Bitcoin and the Gold Comparison

The 2019 bitcoin price surge has reportedly seen some institutional investors joining the craze by adding this fintech to their investment portfolios. As per custom when there are concerns of a possible global recession, investors will seek cover in unconventional assets which can preserve value, things like old paintings, antiques, precious metals and now bitcoin.

The last bitcoin bull market resulted in a huge price surge with the crypto almost crossing the $20 000 in 2017 mark before retreating to just under $4 000 by the end of 2018, a less than proportionate drop. Those who were invested significantly in this asset class reaped huge rewards while those who stayed on the fence took note.

Some are now predicting that bitcoin will end 2019 much higher than $20 000 and that when the bears market takes over, possibly after the next halving in 2020, a new lower value will be established and it will be higher than $4000!

The expected bitcoin upward price movement reinforces a realization that the token is increasingly considered a new asset class whose returns surpass even that of bluechip stocks.

When bitcoin launched in 2009, it reportedly had a value of around $0.03 and it would only reach parity with the USD in 2011. But it was in early January of 2017 when bitcoin managed to break past the $1000 mark and it has not gone below that mark since. `

In fact, available data shows that bitcoin has—during its presently short lifespan—even outperformed gold, the only asset to have consistently topped the US dollar in real terms over the past fifty years.

The US dollar has lost approximately 97% of its purchasing power in relation to gold in the nearly 50 years since the United States went off the gold standard. Similarly, the euro has lost over 75% of its value on a gold basis since the currency debuted in 1999.

Gold is traditionally seen as hedge during periods of uncertainty, in times of sustained debasement of national fiat currencies and the subsequent inflation. No fiat currency has maintained its value against gold in the long-run unless of course it is backed by gold.

Even with a limited history and track record, this digital asset has nonetheless shown that it can weather economic storms and fittingly, some now consider it the digital equivalent of gold.

Jerome Powell, the US Federal Reserve chairman is the latest high profile figure to have recently come to the that conclusion. Appearing before the US Congress, Powell refused to assign the currency status to bitcoin but he seemed happy to validate the contention that it is a store of value akin to gold.

Powell declared: ‘Almost no one uses bitcoin for payment, they use it more as an alternative to gold really. It’s a store of value; it’s a speculative store of value like gold.’ Perhaps it was disingenuous for Powell claim that almost no one uses bitcoin for payments but nevertheless, it is his admission of the latter use case that is seen as a huge endorsement for the crypto. That bitcoin has no intrinsic value like gold does not matter as long as the confidence in the blockchain technology that underpin it remains.

Of course, Powell’s boss President Trump had less flattering words for bitcoin, and his comments fits well with those long opposed to bitcoin.

But just how does it fare when compared with gold?

 Regardless of statements made by politicians, bitcoin looks set to maintain its new found status as digital gold. This apparent but inadvertent status is in stark contrast with the initial vision for bitcoin. The crypto was supposed to be the peer to peer electronic cash, the internet of money. Yet for all intends and purposes, it has morphed into digital gold, which is unsuitable for day to day small value purchases. It only makes sense using it for high value transactions.

Gold might not be fungible but it is a good store of value nonetheless and the same goes for bitcoin. This point is supported by reports that some central banks around the world are holding bitcoin and other crypto-currencies as reserves to back their respective currencies. When crypto-currencies grow in value and this has the effect of boosting or stabilizing exchange rates of fiat currencies that are backed by such digital currencies.

For instance, media reports a few weeks ago that Bulgaria’s Bitcoin holdings had surpassed that of gold point to the fact that the token may have reached that threshold. Of course, it is also possible that the recent increase in bitcoin value—from around $3 800 in March in 2019 to the current price of around $10000—may have increased the value of such holdings without necessarily increasing the amount of coins held.

