Saturday, December 16, 2017

Bitcoin and the Inscrutability of Wealth

Well, it’s been about 6 months since my last Bitcoin post. I think what I wrote back in May stands up pretty well so far. Certainly the price has gone up like crazy, and my modest wager has so far paid off quite handsomely. The tendency towards the disposition effect beats in most human breasts – it is hard to continue to hold your gains as they keep rising, and psychology will push you towards wanting to cash out.

Of course, in this instance it might actually be wise to cash out now – it’s hard to know. My earlier rationale, in broad terms, was that I felt I had figured out why Bitcoin “worked”, and most people hadn’t yet – but they would in time. Well, the number of people who’ve figured out something certainly has gone up an enormous amount since then. One can disagree wildly on what exactly they’ve learned – I suspect a lot have just learned that Bitcoin will go up forever, which seems unlikely. In any case, the number of people still to figure it out has to be smaller than it was back in May. Even if Bitcoin does turn out to be valuable in the long term, this doesn’t mean it’s not facing a crash in the interim. In other words, Bitcoin might end up being Amazon, but you might also be living in the equivalent of November 1999.

I don’t know how to weight these two assessments. At the moment, the deciding factor for me is the influence of long-term vs short-term capital gains taxes. Not really knowing when to call it quits, I’m currently waiting until May or the price goes back to zero, whichever comes first.

But I have been thinking about the question of what makes things valuable, and what this portends for the future of Bitcoin.

In Patrick Wyman’s excellent “Fall of Rome” podcast series, at some point Wyman notes something very interesting about the Roman economy. In his words, the Roman economy was “monetised". This was something that distinguished it both from all the societies that had come before, and most of those that would come afterwards until at least the middle ages.

One way of thinking about monetisation is that people transacted widely in money, instead of just using a barter system. This is true, and important, but it’s not the psychologically most interesting part.

When money becomes used enough for transactions, a subtle shift takes place in terms of how people think about it.

The first step is that people start using money as a denominator of wealth when trading off economic decisions. Wyman describes how rich Roman aristocrats who owned villas and productive lands would begin to make choices based on what would maximize their amount of money – thinking about labor costs in terms of money, thinking about different crop yields and market prices in terms of money, etc.

This may seem obvious to us now, but again, that’s because we take money for granted. This process assuredly would not be so obvious if you lived in a barter economy. You can exchange a certain number of chickens for a certain number of bags of rice, or a certain number of horseshoes or whatever. To trade off the economic costs and benefits in a production process, you need to first convert everything to a given numeraire good, and then keep track of all the prices of inputs and outputs in terms of that good. But would it occur to you to arbitrarily evaluate everything on your farm in terms of horseshoes, and then keep track of horseshoe-prices for every good at each point to make sure you’re trading off things correctly? You might think it would, but I’m not nearly so sure. Yet when you’re already used to thinking in terms of money, it’s a much more natural step to take.

Once this process of trading off benefits and costs in terms of money has been going on for a while, an even more subtle transformation begins to take place, and one with wide-reaching implications. At a certain point, money stops being merely a unit of measuring wealth, and begins to be thought of as the wealth itself. In Rome, this was a quite radical shift. Because up to that point, land was the only real measure of wealth. Moreover, land was something one didn’t buy and sell, it was something that was held over generations. The idea that land might be a commodity that one bought and sold with money is yet one more idea that we take for granted that most humans in history would have viewed as crazy. Even now you see the legacy of this view, with people who think that housing wealth is somehow "real" and "reliable" in a way that other assets aren't.

And you can see that people’s willingness to hold money is radically different if they think of it as a) tokens that you can use to get stuff, vs b) the actual measure of wealth. In the former, an increase in money makes you nervous – you have to get rid of it to transfer it to the actual store of wealth or consumption. In the latter, it just makes you happy – money can always be reliably exchanged for stuff, so if you get more money, great, just hang on to it until you need to spend it.

This latter process is something that I think operates much more widely than just in money. I think something similar has been at play regarding the role of equities over the centuries. Again, nobody thinks of it now. But these days, equities are also wealth. This is opposed to equities being a series of tokens that you hold for a short period, hoping it will go up and then you can convert it into the real measure of wealth.

