Originally published: November 2017 (updated since then with editor’s notes)
Cryptocurrencies are one of today’s hottest asset classes to invest in. Bitcoin in particular has soared in price from pennies to thousands of dollars per unit within a decade.
But is it all a bubble, like the Dotcom era or tulip mania? Or is this just the start of something bigger, or even revolutionary?
Price is what an investor pays, but value is what an investor gets. It’s easy to look up the current price of Bitcoin, but it’s harder to determine what a realistic value is.
I don’t have the answers to those questions, but this article will provide a framework to help you think about how to value cryptocurrencies for yourself, including explaining a lot of the risks involved.
Start here from the beginning or jump to the section you want:
- Cryptocurrencies 101: A Blockchain Overview
- Bitcoin vs Fiat Currencies vs Precious Metals
- The Difficulty in Valuing Cryptocurrency
- How to Value Bitcoin & Other Cryptocurrency
I originally wrote this article in autumn 2017 when Bitcoin was in the range of $6,000-$7,000, and had a neutral outlook, leaning a bit bearish (with no personal position). I updated the article every few months with new numbers to keep it fresh without changing the main content.
For the next 2.5 years after publication, Bitcoin went up to $20,000 and collapsed to under $4,000, went up to $12,000 and briefly collapsed again to under $4,000, and by April 2020 was back up to $6,000-$7,000. So, it had 2.5 years of sideways, choppy performance after the original publication.
In my premium research service in April 2020, as it came out of that sharp dip, I became bullish and recommended it on April 12th, and initiated a long position in Bitcoin on April 20th at just under $7,000. I then wrote a public articles about Bitcoin during 2020, explaining why I am bullish:
From there, I wrote a series of articles on the subject, which you can read in my digital assets library.
I don’t update this article anymore, but I keep it for legacy purposes, as it still shows my evolution for thinking about digital monetary assets. There are some editor’s notes in the text.
Cryptocurrencies 101: A Blockchain Overview
Bitcoin, the first cryptocurrency, was invented by an anonymous person or group named Satoshi Nakamoto and released publicly online in 2009 as open-source software and a white paper that explains the concept.
Satoshi claimed to be a Japanese man in his thirties, but his identity has never been verified because all of his communication was via the Internet. He wrote with influences of British English, and had sleep/wake cycles according to his online activity that would presumably place him in North America, leading many to believe that he’s not actually Japanese. Or maybe he’s multi-ethnic.
It might not even be a man. It could conceivably be a woman or a group of people. But most likely it’s a man using a pseudonym. And wherever he is, he has about a million bitcoins, worth billions of dollars now, which he has never spent. And he has gone dark; after having invented the concept, he no longer leads it and his whereabouts and identity are unknown.
It’s like a good thriller novel.
Anyway, Bitcoin was invented for the purpose of being a decentralized currency and method of payment. It does not rely on any central authority like a government or bank or Satoshi himself, and is instead completely distributed on numerous clients running open-source Bitcoin software.
At the core of most cryptocurrencies is blockchain technology, which now has applications outside of just cryptocurrencies.
As the Harvard Business Review described:
Contracts, transactions, and the records of them are among the defining structures in our economic, legal, and political systems. They protect assets and set organizational boundaries. They establish and verify identities and chronicle events. They govern interactions among nations, organizations, communities, and individuals. They guide managerial and social action.
The technology at the heart of bitcoin and other virtual currencies, blockchain is an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way.
With blockchain, we can imagine a world in which contracts are embedded in digital code and stored in transparent, shared databases, where they are protected from deletion, tampering, and revision. In this world every agreement, every process, every task, and every payment would have a digital record and signature that could be identified, validated, stored, and shared. Intermediaries like lawyers, brokers, and bankers might no longer be necessary. Individuals, organizations, machines, and algorithms would freely transact and interact with one another with little friction. This is the immense potential of blockchain.
In other words, blockchain is a new foundational technology that uses decentralized encryption to record events publicly. The technology was conceptualized in the 1990s, but not implemented until Satoshi applied the idea to his Bitcoin software and solved the double-spending problem, creating a scarce digital currency that relies not on governments or banks, but on encryption.
With Bitcoin, each user has a private key, which is a giant integer number that acts like a digital signature, and is kept secret, known only to that user. Users then have public addresses (more numbers), that people can send money to for the purpose of a transaction.
You don’t actually “store” bitcoins anywhere. It’s just a public ledger that attributes a certain number of bitcoins to addresses that you control with your private key. The thing you store, is just your private key.
Bitcoins can be “mined” by verifying the transactions of third parties. People can contribute computing power to verifying Bitcoin transactions, and in exchange, the algorithm allows them to create a certain amount of bitcoins for themselves. The total number of bitcoins will max out at 21 million, at which point they can no longer be mined.
