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MV Weekly Market Flash: Our 2018 Investment Thesis

January 19, 2018

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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We will be publishing and distributing our Annual Outlook next week, a 24-page opus reflecting not only our analysis of the quotidian variables likely to be at play in the economy over the coming twelve months, but also a commentary on today’s world in a larger historical context. Meanwhile, we will use the opportunity of this week’s regular commentary to share with you the executive summary from the forthcoming Outlook, to give you an advance look of what you will read in further detail next week.

• “Moderate growth, low inflation, improving labor market”: this would have been a reasonable way to characterize US economic trends in 2013. And in 2014, 2015 and 2016. So it was not exactly an earth-shaking surprise when 2017 delivered…yes, moderate growth, low inflation and a still-improving labor market, if the latter slowed down just a bit in net new job creation. Tracking the macroeconomy has become something akin to watching daily episodes of Seinfeld. Not much of any consequence ever happens, and every now and then some amusing diversion appears to briefly engage one’s attention. Try as we might to unearth some new piece of information suggesting the approaching end of this placid state of affairs, we cannot. The data say what the data say. 2018, for the moment, looks set to deliver more of the same.

• The key difference between 2017 and earlier years in this recovery cycle was that the rest of the developed world came on board. Organic demand and consumer confidence perked up in the Eurozone, Britain managed to at least temporarily forestall a reckoning with the consequences of Brexit, Japan stayed positive while ex-Japan Asia Pacific countries did just fine. China, meanwhile, met its growth benchmarks by initially going back to the tried and true mix of debt-sourced spending on infrastructure and property. Beijing reversed course midyear, though, with a concerted program to reduce borrowing and recommit to economic rebalancing (this coincided with a further consolidation of power by President Xi Jinping). Elsewhere in emerging Asia and beyond, concerns about looming trade wars faded and domestic assets, including long-beleaguered currencies, perked up for a winner of a year. Again – while there are plenty of geopolitical variables that could form into tangible threats at any time – the basic macroeconomic variables appear stable. Markets ignored geopolitics last year, we expect them to do the same in the year ahead.

• Calendar-gazers are filling up the airwaves with the observation that the current recovery – from July 2009 to the present – is one of the longest on record. If we manage to avoid a recession between now and May, the current growth cycle will move ahead of that of 1961-70 as the second-longest, trailing only the ten years of good times from 1991 to 2001. To those nervously ticking off elapsed calendar days we offer two ripostes. First, markets and economies don’t pay attention to calendars, which are entirely a human construct. Second, there are potentially valid reasons why the current uptrend could go on for longer. From 2009 to 2014, arguably the main force behind continued growth was the Fed and its quantitative easing mechanics that flooded the world with money. Only more recently has the growth started to look more traditional – more like actual improvements in business and consumer sentiment begetting a virtuous cycle of increased supply feeding increased demand. If anything, the perky demand trends we see today more resemble those of an early than of a late stage in the cycle. The uniqueness of that multi-year experiment in unorthodox monetary policy may make comparisons with other growth periods less meaningful.

• So if the default assumption is that 2018 will be a year of very few changes to the presiding macroeconomic trends, what alternative scenarios could upend the base case? The key X-factor, we believe, is the one that nobody from Fed governors to that fellow holding court at the end of the bar completely understands; namely, the curious absence of inflation. The inflation rate has fallen short of the Fed’s explicit target of 2 percent throughout the entire recovery to date (when excluding the volatile categories of energy and foodstuffs). This despite the dramatic fall in the unemployment rate from 10 percent at its peak to just 4.1 percent today. The economic models built over the decades following the Second World War baked in the fundamental assumption of a trade-off between inflation and employment: be prepared to sacrifice one in pursuit of the other. That assumption has not held up at all in recent years. But before pronouncing last rites on the Phillips Curve, we again draw your attention to our observation in the previous bullet point: the kind of growth one normally sees early in a recovery cycle may only now be showing up. If so, then a sudden surge of higher than expected inflation would not be entirely implausible.

