What does risk-off actually mean?

Today I intend to look at a subject which gets bandied about a fair bit but is not always well explained. Along the way we find that some of our regular themes and subjects are in play here. Whilst the concept of risk off may look simple we have learnt in the credit crunch era that such things rarely are as we introduce the issue of perception. One man or woman’s risk-off may seem rather risky to others. Also we have been taught that things that the finance equivalent of economics 101 would tell us are risk-free in fact are not. So let us advance cautiously.

Sovereign bond markets

There was a perception that these were risk-free although as someone who worked for many years in them I was only too aware that you could lose money in them. The bond market in my country the UK saw several solid falls in my time meaning that investors lost money. The risk-free element here was that you would always get your nominal amount back at the maturity of the UK Gilt. Although that always was something of an Ivory Tower definition as in the meantime inflation could and in the UK’s case is usually very likely to eat into the real value of your investment and foreign investors also have a currency risk. As over time the UK Pound £ has tended to depreciate then on average you would be a loser here.

At this point we see that “risk-free” was never really that anyway. Those who recall the heights of the Euro area crisis will recall the European Central Bank insisting that Greek government bonds be recorded as risk-free in banking accounts, or more specifically a risk-weighting of 0. This was something of a further swerve as the ECB with its many national treasuries is not linked to them in the way that most central banks which only deal with one are.

Be that as it may central banks have advanced the case of sovereign bonds being risk-free by the advent of the QE ( Quantitative Easing) era where they have bought them on an enormous scale. This has two main features, investors tend to be too busy congratulating themselves when large profits are made to worry much about the risk assumed. Next comes the concept of the world’s main central banks being effectively buyers of last resort for sovereign bonds and thereby providing a put option for the price. On this road we see that whilst in theory the risks have got higher in practice they may well have got lower because the central bank will not allow falls. The latter argument is reinforced by those of us who believe they cannot do so without revealing that they have not achieved the successes they claim.

Today

The thoughts above are highlighted by the fact that sovereign bond markets have been rallying strongly again over the last week or two. The risk-off theme has seen them rally in a new version of what used to be called a flight to quality. We have learnt that bonds may not be quality but that has been anaesthetised by the likely reality of central bank action. Putting this into numbers the US ten-year yield is 2.37% as I type this compared to this on the 22nd of March.

I will come to the cause of this in a moment but if we stick with the event we see that the ten-year US Treasury Note now yields 2.5%. The Trump tax cuts were supposed to drive this higher as we note that it was 3.24% in early November last year.

This type of risk-off trade has also been seen elsewhere as for example the UK ten-year Gilt yields 1.04%. This has mostly been missed in the wider debate as the UK could plainly borrow if it chose but we seem locked into a belief that borrowing is unaffordable when it is the reverse. The headliner in terms of numbers is Germany which has a ten-year bund yield of -0.11% and therefore is actually being paid to borrow all the way up to the ten-year maturity. Japan is the same although the negative yield is smaller.

Currencies

There are currencies which are perceived to be safe havens and thus see a flow of buying when fear appears. The stereotypes for this were the German Deutschmark and the Swiss Franc. In more modern times not only has the Euro taken over the role of the Deutschmark in the main but we have seen the Japanese Yen not only join the list but often be at the top of it. The present state of play is summarised by Dailyfx.com below.

The Japanese Yen’s current backstory is of course fundamental, with risk aversion stemming from increased US-China trade tensions supporting what is, after all, perhaps the quintessential anti-growth currency play.

The US Dollar has haven appeal too, of course, but the Japanese Yen is certainly beating it at present, with USD/JPY having wilted very sharply back to lows not seen since the start of February.

As they point out the picture is muddied by the fact that there are times that people go “holla dollar” or as Aloe Blacc put it.

I need a dollar dollar, a dollar is what I need
Hey hey
Well I need a dollar dollar, a dollar is what I need
Hey hey
And I said I need dollar dollar, a dollar is what I need
And if I share with you my story would you share your dollar with me
Bad times are comin’ and I reap what I don’t sow.
The other side of the coin is emerging market currencies which tend to be hit and at the moment our eyes are usually drawn to the Turkish Lira or the Argentine Peso. Hence the rumours out of Turkey yesterday that capital controls may be on the way as frankly there is not much else left to try.
The last couple of weeks has perhaps seen a new entry to the charts. What I mean by that is the way that the price of Bitcoin has been rallying and at times surging. As I type this it is above US $8000 on several exchanges which leaves us with plenty to mull as the last year or so has left us observing various crises in the new coin structure.
Comment
I have left to last the main other side of the coin which is equity markets which fall and the go lower. That is partly because of the ch-ch-changes here where even relatively small falls tend to have markets on alert for more central bank easing. This trend has been exacerbated by the way that US President  Donald Trump focuses on the stock market so much. However that does provide another argument in favour of bond markets as for example we have already seen the reverse QE programme called QT given an end date. I have written before that I would not be surprised if we saw more bond purchases by the US Federal Reserve in what would no doubt be called QE4. That could easily be sparked if the Chinese should start to sell their holdings of US Treasuries in any real size.
Thus we see that it is really only a perceived risk-off really and let me conclude by throwing in another factor. For some time individuals have seen foreign property investments as a type of risk-off trade but now we are seeing house price falls in many of the places they invested that may change. Although of course from the perspective of places like Argentina and Turkey that is small-fry and should things really light up again in the Middle-East many things will look relatively risk-free.

