Even though most people don’t even know what they are, Bitcoins increased in value from about $570 to more than $4,300 — an astounding 750% — in just the last year. Because of this huge return, more people, hoping to make a fast fortune, are becoming interested in possibly owning some Bitcoins. That would be very risky.
Bitcoins are a crypto-currency. That means they can be used like a currency, but don’t physically exist like dollar bills. They are an online currency which can be used to buy things. They are digital cash that exist as bits on people’s computers. You can’t put them in a drawer, like dollar bills or gold Krugerrands. Bitcoins are used to complete transactions – just like any currency. Even though they are virtual, rather than physical, they are used like cash when transferred between people through the web.
Being virtual is not inherently a bad thing. The dollars on our financial institution statement, viewed online, are considered real money, even though those are just digital dollars. The fact that Bitcoins aren’t available in physical form is not really a downside, any more than the numbers on your financial statement are not available as physical currency either. Just like we use credit cards or debit cards to transfer value, Bitcoins can be spent in many locations, just like dollars.
What makes Bitcoins unique, versus other currencies, is that there is no financial system, like the U.S. Federal Reserve, managing their existence and value. Instead Bitcoins are managed by a bunch of users who track them via blockchain technology. And blockchain technology itself is not inherently a problem; there are folks figuring out all kinds of uses, like accounting, using blockchain. It is the fact that no central bank controls Bitcoin production that makes them a unique currency. Independent people watch who buys and sells, and owns, Bitcoins, and in some general fashion make a market in Bitcoins. This makes Bitcoins very different from dollars, euros or rupees. There is no “good faith and credit” of the government standing behind the currency.
Why are currencies different from everything else?
Currencies are sort of magical things. If we didn’t have them we would have to do all transactions by barter. Want some gasoline? Without currency you would have to give the seller a chicken or something else the seller wants. That is less than convenient. So currencies were created to represent the value of things. Instead of saying a gallon of gas is worth one chicken, we can say it is worth $2.50. And the chicken can be worth $2.50. So currency represents the value of everything. The dollar, itself, is a small piece of paper that is worth nothing. But it represents buying power. Thus, it is stored value. We hold dollars so we can use the value they represent to obtain the things we want.
Currencies are not the only form of stored value. People buy gold and lock it in a safe because they believe the demand for gold will rise, increasing its value, and thus the gold is stored value. People buy collectible art or rare coins because they believe that as time passes the demand for such artifacts will increase, and thus their value will increase. The art becomes a stored value. Some people buy real estate not just to live on, but because they think the demand for that real estate will grow, and thus the real estate is stored value.
But these forms of stored value are risky, because the stored value can disappear. If new mines suddenly produce vast new quantities of gold, its value will decline. If the art is a fake, its value will be lost. If demand for an artist or for ancient coins cools, its value can fall. The stored value is dependent on someone else, beyond the current owner, determining what that person will pay for the item.
Assets held as stored value can crash
In the 1630s, people in Holland thought of tulip bulbs as stored value. Tulips were desired, giving tulip bulbs value. But over time, people acquired tulip bulbs not to plant but rather for the stored value they represented. As more people bought bulbs, and put them in a drawer, the price was driven higher, until one tulip bulb was worth 10 times the typical annual salary of a Dutch worker — and worth more than entire houses. People thought the value of tulip bulbs would go up forever.
But there were no controls on tulip bulb production. Eventually it became clear that more tulip bulbs were being created, and the value was much, much greater than one could ever get for the tulips once planted and flowered. Even though it took many months for the value of tulip bulbs to become so high, their value crashed in a matter of two months. When tulip bulb holders realized there was nobody guaranteeing the value of their tulip bulbs, everyone wanted to sell them as fast as possible, causing a complete loss of all value. What people thought was stored value evaporated, leaving the tulip bulb holders with worthless bulbs.
While a complete collapse is unlikely, people should approach owning Bitcoins with great caution. There are other risks. Someone could hack the exchange you are using to trade or store Bitcoins. Also, cryptocurrencies are subject to wild swings of volatility, so large purchases or sales of Bitcoin can move prices 30% or more in a single day.
