The first version of this story was published on July 28, 2016 under the headline Palm Beach: “Issuing a strong ‘buy’ recommendation for ‘the next Bitcoin.'”
Tom Dyson, Teeka Tiwari’s publisher at Palm Beach, has a new pitch out for these cryptocurrencies, which he calls “Bit Shares,” again touting Ethereum and Bitcoin but also adding a couple others to the mix. Bitcoin and Ethereum are what he calls “Bit Shares Opportunity 1 and 2”, but they have also added some of the smaller cryptocurrencies to the pitch in this latest version.
What follows is my piece digging into Teeka Tiwari’s “next bitcoin” ad that was hinting about Ethereum last Summer, and at the end I’ll check back in with a quick update, and we’ll see if we can ID those other two cryptocurrencies.
I can’t help it, my first reaction when folks talk to me about alternative currencies and digital currencies is, “boy, that’s stupid. What’s the point?”
But I’m trying to be open minded, and I’m willing to learn.
My base assumption when it comes to privately created currencies like Bitcoin, which is the most famous one to date, is that the technology may be valuable but there’s no particular reason to place a specific dollar amount on the value of each digital piece of the currency. The value is in the ability to transfer money from one person or entity to another safely and quickly, but I think there is very little chance that governments around the world will cede control to a blockchain and allow it to be legal tender, or that it will supplant precious metals as a permanent “store of value.”
I’d say bitcoin has been a disappointment in terms of how much real world use it has gotten (as in people actually using bitcoin, not just trading it back and forth because they’re convinced that their local currency is being debased or because they smell a speculative opportunity), and I expect that will continue …
… but perhaps we’ll get to the point (and banks are genuinely researching and testing blockchain technologies) where the ideas behind bitcoin are a key part of the financial system. It’s just that I think we’ll still convert every dollar to bitcoin before it enters that blockchain, then convert it back to dollars as it leaves, all within a few moments — bitcoin makes sense to me as a transfer technology, but not as something you use to sock away your savings in a bitcoin wallet.
Which isn’t to say I’m unwilling to test it out. I speculate on lots of dumb things (in fact, my last “Idea of the Month” piece for the irregulars was all about dumb and speculative things I’m trying with small amounts of capital), and I have a small amount of bitcoin that I bought when I was experimenting with it a couple years ago and seeing whether it would be of any help to me (or a help to my business, as an alternative to accepting credit cards).
I didn’t find it all that convenient or useful, but I’ve still got a bitcoin wallet with a small amount of bitcoin in it… and it’s a small enough amount that I don’t need the money to pay my bills, so I’m leaving it there as a reminder to keep half an eye on this digital currency stuff.
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So… when Teeka Tiwari and the folks at Palm Beach Letter started teasing that they were issuing a “strong buy” on a digital currency that they call “the next bitcoin,” I thought I should check it out. The push Tiwari is making is in ads for his Mega Trends Investing newsletter… and thankfully, he does point this out as being a high-risk investment in the ad — he implies that it could reach the heights that bitcoin did a couple years ago, when the early adopters who bought bitcoin on a lark were suddenly turning their $100 bitcoin investment into enough money to buy a Porsche, but he does note that the downside potential is 100%, so we’ll give him credit for that:
“Now, of course, the key here is position size.
“Don’t bet the farm.
“That way, you only have a small loss if you’re wrong. But you get lottery-like returns if you’re right.”
There has only ever been one digital currency that reached substantial scale before, and that generated great returns for a lot of early adopters, so it’s not necessarily true that the only two possible outcomes are “zero” or “lottery-like returns”… we really have no idea.
We’re conditioned to use comparisons because that’s the best way to justify a stock’s valuation (as, today, I looked at the difference in valuation between Facebook and Google to see what I thought made more sense), because the stock market has lots of liquidity and lots of analyst brainpower being thrown at it every day and “Mr. Market” generally wants similar companies to be assessed using the same metrics. It’s logical.
But if you’re taking one new digital currency and comparing it only to the one digital currency that has been a success (and ignoring the hundreds of others that were complete flops) you’re setting yourself up for a very biased mindset. Given the compressed timelines of modern life, you could argue that this is more like looking at the first US stock offering (the Bank of North America, in the late 18th century) and saying it would certainly be a hit and spike in value because the Dutch East India Company had been a huge hit and caused a huge bubble when it was the world’s first IPO in 17th century Holland.
Maybe that’s a reasonable mindset, since it’s probably true that this new currency is the first one to have pretty widespread adoption in the years bitcoin was introduced… but maybe not. These are uncharted waters, and there should probably be a little sign in scrolly script that says “here be monsters.” That “maybe you’ll lose it all” note should be taken more seriously than the “lottery ticket” bit.
