Old Currency Versus New

According to Sir John Marks Templeton, an American-born British investor, fund manager, and philanthropist, “the only way to avoid mistakes (in investing) is not to invest—which is the biggest mistake of all. But making money in the markets can be very difficult, especially when the stock market is on the second longest bull market run in U.S. history. There have been slight pullbacks. But since March of 2009, the S&P 500 index has not yet fallen at least 20%. There aren’t many concerns over the stretched valuation of stocks and bonds at the moment.

Traditionally speaking precious metals are a good hedge against uncertainty and market turmoil. Gold is currently trading at about $1322/ounce, which is up 15% since the start of the year. How can gold and stocks be up at the same time? It may seem odd that the two asset classes are moving together because gold usually performs its best when everything else is falling apart. But one major reason investors like gold is because it’s a hedge against currencies, particularly the U.S. dollar. Historically, gold has had an inverse relationship with the dollar because a lot of investors view gold as a medium of exchange and not as a commodity. What’s also been helping gold prices is geopolitical tensions, such as the escalating situation in North Korean at the moment. Gold has been used as a currency for over 1000 years. And it’s one of those safe-haven assets that people go to in times of stress.

But in the new age of the internet investors have new alternative investment options today that their parents never had. One of the newest asset class to show up in people’s portfolios is cryptocurrencies. Using a new distributed ledger called a blockchain, Bitcoins allow users to make peer-to-peer transactions using digital currencies. No central authority or server verifies these transactions. Instead, the legitimacy of a payment is determined by the decentralized network of users itself. One promising appeal of bitcoin is the fact that there is a hard coded limit on the amount that will be generated, which is about 21 million coins. As a store of wealth this ensure that buyers don’t lose purchasing power to inflation.

Another popular crypto token is Ether, which can be used on the Ethereum platform to fuel the network. Unlike Bitcoin, Ethereum is an open software platform that enables engineers and developers to build and deploy decentralized applications. In the Ethereum blockchain instead of mining for coins, the miners have to earn their ether.

Each of the Big Four accounting firms is testing blockchain technologies in various formats. Ernst & Young has provided cryptocurrency wallets to all (Swiss) employees, installed a Bitcoin ATM in their Switzerland office, and accepts Bitcoin as payment for all its consulting services. The CEO of Ernst & Young Switzerland stated, “We don’t only want to talk about digitalization, but also actively drive this process together with our employees and our clients. It is important to us that everybody gets on board and prepares themselves for the revolution set to take place in the business world through blockchains, [to] smart contracts and digital currencies.” PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Deloitte, and KPMG are all currently testing private blockchains.

Just because cryptocurrencies have gained a lot of popularity over the last few years doesn’t mean they are for everyone. There are certainly risks associated with new technology. Earlier this month regulators in China cracked down on the cryptocurrency sector in a bid to stamp out potential financial risks. JPMorgan Chase CEO also slammed bitcoin as a ‘fraud’ that will ultimately blow up and said he would fire anyone trading bitcoin at his company because it was against their rules and ‘stupid’. “It’s worse than tulip bulbs. It won’t end well. Someone is going to get killed,” he said, referring to the tulip mania event in the early 1600s.

The price of bitcoin did drop heavily this month from about $4,800 to $3,000 before bouncing back up to $3,700 today. At this point cryptocurrencies are highly volatile and are some of the most risky assets an investor can buy. For those who want to speculate in bitcoin, ethereum or some other digital currency it’s important to not get too attached to your money. It’s recommended to not invest more than what one can afford to lose entirely.

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