Be an investor, not a speculator, and avoid Bitcoins
There are speculators and traders who make markets in things like Bitcoins. They don’t care about the underlying value of anything. All they care about is the value right now, and the momentum of the pricing. If something looks like it is going up they buy it, simply on the hope they can sell it for more than they paid and take a profit on the trade. They don’t see the things they trade as having stored value because they intend to spin the transaction very quickly in order to make a fast buck. Even if value falls they sell, taking a loss. That’s why they are speculators.
Most of us work hard to put a few dollars, euros, pounds, rupees or other currencies into our bank accounts. Most of those dollars we spend on consumption, buying food, utilities, entertainment and everything else we enjoy. If we have extra money and want the value to grow we invest that money in assets that have an underlying value, like real estate or machinery or companies that put assets to work making things people want. We expect our investment to grow because the assets yield a return. We invest our money for the long-term, hoping to create a nest egg for future consumption.
Unless you are a professional trader, or you simply want to gamble, stay away from Bitcoins. They have no inherent value, because they are a currency which represents value rather than having value themselves. The Bitcoin currency is not managed by any government agency, nor is it backed by any government. Bitcoin values are purely dependent upon holders having faith they will continue to have value. Right now the market looks a lot more like tulip mania than careful investing.
Leaders like to be deciders. Most leaders think of themselves as decision makers. In 2006 President George Bush, defending Donald Rumsfeld as his Defense Secretary said “I am the Decider. I decide what’s best.” It earned him the nickname “Decider-in-Chief.” Most CEOs echo this sentiment. Most leaders like to define themselves by their decisions.
But whether a decision is good or not is open to interpretation. Often immediately after a decision things may look great. It might appear as if that decision was obvious. And often decisions quickly make a lot of people happy.
As we enter the most intense part of the U.S. presidential election, both candidates are eager to tell potential voters what decisions they have made – and what decisions they will make if elected. And most people will look no further than the immediate expected impact of those decisions.
AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File
It takes time to determine the quality of any decision.
However, the quality of most decisions is not based on the immediate, or obvious, first implications. Rather, the quality of a decision is discovered over time, as the consequences are revealed – intended and unintended. Because quite often, what looked good at first can turn out to be very, very bad.
The people of North Carolina passed a law to control the use of public bathrooms. Most people of the state thought this was a good idea, including the governor. But some didn’t like the law, and many spoke up. Last week the NBA decided that it would cancel its All-Star game scheduled in Charlotte due to discrimination issues caused by this law. This change will cost Charlotte about $100 million.
That action by the NBA is what’s called unintended consequences
. Lawmakers didn’t really consider that the NBA might decide to take its business
elsewhere due to this state legislation. It’s what some people call, “Oops. I didn’t think about that
when I made my decision.”
Often unintended consequences are more important than first reactions to decisions.
Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor for President Clinton, was a staunch supporter of unions. In his book Locked in the Cabinet, he tells the story of visiting an auto plant in Oklahoma supporting the local union. He thought his support would incent the company’s leaders to negotiate more favorably. Instead, the company closed the plant. Laid-off everyone. Oops. The unintended consequences of what he thought was obvious support led to the worst possible worker outcome.
President Obama worked Congress hard to create the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, for everyone in America. One intention was to make sure employers covered all their workers, so the law required that if an employer had health care for any workers he had to offer that health care to all employees who worked over 30 hours per week. So almost all employers of part time workers suddenly said that none could work more than 30 hours. Those that worked 32 (four days per week) or 36 suddenly had their hours cut. Now those lower-income people not only had no health care, but less money in their pay envelopes. Oops. Unintended consequence.
