This ad touches a lot of bases… something that a newsletter claims has made people wealthy, is somewhat mysterious and secret, and is based on a legal catalyst that’s going to hit in just a few weeks, on March 16…
… plus, it gives a newsletter pitchman the opportunity to call our politicians “those clowns in Washington” over and over, which generally is a sentiment that gets some cheers from newsletter subscribers (and, as those copywriters well know, when you’re cheering about how much you agree with someone… you’re not thinking critically about what they’re trying to sell you).
So what is it?
Well, let’s give you a taste first. The ad is for Laissez Faire Letter, which is one of the “entry level” $49 letters from the Agoraplex (it seems to have taken the place of Unconventional Wealth, which we’ve covered a few times as Ryan Cole pitched “$25 Retirement Notes” or “secret accounts of the wealthy”), and this is how it gets our attention:
“Could Act of Congress #5748 Make You Rich?
“Twice in the last five years this little-known statute helped turn a few everyday Americans into millionaires.
“One lucky man in Ohio watched his initial stake of $1,000 grow to an exceptional $4.6 million… virtually overnight!
“It’s set to happen again on March 16.”
And there’s more to back up this “March 16 will make you rich” assertion:
“Just a Few Days From Now, This Act of Congress Could Help Mint Another Round of Millionaires
“As Marketwatch says, ‘The law is set to be reinstated on March 16.’
“With that day just around the corner…
“Some in-the-know investment experts are already making some eye-popping projections for 2017 and beyond.
“Experts like Daniel M., co-founder of Jersey-based hedge fund Global Advisors.
“Based on today’s price, his projections suggest you could make 487% in 2017 alone.”
That Daniel M. is Daniel Masters, who is indeed one of the principals at Global Advisors, and what he’s talking about is bitcoin — Global Advisors was the first manager to get a bitcoin fund listed on an exchange (about six weeks ago, Global Advisors Investment Fund was listed on the Channel Islands Securities Exchange in Jersey… they also have some bitcoin “exchange traded certificates” on the OMX in Stockholm).
And that firm did, about a year ago, predict 2017 prices of $2,000 to $4,000 for bitcoin, which could, at the top end, be a gain of 487% from recent prices (bitcoin is currently at about $980, but has lately been quite volatile again — it has been in a range from the low $700s to the high $900s over the past couple months). That firm’s latest market commentary on bitcoin is available here, if you’re curious.
And what’s that March 16 date? That’s the expiration of the debt ceiling “time out” that the previous Congress and President Obama agreed to in November of 2015 — that agreement pushed the next fight on the debt limit out past the election, after previous fights over raising the limit in 2011 and 2013 got so heated and caused significant market turmoil (in case you’ve forgotten, 2011’s “debt ceiling crisis” helped lead to a credit downgrade for US Government debt that inspired a collapse in the market that Summer, 2013’s crisis led to a government shutdown for a couple weeks). That’s not always how it plays out, the debt ceiling has been raised an average of once per year or so over the past 15 years (and dozens more times since the debt limit was created about 100 years ago), and often it’s relatively uneventful… but when tensions are high in Washington the debt ceiling certainly gets a lot of attention as a way to get political leverage.
Tensions are high now, to be sure, but there’s also a unified government… so Congress may not be as motivated to influence the President as they are when opposing parties control Congress and the White House and are in high dudgeon. I have no idea whether or not there will be a showdown over the raising of the debt limit, but it is hard to imagine anything being smooth and easy in Washington over the next few months. It’s difficult, but certainly not impossible, to imagine the deficit hawks getting any traction within their party in opposition to President Trump, who has never really prioritized the debt as a big issue, and I suspect the Democrats will choose other fights and not contest a rise in the debt ceiling vigorously… but you never know.
Will a debt ceiling debate, assuming it arises, have a big impact on bitcoin prices? I have no idea. Bitcoin prices have surged during times of uncertainty, but bitcoin has been around for less than a decade… so we’re also talking about a very small data set. In some ways it’s playing a role similar to gold in the minds of currency worriers, so it surged during the Cyprus crisis in 2013, and during the Greek budget crisis/Euro crisis, and it also surged in 2011, perhaps because of the fear of an actual US government default.