 

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Where next for the world of Bitcoin?

The world of Bitcoin and indeed all the other altcoins has seen quite a reversal as 2018 has progressed. The days of “free money” have gone and they have been replaced by this according to MarketWatch.

Bitcoin is breaking all sorts of records at the moment, most of them unwanted, and in a few days it will equal a milestone not matched in four years.

Not since October of 2014 has the price of bitcoin   seen four consecutive monthly declines, and a negative close for the month of November, which now seems a foregone conclusion, would match this feat having fallen every month since August, according to Dow Jones Market Data.

So a clear change although in the fast moving world of Bitcoin it is still over ten times higher than it was back then. If anything the fall seems to be picking up the pace.

After opening November above $6,500, bitcoin is down more than 40%, and since the four-month streak began on Aug. 1, the value of the world’s most famous digital currency has more than halved.

As I type this the Bitcoin price is at US $3763.7 which is down some US $282 or a bit under 7%. I note that just to add to the confusion there is also now a Bitcoin Cash. This was created by a fork out of Bitcoin.

Bitcoin cash was one of the marvels of the bitcoin bubble. It is a fork from bitcoin. A fork of a cryptocurrency takes place when someone, anyone declares that a blockchain is going to be transferred to a new set of rules and network infrastructure. ( Forbes)

It did lead to what was free money for a while.

When the fork came out, bitcoin did not fall and bitcoin cash went through the roof rising from the low hundreds to shoot quickly above $1,000. It was free money for bitcoin holders who could get their hands on their bitcoin cash by navigating the technical issues, which were mighty. ( Forbes)

But the gains were short-lived.

The central bankers revenge

From a central banking point of view the altcoin world is a disaster as they have no power to set interest-rates and no control over the total amount of it. Even worse it bypasses “the previous” and in the bull market days saw very heavy disinflation as the price of goods and services became much cheaper. At the limit it would make them be an anachronism and then irrelevant.

John Lewis of the Bank of England put it like this on the 13th of this month.

Existing private cryptocurrencies do not seriously threaten traditional monies because they are afflicted by multiple internal contradictions. They are hard to scale, are expensive to store, cumbersome to maintain, tricky for holders to liquidate, almost worthless in theory, and boxed in by their anonymity. And if newer cryptocurrencies ever emerge to solve these problems, that’s additional downside news for the value of existing ones.

There are of course issues there but being “almost worthless in theory” is a critique that could be pointed at central bank fiat currencies which also rely on an act of faith to have value. Also the bit about new companies would have applied to the proliferation of railway companies back in the day. Whereas we know that whilst many failed the railways are still with us. Those suffering commuters who use Southern Rail may wish that they didn’t but they do.

Let us look at his paradoxes or as he might have put it seven deadly sins.

The congestion paradox

But cryptocurrency platforms are different. Their costs are largely variable, their capacity is largely fixed. Like the London Underground in rush hour, crypto platforms are vulnerable to congestion: more patrons makes them *less* attractive.

The storage paradox

Each user has to maintain their own copy of the entire transactions history, so an N-fold increase in users and transactions, means an N-squared fold increase in aggregate storage needs.

The mining paradox

Rewarding miners with new units of currency for processing transactions leads to a tension between users and miners.  This crystalises in Bitcoin’s conflict over how many transactions can be processed in a block. Miners want this kept small………But users want the exact opposite: higher capacity, lower transactions costs and more liquidity, and so favour larger block sizes.

The concentration paradox

This starts in intriguing fashion.

 97% of bitcoin is estimated to be held by just 4% of addresses, and inequality rises with each block.

However this critique is also applicable to the central banking enthusiasm for higher house prices and the “wealth effects”

An asset is valued by the market price at which it changes hands. Only a fraction of the stock is actually traded at any point in time. So the price reflects the views of the marginal market participant.

You can’t all sell at once and certainly not at that price. The list below is somewhat breathtaking in the circumstances.

But for cryptos they are much larger because i)Exchanges are illiquid ii) Some players are vast relative to the market iii) There isn’t a natural balance of buyers and sellers iv) opinion is more volatile and polarised.

As central banks have sucked liquidity of out markets with their actions, for example the Japanese government bond market has often been frozen, the opening point is a bit rich. Ditto point ii) if we look at the size of central bank balance sheets and of course there was no natural balance between buyers and sellers when they surged into markets. For example some of the recent turmoil in the Italian government bond market has been caused by the “unnatural” buying of the ECB being reduced. As to the last point, well maybe, but so many things are polarised these days.

The valuation paradox

The puzzle in economic theory is why private cryptocurrencies have any value at all.

Fiat currencies anyone?

The anonymity paradox

The (greater) anonymity which cryptocurrencies offer is generally a weakness not a strength. True, it creates a core transactions demand from money launderers , tax evaders and purveyors of illicit goods> because they make funds and transactors hard to trace.

This is both true and an attempted smear. After all the recent money laundering spree undertaken in the Baltics by customers of Danske Bank seems to have been at 200 billion Euros or so much larger than the altcoin universe in total.

Of course for a central banker it needs central bankers.

 Keep a cryptocurrency far from regulated institutions and you reduce its value, because it drastically restricts the pool of willing transactors and transactions. Bring it closer to the realm of regulated financial institutions and it increases in value.