• The second alternative scenario that could disrupt the smooth sailing of most capital markets asset classes would be, perhaps, the other end of the spectrum from a growth-fueled resurgence of inflation. The Fed intends to raise rates again this year – three times if the stated expectations of the FOMC’s voting members are to be believed – and to begin winding down the balance sheet that grew to $4.5 trillion over the course of the QE years. These intentions reflect a confidence that the economy is fully ready to stand on its own two feet – which confidence, of course, proceeds from those same steady macro trends we described a few bullet points ago. But there is still a chance, and not necessarily a small one, that today’s bubbly sentiment is ephemeral and will dissipate once the crutch of monetary policy is finally and conclusively removed. Specifically, not one of the three structural drivers of long-term growth – population, labor force participation and productivity – are demonstrably stronger now than they were two years ago when we devoted some number of pages in our Annual Outlook to the concept of secular stagnation. There may be less to the current growth uptick than meets the eye. If so, a Fed misstep on the pace of unwinding easy money – too much, too soon – could be the trigger that boots the Goldilocks economy to the exit door.

• What both those alternative scenarios – an unexpected inflation surge and a Fed policy fumble – have in common is the potential to wreak havoc on credit markets. From an asset markets perspective, credit markets hold the key to how virtually any asset class – debt, equity or alternative – will perform. Here’s why. The risk-free rate – in general practice the yield on intermediate / long Treasury notes – is employed in just about every standard asset valuation model. All else being equal, an increase in interest rates has the effect of decreasing the present value of future cash flows. Asset managers will reprice their models if reality outstrips expectations about yields. A likely ripple effect resulting from a Treasury rate repricing would be widened risk spreads (affecting, for example, corporate investment grade and high yield bonds), a pullback in equity prices and a commensurate uptick in volatility. Whether the riskier conditions persist would be situation-specific, but there would very likely be at least some damage done.

• Again, we view these as alternative scenarios to be a more benign base case. Even if one of the other were to come to pass, though, it would not necessarily start the clock on a countdown to the end of this long bull market. For that to occur, we believe one of three events would have to emerge: a full-blown recession (which is different in nature from a periodic surge in inflation), a crisis such as the implosion of the financial system that led to the 2008 crash, or the outbreak of an actual hot war somewhere in the world that significantly involved the US and/or other large powers. The risk of any of these things happening in 2018 is not zero, but we would ascribe a probability of less than 25 percent to any of them.

• US equity valuations are stretched, particularly for the large cap growth segment of the total market that has consistently outperformed over the past several years. Relying on relative valuations alone would potentially lead investors to other areas, like Europe or emerging markets, that still have some catching up to do even after a strong performance in 2017. In the long run valuations matter – there is no coherent way to view a share price as anything other than the present value of a series of future cash flows. In the short run, valuations don’t always matter. Relative geographic performance in 2018 will be subject to other influences, not least of which will be the direction of the US dollar.

• The dollar was one of the big surprise stories of 2017. Long before equity shares in financial institutions or resource companies snapped out of their “reflation-infrastructure trade” myopia, the US currency had done a U-turn from its rapid post-election ascent. The dollar fell by nearly 10 percent against a basket of other major currencies last year, and that soft trend has continued thus far into 2018. Currency strength was a major force driving performance for developed and emerging market equities and debt last year. Whether a reprise of that trade is in store for the year ahead depends – again – on that tricky combination of alternative economic scenarios. If US interest rates rise substantially, with the ECB and the BoJ at the same time proceeding more cautiously, then a stronger dollar would be a rational expectation as investors pursue higher yields. That outcome is not set in stone, however. Major foreign investors – most notably China – may look to diversify their foreign exchange assets if their perception of US risk changes, which would, all else being equal, have a negative effect on the dollar. 

