Cryptocurrencies are all the rage. Their prices rallied significantly in 2017, bringing the total market capitalization to nearly $500 billion. But we don’t see them becoming part of mainstream investment portfolios soon. Crypto markets are highly volatile, fragmented, largely unregulated, and come with unique liquidity and operational risks.
Cryptocurrencies have had wild price swings. We compare the annualized daily price volatility of the three largest cryptocurrencies by market capitalization—Bitcoin, Ethereum and Ripple—with U.S. stock market and gold. The volatility of the cryptocurrencies (blue bars) dwarfs that of U.S. equities and gold (green bars), and even makes the gyrations in U.S. stock market during the global financial crisis almost look placid. To make the crypto market even more chaotic, there are over 1,500 cryptocurrencies. Spot trading of these “coins” take place on more than 400 online exchanges around the world–with no central order book.
Cautious on Bitcoin, bullish on blockchain?
The nature of cryptocurrencies makes them tricky investment targets. On top of dramatic price swings, cryptocurrencies face major challenges such as weak regulation and security flaws at cryptocurrency exchanges and other end points. Valuation is difficult, as cryptoassets have no cash flow, earnings or interest rate. Their uses vary from a speculative bet to payment medium. The market is evolving, however. Established exchanges have launched cash-settled Bitcoin futures, but so far the reception has been lukewarm. High margin requirements are one reason why. A global regulatory framework may be in the offing—how to regulate cryptocurrencies is on the agenda of a G20 meeting in March.
Cautious on Bitcoin and bullish on the underlying blockchain technology—this is an emerging consensus among policymakers and business leaders. Blockchain, a distributed ledger technology, enables secure peer-to-peer transactions. This means no intermediaries, but also no trusted centralized authority. Companies in a wide range of industries, from logistics and pharmaceuticals to financial service, are looking into its disruptive potential. Yet challenges abound. Take the financial industry. A blockchain-based, single shared financial database could eliminate inefficiencies and risks associated with human processes, but adoption at scale would require a massive shift in software development and a well-constructed maintenance model. Regulators and central bankers would also need to play a big role, we believe.
Our bottom line
We see cryptocurrencies potentially becoming more widely used in the future as the markets mature. Yet for now we believe they should only be considered by those who can stomach potentially complete losses. Similarly, blockchain needs to overcome significant hurdles to reach its promising future.