Bitcoin: Is It A Bubble Or A Good Investment?

“Examine the record of history, recollect what has happened within the
circle of your own experience, consider with attention what has been
the conduct of almost all the great unfortunate, either in private or
public life, whom you may have either read of, or heard of, or remember;
and you will find that the misfortunes of by far the greater part of them
have arisen from their not knowing when they were well, when it was
proper for them to sit still and be contented.”

—Adam Smith
The Theory of Moral Sentiments

“There is nothing so disturbing to one’s well being and judgement as to see a friend get rich”

Charles Kindleberger

In a world of low returns, increasing inequality, widespread mistrust of governments and regulatory agencies (more so since  2008), an alternative has appeared that seemingly allows anybody to get rich while giving the middle finger to the bankers, financial middlemen, central banks and non believers out there.

Of course, I am talking about the Bitcoin craze.

Some people have recently made very high returns in record time from owning Bitcoin and naturally that attracts widespread attention. Virtually everybody prefers being richer to poorer, and working less to working more…

Therefore, It Is Understandable For People To Want To Put Money Into Bitcoin…

According to wikipedia, Bitcoin is a decentralised digital currency with no intermediary (such as a bank or government) meaning transactions take place directly between users. A public ledger called the blockchain records Bitcoin transactions.

What is Bitcoin? Is it a currency, an asset, a payment mechanism or a new and easy way to speculate?

If it is a new currency, who’s to say it will stick? There are hundreds of new cryptocurrencies out there with more being created constantly. A currency needs to act as a store of value and to maintain price stability – Bitcoin is highly volatile and in a deflationary cycle in that the prices of goods are falling in relation to the rapidly increasing price, so people naturally hoard it. Why buy a car for two Bitcoins today when it may only cost one Bitcoin in a short while?

For it to be classed as an asset, there needs to be some way to value it. There are no cashflows and no way that I know of to calculate its intrinsic value, except on the basis of future price appreciation (this is speculation not investment). Advocates argue fiat currencies are backed by nothing and have no intrinsic  value – the same can be said of Bitcoin.

As a payment mechanism, how is it any better than the hundreds of alternatives? If I want to send money to any place in the world I can do that already quickly and easily.

Is Bitcoin simply a new and easy way to speculate? Bitcoin enthusiasts will counter that this is an important innovation that could have important wide ranging applications so it is still cheap…

But Is The Future Really That Easy To Predict?

It is impossible to know for sure what the future holds for any new and potentially disruptive technology.  We can however reliably estimate that for every successful major discovery such as the Internet, DNA sequencing, antibiotics, radio and so on there must have been hundreds, perhaps thousands that never got off the ground. Therefore the likelihood of success is very improbable no matter how promising things may seem at first.

This is no great insight of course…

Venture capitalists and R&D departments understand that very, very few new discoveries will ever achieve commercial success and often the successful application is nothing like that first envisaged (the history of the Post-It is a great example).

The trouble is, we only hear of the few innovations that do well (the ‘survivor bias’). This badly skews us into thinking far more innovative ideas succeed than actually do.

So how come the price has risen so much so quickly?

Explaining The Rapid Price Rise Using Narratives…

Throughout history humans have passed on important messages as stories. The human mind is built for stories, especially stories about other human beings (in the case of Bitcoin it’s human beings gambling small amounts and making spectacular easy returns).

Narratives or stories have an epidemic quality to them, they are contagious. And so it is with Bitcoin. Robert Shiller, the Nobel prize winning economist, does a pretty good job of explaining this in the the following video:

Bitcoin is a tech story and technology stocks have done well recently (Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple and so on..) so it fits into that narrative really well.

Several other factors make the Bitcoin story more contagious:

  • Mysterious story about the founder (nobody seems to know who he is or even if he exists). 
  • Conspiracy stories involving the banks, government, regulators etc. Apparently the ‘elites’ are scared of Bitcoin and want to regulate or stop it…
  • Disruption story – without working very much, earn supersize returns (15x in 2017 alone)… 
  • The story that Bitcoin has already has survived some crashes and therefore it will survive more in the future…
  • It’s complicated nature (very few understand how it actually works) lends social kudos to the believers. Bitcoin owners are smart. Ahead of the curve. Cool…
  • The early technology companies had a great story. Internet would change the world (it has) but few stopped to think how investors would fare along the way (badly). Investors paid a premium price today but the expected growth did not materialise…

These stories are spread very quickly from person to person via social media and other forms of social communication, fuelling demand even more.

Psychological And Other Factors That Have Driven Bitcoins Popularity (And Price)…

Envy jealousy – my favourite example is the ordinary guy on facebook who posts pictures of his $7m dollar Bitcoin account and asks people whether he should sell now or wait a while? Who could look at that and not feel a little bit envious? Envy/jealousy hits home even harder when friends and family are making easy money…

Anchoring – this is a well documented and scientifically established cognitive bias…
We overweigh events in the recent past and extrapolate short term trends and assume they will keep going – with Bitcoin that’s looking at recent price rises and anchoring on those, rather than thinking correctly about what tends to happen to technical innovations in general.