But where’s the fun in that?
So, with all that disclaimer and dissuasion up front, what is it that Teeka Tiwari is actually talking about?
Here’s a bit from the ad:
“Will ‘The Next Bitcoin’ Make You Rich?
“BRIEF: In 2013, Bitcoin made headlines as it went from $13 to $1,147 (an extraordinary 8,526% gain). Now, a former Bitcoin developer has started a rival currency that’s gone up 1,000% this year. Already, Microsoft, IBM, and 11 banks (including Wells Fargo) have tested it. ‘A new virtual gold rush is underway,’ reports the New York Times….
“Vitalik Buterin, a Canadian programmer now living in Switzerland, has just developed a secret ‘currency alternative’ that could let early investors turn every $200 placement into a rare, once-in-a-lifetime return of $6,850.”
This is, as you can certainly find with any Google search, a reference to Ethereum, a relatively new digital currency project (that’s a simplification, Buterin wouldn’t refer to it as a “currency”). The currency enabled by the Ethereum project is commonly called Ether, and yes, you can buy “1 ether” for about $12-13 these days. [update: the price spiked starting in February, it’s more like $50 now]
Tiwari’s argument is that there are three triggers that could “ignite the next bitcoin” like he says the Cyprus crisis ignited the bitcoin explosion. Those are, as he describes them, the “war on cash” with governments trying to do away with large cash transactions and large denomination bills; the move to negative interest rates; and the movement of either of those trends to the United States, which has so far resisted negative interest rates or penalties for holding or using cash.
Here’s one final bit from the ad (you can see the whole ad here if you want more):
“On March 30th, Microsoft made a huge announcement—They will soon let over 3 million of their developers work on “the next Bitcoin” through their Windows platform.
“This is massive!
“By one measure, that’s over 19 times the developers working on Bitcoin.
“As one ‘next Bitcoin’ enthusiast noted, it’s like ‘Bitcoin on steroids.’
“And as another noted, ‘I am beginning to doubt how bitcoin will manage to stay ahead.’
“So here’s what you need to do:
“I’m issuing a strong ‘buy’ recommendation for ‘the next Bitcoin.'”
Ether has not been around as long as bitcoin, but it is more flexible than bitcoin — and it has also been subject to what seems to have been a nasty split. Following some sort of theft of ether that I don’t really understand last month there is now Ether, typically abbreviated ETH, which has been adjusted with what they call a “hard fork” in the programming to prevent whatever happened in that theft from happening again, and “Classic Ether” (ETC).
The best explanation of Ether that I’ve come across is from one of the folks at Coinbase, which is the company I have an account with for my “bitcoin wallet,” and there’s also a short video from Vitalik Buterin here explaining the ethereum platform. (There’s also an article here about the ether/ether classic split, though you can find a lot more about that in some web browsing if you’re interested, it’s been a wild month in the world of alternative currencies.)
So what’s going to happen with ethereum, or with the ether currency?
Damned if I know.
The Microsoft interest and support for the the ethereum platform is real, though still quite small in the context of Microsoft, and I don’t know what it might mean in the end. This is still a work in progress, and people are just beginning to build tools on the platform.
It sounds really cool and powerful, but I’m not at all capable of assessing what it might do in the years ahead. The value of the ether currency in US$ terms depends on whether people have confidence in it, and whether they get excited about it and buy it more quickly than people want to sell it. Bubbles can form in anything, and interest in alternative investments and alternative currencies can certainly fluctuate dramatically. And hackers are inexorably drawn to alternative currencies, as we’ve seen by losses and collapsed exchanges in the past with bitcoin.
I do think it’s interesting, and I’ve decided to do what I did with bitcoin — buy a little bit of it and see what happens, and try to understand it more fully by reading more.
And I do mean a little bit, like the amount I might spend on a good dinner out. Thankfully, I don’t have to learn some new system or create a new account or get more involved just to get a basic transaction and start to understand it, because my Coinbase account supports both bitcoin and ether. So… now I’ve got a little bit of ether in my back pocket. And hopefully I’ll learn more. I am not counting on it creating a lottery win for me (in the ways that count, I’ve already won the lottery several times in my life), but I won’t object if I make some money from it.