President Reagan and his First Lady launched the “War on Drugs.” How could that be a bad thing? Illegal drugs are dangerous, as is the supply chain. But now, some 30 years later, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that almost half (46.3% or over 85,000) of inmates are there on drug charges. The U.S. now spends $51 billion annually on this drug war, which is about 20% more than is spent on the real war being waged with Afghanistan, Iraq and ISIS. There are now over 1.5 million arrests each year, with 83% of those merely for possession. Oops. Unintended consequences. It seemed like such a good idea at the time.
This is why it is so important leaders take their time to make thoughtful decisions, often with the input of many other people. Because the quality of a decision is not measured by how one views it immediately. Rather, the value is decided over time as the opportunity arises to observe the unintended consequences, and their impact. The best decisions are those in which the future consequences are identified, discussed and made part of the planning – so they aren’t unintended and the “decider” isn’t running around saying “oops.”
Think hard about the long-term complications of any decision.
As you listen to the politicians this cycle, keep in mind what could be the unintended consequences of implementing what they say:
- What would be the social impact, and transfer of wealth, from suddenly forgiving all student loans?
- What would be the consequences on trade, and jobs, of not supporting historical government trade agreements?
- What would be the consequences on national security of not supporting historically allied governments?
- What would be the long-term consequence of not allowing visitors based on race, religion or sexual orientation?
- What would be the consequence of not repaying the government’s bonds?
- What would be the long-term impact on economic growth of higher regulations on banks – that already have seen dramatic increases in regulation slowing the recovery?
- What would be the long-term consequences on food production, housing and lifestyles of failing to address global warming?
Business leaders should be very aware of the long-term consequences of their decisions. Every time a decision is necessary, is the best effort made to obtain all the information available on the topic? Are inputs and expectations obtained from detractors, as well as admirers? Is there a balance between not only what is popular, but what will happen months into the future? Did you consider the potential reaction by customers? Employees? Suppliers? Competitors?
There are very few “perfect decisions.” All decisions have consequences. Often, there is a trade-off between the good outcomes, and the bad outcomes. But the key is to know them all, and balance the interests and outcomes. Consider the consequences, good and bad, and plan for them. Only by doing that can you avoid later saying “oops.”
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
I’m a believer in Disruptive Innovation. For almost 100 years economists have written about “Creative Destruction,” in which new technologies come along making old technologies — and the companies built on them — obsolete. In the last 20 years, largely thanks to the insights of faculty at the Harvard Business School, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in understanding how new companies use new technologies to disrupt markets and wipe out the profitability of companies that were once clearly successful. In a large way, we’ve come to accept that Disruptive Innovation is good, and the concomitant Creative Destruction of the old players leads to more rapid growth for the economy, increasing jobs and the wherewithal of everyone. Creative Destruction, in the pursuit of progress, is good because it helps economies to grow.
But, not really everyone benefits from Creative Destruction. The trickle down benefits to lots of people can be a long time coming. When market shifts happen, and people lose jobs to new competitors — domestic or offshore — they only know that their life, at least short term, is a lot worse. As they struggle to pay a mortgage, and find a new job, they often learn their skills are outdated. There are new jobs, but these folks are often not qualified. As they take lesser jobs, their incomes dwindle, and they may well lose their homes. And their healthcare.
Economists call this workplace transition “temporary economic dislocation.” Fancy term. They claim that eventually folks do enter the workplace who are properly trained, and those folks make more money than the workers associated with the previous, now inferior, technology. And, eventually, everyone finds new work – at something.
That’s great for economists. But terrible for the folks who lost their jobs. As someone once said “a recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose your job.” And for a lot of people, the market shift from an industrial economy to an information economy has created severe economic depression in their lives.
A person learns to be a printer, or a printing plate maker, in the 1970s when they are 20-something. Good job, makes a great wage. Secure work, since printing demand just keeps rising. But then along comes the internet with PDF and JPEG documents that people read on a screen, and folks simply quit needing, or wanting, printed documents. In 2016, now age 50-something, this printer or plate-maker no longer has a job. Demand is down, and its really easy to send the printing to some offshore market like Thailand, Brazil or India where printing is cheaper.