The innovation paradox

Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that the more optimistic you are about tomorrow’s cryptocurrencies, the more pessimistic you must be about the value of today’s.

Odd though that this sort of logic is not applied to forward guidance.

Expect it to be worthless in the future, and it becomes worthless now.

Comment

There is a lot to consider here and let me start by offering some sympathy for those who did this back in the day. From CNBC.

Bitcoin is in the “mania” phase, with some people even borrowing money to get in on the action, regulator Joseph Borg said. “We’ve seen mortgages being taken out to buy bitcoin. … People do credit cards, equity lines,” he said. Bitcoin has been soaring all year, starting out at $1,000 and rocketing above $19,000 on the Coinbase exchange last week. ( CNBC )

Hard to believe that was the 11th of December last year as it feels like a lifetime ago. Also yes I do feel sorry for them even though it was pretty stupid. A fortnight or so earlier we were looking at some of the issues above.

That statement is true of pretty much every price although of course some have backing via assets or demand. So often we see a marginal price used to calculate a total based on an average price that is not known………This leaves us with the issue of how Bitcoin functions as a store of money which depends on time. Today’s volatility shows that over a 24 hour period it clearly fails and yet if we extend the time period so far at least it has worked rather well as one.

As to the store of value function that still holds as early buyers have still done really rather well but more recent ones have taken a bath and a cold one at that. Looking ahead it does not look as though the market has capitulated enough to find the ground to rally, But in the background there are still flickers of good news.

Ohio appears set to become the first state to accept bitcoin for tax bills, a show of support for a technology that has garnered lots of hype but failed to gain traction as a form of payment. ( WSJ)

 

What is happening with Bitcoin?

The world of Bitcoin is ever-changing at least in price terms. As I type this then one Bitcoin would cost some US $6720 as opposed to the peak of US $19187 in October of last year. So quite a drop but we also need to note that if we go back to this time last year it was just below US $2000 albeit the rocket engines to take it higher were firing up. So in terms of it being a replacement for money the price moves over the past year make it almost impossible to think of it as a store of value although if we look further back it remains party-time for longer-term investors.

The background

This is that Bitcoin continues to come under verbal and written attack. From Financial News this morning.

Three of the world’s most respected economists have led a joint attack on bitcoin, claiming the digital currency will be “regulated into oblivion” as governments globally move to clamp down on money laundering.

So the heat is on in terms of threats.

Joseph Stiglitz, Nouriel Roubini and Kenneth Rogoff have renewed their assault on the  cryptocurrency believing it will be subject to further sharp and damaging falls as authorities crack down on criminals using Bitcoin to launder money and to avoid paying taxes.

These are familiar lines especially from Kenneth Rogoff who infamously does not like cash either. As to the title I think there are more than a few grounds to challenge this hype.

The three respected economists have renewed their assault on the cryptocurrency

Bank for International Settlements

Towards the end of June the General Manager of the BIS Augustin Carstens weighed in heavily on this issue. One particular section was breathtaking in its cheek and apparent avoidance of reality. The emphasis is mine.

Cryptocurrencies promise to replace trust in long-standing institutions, such as commercial and central banks, with trust in a new, fully decentralised system.

The trust issue is one that those in Denmark will be mulling right now. From the Financial Times last week.

The Kremlin critic investigating an alleged $230m Russian fraud is set to file a criminal complaint against Danske Bank in its home country of Denmark, accusing it of being a central player in a vast money laundering scheme.

As you can see we are shooting two birds with one stone as we note the “trust” in Danske and the fact that yet again it is a bank accused of money laundering on a grand scale or the exact opposite of the claims of Kenneth Rogoff.

Danske is under mounting pressure over the alleged money laundering. Mr Browder and local media claimed this week that the amount of transactions that flowed through the Estonian branch of Denmark’s biggest lender may have been as much as DKr53bn ($8.3bn), more than double previous estimates.

As the total market capitalisation of Bitcoin is US $141 billion it seems to lack the ability to match the banks in this area even if every Bitcoin is used for money laundering. After all Danske is only one bank and even if we just remain in the relatively small geographic area of the Baltics there seems to be a lot of money laundering going on. Here is the Baltic Times on the IMF visit to Latvia which ended at the weekend.

strong measures are necessary to restore the system’s reputation following the halt to ABLV Bank’s operations, the IMF points out. Effective implementation of anti money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) recommendations has to focus on reducing the proportion of questionable foreign deposits and the risks they pose to Latvia’s financial system.

For those wondering about ABLV I analysed its fall on the 19th of February. As to the ramifications this emerged at the end of last month according to Reuters.

Ilmars Rimsevics, a member of the European Central Bank’s policy-making governing council, was charged with soliciting and accepting a bribe, the Latvian Prosecutor General’s office said on Thursday.

This has posed two legal moral and ethical issues. Firstly there is the issue of financial crime in the Baltic based banks which presumably is why the head of ECB banking supervision Ms Nuoy has just visited Lithuania as according to domino theories it is the only one currently standing. Also it has raised the issue of how and if the law applies to central bank governors in the Euro area.

Oh and Mr.Carstens has thoughts in this area as well.

The goal should be to ensure that cryptocurrencies cannot undermine the role of central banks as trusted stewards of monetary and financial stability.

Technical Details

Hyun Song Shin has been the go to man for this sort of thing at the BIS for a while now although he does start by posing an issue for the BIS itself.