That’s about all I can tell you — Ether is being promoted as a next-generation bitcoin, and ethereum as a platform is being examined by banks and financial folks just the way they’ve been looking at the bitcoin blockchain technology (you can’t “buy” into ethereum more broadly, from what I can tell, and there isn’t a stock or a for-profit enterprise in charge, it was crowdfunded and is collaborative). There’s been some discussion of Ether by readers here at Stock Gumshoe, both in relation to this ad and as a “what’s going on” query following the heist last month, and I’m sure plenty of readers know more about than I do — if so, I hope you’ll chime in below with a comment.
I don’t know if we’ll have a huge surge and an ether bubble, or if there will be another thousand alternative currencies and something better and cooler will come along that gets everyone excited… and if you think the dollar or the financial system will collapse, I’d feel a lot better about holding some gold and silver coins than I would about relying on a particular digital currency. But the blockchain idea seems here to stay, and more powerful than we yet understand when it comes to bringing security and speed to all kinds of computer communication, and I like what I read about ethereum more than I liked what I read about bitcoin a few years ago (even if I probably don’t really understand either)… it should be interesting.
–Back to the Present now, March 29, 2017–
It turns out that Tiwari’s recommendation of Ethereum last Summer was very well-timed — that cryptocurrency was still reeling a bit from concerns about a split into two different versions of the blockchain, and from a theft, but it has roughly quadrupled in value since. I did buy some at the time, and still own some, so I’ve made some money on that and I’ll keep holding to see what happens.
But most of that spike happened over just the past month or so, perhaps caused by concern about bitcoin. One “story” that makes some logical sense is that the most ardent speculators and traders, the folks who fuel all of these alt-currencies, started to “give up” on bitcoin and moved on to the next thing after the hoped-for spike on ETF approval was quashed, and ethereum is the only real cryptocurrency that’s “grown up” to some extent, with institutional investment and connections and a relatively large “market cap” compared to the other non-bitcoin cryptocurrencies, so much of the money fleeing bitcoin perhaps fled into ethereum. I don’t suppose there’s one certain answer, but that makes as much sense as anything else.
How about the other two “Bit Shares” cryptocurrencies they pitch? We get a few limited clues, so we can at least task the Thinkolator with doing some guessing. Here’s what we hear this time out:
“‘Bit Shares’ Opportunity #3:
“Recently, Teeka sat down with one of the wealthiest and most successful investors in the cryptocurrency space. This guy was one of the earliest investors in bitcoin and several other larger cryptos, and has generated an 8-figure fortune as a result.
“He has a great track record investing in cryptos… which is important, because he told Teeka about a move he just made into a currency that solves a couple of bitcoin’s biggest problems.”
That person being alluded to is Roger Ver, an early bitcoin enthusiast who made a boatload of money and became a bitcoin VC investor and evangelist (Tiwari referred to him as “Bitcoin Jesus” in some older articles), and because of Ver’s publicized opinions and some reading between the lines I’d guess that this is a reference to Dash, the cryptocurrency that used to be called DarkCoin and that has been going bonkers of late (it seems like all of the cryptocurrencies have been going nutty in the Trump/Brexit/WTF-is-going-to-happen-next era).
Dash is very, very small compared to Ethereum (which itself is less than a quarter the size of bitcoin), but it is the third largest cryptocurrency according to CoinCap, and it does solve some of the problems that have afflicted bitcoin lately — particularly the slow transaction speed that Ver and many others have complained about. It also offers, they say, more privacy than bitcoin. You can learn more about Dash from their website here, I’ve not ever traded in this one and my Coinbase wallet can only transact in Bitcoin and Ethereum so I’ve not bothered to get an offline or other wallet or speculate on the littler players.
And the fourth one? Here are our clues:
“‘Bit Shares’ Opportunity #4:
“The 4th and final cryptocurrency in our report may have the most upside.
“Some cryptos, like this one, only exist to serve specific industries. In this case, it’s social media.
“The company behind this cryptocurrency is only a year old, but it’s already giving Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn serious competition for social media traffic, according to Amazon’s web analytics division.
“What if you’d invested in a social media giant when it was still just a startup?
“PayPal founder Peter Thiel made 199,900% returns from his early investment in Facebook.”
This one, the Thinkolator is pretty sure, is Steem — and it is indeed pretty unique, as I understand it so far it’s essentially a social network (Steemit) where the compensation you receive for contributing your content is not in some ephemeral notion of social status, recognition, “likes” or even, for the power users, advertising dollars, but in units of the Steem currency that are allocated as rewards for the most popular posts and comments (or, as with other cryptocurrencies, for participating in the blockchain by joining the peer-to-peer network that verifies transactions). Steem’s website is here, the “social” part, Steemit, is here. And yes, it was launched just over a year ago, in January of 2016.