Bitcoin is seemingly better at quickly factoring in things like inflation, global political risks, or a recession than gold. Perhaps for one to understand this they may have to go through the LBMA Alchemist issue 94, which explains the general rationale for gold holding during a recession. The reports states:

On the one hand, investors are looking for safe havens in times of crisis, and gold is the classical safe-haven asset. On the other hand, many investors will anticipate monetary and fiscal stimuli, and buy gold for inflation protection.

As the global economy marches to towards another recession spawned by politics and a trade war between United States and China, we see that it is bitcoin and not gold that has grown threefold. Gold does not respond as quickly as bitcoin to events and certainly it does not grow as much. In fact, according to data by Incrementum AG, this classical safe haven asset has only managed to grow by an average of 20.8% during the past six global recessions spanning four decades. Given this background it is safe to assume that the coming recession cycle will be no different, gold will grow by about 20%.

Smart investment

Smart investors have long realized that holding bitcoin actually protects an investment portfolio, not only from hyperinflation, but from government policies that attempt to expropriate value. As long as the cryptography and mathematics behind bitcoin remains uncompromised, this token will remain a superior hedge against inflation for the better part of the foreseeable future.

Indeed, others have argued that bitcoin, which unlike gold, is a creation of man and thus it might be tempered with in a way that nullifies some of its key attributes. Such tempering or changes will undoubtedly affect how people perceive its value or its usefulness. For example, some users have confidence in bitcoin because it has a fixed supply of coins that can ever be issued but that confidence will be shuttered if coins exceeding 21 million are created.

In theory this could be true, it might happen that coins which exceed the supply limit will be issued but in practice, this will be hard to achieve even for the creators of bitcoin. In fact, the continuous flow of new tokens claiming to solve the bitcoin ‘flaws’ is proof of this token’s immutability. Just like gold, bitcoin cannot be replicated, it can only be mined and many in the crypto community acknowledge this.

Also a statically decentralized, consensus-driven and trustless network like that of bitcoin is a Gordian knot according to those proposing alternatives to it. In simple terms, this means the same security that enforces its protocol and keeps users safe is also its weakness. Bitcoin protocol is designed to rapidly harden and become unchangeable such that any changes which might make the crypto-currency more useful to users become increasingly restricted by the network as user adoption increases.

For example it has not been possible to get bitcoin miners’ consensus on controversial issues like increasing the block size, a change that might enable the network to process more transactions. While this side effect is not deliberate it does work to keep Bitcoin unblemished.

This unintended aspect of bitcoin blunts the argument that the token is susceptible to manipulation by a bad actor. As long as it stays the same, the digital gold attributes will only get better.

Bitcoin not subject to control

Perhaps the one aspect where digital gold total trumps the physical gold is control. Gold is a heavily controlled commodity, in fact in some countries like Zimbabwe, its mere possession by ordinary citizens is forbidden. Those holdings or trading commodity without a state issued license risk jail time yet this commodity would seem the most logical asset to have in any portfolio given that country’s current hyperinflation environment.

Meanwhile, there are no such restrictions or controls when it comes to bitcoin. Anyone can acquire bitcoin to protect earnings or savings from crazy economic policies. In fact, there is no government that can enforce a ban on bitcoin and that sometimes explains the hostility exhibited towards the fintech. Bitcoin dilutes control of the monetary space and few monetary authorities will countenance that.

In Zimbabwe, authorities have issued warnings about the possible risks associated with bitcoin trading but ironically, they expect Zimbabweans to use the rapidly depreciating and very volatile Zimdollar fiat currency as a store of value. Since reintroduction in 2016, the Zimdollar has depreciated by about 1500% and this trend looks set to continue as financial authorities impose more draconian financial controls.

Evidently, the Zimdollar is a much riskier than bitcoin and a growing number of Zimbabweans are realizing this as the country’s economic decay worsens. Possession of this digital gold can potentially free Zimbabweans from the shackles of a failed fiat currency regime. Of course Zimbabweans and indeed all citizens of the world need to know this if they are going insulate themselves from bad policies.