• Commodities may stand on the other side of the dollar’s fortunes. A weaker dollar makes commodities more affordable in other currencies; that, along with the return of strong organic demand, may supply a tailwind to a range of energy and industrial commodities. But oil, which has recently surged to its highest levels in three years, remains vulnerable to the prospect of increased shale production in the US. As with currencies, there are many factors at play that could work either for or against key commodity classes.

• In conclusion, we could sum up the essence of our views thus: Things Don’t Change, Until They Do. The benign tailwinds of moderate, steady global growth will not last forever. Neither we nor anyone else can point with certainty to the date when the sea change happens. What we can do is pay close attention to the things that matter more. Farmers know how to sense an approaching storm: the rustle of leaves, slight changes in the sky’s color. In the capital marketplace, those rustling leaves are likely to be found in the bond market, from which a broader asset repricing potentially springs forth. Pay attention to bonds in 2018.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: Exuberance and Edginess

January 12, 2018

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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The S&P 500 has appreciated 3.6 percent in price terms in the first eight days of trading this year. It seems highly unlikely that the index will match this pace for the year’s remaining 242 trading days, so it’s reasonable to wonder what’s going to happen next. It’s always a fool’s errand to predict the timing and magnitude of future price movements; for clues, though, one’s best bet would probably be to follow the bond market. Amid all the exuberance in equities, there is a palpable edginess in the once staid world of fixed income. That edginess was on full display for a few hours Wednesday morning. A rumor floated out that China’s monetary authorities (who also happen to be the world’s principal consumers of US Treasury debt) were considering scaling back their purchases of US sovereigns, presumably as a cautionary move to diversify the composition of their foreign exchange reserves. Bond yields spiked immediately, and the 10-year yield shot up perilously close to last year’s high mark of 2.63 percent. That’s also the 10-year’s peak yield since the crazy days of 2013’s “taper tantrum” – remember those good times? The chart below shows the 10-year yield trend over the past five years. 

At the Mercy of Supply and Demand

Wednesday’s mini-panic dissipated soon enough; the 10-year yield fell back and remains, as we close out the week, around 5 to 8 basis points below that 2.63 percent threshold (a handful of bond pros out there believe markets will all go haywire if that threshold is breached, for reasons with which we don’t necessarily agree). The Chinese put out an anodyne denial of any intentions to scale back Treasury purchases. The S&P 500, which Wednesday morning futures indicated could suffer a meaningful pullback, briskly resumed its winning ways. And all the while volatility has remained in the fetal position which has been its custom for the last year.

But that hair-trigger reaction to the China rumor underscored just how antsy the bond market is right now, and how exposed it is to the basic laws of supply and demand. Bear in mind that intermediate and long term bond prices are subject to many variables, while short term bonds tend to much more closely track the Fed. One of the key drivers keeping yields in check for the past several years has been robust demand from overseas – robust enough to make up for the reduction in demand at home when the Fed ended its quantitative easing program. If international investors turn sour on US credit – for whatever reason, be it inflationary concerns, a bearish outlook on the dollar or even jitters over our chaotic politics – that has the potential to push yields well past the notional 2.63 percent ceiling. A subsequent move towards 3 percent would not be out of the question.

Visions of 1994 Dancing In Their Heads

The bond market angst has its own mantra: “Remember 1994!” That, of course, was the year the Greenspan Fed surprised the markets with an unexpectedly aggressive interest rate policy, starting with a rate hike nobody was anticipating in February of that year. Investors will remember 1994 as being a particularly roller-coaster one for stocks, as the surprise rate hikes caught an ebullient bull market off guard. The chart below illustrates the volatile peaks and valleys experienced by the S&P 500 that year.

Now, the conventional wisdom in 2018 is that the Fed will do its utmost to avoid the kind of surprises the Greenspan Fed engineered over the course of 1994 (which included a surprise 50 basis point hike in the middle of the year). But investors are also cognizant of the reality that there are new faces populating the Open Market Commission, which of course will feature a new chair in the person of Jerome Powell. All else being equal, the new Fed is likely to proceed cautiously and not risk unnerving markets with a policy surprise. But all else may not be equal, particularly if we get that inflationary surprise we’ve been discussing in a number of these weekly commentaries. Then, a new Fed trying to get its sea legs may face the urgency of making decisions amid a tempest not of its own making.

