the dollar, gold and bitcoin

the dollar

The biggest influences by far in the currency markets are the large global banks. I view them as playing a very sophisticated game that looks much farther into the future than the one the typical equity person like me is involved in. One consequence is that significant changes in the economic environment often start to play out in the currency markets before spreading elsewhere.

The currency markets aren’t infallible indicators. The dollar dropped by 20% against the euro (which is not a stellar currency, either) during the first year of Trump as president. Since then the euro has been sliding back, as Europe’s internal problems–Brexit, Italy, early, very deadly arrival of the coronavirus–came to the fore.

Despite all this European ugliness, since mid-May the US dollar has been dropping, steadily and sharply, against the euro. It’s now down by about 9% against the EU currency.

How so? mostly Trump’s incompetence, I think. Europe used US medical science to control the pandemic, while Trump’s urging his supporters to flaunt medical recommendations has it raging again domestically. I don’t think the currency markets are as much concerned about the deaths as about the second round of fiscal stimulus that his bungling has made necessary and its effect on the national budget deficit/national debt.

Trump has also compounded the risk of holding Treasuries by his suggestions that the the US may choose not to repay holders he doesn’t like.

There’s no reason to think the bad news is over, either. Trump is insisting that schools reopen on schedule without pandemic safeguards–creating the worry that a third multi-trillion dollar support payment may ultimately be needed. He’s also intensified his campaign of race hatred, drawing comparisons with Hitler’s rise in the 1930s. Then, there’s the test to detect signs of dementia that he keeps mentioning–which can be seen itself as a sign of the disease he insists he is not suffering from.

implications

Currency weakness is good for exporters and bad for importers. It’s also good for the many S&P 500 companies that have foreign subsidiaries.

gold

Gold is up about 12% since mid-May. An old, but still useful, rule about the gold price is that it remains stable in the stronger of the two currencies, US$ and DM (now the euro). In other words, most of the price rise is due to the decline of the dollar. Still, there has been a small upward movement. My interpretation–and I’m about as far away from being a gold bug as one can get–is that this is more a reflection of how pricey everything else is than a genuine desire to own gold

bitcoin

Personally, I think there’s a better case for bitcoin than for gold. There’s been a sharp spike in bitcoin this week, again more, I think, a result of how expensive other things are. Were Trump to be reelected and his fracturing of the US economy to continue, I imagine bitcoin would draw a lot more interest.

Venezuela’s proposed “petro” cryptocurrency

the petro

Yesterday Venezuela began pre-sales of its petrocurrency, called the petro.  The idea is that each token the government creates will be freely exchangeable into Venezuelan bolivars at the previous day’s price of a barrel of a specified Venezuelan crude oil produced by the national oil company.  According to the Washington Post,  $735 million worth of the tokens were sold on the first day.

uses?

For people with money trapped inside Venezuela, the petro may have some utility, since it will be accepted by Caracas for any official payments.  For such potential users, the fact that the government determines the dollar/bolivar exchange rate and that a discount to the crude price will be applied are niggling worries.

perils

The wider issue, which remains unaddressed in this case, is that the spirit behind cryptocurrencies is a deep distrust of government, a strong belief that practically no ruling body will do the right thing to protect the fiscal well-being of users of its currency.

In Venezuela’s case, just look at the bolivar.  The official exchange rate says $US1 = B10.  But the actual rate, as far as I can tell, has fallen from that level over the past year or so to $US1 = B25000.

a little history

The more serious worry is that the history of commodity-backed currencies isn’t pretty.

Mexico

In the 1980s, for example a struggling Mexican government issued petrobonds.  The idea was that at maturity the holder could choose to receive either $1000 or the value of a specified number of barrels of Mexican state-produced crude.  Unfortunately for holders, Mexico reneged on the oil-price link.  My recollection (this happened pre-internet so I can’t find confirmation online) is the Mexico also declined to make the return of principal on time.

the US

The fate of gold-backed securities around the world during the 1930s isn’t so hot, either.  The US, for example, massively devalued (through depreciation of the gold exchange rate) the gold-backed currency it issued.  It also basically banned the private ownership of physical gold and forced holders to turn in the lion’s share of their holdings to Washington in return for paper currency.

 

In short, when the going gets tough, there’s a big risk that the terms of any government-backed financial instrument get drastically rewritten.  This recasting can come silently through inflation.  But, if history holds true, government backing of a commodity link to financial instruments gives more the illusion of protection than the reality–especially so in cases where the reality is needed.

 

 

 

cryptocurrency (ii)

Yesterday I observeded that a significant issue for any investor in cryptocurrencies is their relative illiquidity.

Well, CBOE (Chicago Board Options Exchange), the world’s largest options exchange, is about to address this shortcoming.  It recently announced that it intends to offer derivative trading in bitcoin before yearend.

 

Several points:

–just by offering a derivative, CBOE will give legitimacy to bitcoin with traditional investors that it didn’t have before, even though CBOE likely has its eye mostly on trading commissions

–it wouldn’t be a surprise to find that the true price setting will occur in the options market rather than in that for the underlying bitcoin

–one of the first arbitrages that will likely occur is between options and the bitcoin etf, GBTC.  The result will presumably be for the still-substantial premium of GBTC to its net asset value to erode

–presumably some form of ether will be the next cryptocurrency derivative on offer.

cryptocurrencies

This is not a subject I know much about, although I’ve gotten a lot of excellent information over the past half year from one of my my sons and from my son-in law.  So I only have three comments:

–the past few months have shown all the characteristics of a speculative mania in the cryptocurrency world.  The rash of recent ICOs (Initial Coin Offerings), done in incredible speed with scanty documentation and in which buyers seem to receive nothing useful for their money, remind me a lot of the final days of the internet mania of late 1999-early 2000

–the secondary market, that is, trading by parties other than the the original creator of the tokens, is very illiquid and woefully inadequate.  I think this is the main reason the bitcoin etf, GBTC, trades at a huge premium to NAV

…but

–some form of cryptocurrency (at this point, the chief contenders seem to be bitcoin and ethereum) may end up being the new gold.  We can already see their flight capital attractiveness in the collapsing economy of Venezuela.

There’s a wider point than just this, though.  Ultimately, national currencies depend for their viability on belief in the integrity and fiscal soundness of the governments that issue them, and the economic prospects of the economies that form their tax bases.

The big issue with governments, however, is their seemingly irresistible urge to wriggle out from under their sovereign debt by inflating away the real value of their borrowings.  Venezuela’s current inflation of 1000%+ means that if you lend Caracas the price of a car today, a year from now the bolivars you get back won’t cover much more than a Big Mac.

Yes, this is a crazy example, but the point remains, I think, that most governments (Germany–and maybe China–being the only exceptions that come to mind) are more than willing to “debase” their currencies, as gold bugs would put it.  Look at Japan.  What about the UK?  Even the US had a go at this in the 1970s.

 

To be clear, I’m not advocating buying bitcoin (I do own a miniscule amount through holding shares in the Ark Invest Web x.0 ETF (ARKW)).  I think it’s something to keep an eye on, however.  I can see that something like bitcoin could ultimately replace gold as an alternative investment.  After all, when you get down to it, gold is just a shiny kind of dirt.

I also think that even in stable economies investors are beginning to look for a way to hedge their dollar holdings, thinking that the post-WWII world order led by the US is nearing the end of its useful life.  No clear replacement is in sight.  And the three national currency contenders, the dollar, the euro and the renminbi, all have rapidly aging populations–meaning, if Japan is any indication, an imminent slowdown in economic growth power.