And this was not always the case. If you look back to 19th and even early 20th centuries, equities were mostly considered by prudent investment advisors to be “not even an investment”. Rather, they were just gambling and speculation and nonsense. Safe bonds were an investment. Real estate was an investment. Stocks, however, were speculation. And with speculative assets, you don’t want to hold them long term. You want to hold them for a bit, then ditch them. Now, it’s commonplace for people to leave their retirement assets in equities, and just plan to sell them when and if they need the money. This is what you do, when you view an asset as inherently being wealth, rather than just being a means to wealth.

The rise of “equities as wealth” has been mirrored in a massive rise in the number of equity securities. Most people don’t know it, but  the importance of equities was tiny for a lot of the 19th century. In 1815, the number of shares listed on the New York Stock Exchange was… 8. That’s right, 8, total. There were far more shares listed in Amsterdam or London around the time of the South Sea Bubble, and indeed there were more shares listed when the NYSE first got started in 1792 - the number actually declined by 1815. Partly, equities had just gone out of fashion during this whole period, after the collapse of the South Sea bubble around 1720. Bonds were the instrument of choice to trade and hold. Equities just weren’t interesting to people, and weren’t where they stored most of their wealth.

I think this kind of psychology is especially important for impacting price movements. The more people are willing to hold an asset long term, the higher its price will be, and the more stable its price will be. A willingness to hold long-term adds a large amount of permanent demand for the asset that doesn’t budge much with news. This is much more likely to result in sustained high prices than a view that any price rises should be considered as merely a sign that you have more tokens to convert to the “real wealth”, because the tokens themselves are not sufficiently reliable.

And I think something similar is playing out, to an uncertain conclusion, with Bitcoin.

To wit, people’s beliefs about the question I opened this essay with are likely to be very important for what happens next as the price of Bitcoin continues to rise. In other words, is Bitcoin inherently wealth? Or is Bitcoin merely a means to wealth? Put differently, if I hold a decent amount of Bitcoin and the price rises, do I need to convert it to some other asset? Or should I only sell it if I plan to spend the money?

There is always a question of portfolio rebalancing, but that’s not the whole issue. You will find no shortage of people who own huge real estate holdings that they lease out. To them, the real estate is wealth – if it rises in price, they don’t inherently feel the need to sell some of their properties. The question is, will the same psychology hold for Bitcoin?

In some sense, this gets to the question of “if you sold it, and you weren’t planning on spending the money, what other asset would you buy, absent a specific forecast of short term price movements in that asset?”. That other asset is what you think of as wealth. This contrast becomes especially stark if you think that selling bitcoin and putting the money in gold is a potentially sensible idea, since gold is a “safe asset”. As I’ve argued, in terms of fundamentals, Bitcoin is gold. The difference is only jewellery and psychology, with the latter being more important in my opinion. Gold has the considerable advantage that everybody has a relatively fixed idea of what it is and has a general sense that it's valuable, so it's unlikely to revert back to jewellery-only value. In addition, the big holders of it (central banks) are long-term, stable holders, so the price isn't crazily volatile. 

And strangely enough, this question is probably one of the big risks of Bitcoin today. I think the time-series here is very different from equities, where I suspect over the years people got gradually more used to holding the asset, and then viewed it as inherent wealth, which made prices and realized returns high during the latter half of the 20th century.

Instead, I suspect that many of the initial holders of Bitcoin did view it as wealth – they planned to hold it for a very long time, if not indefinitely. But I strongly suspect that most of the people who have been piling into Bitcoin in the past 6 months aren’t thinking of it the same way. They are much more likely to view it as an instrument to wealth, a way to make a quick buck in the short term. And when something is merely an instrument to wealth, add in the disposition effect and suddenly you’ve got a lot of instability baked in. People have a base view that the price will keep going up, but they also have a nervous impulse to sell, and a vague feeling that the price rise can’t last forever. That makes crash risk higher.

In other words, I think that an important metric of whether Bitcoin is ultimately likely to succeed as a long term asset is whether it is viewed as wealth on its own. Whether, in other words, people are comfortable with the idea that a large fraction of their savings is in Bitcoin, and they’ll only sell it when they need the money.

This can happen to assets where it didn’t used to be true – again, look at equities, or before that, gold coins. Will it? Your guess is as good as mine. But as the number of people still to be exposed to the idea of Bitcoin gets smaller and smaller, I suspect this will increasingly become the first-order question as to what happens next.

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