What’s he or she to do now? Go back to school you may say. But to learn how to do what? Say it’s online (or digital) document production. OK, but since everyone in the 20s has been practicing this for over a decade it takes years to actually be skilled enough to be competitive. And then, what’s the pay for a starting digital graphic artist? A lot less than what they made as a printer. And who’s going to hire the 58-62 year old digital graphic artist, when there are millions of well trained 20-somethings who seem to be quicker, and more attuned to what the publishers want (especially when the boss ordering the work is 35-42, and really uncomfortable giving orders and feedback to someone her parents’ age.) Oh, and when you look around there are millions of immigrants who are able to do the work, and willing to do it for a whole lot less than anyone native born to your country.
In England last week these disaffected people made it a point to show their country’s leadership that their livelihoods were being “creatively destroyed.” How were they to keep up their standard of living with the flood of immigrants? And with the wealth of the country constantly shifting from the middle class to the wealthy business leaders and bankers? And with work going offshore to less developed countries? While folks who have done well the last 25 years voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU (such as those who live in what’s called “The City”), those in the suburbs and outlying regions voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU. Sort of like their income gains, and jobs, left them.
A whole lot of anger. To paraphrase the famous line from the movie Network, they were mad as Hell and they weren’t going to take it any longer. Simply put, if they couldn’t participate in the wonderful economic growth of EU participation, they would take it away from those who did. The point wasn’t whether or not the currency might fall 10% or more, or whether stocks on the UK exchange would be routed. After all, these folks largely don’t go to Europe or America, so they don’t care that much what the Euro or dollar costs. And they don’t own stocks, because they aren’t rich enough to do so, so what does it hurt them if equities fall? If this all puts a lot of pain on the wealthy – well just maybe that is what they really wanted.
America is seeing this as well. It’s called the Donald Trump for president campaign. While unemployment is a remarkably low 5%, there are a lot of folks who are working for less money, or simply out of work entirely, because they don’t know how to get a job. They may laugh at Robert De Niro as a retired businessman now working for free in The Intern. But they really don’t think it’s funny. They can’t afford to work for free. They need more income to pay higher property taxes, sales taxes, health care and the costs of just about everything else. And mostly they know they are rapidly being priced out of their lifestyle, and their homes, and figuring they’ll be working well into their 70s just to keep from falling into poverty.
These people hate President Obama. They don’t care if the stock market has soared during his presidency – they don’t own stocks (and if they do in a 401K or similar program they don’t care because it does them no good today). They don’t care that he’s created more jobs than anyone since Reagan or Roosevelt, because they see their jobs gone, and they blame him if their recent college graduate doesn’t have a well-paying job. They don’t care if America is closing in on universal health care, because all they see is that health care is becoming ever more expensive – and often beyond their ability to pay. For them, their personal America is not as good as they expected it to be – and they are very, very angry. And the President is a very identifiable symbol they can blame.
Creative Destruction, and disruptive innovations, are great for the winners. But they can be wildly painful to the losers. And when the disruptive innovations are as big, and frequent, as what’s happened the last 30 years – globalized economy, nationwide and international super banks, outsourcing, offshoring and the entirety of the Internet of Things – it has left a lot of people really concerned about their future. As they see the top 1% live opulent lifestyles, they struggle to keep a 12 year old car running and pay the higher license plate fees. They really don’t care if the economy is growing, or the dollar is strong, or if unemployment is at near-record lows. They feel they are on the losing end of the stick. For them, well, America really isn’t all that great anymore.
So, hungry for revenge, they are happy to kill the goose for dinner that laid the golden eggs. They will take what they can, right now, and they don’t care if the costs are astronomical. They will let tomorrow sort out itself, in a bit of hyper-ignorance to evaluate the likely outcome of their own actions.
Despite their hard times, does this not sound at the least petty, and short-sighted? Doesn’t it seem rather selfish to damn everyone just because your situation isn’t so good? Is it really in the interest of your fellow man to create bad outcomes just because you’ve not done well?