Much has already been said about how impractical cryptocurrencies are as a means of payment,
as well as the scope for fraud and other illicit activities they open up. The line from Agustín Carstens’
speech that they are a combination of a bubble, a Ponzi scheme and an environmental disaster has been
much discussed.

I thought that central banks liked bubbles! Is he really trying to tell us that they do not? The issue of the “precious” returns yet again as in spite of all the fraud issues people like this always highlight problems which are usually much smaller elsewhere.

Returning to his main points they are as follows.

One is the lack of scalability, which is about providing flexibility and capacity to function as a payment system regardless of the number of transactions.

The second problem is the lack of finality of payments. A payment being recorded in the ledger
does not guarantee that it is final and irrevocable. For cryptocurrencies, what counts as the truth is a matter
of agreement among the bookkeepers.

This bit also caught my eye.

At one point last December, the voluntary user fee
reached $57 dollars per transaction. So, if you insisted on buying a coffee for $2 with bitcoin, you would
have had to pay $57 to process the payment.

As someone who lives in central London I would like to know where you can get a coffee for US $2? More seriously Bitcoin needs to up its transactions game although if this was a bank no doubt the message would be that it is a result of its success.

Energy

This is a hotly debated topic as this from Crypto briefing highlights.

Published by the research team at CoinShares, a London-based cryptocurrency investment firm, the report argues that significant Bitcoin mining operations are principally powered by cheap renewable energy, and use roughly half the amount of energy that has been previously suggested.

According to the report, published today, the Bitcoin mining industry consumes approximately 35 TWh every year; 50% less than the 70TWh currently claimed by the Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index, which also argues that BTC mining has a carbon footprint that exceeds 32m tonnes annually. ( TWh =Terawatt Hours)

Best of luck with the idea that renewable energy is cheap! There are of course some examples but in general it is raising energy costs.

Comment

There is much to consider as we mull  whether these are just birthing pains or crippling ones? On the side of the former is the way that the establishment continues to spend so much time trying to rubbish Bitcoin. If it is so bad why bother as it will collapse of its own accord if they are right? We get nearer the truth as we note that the accusation of promoting financial crime is beyond laughable from people who promote the “precious” with their next breath. As to technology I am also reminded that the UK banks are often accused of having systems still based in the 1970s. That may or may not be true but it is true that the Bank of England did not lower Bank Rate beyond 0.5% because it was afraid of the impact on the banks. Even now according to Governor Carney it thinks they cannot take them below 0% a consequence which I think is much for the best albeit it does highlight quite a weakness in IT.

Looking ahead this is so reminiscent of the development of the railways if we look at the broader picture. They are of course still with us although there are more than a few commuters who wish that they were not if their social media output is any guide.

Money, get away
Get a good job with more pay and you’re O.K.
Money, it’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash
New car, caviar, four star daydream,
Think I’ll buy me a football team ( Pink Floyd )

 

 

 

Of Bitcoin banks and electricity consumption

This morning opens with yet more Bitcoin headlines and news. I guess it is in keeping with the times that what was so recently a raging bull market should apparently so quickly become a bear one. From Reuters.

 

Bitcoin traded at $10,968, down 3.7 percent in Asia, after a fall of 16.3 percent on Tuesday, its biggest daily decline in four months.

Just over 24 hours ago it was above US $13,000 and of course in mid-December we saw a peak of over US $19,000.  It is also important to provide some perspective as if we look back a year we see that it was below US $900. Or to put it another way over a year we have quite a bull market and over a month a bear one.

Another way of putting it is shown below.

I think the mean needs to be higher but otherwise we get an attempt to explain human investing psychology with both its flaws and glory. One facet of this which I found particularly troubling came from CNBC just over a month ago.

Bitcoin is in the “mania” phase, with some people even borrowing money to get in on the action, securities regulator Joseph Borg told CNBC on Monday.

“We’ve seen mortgages being taken out to buy bitcoin. … People do credit cards, equity lines,” said Borg, president of the North American Securities Administrators Association, a voluntary organization devoted to investor protection. Borg is also director of the Alabama Securities Commission.

If only Borg had said “resistance is futile”! But he was on the ball in two big respects in that he was warning of a problem should people borrow into a surge and also later he pointed out that “innovation always out runs regulation”. It is hard not to note that the peak we have seen so far came quite quickly.

The banks and Bitcoin

However the apparently Bitcoin friendly behaviour of the banks did not last. From the Financial Times on Saturday.

Bitcoin investors trying to channel their new fortunes into UK property are being turned away by mortgage lenders and brokers who fear breaching anti money-laundering regulations.

There was a more specific example.

One public sector worker built up a deposit of £40,000 after investing in bitcoin, said Mark Stallard, a broker and principal at House and Holiday Home Mortgages. But he said he had been unable to arrange a loan because it was hard to prove where the funds had arrived from and to link them to his client.

 

“The first mortgage lender I rang asked me what a cryptocurrency was,” Mr Stallard said.

 

“I rang two other lenders and they said they would not touch it. “When I mentioned where the money had come from there was massive reluctance to help or understand the problem. I do not believe the mortgage providers in general are ready for this issue and research tells me that a lot more people will be knocking on our doors with funds made or raised in this fashion.”