We’ve had some reasonably benign price numbers come out this week: core producer and consumer prices largely within expectations. Bond investors appear relieved – yields have been fairly muted yesterday and today even while equities keep up their frenetic go-go dance routine. But there is not much complacency behind the surface calm.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: Bomb Cyclones and Melt-Ups, Hello 2018!

January 5, 2018

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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Sometimes the New Year starts off with a genteel slowness, allowing folks to ease their way back into the normal routine of things after the holidays. Sometimes, though, the New Year accelerates from zero to eighty in the space of barely a day. 2018 seems a likely candidate for that latter description. Not that any of the headline events thus far appear much different from those that dominated 2017 -- crazy weather, even crazier politics and a stock market that seems to only know how to go one way -- this is continuity, not change. It’s the tempo that’s different -- more frenetic, as if a marathon runner suddenly broke into a 100 meter sprint pace. Heaven help us if we have this much breaking news to digest for each of the next 51 weeks.

Let the Good Times Roll

The nascent economic headlines of 2018 could be summed up with a single folksy refrain: “and the skies are not cloudy all day.” Business confidence indicators are close to decades-long highs, global GDP is predicted to come in around 3.7 percent, and US corporate earnings are positioned for a year of double-digit growth. The first job numbers out this morning were a bit slow on payroll gains, but wage growth stayed predictably on-trend at 2.5 percent.

Perhaps more significant than earnings, which represent the company’s bottom line net profit, is the outlook for top-line sales. After languishing for years at near-flat levels, sales for S&P 500 companies this year are estimated to grow in mid-to-high single digits. Sales are in many ways a more useful economic measure than earnings, as they are less affected by all the arcane accounting gimmicks that pile up as one goes down each line of the income statement. Strong sales suggest that global demand is back in a meaningful way. Most importantly for investors, sales and earnings growth can provide a steady tailwind for continued gains in share prices.

The Market’s Post-QE Life

Is that rosy economic and earnings picture strong enough to withstand the final coda on supportive monetary policy? So far, so good -- the Fed has managed to wind down QE and raise rates a few times without upsetting any apple carts. Investors will be watching the final acts of monetary stimulus play out in several venues this year. While the Fed plans to continue with rate hikes and to get on with reducing its balance sheet, the ECB will need to provide clarity on timing for winding down QE, and even Japan is expected to start applying the brakes on its expansive embrace of the Japanese Government Bond market.

Assuming that the overall macro/earnings picture doesn’t change much from what the numbers tell us today, we do not see any particular reason why an orderly winding down of global monetary stimulus should be disruptive to financial markets. The caveat to this, as we have discussed on numerous occasions, is that a sudden resurgence of inflation in wages and consumer prices could pressure the Fed to take more dramatic action, which would likely result in a radical repricing of bonds and, by extension, most risk asset classes.

The Dollar Conundrum

One asset that has not fared well thus far this year is the world’s reserve currency. The US dollar fell against most of its major trading currency partners this week, sending the euro back up over $1.20 while the pound sterling and Aussie dollar also rallied. Investors appear curiously bearish on the greenback. Strong corporate earnings and expected higher bond yields from Fed action should make dollar-denominated assets attractive. There does not appear to be a single compelling narrative to explain dollar weakness, with opinions varying from uncertain domestic politics ahead of the November midterm elections to a vague sense of “better opportunities elsewhere.”

We do not necessarily share the bearish consensus on the dollar. Washington shenanigans, for all their train wreck-like “must-look” qualities, are likely to have little impact on actual economic activity. As for “elsewhere” -- well, there are plenty of risks where those other opportunities may lie. Europe’s optimistic headlines aside, there are plenty of challenges ahead both economic and political for the currency union. China is once again intent on reining in the highly leveraged sectors of the economy that it had to turn to again last year for hitting GDP growth targets. And the world trade picture is anything but assured in a world wrestling with still-potent nationalist-populist sentiments.