Scarcity – the fixed supply of Bitcoin is an argument for the continued price rises. Currently 16.7 million Bitcoin outstanding and mining will stop when total reaches 21 million in roughly 2140. More won’t be created but it has always been tempting for those in control of currency to print more of it. Bitcoin not guaranteed to be immune from this all too common and predictable evil (see book). Decent returns are also scarce in the current environment – some investors are so desperate they hand over millions without knowing where it will be invested (link).

Fear of missing out – people are making easy money and boasting about it on social media… You kick yourself for not buying in earlier… Then it keeps going up leading to more regret…

Affect heuristic is a mental shortcut that allows us to make decisions and solve problems quickly and efficiently, in which emotions —fear, pleasure, surprise, etc. —influence decisions. People generally ‘feel’ good about Bitcoin at the moment so they perceive the risks to be low and the benefits high.

Feedback loops – cool new technology… Early adopters… Price goes up. People talk about it. More people want it. Price rises… And so on (the rising price does all the marketing)… Nice video explanation:

AuthorityBitcoin futures now trade on a major exchange… Goldman Sachs is exploring a Bitcoin trading operation… Some retailers accept Bitcoin payments… It is worth reminding ourselves, many of these institutions exist to make money off people trading Bitcoin not Bitcoin itself (getting rich from selling picks and shovels to gold prospectors as opposed to prospecting themselves is a much less risky strategy…)

Confirmation bias – if you already ‘believe’ in Bitcoin then nothing I have said in this post will change your mind. You may even select some of what I have said and take that as an endorsement for Bitcoin investing. If you happen to be against, similarly you’ll look for evidence to support that belief. The trick is to try to keep an open mind and think objectively.

Scaling problem – many things work really well at small scale but fall apart when scaled. Using Bitcoin as a payment mechanism may work great for tech savvy millenials but that does not mean it will necessarily scale to the masses, given the regulations and controls that would need to be imposed.

And if you think people just don’t make important decisions without thinking things through thoroughly, it is worth reflecting that after the Brexit vote, the most popular search term on Google was “what is Brexit?

The tendencies I have listed above are deeply rooted in evolutionary psychology. They have kept us alive and helped us reproduce but in today’s world we are often led astray.

Conclusion

If I buy something and I make a lot of money did I make a good decision?

Not necessarily.

Lottery and casino winners make bad mathematical decisions (since the odds are usually clearly and heavily stacked against them) that turned out well due to luck. We do not think about all the players who also played but lost their money since they are not celebrating.

Conversely, I might have made a good decision even if I buy something and I lose money – if the odds and payoffs are clearly in my favour I should invest because more often than not I will win.

It’s impossible to come to an idea of the risks and payoffs related to Bitcoin because the following questions cannot be answered:

  • How would the Bitcoin market behave under stress. What are the future possible stresses?
  • What technologies could compete with Bitcoin?
  • What is the value of a Bitcoin (this is not the price). What is he correct valuation model? Is it robust and dependable?
  • Will Bitcoin likely still be around in 3 years? 5? 10?

The market for Bitcoin is relatively small, highly volatile and largely unregulated. It has attracted a lot of true believers and speculators. If many Bitcoin owners tried to sell at once the market will dry up and the price will crash. This is a common theme with mania’s gone by and when prices crash it is always dramatic.

As always I welcome debate. Please feel free to present your analysis. I would like to know how you think about the risks. What models you are using to think about this?

Parmdeep Vadesha

“The easiest thing of all is to deceive one’s self; for what a man wishes he generally believes to be true.” Demosthenes.

Cult Conversion Secrets And What They Can Teach Us

cults

Started in 1954 by Sun Myung Moon and sometimes referred to as a cult, the unification church has expanded throughout the world amassing huge wealth along the way. The church has been accused of using brainwashing techniques and it’s these controversial techniques, specifically related to recruitment, that I wanted to write about today (see the bottom of this blog for a link to a detailed study into unification church recruitment methods).

But We’re Investors, Why Should We Care About Psychological Manipulation?

We need to care because others are trying to manipulate us with these techniques all the time (cults are an extreme example). Understanding psychological manipulation techniques can help us avoid making foolish mistakes in every area of life, not just in investing or business.

According to Charlie Munger (billionaire vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway), the really extreme results occur when several psychological manipulation techniques are combined.

He Calls This The ‘Lollapalooza’ Effect…

Take Tupperware parties for example. Play money is given to participants for them to spend on giveaway items = reciprocation (technique 1). Participants are encouraged to share how they use products they have already purchased = commitment (technique 2). Guests watch each other buying as the party progresses = social proof (technique 3). You have been invited to the party by someone you know and like thereby making it much harder for you not to transact = liking (technique 4). Combining these techniques in the right way has resulted in many billions of dollars of revenues.