Since Bitcoin technology is open-source and not proprietary, other cryptocurrencies can be and have been created, and many of them like Litecoin even have specific advantages over Bitcoin itself, like faster processing times.
Another big blockchain application is for software. Ethereum, now the second largest cryptocurrency, was developed to be broader than Bitcoin in terms of using blockchain technology to transfer various types of value. It is like a decentralized app platform with a built in currency in units of ether. Typical app platforms have a central authority like Google or Apple, and developers can request to put apps on those networks to sell to consumers. Ethereum can do that without the middle man.
Bitcoin vs. Fiat Currencies vs. Precious Metals
You might naturally be asking yourself what the potential advantages of cryptocurrencies are. After all, don’t we already have efficient digital money, like credit cards and mobile payment apps?
Historically, there are two types of money. Precious metals and fiat currencies. Cryptocurrencies are a new, third type.
For thousands of years across several continents, humans have traded valuable commodities as forms of value, to make bartering easier. Any material that has scarcity and desirability and that can be divided into small amounts works well enough, but gold and silver are the near-universal choices.
Gold in particular is rare and pretty, extremely resistant to reaction (i.e. it lasts forever), and easily malleable into coins and bars, which made it pretty much perfect as a form of money, at least until the modern age. It’s no longer practical or even possible to walk around paying gold and silver for things you want to buy, unless government currencies go back to using a direct gold standard. It also has plenty of industrial use due to its chemical properties, but its price level keeps most of its use for money and jewelry.
The main advantage that gold still has is that no government has price control over it. It has inherent value and scarcity all on its own, and is recognized everywhere. Investors view it as catastrophe-insurance, because it will always have at least some form of value and offers protection against inflation, fraud, and economic collapse.
Dollars, pounds, yen, and all other currencies are “fiat currencies”, which means they have no intrinsic value other than that a government has decreed that they are legal tender and require them for the payment of taxes. They can print as much as they want.
Fiat is Latin for “let it be done”. United States dollars have value because the United States government declares that they have value and makes it the only legal tender to pay U.S. taxes with, and people have enough faith in the stability of that declaration to go along with it and use it as a medium of exchange and store of value, even though over time, the dollar has lost most of its purchasing power through inflation of the money supply.
Fiat currencies are convenient, but not without risks. When a government fails, its fiat currency typically hyper-inflates into being worthless. Most fiat currencies ever created have eventually become worthless; the ones that exist now are all fairly recent and have lost most of their purchasing power over time.
Bitcoin was invented to be like a new, modern form of gold and silver. Like some libertarian sci-fi form of money.
It is scarce, durable, portable, divisible, verifiable, storable, relatively fungible, salable, and recognized across borders, and therefore has the properties of money.
It’s digital, and can be used for both in-person transactions and online transactions, assuming both the buyer and seller have the technology and willingness to use it.
It’s decentralized, meaning its existence and value is not tied to any agency, government, corporation, or bank. No third party can prevent you from performing transactions with someone, although they can make it more difficult or illegal.
It’s able to be broken into tiny fractions. You can send someone 0.08235179 bitcoins, for example.
It’s secure, as long as you protect your private key. Bitcoin uses a level of standardized encryption for which even the top supercomputers would take far longer than the current age of the universe to break. The core algorithm is quantum hard, meaning that even theoretical quantum computers of the future won’t be able to break the blockchain itself and alter it. However, the ability to find specific private keys may one day be possible by quantum computers, but there are potential solutions to defend against that, and Bitcoin’s protocol can be updated by consensus if need be.
It can’t be tracked or regulated easily. Although all transactions are on the public ledger, there are steps to distance the user from the transaction, making Bitcoin transactions difficult to trace. However, increasingly sophisticated methods, combined with “Know Your Customer” policies on major fiat-to-crypto entry points like exchanges, have made it far easier to track over time.
You don’t have to trust organizations with your private details. To buy with a credit card, you have to give your credit card info, and occasionally those databases get hacked. But to buy with bitcoins, you never have to give anyone your private key.
For these reasons, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies share some characteristics with precious metals. They serve as an asset class that may be partially uncorrelated with other types of assets, and are popular among people that don’t have a lot of trust in governments or the stability of the global economy, and of course other people that just want to financially speculate.
Unfortunately, this also makes cryptocurrencies perfectly suited for criminal activity. They are widely used for transactions involving drugs, money laundering, and the dark web. (Editor’s note: This isn’t really true anymore, as the asset class matured.)
The Difficulty in Valuing Cryptocurrency
Most buyers and sellers of cryptocurrencies are speculating, meaning they are just looking at price charts and guessing that it may go up or down with technical analysis.