There are various issues here as for example the client could say he has made the money by gambling/investing. Of course the latter issue of investing raises the issue of whether capital gains tax is due? So perhaps that is why there is a claimed issue with where the funds arrived from. Mind you the Building Societies Association have a cheek to say the least to say this.

“There is currently no regulation of these electronic currencies, which puts them into the highest risk category in relation to money laundering. In addition, it is well known that such currencies are popular with criminals, who use them to launder the proceeds of crime.”

Apparently you can however pay off your mortgage with Bitcoin profits.

Existing borrowers who want to use their bitcoin profits to pay down mortgage debts are free to do so. Daniel Hegarty, founder of online mortgage broker Habito, said a customer recently cancelled his remortgage application before it was completed, deciding instead to pay off his whole mortgage with his money from bitcoin investments.

So there is quite an inconsistency there as I again have a wry smile at the banking sector accusing others of facilitating money laundering and being popular with criminals!

Anonymity

This is an odd one with the cryptocurrencies.I am sure many of you know more about this than me but there is a clear contradiction in what we are told. Firstly we are regularly told that the trading is anonymous and that is one of the points of the system. Fair enough. But we are also beginning to be told that financial crimes can be spotted so we simultaneously do not know what is happening but we also do?!

Electricity and power

We are getting ever more stories about the energy consumption of Bitcoin as this tweet from John Quiggin suggests.

If mining ended tomorrow, China could reduce its coal consumption by an amount comparable to its entire import of Australian thermal coal (supporting calcs to follow)

Sadly he has not yet provided the mathematics behind this but there have been plenty of other suggestions in the same vein. For example from Bloomberg last week.

Miners of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies could require up to 140 terawatt-hours of electricity in 2018, about 0.6 percent of the global total, Morgan Stanley analysts led by Nicholas Ashworth wrote in a note Wednesday. That’s more than expected power demand from electric vehicles in 2025.

There are plenty of arguments about the numbers but suddenly hydro-electric power seems to be en vogue as this from Bloomberg yesterday suggests.

A Canadian utility has already voiced enthusiasm. Hydro-Quebec has said it’s in “very advanced” talks with miners about relocating to the province and that it envisions the miners soaking up about five terawatt-hours of power annually — equivalent to about 300,000 Quebec homes — from the surplus created by the region’s hydroelectric dams.

If we move onto future power demands of which Bitcoin and the other cryptocurrencies may turn out to be significant I have a question. Are we not going to run out of electricity? My own country has been something of a shambles in providing new power generation as the ultra expensive plans for  a new nuclear point at Hinkley Point demonstrate and yet we are told this. From the BBC today.

Three-fifths of new cars must be electric by 2030 to meet greenhouse gas targets, ministers have been warned.

There have been some movements on infrastructure as for example there are now nine charging points around Battersea Power albeit they seem to be rarely actually used. But in a future where they are used a lot and that is not so inconceivable where is the electricity going to come from? It is not that there has been complete failure as for example I have just checked and wind power is currently providing over 10 GW but of course it relies on the wind blowing. It is helping in this cold snap but what if people wanted to charge their vehicles on a cold windless night? Perhaps that is when Smart Meters will really come into their own and not in a good way.

Comment

There is a lot to consider here as we mull two concepts that would have been regarded as separate only a short time ago which are Bitcoin and electricity. Here is another way of looking at it from Chris Skinner.

Part of the problem is, that all those Bitcoin miners are racing to solve the same problem, but only the miner who solves the problem first gets to actually claim the block. All the other miners lose out, and their energy goes to waste. Even with that probability, with 1 Bitcoin at roughly US$20,000, there’s plenty of incentive to try.

There is still a fair bit at US $11000. But unfortunately trying it at home will not work.

Even so, a fairly typical computer with an average type of SHA isn’t going to cut it — a recent estimate was that to mine a single Bitcoin using an average computer would take you around 1,367 years

So you would need something like Carl Sagan’s SETI project. However one way of looking at the message from Alex Hern below would be to think is Hinkley Point a way of nobbling Bitcoin?

The power consumption of bitcoin mining is purely artificial, and its equilibrium is essentially at the level where the cost of all the electricity used is equal in the long run to the value of the bitcoin granted in mining rewards.

The energy problem is simply that renewable sources of electricity are sometimes outside our control whereas things we are shutting down such as coal generation we can control. Yet the potential demands for electricity are rising with no clear plan to provide for them unless of course cold fusion finally works or we find a way of being able to store power efficiently.

 

Will the “madness and delusions” of 2017 carry on next year?

Let me open by wishing you all a very Merry Christmas. This morning has brought back an old friend in a way as the UK stock market used to regularly celebrate December with a Santa Rally and yesterday brought a move to an all time high of above 7600 for the FTSE 100 equity index.  We will see if another push higher on the last (half) trading day before Christmas happens. But in many ways equity markets have been eclipsed in 2017 in spite of their sequence of higher highs and now we have seen the icing on the cake I think.

There was a time when the Long Island Ice Tea company at least to me meant a bar in Covent Garden which was fashionable and popular. Well that is just such old era thinking now as I present this. From Bloomberg.

Long Island Iced Tea Corp. shares rose as much as 289 percent after the unprofitable Hicksville, New York-based company rebranded itself Long Blockchain Corp. It’s the latest in a near-daily phenomenon sweeping the stock market, where obscure microcap companies reorient to focus on some aspect of the mania sparked by bitcoin’s 1,500 percent rally this year.