Watch the Numbers, Not the Pundits

All that being said, we are not quite ready to join the growing chorus of Cassandras in pundit-land warning that the bubble is nigh. Equity valuations are stretched, no doubt about it. Bargains are hard to come by. But a bubble will only truly form if share prices accelerate much faster than underlying earnings. In other words, the sprint we have seen in share gains from January 2 to today is most likely unsustainable, but a measured pace of growth over the coming months is achievable. If investors get too carried away by animal spirits and the January melt-up continues, we could expect a reversal to potentially follow. But if the larger economics & earnings picture hasn’t changed, we would expect any such reversal to be short and not indicative of a more prolonged reversal.

One way or the other, it’s likely to be an interesting year, probably at times for better and at times for worse.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: People Are Calendar-centric; Markets Are Not

December 29, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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So, it’s that time of year again. Those endless “year in review” digests, the “10 best songs/books/episodes/tweets of 2017” listicles, the prognostications about what 2018 has in store. As if anyone actually knows. Yet, despite the fatuousness of the Old Year / New Year content factory, we absorb it all nonetheless, because we align the pace of our lives to the metronome of the calendar. The 365 days bookended by January 1 and December 31 are inherently no different than any other random sequential span of days. Yet we endow them with special meaning. How many investors know how their portfolios performed from, say, May 7 2015 to May 6, 2016? Some particularly assiduous types, perhaps, but not many! But how that mix of assets performed over the 12 months ended 31 December – well, to that particular performance metric attention must be paid.

683 Days and Who Cares

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with ordering our lives around the calendar. After all, that annual portfolio performance number does factor into something very real, namely the taxes on interest, dividends and capital gains to be paid by April 15. The problem with our calendar-centricness comes when we overplay the importance of these arbitrary dates in the context of asset market trends. 2017 was a good year for US equities. So was 2016 and for that matter so were 2013 and 2014 (2015 was so-so). There is a tendency to think, as one year ends and another begins, that some new dynamic must be at hand: some confluence of factors that will lend their distinct imprimatur to 2018. Nowhere do we see this tendency more pronounced – particularly this long into a bull run – than in people’s expectations about the arrival of the next reversal.

On February 11, 2016, the S&P 500 had retreated 14.2 percent from its previous all-time high reached on May 21, 2015 -- an elapsed time of 266 days. In between that high and low point, the blue chip index experienced another correction, falling by 12.4 percent from that May 21 high to October 25 (the market recovered again before falling in that subsequent Q1 2016 pullback). By popular convention, a “correction” represents a pullback of 10 percent or more from a previous high.

Here at MVF, we have our own metric of defining a meaningful pullback / recovery event: a retreat of more than 5 percent from a previous high, followed by a recovery of at least 5 percent from the low. We make note of this because it has been 683 days since the last 5 percent-plus pullback (corresponding to that 2/11/16 event). Now, 683 days is a long time. A very long time. Longer, in fact, than any other elapsed number of calendar days between two pullbacks of 5 percent or more in the S&P 500 since the end of the Second World War (the previous record being 593 days between December 18, 1957 and August 3, 1959). We came close – the S&P 500 fell about 4.8 percent from its previous high just before last year’s election. But close doesn’t count; the record stands. If we wake up on the morning of February 11, 2018 having not experienced a pullback of 5 percent or more from 2690 (the last high point on 12/18/17) then a full two years will have elapsed without a meaningful reversal in the market’s fortunes.

