It doesn’t make a difference what bitcoin did in the intervening years or how much greater his profits would be today; the average investor at that point in time, like my neighbor, wound up wiped out.
Bruce in New York City recently reminded me of a column I wrote in the summer of 2011, in which I made bitcoin the “Stupid Investment of the Week,” at a time when the cryptocurrency was trading at just over $10. Today, it is more than 1,150 times higher, and that is after taking a breather.
“Look at how much money you would have made if you bought bitcoin and ignored your lousy advice,” Bruce wrote.
Actually, the results wouldn’t be quite what Bruce expects, which highlights one of the problems a lot of people have in the dawning age of cryptocurrency.
Before delving into that problem, let me share a story that highlights the issues ordinary folks should have with the mania that is bitcoin and cryptocurrencies.
I live on a cul-de-sac in an ordinary suburban Boston neighborhood, and around the time of that column in 2011, one of my neighbors stopped me while I was walking my dog to talk about bitcoin, because he was trading it. He was way up on his trades despite the volatility of the cryptocurrency, and was quick to tell me that he thought I was wrong long before Bruce ever did.
Fast forward to last weekend, where another neighbor and longtime friend wandered by with her dog, and asked how she should be investing in bitcoin, “because everyone is doing it, and it seems like I don’t want to miss out.”
That excitement is one thing that hasn’t changed since bitcoin first came onto the radar screen, from its true nascent stages through the explosive growth of cryptocurrencies and bitcoin alternatives today.
What also hasn’t changed is that supporters and true believers try to overlook all of the issues and problems and point to their gains as proof.
That brings us back to Bruce’s question about how much money people would have made buying bitcoin in 2011 against the advice in my column.
The answer is that investors probably would have suffered a 100 percent loss, despite the gains in the currency.
When that story was written in the summer of 2011, the bulk of average investors (my audience when I was writing the “Stupid Investment of the Week” column) venturing into bitcoin were doing it through an exchange called Mt. Gox, a Japanese company that was the most popular bitcoin platform despite having just gone through a hacking incident that took the site offline for several days and that had some players concerned about the ability to get their money back.
That concern was well-placed. It was why my neighbor who was trading bitcoin was talking paper profits but confessed that he was having trouble pulling that money out. That meant his paper profits were only on paper.
And when Mt. Gox collapsed into bankruptcy in 2014 — with some $460 million apparently stolen by hackers and an additional $28 million missing from its bank accounts — my neighbor found himself with real losses. While his account showed profits from trading bitcoin, he suffered a 100 percent loss because he could never get any of his money — let alone his bitcoin profits — out of Mt. Gox.
It doesn’t make a difference what bitcoin did in the intervening years or how much greater his profits would be today; the average investor at that point in time, like my neighbor, wound up wiped out. The chart and the numbers that Bruce wants to focus on tell a different story, but the truth is in the account numbers.
But there was a bigger point to that column in 2011, one that Bruce missed.
The piece didn’t say that bitcoin was a bad investment forever, but rather that it was a bad idea for average investors who were hearing about it for the first time and who were unsure of how it worked. “Until the execution is as sound as the concept is cool,” that column concluded, “average investors should still favor stocks, bonds and other investments that may not look so attractive these days, but are more stable and secure than a currency that has the potential to go away as fast as it sprung up.”
The potential for bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies to go away overnight has been greatly diminished in the last six years, but that doesn’t mean they are for everyone. That would include the neighbor recently walking her dog.
She didn’t understand how to buy bitcoin, or what it truly was. She didn’t understand how to use it, but she did know her kids were talking about it and “playing” with it.
Investors have always been cautioned not to invest in or buy things they don’t understand.
When I asked this woman what she thought bitcoin was — a simple acknowledgment of whether it is like holding cash or gold or a stock — she didn’t know.
That’s no surprise because plenty of experts are having a tough time understanding bitcoin and cryptocurrencies. Morningstar, for example, looks at the holdings of Bitcoin Investment Trust (GBTC), an issue that holds bitcoin rather than bitcoin stocks, and refuses to classify the holdings as “cash” or “other.” Since bitcoin is neither a stock nor a bond, the data-research firm does no analysis on the holdings of the fund; that’s also why regulators have been slow to approve any new issue hoping to hold/trade bitcoin.
If the experts aren’t entirely sure what to make of it, the average investor needs to know they can’t make it a big part of a portfolio.
A play? Sure. Jack Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Group, said on my radio show/podcast recently that it’s a speculation and mania, and it’s all that and more.
A lottery ticket amid a portfolio of blue chips? That’s what my neighbor was thinking and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that thinking.
To think that it can be more than that, however, is wrong for the average investor. It’s not an asset class, and it’s not a true asset; it’s a Wild West world populated by traders and specialists and for now — and the foreseeable future — the average investor is still going to be best off looking at but not touching bitcoin.