If we look back we see that the share price had fallen from a high of US $6.68 in June to US $1.70 on the 12th of this month. Presumably the fall was caused by the losses which according to CNBC give it a share price to earnings ratio of -4.21 and a Return on Equity of 554%. Anyway from the 12th there was a minor rally which presumably came from some sort of leak of the proposed plan if plan is the right word and then boom.

Let me take you to their website.

Long Island Iced Tea Corp. (NasdaqCM: LTEA) (the “Company”), today announced that the parent company is shifting its primary corporate focus towards the exploration of and investment in opportunities that leverage the benefits of blockchain technology. …… The Company believes that emerging blockchain technologies are creating a fundamental paradigm shift across the global marketplace, with far reaching applications

I don’t know about you but the concept of ultra vires seems applicable to me here but then we get to something that rally takes me back in time to this.

a company for carrying out an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is.

That as the Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds is from Charles Mackay describing one part of the South Sea Bubble of the early 1720s. Let us now return to today.

The Company is already in the preliminary stages of evaluating specific opportunities involving blockchain technology. The discussions are only in the preliminary stages but indicate the areas of focus for the Company.

We then get some examples but then are told this.

However, the Company does not have an agreement with any of these entities for a transaction and there is no assurance that a definitive agreement with these, or any other entity, will be entered into or ultimately consummated.

But and there is always a but.

Philip Thomas, Chief Executive Officer of the Company, commented, “We view advances in blockchain technology as a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and have made the decision to pivot our business strategy in order to pursue opportunities in this evolving industry

We can at least agree that going from tea to blockchain is indeed a pivot. As to the share price well those who paid over US $9 may already be experiencing the sort of hangover the Long Island Iced Tea Bar used to give me. The actual financial position will not ease it. From Bloomberg.

Long Island Iced Tea had a net loss of $3.9 million on sales of $1.6 million in the three months ended Sept. 30. The company has lost $11.6 million on sales of $3.9 million in the first nine months of the year.

As to assets well there is this.

The company has reserved the web domain name www.longblockchain.com

Until this happened I was only vaguely aware of other developments.

Future FinTech Group Inc. — until May known as SkyPeople Juice International Holding –soared more than 215 percent after a CNBC anchor called attention to its business. The stock was up 9 percent at the time of the tweet, only to take off in what has become the norm in stocks that merely mention “fintech” or “crypto” in their names. ( Bloomberg )

This gets very potentially murky as the fear is that this sort of thing ( “media leak”) can be part of a planned process. Anyway the share price high of 8.2 has after only a couple of days been replaced by 3.25.

Bitcoin

The last few days have seen quite a decline for Bitcoin. It was only on Sunday it nearly reached US $20k at least according to Bitfinex whereas this morning it has dropped as low as US $12110. Quite where this leaves the posse of amateur investors who have piled in I am not sure but I do worry about this development.

“We’ve seen mortgages being taken out to buy bitcoin. … People do credit cards, equity lines,” said Borg, president of the North American Securities Administrators Association, a voluntary organization devoted to investor protection. Borg is also director of the Alabama Securities Commission.

Sadly Borg did not say that resistance is futile or that we will all be assimilated however he did come up with an excellent line which is that.

innovation and technology will always outrun regulation

As usual the Bitcoin price is proving to be very volatile and is now back over US $14,000 as I type this. But blockchains don’t seem quite what they were although of course it is all a question of perspective as on a monthly quarterly or annual basis Bitcoin has soared.

Comment

As we look back it has been an extraordinary year. Just as we were wondering about bubbles in house prices as well as bond and equity markets we saw Bitcoin surge past them all in this regard. As ever Lewis Carroll was way ahead of time

“you see, so many out-of-the-way things had happened lately, that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.”

Meanwhile there was some seasonal cheer for the UK economy as annual economic ( GDP) growth was revised upwards from 1.5% to 1.7%. However this was not quite so seasonal.

global growth negative in October & flat in September according to CPB: . The & half-year prediction of 3% growth in 2017 as usual now looks wild! ( @RebeccaAHarding )

I will be back in the New Year so let me wish you all a Happy New Year as well. By then I will be able to report on my rebranding on Twitter as Notayesmansecon Blockchain 🙂

 

 

Bitcoin futures trading indicates plenty of problems ahead

Last night saw a change in the Bitcoin world. This is because a Bitcoin futures contract started trading on the Chicago Board Options Exchange or CBOE. It would appear that plenty were watching as this took all of 30 minutes.

Due to heavy traffic on our website, visitors to may find that it is performing slower than usual and may at times be temporarily unavailable. All trading systems are operating normally.

The system trouble was accompanied by yet another surge in the price. From Bloomberg.

Bitcoin futures expiring in January were priced at $17,780 as of 12:57 p.m. Hong Kong time, up from an opening level of $15,000. About 2,300 contracts changed hands.

So not an enormous amount of contracts but the interest and price swings did have an impact.

Futures on the world’s most popular cryptocurrency surged as much as 25 percent during their debut session on Cboe Global Markets Inc.’s exchange, triggering two temporary trading halts meant to cool volatility. Dealers said initial volumes exceeded expectations, while traffic on Cboe’s website was so strong that it caused delays and outages. The exchange said all its trading systems were normal.