It looks pretty interesting as a concept, though I can’t say that the content was all that compelling at first glance (most of the popular posts seem to be self-referential commentary about what Steem is doing or the usual twaddle you’d get if you followed a bunch of people you don’t actually know or like on Facebook or Twitter), and it has been rising rapidly in value so it is now now of the top 20 cryptocurrencies, but with a total “market cap” (units of the currency that exist, multiplied by the current US$ price at which it’s being traded) of $36 million it’s still quite tiny — Dash is at just over $600 million, Ethereum approaches $5 billion, Bitcoin is almost $17 billion.
Neither the social network nor the currency are really established enough to judge at this point, so I guess the exciting thing is that you could jump in with both feet and potentially, if you can garner some fans and followers, become a big part of that little social world, and perhaps earn a decent amount of the Steem currency that might or might not be worth something in the real world in a week or a month or a year. If you’ve got a lot of time on your hands, well, it won’t cost you anything — unlike the other cryptocurrencies, this is one you can pretty easily try to earn without buying anything.
So those are the four, sez the Thinkolator: Bitcoin, Ethereum, Dash and Steem. I’ve got some of the first two, in a very tiny allocation, and don’t have enough interest to spend the time it would take to learn more about Dash and Steem and begin trading in those (or participating in the Steemit community). Maybe that will appeal to you, or maybe you’ll find appeal in one of the other hundreds of cryptocurrencies that have not captured the attention of speculators, certainly there’s a lot of excitement in the sector.
This is, indeed, still very much “Wild West” stuff when it comes to all cryptocurrencies, even bitcoin — some people buy them just because they exist, with hopes of catching the next wild run like bitcoin’s surge in the early days, and to some extent that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy… cryptocurrencies in general offer the very purest form of momentum trading, as it plays out in the psychology of techie libertarians around the world.
There is, after all, nothing backing the value of a particular cryptocurrency except its popularity with other cryptocurrency holders and its own self-imposed scarcity. Scarcity isn’t enough to support a currency if the popularity part disappears, so it’s important to remember that all cryptocurrencies are ethereal — they do not carry even something as firm as the “full faith and credit” of a government as you’ll find with legal tender currencies, or a longstanding human tradition of value like you’ll find with silver and gold, they are just popular and scarce.
The value of the blockchain technology and its many interpretations and improvements and tweaks is real, but as I understand it that technology it is not owned by the holders of a cryptocurrency — holding bitcoin or ethereum because you’re convinced the blockchain will supplant current financial transaction technologies (or create something even better, like smart contracts that do away with the friction of so many transactions) is a bit like buying the raw materials used in making paper money in the 19th century because you thought it was clear that paper money was going to improve technologically and become the next big thing as the government cracked down on counterfeiting and consolidated the anarchy of private bank notes (let alone Confederate Dollars). Paper money did take off, and some companies did very well (like Crane up here in Massachusetts, which did develop anti-counterfeit fibers in the mid-19th century and grow to take most of the market for US currency paper), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that having exposure to linen, or cotton, or inks or printing presses, would have created windfalls for investors.
There’s a very real long-term risk to all of these altcoins that a government-approved and regulated blockchain, endorsed by big banks, would use the power of that technology in a way that makes the actual cryptocurrencies obsolete. The real value of cryptocurrencies, beyond the scarcity (which becomes irrelevant if the currency is unpopular) is in their ability to offer fast and secure transactions. If the technology can do that in US dollars or another major currency, and therefore help you get away from the currency risk of bitcoin or ethereum prices fluctuating, a lot of that hypothetical future promise of cryptocurrencies goes away.
The argument I’ve seen is that bitcoin (or ethereum, or whatever) will become dramatically more valuable because it will be in high demand as a transmission mechanism — and I still don’t find that argument compelling. There is a certain logic to that argument — that is what has supported the US$ to some degree over the past 40 years, the requirement that much of the world’s trade has to be converted into dollars before it can be used to buy oil from some of the major exporters, but that’s more important because those sellers of oil (or whatever) continue to hold the dollars rather than sell them, partly because they don’t want more buying pressure elevating their own currencies, and because dollars themselves were seen as safe and valuable and relatively stable. I don’t see that happening with an extra-governmental currency, and I think the idea of cryptocurrencies supplanting the fiat currencies of the world is a dream stoked by the libertarians who want government out of the money business, but that’s just my opinion.
And, as I noted, I do dabble a little bit in these — I wouldn’t ever hold on long enough to earn a 10,000% return on any meaningful investment, I’m too risk averse for that, but I do find the cryptocurrencies fascinating.