Crypto’s Kryptonite: Common Sense

| December 21, 2022

Readers, lend me your ears: As Antony said about Caesar, I come to bury crypto, not to praise it. OK, it’s an overstatement to say that crypto is dead. I have no idea what will happen to the digital currency, and the market for crypto coin is still active.

But the collapse of the crypto exchange FTX has caused a current-day version of a good old fashioned bank run, when clients withdraw their funds because they don’t trust the bank would survive. Investors reportedly are taking coins off the exchanges, with bitcoin balances plummeting to 2.2 million currently from 3.1 million in 2020. The prices of bitcoin and other crypto currencies, meanwhile, have plummeted.

I understand that “buyer beware” always applies to financial products, but I feel for anybody new to investing who has lost a lot of money on crypto. I have a hard time justifying it as an investment for most people because I can’t easily determine a cryptocurrency’s fundamental value. I’ve heard the arguments for cryptocurrency but remain unconvinced that rational forces drive its demand.

But for such a speculative product, it was marketed heavily and harmfully to Main Street audiences, including in Super Bowl commercials and celebrity endorsements. In one ad for a crypto ATM aimed at underserved markets, Spike Lee went so far as to call the money we use every day that’s backed by the U.S. government as “flat out broke.”

Economists at the Bank of International Settlements recently estimated that between 2015 and 2022, three out of four people who have bought bitcoin have lost money on it. And a lot of these speculators were retail customers, while the largest holders profited by selling to them.

The long-term lesson here isn’t that crypto is good or bad. Maybe it somebody will be a standard currency instead of what Berkshire Hathaway’s Charlie Munger says is one “good for kidnappers.”

The main takeaway is that financial products are marketed just like anything else, only with more disclaimers. Wall Street is always looking to capitalize on trends. New products are sometimes trotted out without much, if any, regard for whether they’ll perform well for investors.

I know this might come off as cynical, but how else can you respond when products such as high-cost, complicated exchange-traded funds based on single stocks are introduced to retail investors? For example, you can get an ETF that will gain 5% when the shares of a certain company falls 5%. “I scratch my head and ask why any individual investor would need something like this, when realistically there’s a high probability they could lose a lot of money,” Eric Dilton, president of an investment advisory firm, told Kiplinger.

There are always new bets to place on the markets. But you’re usually better off by making good decisions based on the fundamental value and potential of tried-and-true, easy-to-understand investments instead of trying to chase returns on hot products you don’t understand and can’t value.