Pullbacks Don’t Need Reasons…

The question is, should anyone care that the current stretch of calm waters is the longest in postwar history? The answer is no, but the answer requires establishing the difference between a pullback (which can happen any time and often for no apparent reason at all) and a bear market (which tends to happen for specific reasons, is structural in nature and is also very infrequent). Perhaps the best illustration of this is the extremely brief, but nonetheless “meaningful,” pullback the market experienced in October 2014. The S&P 500 fell about 7.4 percent over a period of just less than a month from late September to early October (in reality, most of the carnage happened in a very brief few days leading up to the October 15 floor). And then it was over, and nobody quite knew what had happened. There was a brief “flash crash” in Treasury yields, there were some disconcerting headlines about the Ebola disease, and there was a freak-out of very short duration. And then it was over and back to business as usual.

…Bear Markets Do Need Reasons

That 2014 freak-out was largely due to chance – a random confluence of events that just happened, on that particular calendar week, to engender a brief market squall. It is also largely a matter of chance that the market didn’t pull back by more than 5 percent in late October 2016 (before the election), and it is largely a matter of chance that none of the various X-factors that bubbled up over the course of 2017 managed to form a vortex of disruption strong enough to pull down asset prices. In other words, that 683 day record from the last meaningful pullback event is due more to chance than to some unique set of circumstances. Another squall similar to the Ebola frenzy could also break out at any time, also largely due to chance.

Bear markets are different. The difference between the market crash of 2008 and that Ebola pullback wasn’t just a difference in magnitude, but in character. The 2008 event came along with an economic recession, which for its part came about on account of a systemic financial crisis that threatened to disrupt everything from bond markets to corporate payroll direct deposits. The textbook bear market, which ran from 1968 to 1982, came alongside the US economy’s running out of gas after its breakneck pace in the 1950s and 1960s. The high inflation, high interest rates and lackluster growth throughout much of the 1970s supplied plenty of reason for investors to avoid or dramatically reduce exposure to common stocks and bonds, in favor of real assets like precious metals and fossil fuels.

As this calendar year turns, we see very few signs of the kind of economic or financial unrest that could metastasize into a full-fledged bear market. That’s not to say that everything is rosy, and you can count on us to cast a cold eye over the particulars of the global landscape in our Annual Outlook next month. But the key features of that landscape – low inflation, moderate growth in output and stable labor markets – do not appear positioned for any kind of major sea change. Corporate earnings look set to continue to grow in the high single or low double digits, on average. We suggest keeping this in mind if you wake up one day and find your favorite stock market index pulling back by a few percent. Remember the Ebola freak-out. Remember that these things happen largely by chance. And remember that markets don’t march to the beat of the calendar.

Happy New Year to you and yours.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: Frothing at the Bit(coin)

December 22, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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At least tulips were pretty to look at, on 17th century Amsterdam streets. Pets.com actually facilitated the sale of real products in its millennial heyday (at a steep loss, sure, but still). Was gold really 300 percent more glittery in January 1980 than it was in January 1979? Who knows, but, you, know, gold! Where there’s a bubble, there’s always something that at one time made sense, long before triple- or quadruple-digit annual returns turned the “thing” from obscure novelty to popular get-rich-quick sensation.

So what is the “thing” about so-called crypto-currencies and their most visible public face, bitcoin, which at the end of November was worth more than 1,700 percent of its value at the beginning of 2017? The crypto-currency phenomenon appears to be one of the only viable newsworthy events that can compete with Trump’s tweets for air time as this oddest of years finally approaches its end. It’s not our cup of tea, but as commentators on all things investment markets, we would be remiss by not giving the crypto-craze at least one column’s worth of consideration.

Creation Myths

Bitcoin has been around for a scant nine years, presciently coming into the world around the same time that financial markets were falling apart in the great market crash of 2008. A mysterious figure going by the name of Satoshi Nakamoto (whose actual identity remains a mystery today) posted an arcane description of the protocols for a decentralized financial ledger technology onto an obscure mailing list for techies with a libertarian bent. The technology, called blockchain, is what bitcoin runs on much in the way that all websites run on the decentralized technology protocols that govern the Internet. Initially, bitcoins were an object of interest for only two groups of users: computer programmers, who earned rewards for solving complex programming issues (“mining” bitcoins), and shadowy denizens of the “dark web” of illegal drug traffickers and the like, who were attracted to the opaque features of blockchain through which they could trade and deal anonymously.