It was late in 2013, when the price surged from $100 or so to over $1,000, that bitcoin really caught the public’s imagination and started to be discussed outside tech circles, and by big banks, and gradually started to become accepted in some mainstream online stores (that utility of bitcoin has quietly grown, but it is still extremely rare to see “pay with bitcoin” as an option for online shopping).
So, naturally, late 2013 was when the peak for bitcoin happened, and it dropped substantially lower in the following years… helped along by the implosion of one of the major bitcoin exchanges and by some widely-reported bitcoin thefts that made traders question the safety of their bitcoin. That downward trend continued until uncertainty heated up again this year, with Brexit and the election and, probably most importantly, with continuing Chinese demand. China is where most bitcoin trading takes place, as traders seek out alternatives to the Yuan and the stock market for investment, speculation, and getting their money out of the country…. and Chinese regulators have also started to crack down on the bitcoin exchanges a bit, it appears, cutting back on margin use to deter speculators a bit and imposing trading fees to slow down some of the automated trading.
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Here’s what the bitcoin price looks like in US$ over the past five years:
And while the bitcoin surge may have something in common with the interest in gold, as a desire for a non-government-controlled currency that’s consistent around the world and has limited supply, it’s pretty clear that bitcoin prices have been way, way more volatile than the gold price — here’s what the price of bitcoin has been as measured in ounces of gold… it got up so that one bitcoin was almost worth an ounce of gold back in the 2013 peak, and then again after the election late last year, but in the interim it dropped down to only being worth a fifth of an ounce of gold:
Not that this necessarily means anything — as I said, it’s early days for bitcoin, and no one really knows how it’s going to shake out. Right now the bitcoin fans look like brilliant soothsayers again, but in early 2015 they were being laughed out of the room… so it might be that the better time to buy bitcoin is when the bitcoin enthusiasts are being laughed at, not when they’re being applauded for the gains they’ve enjoyed (bitcoin is up about 100% year over year). Much of the argument in favor of bitcoin is built not just around the idea that bitcoin is a currency that can’t be controlled by governments, but around the notion that the bitcoin blockchain technology could form the foundation for new currency exchanges and upend things like money transfer, escrow, contract payments and the like.
That’s probably a stronger argument than the “no government can control it” bit, because I can’t see a world where there’s a global currency that no country controls — governments and bureaucracies do not easily give up control, and no country wants to lose control of its currency, but there are also plenty of competing blockchain technologies and ideas (and other alternative currencies), so I don’t know whether or not bitcoin demand will shoot through the roof because of broader use in real-world financial exchanges. It might, but no one really knows — and part of that depends a lot on whether bitcoin is just the medium of transfer, or whether anyone actually holds bitcoin in their accounts. If you’re just using bitcoin for a few moments to move money, that obviously creates less demand than if every merchant decides to keep an active bitcoin account with a balance in bitcoin.
The debt ceiling’s return to politics in mid-March may have an impact on bitcoin, particularly if it ends up leading the bond market to react or the ratings agencies to issue cautious statements about the US credit rating or brings fears of another government shutdown, but any further regulatory crackdown in China could have a considerably larger impact in the opposite direction.
What is likely to have a much, much bigger impact than the debt ceiling debate, in my only-loosely-informed opinion, is the SEC’s decision on bitcoin ETFs… which is also expected to come in mid-March. The SEC has said that they will rule by March 11 on whether or not to allow the Winklevoss brothers’ Bitcoin Trust to list as an ETF (ticker COIN). This is a big enough deal that I’d wager that a big part of the reason for the surge in bitcoin is because of anticipation that President Trump’s anti-regulatory stance will mean more freedom for the SEC to approve this kind of financial instrument for trading.
Why would an ETF be a big deal? Well, buying bitcoin is a little bit of a pain in the neck… kind of like buying gold coins is inconvenient. Trading an ETF is easy peasy for any trader or investor, big or small, and it’s widely expected that this could add hundreds of millions of dollars (or more) in demand to the bitcoin market, which would have a big impact because only about $13 billion worth of bitcoin exists today… and it wouldn’t surprise me if the impact is substantially more than that, we certainly saw a lot more gold trading happen when the GLD ETF started to make it easy for any investor, from hedge funds to individuals tinker with IRAs, to bet on the price of gold.
