 16m users regard the service as a more responsible way to borrow than using a credit card. Merchants pay Afterpay a fixed fee, plus a percentage of each order.

The deal underscored the huge appetite for buy now, pay later providers, which have boomed during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Square and Afterpay have a shared purpose,” said Dorsey. “We built our business to make the financial system more fair, accessible, and inclusive, and Afterpay has built a trusted brand aligned with those principles.”

Adoption of buy now, pay later services had tripled by early this year compared with pre-pandemic volumes, according to data from Adobe Analytics, and were particularly popular with younger consumers.

Rivalling Afterpay is Sweden’s Klarna, which doubled its valuation in three months to $45.6bn, after receiving investment from SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2 in June. PayPal offers its own service, Pay in 4, while it was reported last month that Apple was looking to partner with Goldman Sachs to offer buy now, pay later facilities to Apple Pay users.

Steven Ng, a portfolio manager at Afterpay investor Ophir Asset Management, said the deal validated the buy, now pay later business model and could be the catalyst for mergers activity in the sector. “Given the tie-up with Square, it could kick off a round of consolidation with other payment providers where buy now, pay later becomes another payment method offered to their customers,” he said.

Over the past two years Afterpay has expanded rapidly in the US and Europe, which now account for more than three-quarters of its 16.3m active customers and a third of merchants on its platform. Afterpay said its services are used by more than 100,000 merchants across the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand as well as in the UK, France, Italy and Spain, where it is known as Clearpay.

Square intends to offer the facility to its merchants and users of its Cash App, a fast money transfer service popular with small businesses and a competitor to PayPal’s Venmo.

“It’s an expensive purchase, but the buy now, pay later market is growing very rapidly and it makes a lot of sense for Square to have a solid stake in it,” said retail analyst Neil Saunders.

“For some, especially younger generations, buy now, pay later is a favoured form of credit. Afterpay has already had some success with its US expansion, but Square will be able to accelerate that by integrating it into its platforms and payment infrastructure — that’s probably one of the justifications for the relatively toppy price tag of the deal.”

Square handled $42.8bn in payments in the second quarter, with Cash App transactions making up about 10 per cent, according to figures released on Sunday. The company posted a $204m profit on revenues of $4.7bn.

Once the acquisition is completed, Afterpay shareholders will own about 18.5 per cent of Square, the companies said. The deal has been approved by both companies’ boards of directors but will also need to be backed by Afterpay shareholders.

As part of the deal, Square will establish a secondary listing on the Australian Securities Exchange to provide Afterpay shareholders with an option to receive Square shares listed on the New York Stock Exchange or the ASX. Square may elect to pay 1 per cent of the purchase price in cash.

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