Who could possibly have forecast that lots of people would be watching? Anyway as I type this the price for the January 2018 contract is US $17640 ( up 14%)  with the volume being 2695 and the high having been US $18850.

What is the point of a futures contract?

The purpose of a futures contract is to bring trading on a particular instrument into one place. Why? Well even what are considered to be active markets may have bursts of activity followed by quiet periods which are awkward to say the least if you wish to trade in them. The impact can be boosted by the contract covering a concept rather than a particular asset as for example in bond futures where a generic is traded rather than an individual bond. So the ultimate end product of a successful futures contract is liquidity or the ability to trade consistently which benefits investors and traders as well as the exchange itself which charges fees on the trades.

It also brings into play the ability to “short” an instrument as you can sell as your opening trade whereas with ordinary trading you have to buy something before you sell it. This is much simpler than what you have to do in equity markets which is borrowing the stock so you can sell it which you have to plan and work at rather than just contacting an exchange and selling.

Obviously the exchange is at risk as prices move so you have to put up cash or margin to cover your position. When people refer to gearing on a futures contract this is one way of measuring it as if you have to put up 10% margin then if you wished you could buy  ten times as much of the instrument concerned for the same outlay. Some care is needed though as there is also variable daily margin to cover losses ( as well as lower margin if profits arise)

Success or failure comes essentially from volume and liquidity and from that flows the other factors.

How does it work?

The basis is that you have a point in time when everything has to be settled hence the concept of a January contract in the case of Bitcoin ( there are also February and March).  At that point anything outstanding is delivered for example I had a colleague some years back who had 2 potato futures contracts delivered on him and was in danger of getting more spuds than he could handle even with his barn.

Also there is a clearing house who organises and guarantees settlement. In the UK the main clearing banks back the London clearing house which back in my main trading times was seen as a big strength. Well we all make mistakes don’t we? Also the exchange is regulated.

The point for Bitcoin

In a way futures trading is a sort of coming in from the cold for Bitcoin. It gives the potential for there being one price rather than the multitude of them we currently see. That would be a clear gain and if we add in the regulated and clearing issue another potential gain is that institutional investors join the party. This would have positive impacts on volume and liquidity which would be likely to settle the price down and make it more stable.

Problems

Something has troubled me from the beginning and it is this. From the CBOE.

XBT futures are cash-settled contracts based on the Gemini’s auction price for bitcoin, denominated in U.S. dollars.

This needs to turn out to be both stable and reliable as for example the market would be damaged if there were even suspicions that there were ways of manipulating the settlement price. I do not know Gemini but their price will have to be 100% reliable and what if the overall Bitcoin price is squeezed?

Next is that one of the benefits of futures trading may not actually apply and h/t to @chigrl for raising the issue. Remember I said that allowing short selling was one of the key points of a futures contract? Well here are the rules of Interactive Brokers and the emphasis is mine.

Due to the extreme volatility of cryptocurrencies, clients will be unable to assume a short position including as part of a spread. The only time a short order will be allowed will be in the case of a roll trade that results in a long position. In addition, market orders will not be accepted.

If this is in any way widespread the whole concept of a futures contract on Bitcoin may be holed below the waterline. As I pointed out earlier the ability to sell short is if not the modus operandi a big point of having a futures market. Added to that is that there are of course plenty of risks in being long Bitcoin at current levels. Are market prices supposed to bring a balance between the risk of buying and selling?

Comment

Actually although the media seems to have mostly overlooked it there was a clear signal of the inability for at least some to short Bitcoin futures.

No wonder sellers want a premium if it is difficult or even not possible to sell unless you have already bought.  On such a road then the price may well keep singing along with Jackie Wilson.

Higher (lifting me)
Higher and higher (higher)

As someone who has spent plenty of years in such markets the apparent inability to do spreads ( trading January versus March for example) is another issue. Say there is a large buyer for January futures and a seller in March, what used to be called locals would arbitrage that out adding to liquidity. You see these markets need someone to trade with otherwise they curl up and die. Another sign of trouble can be higher fees like this from the FT earlier.

The Singapore Exchange is to increase fees as much as 10-fold for derivative trading members next year, following a recent large technology upgrade. As of January, annual fees for proprietary trading members such as big global banks with direct market access will jump from S$2,000 to as much as S$25,000 in some cases, SGX said on Monday.

Also there is the underlying issue of what is a Bitcoin and if it is suitable for a futures contract in the first place?

Some of the issues I have raised today could be fixed if not at a stroke quite easily. But they need to be done as you see once a contract gets a reputation for being illiquid then it tends to die a death. So far 2768 is not all that brilliant especially if we allow for this.

CFE is waiving all of its transaction fees for XBT futures in December 2017.>

All that is before the Merc ( CME) starts trading them too.

Oh and some are suggesting option contracts ( my old stomping ground). How would that work unless you had the ability to hedge via selling futures?

The rocky upwards ride of Bitcoin continues

One of the features of 2017 has been the extraordinary price volatility exhibited by Bitcoin. This has of course come at a time when many have been mulling exactly the reverse in equity markets although of course the current rhetoric over and from North Korea may well change that. For some perspective let us look back to the 29th of December.

“When I signed off before Christmas I ended with this.

The average price of Bitcoin across all exchanges is 910.16 USD

As you can take the boy out of the city but it is much harder to take the city out of the boy I had noted that it had been further on the move this week and now I note this.

