My last article about cryptocurrencies in August predicted the imminent demise of Bitcoin and its sister currencies. Since then, the most famous of cryptocurrencies is up over 200 percent. Was I wrong? Yes and no.
At the height of the "dot com" era (early 2000s), I fondly remember analyzing balance sheets and equity fundamentals. "Garbage," I thought to myself before investing my life savings on shorting some major "bubbles." (Shorting means borrowing stock to sell on the open market, then buying back said shares and recouping the difference.) My newly acquired BS in finance coupled with my "bs detector" led me to short a lot of overvalued stocks until I encountered the Moby Dick of overvalued stocks,Overstock.com. I shorted Overstock around $20 a share and held on for dear life as it skyrocketed to over $70 in a few months. "Do these people not know about P/E ratios?!" I dim-wittedly asked.
Alas the lesson for me was that textbook economics has little to do with reality in that investors are not rational beings. I kept funding my short like a drug addict funding an addiction until I missed a critical margin call-you literally got a phone call from your broker threatening to close out your position lest you wire some amount. This time, I had come up short-no pun intended.
I couldn't put together the funds fast enough and by the time my wire went through my positions were closed out. "No problem," I thought to myself, "I'll just reopen my position." My first lesson in "limits to arbitrage" came as a 23 year old trying desperately trying to reopen the position. "No available shares," was the online broker's response leaving me out in the cold. I watched from the sidelines as Overstock, as predicted, crashed and burned. Within months it traded at around 10 dollars a share.
For this column, I was going to cite my experience with Overstock as an example of a bubble and how despite blockchain being a promising technology, cryptocurrencies weren't mature enough to warrant the risk associated with investing. "Let's see what Overstock is at now," I said to myself as I keyed in the ticker symbol branded into my brain, OSTK - "what the...?" 81! Overstock the balloon of balloons was back!
What happened at Overstock? Are revenues up? Are sales through the roof? Some strategic acquisitions perhaps? No, no, no and no. It turns Overstock is getting into... You guessed it, cryptocurrencies. As I was dismissing cryptos in August, Overstock announced plans to issue an Initial Coin Offering through their "tZero" cryptocurrency exchange. The stock skyrocketed from mid-teens to the record high it currently trades. The stock is up over 30 percent in the last week on news that George Soros' Quantum fund exercised a 100 million dollar warrant and bought Overstock equity. What happened to Overstock's ICO? According to Overstock it'll be over in 38 days and demand is incredible. According to more reliable sources, demand is low and Overstock is selling its "coins," and getting out.
So let's review. I bet against Overstock and predicted its imminent crash in 2003. My prediction comes true but I lose money in the meantime. I predict the imminent demise of cryptocurrencies, they rally and Overstock is back up to its record highs because it is touting its role as a cryptocurrency pioneer and has 100 million dollars of George Soros' money to prove it.
Okay, let's try this again. Cryptocurrencies are only worth as much as they can be exchanged for in goods and services. At present this "value" is very difficult to use and therefore the "currency" is at best a very risky speculative asset. If Overstock can convince people that its foray into the world of cryptocurrencies will, however, be profitable, then it may actually be worth its current stock price. In other words, the snake-oil salesman always makes money even if the snake-oil isn't real. Having said that, maybe this snake-oil is real and cryptocurrencies do have a place in commerce in the future, in fact I'm sure they do, but I believe that future has not yet arrived. If I'm right, then these values are severely inflated and a major crash is in store. If I'm so certain why don't I bet the farm on it? To paraphrase a quote most often attributed to John Maynard Keynes, "markets can remain irrational longer than I can remain solvent."
Just because you may be correct about the future of an asset, doesn't mean you may be able to profit from that knowledge. My advice for those who just can't stay away from cryptocurrencies: please only risk that which you don't mind losing.