In the famous Milgram experiment, subjects were told by a lab coated supervisor to shock a stranger (played by an actor who was in on the experiment) for every incorrect answer = authority (technique 1). The shocks progressively got stronger = contrast (technique 2). The experimenter gave a false reason why the subject had to continue giving shocks = reason respecting tendency (technique 3). Having already delivered smaller shocks, the participants found it harder to stop commitment and consistency (technique 4). The awesome and shocking result of the study, was that many participants wound up doling out lethal shocks as a consequence of being manipulated by these techniques.

How Do We Relate This Back To Investment? 

Well, I have posted only two examples of many we could think of, showing how the brains of ordinarily smart sane people can be turned into mush if manipulated in the right way. In the investment world when a market is rapidly rising, for example bitcoin, then various forces combine that can lead otherwise sane people to place their hard earned capital at risk of permanent loss:

  • Envy jealousy – a friend or colleague made easy money so why shouldn’t we?
  • Liking tendency – often investments are put forward by perfectly nice likeable people who we have a hard time saying no to.
  • Deprival super reaction – the fear of missing out.
  • Social proof – lots of other people are doing it so we should too.
  • Lure of easy riches – why work long hard hours to get financially independent if an easier way seems possible?
  • Doubt avoidance tendency – the tendency to reach a decision quickly without thinking about it too much. Combines with inconsistency avoidance which is the tendency not to change ones mind once it has been made.
  • Reciprocation – having made a little money due to a rising market,  a feedback loop effect kicks in leading one to keep going.
  • Overoptimism tendency – believing the odds of continued success are much better than they really are.

So the key lesson here is to understand how powerful these techniques are and we are all vulnerable to their effects. To get ahead and avoid being manipulated by others, we must understand the limitations of our mental machinery.

Parmdeep Vadesha

P.S. If you want to learn more about how the Unification Church recruits members read the following study.

Are property flippers about to crash the property market?

ITS OFFICIAL- Flipping Property For Profit Is Back!

According to Countrywide, the estate agency, the number of speculators flipping property has reached it’s highest level in a decade.

I wanted to investigate this a bit further so I got hold of the land registry price paid data for the UK since 1995. I then isolated all the transactions for my County (Leicestershire) and discovered some interesting trends.

Before I go into the analysis, you may be thinking…

Why bother??

Because it’s really important to know the total picture since the average investor will always make the average amount of profit. When the average is high, it is easier to turn a profit, and when it is not, it is harder.  When the average is low, we need to be more wary (the same thinking apples to gambling which obviously always results in a negative average outcome for players yet lots of people still play and lose their money because they don’t understand the odds – don’t fall for the same mistake in property).

During the 2008 crisis, some mortgage lenders got burnt lending on investment properties. A number of changes came about which are still in place today, for example lenders generally will not lend on properties bought and sold within 6 months. Developers must declare all incentives given to buyers, finders fees paid and the existence of any parties in between buyer and seller such as investment companies.

A 3% stamp duty surcharge is also in place for those who own >1 property, which many flippers and landlords will fall into. Mortgage lending is more strict now too.

So with all of that in place, you would think flipping would have largely gone away, right? 

Take a look at this chart which shows a resurgence in property trading, close to the levels last seen in 2007:

Much of the property trading is occurring because properties are relatively expensive compared to yields and prices are still going up in some areas, so it makes more sense to extract the value than to hold. Low interest rates also are a factor – why sit on savings in the bank when they can be put to work in a relatively low risk leveraged property trade?

Lending is plentiful and short term commercial lenders are able to charge high fees due to high demand (the shares of Shawbrook have more than doubled in the last 12 months). These and other factors mean trading will continue as long as the market remains buoyant.

As mentioned before, some of the restrictions on lending today are due to new build flippers in the previous boom. Here we can see that new builds represented almost 30% of all properties flipped at the previous peak:

Nowadays, new builds represent only a small portion of flipped properties, perhaps due to the much restricted lending environment so that is not so much of a worry this time around.

Let’s now turn to profit per flip. It’s a crude calculation based on the difference between price paid, and price sold and does not include the cost of refurbishment. Those costs would even out over lots of transactions, so we get a decent, but not perfect picture as presented below:

This is really interesting because we can see that the best profit margins are made just before property prices take off (late 90’s to 2002 and 2012-2013). Margins also tend to drop when property prices increase, perhaps due to the entry of unsophisticated investors, making sensible purchases harder. Everyone has to accept thinner margins if they want to continue doing deals.

We are now in negative (average) margin territory, so if you are thinking of flipping, be sure to get a really good deal. I do not think property flippers will cause a crash or anything like it, but I do think it is a mistake doing a deal today where there is an expectation that prices will keep going up.

As always, drop me a line about this post with any thoughts or drop by and see us at our office in Leicester. It’s always nice to share ideas and talk about investing.

Parmdeep Vadesha