So there are two potential catalysts for bitcoin here in the US over the next month or two, and there remain potential catalysts both positive and negative in China, and we’ve already had a huge catalyst in the surprise Trump election and shakeup in currencies and markets that followed and helped to drive bitcoin up sharply. If you can predict what will happen to bitcoin over the next two months, then your crystal ball is better than mine — but things are set up for bitcoin to be pretty volatile in the first half of this year. As they’ve been most of the time.
And remember, there’s no one price or level that makes logical or fundamental sense for bitcoin — this is all pure trading, supply and demand and price dynamics with no foundation other than the fact that we know how many bitcoin exist, and how many are created each year, and what the maximum total number can be. There was plenty of intelligent consideration, including from folks like Henry Blodget who certainly know bubbles (he helped to inflate one of the biggest ones, if you recall), that bitcoin as it went from $30 to $100 was already on its way to becoming one of the craziest asset bubbles. No one knows.
How does one buy bitcoin, if you’re interested? Well, as noted, it’s a little bit of a pain in the neck compared to trading stocks — but most amateurs (like me) set up an online wallet through a service provider and use that provider, with some smallish fees, to turn their money, whether from bank account or credit card, into bitcoins and keep that bitcoin secure for you. The service providers effectively take a small fee usually on the currency exchange, both into and out of bitcoins, and that’s how they make money. There are lots of bitcoin exchanges and wallet services, and you can also send and receive bitcoins more directly if you want to be more technologically involved and potentially a bit more secure (keeping your key on a flash drive in the safe, for example, instead of in an online account), but I have not gotten interested enough to actually try any of these.
I have held a small amount of bitcoin for a couple years, mostly because I want to continue to follow it and see how things develop, and I also bought a little bit of ether last year, which is the second largest alternative currency and one that provides some additional capabilities that could theoretically be important in future blockchain developments (including implementing “smart contracts” that are built into the blockchain, triggering events when payments are made)… but I certainly have a lot less in bitcoin and ether than I do in physical gold and silver or in cash.
The priority for me was looking at ways to integrate these alternative currencies into real life with convenience, so I used Coinbase, which I decided was the most user-friendly and easily managed bitcoin wallet service (and, as was important to me, US-based and backed by reputable investors). There are plenty of other competing wallets that also aim at user-friendliness, and I imagine many of them are as good or better than Coinbase, but I’ve been happy with Coinbase personally — if you want to try it out, you can use my referral link here and we’ll each get $10 in free bitcoin. I can’t tell you Coinbase is the best or that nothing will ever go wrong there, of course, but I’ve been comfortable with the service, cost and security for my small bitcoin and ether wallets.
So there you have it — the pitch is that bitcoin could surge in March because of the debt ceiling (we’ll be over the debt ceiling as soon as that deadline hits, but it’s widely expected that the Treasury Department can stretch things out to keep the government running until sometime in the Summer so there’s some wiggle room to get the limit raised again). I’d add that possible bitcoin ETFs being approved by the SEC (or firmly disapproved, as the case may be) in March could have a bigger impact when it comes to bitcoin’s presence in the US, at least, and that China is a more important player in bitcoin than the US is right now… so things are never quite so simple as “this one event will drive bitcoin higher,” but it is an interesting technology and a wild and woolly market, so sample it as you wish.
But no, it was not a single “act of Congress” that made previous bitcoin speculators wealthy — some early bitcoin investors did reap huge rewards as it went from a few dollars per coin to over $900 very quickly from 2011-2013 or so, there were plenty of stories going around during that first bitcoin run about folks who had put $100 into bitcoin as a lark or a political statement, kind of like donating to Wikipedia every year, then forgot about it, went about their daily lives, and checked in when bitcoin hit the headlines and realized that they could suddenly buy a Tesla with their bitcoin account… but it’s a stretch to say that Congress or the debt limit was the precipitating factor that caused the surge in bitcoin. The last couple debt ceiling crises created more uncertainty in currency markets, which certainly helped at a time when global currencies were in turmoil thanks to the euro crisis anyway, but it wasn’t just the debt ceiling showdown that brought good fortune to those early bitcoin owners.
And yes, for the folks who have asked a few times, I have been looking into ways to accept bitcoin as payment for Stock Gumshoe membership — we’re not there yet, but we’re not ignoring it.
If you’ve got a take on bitcoin (or ether, or any of the other digital currencies), or thoughts about what might drive their prices in the months ahead, please let us know with a comment below.