Bid: $972.27 Ask: $972.28

So there has been a push higher and of course we are reminded of two things. The first is simply a factor of the way that we count in base ten meaning that the threshold of US $1000 is on the near horizon and the second is the Bitcoin surge of a bit more than a couple of years ago.”

Back then I pointed out two things. Firstly the chart pattern was of a “bowl” formation so that the price would need to keep rushing higher or it would end up like one of those cartoon characters who run over the edge of a cliff and briefly levitate before the inevitable happens. The next was that it was approaching the price of gold in individual units although later we looked at the fact that as an aggregate it was a long way away as there is much more gold.

What was driving things?

There were various influences. One generic was fear of what plans central banks have for fiat countries in an era of low and indeed negative interest-rates. Partly linked with this was the specific issue of demonetisation in India where some bank notes were withdrawn. Added to this was the continuing demand from wealthy Chinese to move some of their money abroad and the efforts of the authorities to block this so at times Bitcoin gets used.

The surge

Here is Fortune to bring us up to date.

Bitcoin was worth less than $590 a year ago. Then early Tuesday, the cryptocurrency surged to yet another all-time high above $3,500, as investors likely pulled their funds from the new Bitcoin spinoff, Bitcoin Cash or “Bcash,” to invest it in Bitcoin.

Bitcoin pulled back slightly by mid-day, trading at $3,430.

CNBC returned to the comparison with the price of gold although to be fair they did offer some perspective.

That’s nearly three times the price of gold, which settled at $1,262.60 an ounce, up nearly 10 percent for 2017…….That said, the gold market is worth trillions while bitcoin’s market capitalization is only about $57 billion…..Lee pointed out that the overall size of the gold market at about $7.5 trillion dwarfs that of bitcoin.

It didn’t take long from approaching the price of gold to nearly triple it did it? Bloomberg has decided to give us a comparison which will upset central bankers everywhere.

It has increased more than threefold this year, compared with a doubling in the value of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, the best performer in the S&P 500 Index.

At least they didn’t point out that it has gone up (much) more than house prices as there is only so much a central banker can take in one go! Still they were not finished with comparisons.

Here’s some other stuff you could buy for the price of one bitcoin, including but not limited to 100 22-pound boxes of Hass avocados.

 Actually that don’t impress me much to coin a phrase as a PC user who is not especially keen on living solely on avocados and facing the consequences of setting up a stall to sell them all. But we get the idea.

Splitting the atom

The cryptocurrencies have a problem around growth and change and here is the FT Alphaville view on the fork at the opening of this month.

In the next 24 hours, the trust in the bitcoin system is going to be even more severely tested than usual. The community of miners, nodes and developers is initiating a so-called hard fork which hopes to expand the network’s processing capacity, allowing it to scale more effectively. In the process bitcoin will be split in half, and two new systems will emerge.

The hope is that faith will be channelled into the newly evolved, expanded and improved chain, while the old chain will be abandoned. But anyone and everyone who has a bitcoin will via the process suddenly be endowed with two assets instead of one, with a free option to support one and render the other useless. If the effective split makes people feel twice as enriched, it’s worth asking, why they shouldn’t feel inclined to keep hold of both of them? And that too will be an option.

It would appear that investors have sold the new Bitcoin cash to buy more of the existing Bitcoin. It would be amusing if they are rejecting change wouldn’t it? On a more serious note is this how money will be created in the future? We only have a very short time frame to consider but as we stand there has been both money and wealth creation here. Perhaps the central banks are in charge after all……

The only way is up baby

Business Insider seems rather keen.

Arthur Hayes, CEO of BitMEX, a bitcoin derivative exchange, thinks SegWit marks an important milestone for bitcoin’s future.

“At long last, the solution touted to solve bitcoin’s scaling problems, Segwit, is activated,” Hayes said.

“With Segwit implemented, I believe $5,000 Bitcoin is within striking distance,” he concluded.

Comment

Let us look at the functions of money and start with a unit of account. Many people will know of Bitcoin but how many will account in it? Not much I would suggest. The price surge will mean that so far it has performed really rather well as a store of value and indeed quite an accumulator of it but we also need to note that along the way there have been sharp drops. There has been progress in it being a medium of exchange as more places accept it but it is still a very long way away from anything like universal acceptance.

However in continues to survive and in more than a few ways thrive. Fears of central banks blocking bank accounts continue to feed its growth. Frankly the rumours that Euro area bank deposits could be frozen in a banking collapse would have been cunning if started by a Bitcoin fan. There are loads of risks just like there are in any new venture but also care is needed as this from Gadfly of Bloomberg indicates.

There are also fears that big traders are having an undue influence on the price of Bitcoin, with one blogger flagging the actions of “Spoofy” — a nickname for traders who apparently place million-dollar orders without actually executing them. Bitcoin is essentially unregulated, so risks are abundant.

I love the idea that regulation has pretty much fixed risk, what could go wrong? But even more importantly many ordinary or dare I say it regulated markets are being spoofed these days and if the reports that reach me are any guide the regulators seem to have both a tin ear and a blind eye. Along that road we may well find a reality where for some Bitcoin looks rather like a safe haven although these days we need to add the caveat whatever that is?

Also finance regularly provides us with curiousities. Today’s comes from the land of the rising sun as we note that it is clearly in the firing line from North Korea and yet the Yen has strengthened through 110 versus the US Dollar.