Bitcoin: What could possibly go wrong?

Bitcoin prices reached a new high today of $2,700 per bitcoin. What could possibly go wrong?

It’s hard to know where to start, but the parabolic arc of the bitcoin chart is one place. Spikes like this rarely end well. Here’s today’s bitcoin:

Look familiar? Here’s the Nasdaq during its halcyon days.

Of course, there are other reasons to fret about the rapid rise in value of something that has no earnings or dividends, as many of the tech wreck’s biggest failures did. One is the increasing cost of mining bitcoins. To create a Bitcoin, you have to use massive computing power to solve mathematical puzzles. The process is fairly succinctly laid out in this useful story: 

“Bitcoins are mined by getting lots of computers around the world to try and solve the same mathematical puzzle. Every ten minutes or so, someone solves the puzzle and is rewarded with some bitcoins. Then, a new puzzle is generated and the whole thing starts over again.”

The difficulty of the new puzzle — and the electrical cost of finding the answer — depends on demand. Back in May 2015, the bitcoin network ran on about 343 megawats, or enough to power about a third of the homes in San Jose, Calif. in May 2015.  Another estimate put the cost of mining one bitcoin at the same rate as running an average home for 1.57 days. (Bitcoins are granted in blocks, rather than individually).

Back then, a bitcoin was worth about $650. You can find out the current cost of mining bitcoins here.

Aside from the rising costs of mining bitcoins, there’s the theft problem. The problem with untraceable currency is that, well, it’s untraceable. Once it’s gone, it’s pretty much gone. And like many things stored on computers, bitcoins are vulnerable to hacking, as the 2014 theft of $700 million in bitcoins from Mt. Gox demonstrated.

Why invest in bitcoin? I honestly can’t imagine. If you’re thinking that government-issued money is going to go away, it’s hard to imagine bitcoin transactions in the smoking rubble of civilization. (As a friend of mine noted, it would probably be better to have a few things to trade, like food or wine). And it’s hard to imagine that governments will long tolerate alternative currencies. And bitcoin certainly doesn’t seem to be immune to bubbles. I hope you are.

Update: That was fast. Bitcoin’s down 9% today. 

Media preview

Thanks to Business Insider for the two charts, and the smart reporting.

Greetings from Lacunaville

SDSC_0368tarting in January, I’ve been writing full-time for InvestmentNews, doing a monthly column for Money magazine, and studying for the Certified Financial Planner mark. (This, apparently, is also a test of your prowess with a hand-held calculator). And I went to Africa.

The blog, as you may have noticed, has, um, languished. I’m hoping to revive it on a somewhat irregular basis, which, come to think of it, is pretty much its usual schedule.

I’ll be updating my links pages in the next week or so. In the meantime, here are some things to watch for today, as well as some things I’ve found interesting or peculiar.

This week, all eyes are on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ employment situation report, out at 8:30 a.m. Friday. But the stock market seems to be resigning itself to an interest rate hike, probably in June or July. (A later hike would give the impression of a political motivation, and the Fed generally doesn’t like to do that). The current consensus estimate for new nonfarm jobs is 158,000, according to Bloomberg, with the unemployment rate falling to 5%. (And, yes, the total unemployment rate is still high, but it’s the nonfarm payrolls number that Wall Street watches.)

Wages also seem to be firming up, and it should be interesting to see if traditional summer employers, such as ice cream vendors and lawn mowers, have a hard time finding help this year. All of these would seem to give the green light to the Fed to raise rates.

Of course, we’d be talking about a lordly fed funds rate of 0.5% to 0.75% after a Fed hike, an increase that will be promptly reflected in your credit card bill and eventually in your money market mutual fund account. For those who still watch their money fund account, the average money fund now yields 0.10%, nearly triple its rate at the start of the year.

DSC_0353The stock market typically dislikes interest-rate hikes. Higher rates mean bonds become more competitive with stocks, and increase short-term borrowing rates. On the other hand, higher short-term rates mean that companies will earn somewhat more on their cash, and that savers will earn slightly more on their cash.

The old adage about Fed rate hikes — three steps and a stumble — meant that the stock market takes the first two hikes as a sign that the economy is improving, and rallies. At the third hike, stock investors realize the Fed wants the economy to slow, and stocks sell off. Bear in mind that the adage originated when a normal fed funds rate was 4% to 5%. It would take a stairway, not a few steps, to get us back to the traditional stumble level, assuming the Fed raises rates at a quarter-point a pop.

I’m an optimist, and think that rising earnings are a good thing — in fact, the one thing that the economy desperately needs for sustained growth. Most companies, despite their complaining, have nice profit margins, good balance sheets, and plenty of cash. They might even be surprised to learn that when their employees get raises, they spend more — and even on the products their employers sell.

DSC_0488The one caveat: Stocks aren’t cheap, at least by the price-to-earnings ratio of the Standard and Poor’s 500 stock index. The current PE, based on forward earnings estimates, is 17 — a tad feverish, although nothing like the levels during the technology bubble. Nevertheless, at these levels, it’s a bit like driving a bit too fast on old tires. If the market takes a rate hike really badly, investors could find that both bond and stocks slide off the road. And in that case, having a bit of cash in a money fund might be a good safeguard.