The Price of Everything…

Clearly, crypto-currencies’ days of nerdy and shady obscurity are long gone. They are now, for better or worse, in the process of transitioning to something resembling a mainstream asset class. This week, bitcoin futures began trading on the Chicago Board of Options Exchange (CBOE) and are due to launch on CBOE’s longstanding rival, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME). A handful of large financial institutions are pushing the SEC for approval to launch bitcoin ETFs so that all the world can join in the fun. In a bit of sideline humor, the first ETF application earlier this year was submitted by none other than the Winklevoss twins, of Facebook notoriety. That application was denied. Fans hope that endowing the nascent crypto-currencies with the respectability of established platforms and institutions will facilitate efficient price discovery, expand the participant base and encourage liquidity.

…The Value of Nothing

Price efficiency and liquidity are noble aims, but they do not solve the fundamental question anyone planning to take a punt on crypto-currencies should ask: what exactly are they, and how should they be valued? Clearly, crypto-currencies do not bear the characteristics of either fixed income (legally binding claims to a known set of cash flows) or equities (residual nonbinding claims on company profits). They are more like commodities, perhaps, in having no intrinsic worth other than what people are willing to pay for them (bars of gold, barrels of oil and the like generate no cash flows and pay no dividends). But all commodities have specific uses in the real world, whether powering internal combustion engines or glittering from the necks of fashionable humans. Thus far, at least, there is no convincing use case for crypto-currencies outside of those obscure digital corners where they have resided to date.

The Un-currency

Moreover, to call them currencies at all is to take very generous liberties with the meaning of “currency.” A reliable currency fulfills three specific use cases: a store of value, a medium of exchange and a unit of accounting measurement. An instrument capable of rising or falling by double digits on any given trading day falls woefully short of any of these three uses. Imagine, for a moment, that you live in a world where your home mortgage is denominated in bitcoin. How thrilled would you be to have no idea whether next month’s payment obligation would be a fraction of this month’s, or greater by a magnitude of ten or more? Until and unless these use case problems are solved, bitcoin and its ilk are no more currencies than are beads or clamshells.

Gold Standard…Not

Moreover, the claim made by some that bitcoin has the potential to be a new variation of the old gold standard is ludicrous. The argument here rests on the fact of bitcoin’s scarcity: baked into the computer code it runs on is a hard limit of 21 million bitcoins that can ever be issued. Like gold, goes this argument, the scarcity makes it a durable store of value. This argument fails for two reasons. First, bitcoin itself may be limited in maximum quantity, but there are now plenty of competing crypto-currencies out there and thus potentially no limits at all. Second, what made the gold standard work was not the inherent nature of the commodity itself but the fact that one ounce of gold was always exchangeable for a fixed amount of a national currency – the British pound sterling for most of the gold standard era – so there was never a doubt as to the relationship between a yellow rock mined from the ground and the cash that facilitated activity in the real economy. Sure, you could theoretically fix the value of a single bitcoin in US dollars or euros and call it a standard – but what would be the point? 

When the Music’s Over

The most likely end to the crypto-currency craze, like those of bubbles past, will be pain for anyone left holding the bag when the music stops. But that does not mean there is no future for digital money. After all, the crash after the dot-com bubble did not arrest the rapid development of the Internet. In the case of the crypto-currencies it is the underlying technology – the blockchain distributed ledger system – that has real potential to revolutionize the world of financial payment systems. The technology is being widely studied by central banks – not as a way to decouple payment systems from national regulators, but as a way for the banks to provide better oversight to the rapidly growing marketplace for financial technology. Such oversight, of course, is radically opposite the original libertarian impulses of Satoshi Nakamoto’s protocols, which aimed instead to free money from its government monitors.

We will continue to study blockchain’s evolution, and will likely have more to say about it in future posts. As always, though, we caution our friends and clients to beware the lure of the free lunch…because it never is.

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