 

The week ahead

Only two things matter in this first week of the new year: China and jobs. And China, frankly, isn’t looking too good.

The market plunged at the open Monday on news that Chinese manufacturing was far worse than Wall Street expected. The Chinese purchasing managers’ index fell to 48.2 last month, vs. 48.6 in November, it’s 10th consecutive decline. When the index is below 50, the manufacturing sector is in recession.

The Chinese stock market took one look at the numbers and promptly plunged 7% before circuit breakers kicked in. Wall Street took a sober look at the Chinese market’s reaction and promptly panicked. The Dow Jones industrial average is down 318 points, or about 1.8%, as I write this.

China takes these things seriously: So seriously that Chinese CEOs are starting to mysteriously disappear. If I were a Chinese CEO today, I’d be hastily packing my bags.

The stalling Chinese economy will weigh heavily on the U.S. market, since so many U.S. companies have been counting on China for increased sales and growth. So today, the stock market will be digesting this news, and discounting stocks across the board.

fredgraphAfter that, Wall Street will spend the rest of the week fretting about jobs. And there are all sorts of indicators to watch in the run up to Friday’s jobs report. (Which, for the record, is expected to show 200,000 new jobs in December, vs. 211,000 in November.)

  • Tuesday is motor vehicle sales, which should show fairly robust growth in what was once the nation’s largest employers. Analysts are expecting fairly robust gains in December, thanks to low gas prices and the prospects of modest raises in 2016. Another factor: The average U.S. auto is more than 11 years old. Cars age better than they used to, but there’s a lot of pent-up demand for new cars.
  • Wednesday is the ADP Employment report, which is a pretty good predictor of how the Friday jobs report will turn out. The consensus on the report, which excludes government jobs, is for 190,000 new jobs in December.
  • Thursday is the volatile weekly unemployment claims report, has ticked up to the highest levels since July, when the numbers flirted with lows unseen since the Nixon administration. Another important report is the Challenger Job Cut Report, which measures mass layoffs. Many companies choose to lay off employees just in time for the holiday season, so it should be an interesting report.

 

Golden slumbers

If you’ve ever looked at a St. Gaudens double eagle, you understand the allure of gold. Beautiful as it is, though, gold is a really bad thing to base your monetary system on.

Augustus St. Gaudens (1848-1907), was one of the premier artists of the Beaux-Arts generation whose works include the monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts regiment that stands on the Boston Common. He designed the coin at the request of president Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote to his Treasury secretary,”I think the state of our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness. Would it be possible, without asking permission of Congress, to employ a man like Saint-Gaudens to give us a coinage which would have some beauty?”

double eagleWell, St. Gaudens certainly did. The St. Gaudens double eagle, with its figure of Liberty striding in the morning sun, is a remarkable piece of numismatic art. The coin was 90% gold and 10% copper — pure gold is too soft for coinage meant to be handled by the public — and weighed nearly an ounce. Its face value was $20.

At today’s prices, discounting for the copper, a double eagle would be worth about $944. Just as a point of reference, $20 in greenbacks from 1907 would be worth $500, according to this handy inflation calculator. 

Those who sigh for the days of hard money should sigh for beautiful coinage instead. In the first place, the free market had very little to do with the gold standard: The government set the price of gold. And from 1900 through 1933, you could always cash in a $20 bill for exactly one double eagle, because that’s the price the government set. (The government raised the price to $35 during the Depression, effectively inflating the currency).

Furthermore, the supply of gold wasn’t static, either. The government could add or decrease its gold reserves through buying it on the open market, just as the Federal Reserve can now. Big gold strikes, such as in California and Alaska, could goose the gold supply and push up inflation. And one reason for the Crash of 1857 (who can forget that?) was the sinking of the S.S. Central America, which sent 30,000 pounds of gold to the bottom of the ocean.

Being on the gold standard didn’t shield the economy from financial crises: In 1907, the same year the St. Gaudens double eagle made its debut, Wall Street had one of its most severe financial meltdowns — the “Rich Man’s Panic,” which was alleviated only by J.P. Morgan strong-arming the wealthiest men in the nation to be the lenders of last resort. The stock market fell nearly 50% in just three weeks. The experience in 1907 led to the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913.

Finally, there’s just not enough gold in the world to go back to the gold standard. There are about 170,000 metric tons of gold in the world, according to the World Gold Council. That’s about 5.5 billion troy ounces, or $5.8 trillion. The U.S. economy is about $16 trillion — and we don’t own all the gold in the world. Either the price of gold would have to explode, or the economy would have to contract. And even then, we’d be at the mercy of gold producers in Russia and South Africa for our money supply.

I don’t have a particular opinion on the future price of gold, although it’s still above its average price of about $500 an ounce since 1974, when President Gerald Ford lifted all restrictions on the price of gold. I do think gold coins are pretty, though, and if you want to own gold, that might be the best reason.