Fundamental investing, on the other hand, uses a bottom-up approach to find the inherent value of something. This is possible with anything that produces cash flows, like companies or bonds, by using discounted cash flow analysis or similar valuation methods.
But when something doesn’t produce cash flows, like commodities, it gets trickier.
In my article on precious metals, I described how there are numerous ways to determine an approximate value for gold and silver, even though they don’t produce cash.
You can, for example, consider how much money it takes to mine those metals out of the ground per ounce, which has significant effects on the supply/demand balance of them.
You can also compare the long-term (multi-decade) inflation-adjusted price of gold and silver, to see how they have changed in purchasing power over time.
Lastly, you can compare them to other commodities, like the gold-to-oil ratio.
There’s no one answer for exactly how much a precious metal or other material is worth, but what those methods can give you is a reasonable range for where the price should be, and helps you identify the specific assumptions you need to make for certain valuation estimates to be correct.
And what makes all of these valuation methods remotely possible is that gold and silver have inherent scarcity; there’s only so much that can be economically mined. In fact, the total volume of all gold ever mined can be fit into a cube of less than 25 meters on each side.
Likewise, any individual cryptocurrency is scarce. For example:
- Bitcoin’s algorithm limits it to 21 million bitcoins total.
- Bitcoin Cash’s algorithm limits it to 21 million bitcoins total
- Litecoin’s algorithm limits it to 84 million litecoins total.
- Ripple’s algorithm limits it to 100 million ripples total.
- Ethereum’s algorithm is flexible, which is a common criticism.
The problem is that although the units of any individual cryptocurrency are scarce, unlike precious metals there is no scarcity at all when it comes to the total number of all cryptocurrencies that can exist. Any programmer can make his or her own cryptocurrency, with the hard part being that it’s worthless until enough people recognize it, adopt it, and begin to trade it around.
Here’s a list of all current cryptocurrencies. There are thousands of them!
Aside from stablecoins that are linked to fiat currency, there are 3 cryptocurrencies that have over a $10 billion market capitalization. Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Ripple are the three that are far in the lead in terms of adoption. Bitcoin in particular has two-thirds market share of the entire cryptocurrency market capitalization, with all other thousands of cryptos together equaling the other one-third.
When I originally wrote this article in 2017, Bitcoin was worth $6,500 or so. It then went on to increased to over $19,000 only to come back down to under $4,000, and since then it has popped back up to over $10,000 and then down to well below $10,000 again. (Editor’s note: I don’t update these numbers here anymore).
Cryptocurrencies will only be worth serious money over the long term if they take off as a method of spending or store of value and a handful of cryptocurrencies continue to make up most of the market share, rather than all cryptocurrencies becoming extremely diluted. So far that is happening; Bitcoin is maintaining market share among the growing number of coins.
One of the ongoing debates has been what the ideal block size should be. Small block sizes greatly slow down the network and make a currency unscalable, while big block sizes require bigger data centers to process, meaning the currency’s network can become highly centralized, which is exactly what users don’t want to happen. Some solutions process transactions off the blockchain and then reconcile them with the blockchain, like batching multiple transactions into one big transaction. However, with Bitcoin’s increasing usage as a store of value rather than a medium of exchange, transaction time has become less important.
All that debate around block sizes and off-chain scaling solutions, plus all the other features of certain currencies, makes it challenging to predict which currencies will end up with dominant market share. Which ones will solve all the primary problems in the best way, and achieve the widest adoption?
These currencies are volatile, their market share is fickle, and updates can result in split currencies, which has happened to both Ethereum and Bitcoin. However, historically when this happens to these major networks, the original network maintains the vast majority of the market share.
How to Determine Bitcoin Value, and Other Cryptocurrencies
Now that we’ve established what cryptocurrencies are and why they are difficult to value, we can finally get into a few methods to approach how to determine their value.
Remember, price is what you pay, value is what you get. A stock can have a higher or lower price than what its value is truly worth, and a cryptocurrency can as well. What is a realistic Bitcoin value?
There’s no way to determine a precise inherent Bitcoin value, but there are certain back-of-the-envelope calculations that can give us a reasonable magnitude estimate for the value of bitcoins or other cryptocurrencies based on certain assumptions.
The trick, of course, is coming up with reasonable assumptions. 😉
Method 1) Quantity Theory of Money
(Editor’s Note: I no longer consider this particularly applicable to Bitcoin because its usage has primarily shifted to being a store of value rather than medium of exchange, but back in 2017, it was one of my frameworks for analyzing it when it was less clear that it would shift in that direction. This approach mainly values it as a medium of exchange, which still makes it worthwhile to be familiar with.)
The century-old equation to value money that anyone who ever took a macroeconomics class has learned is:
MV = PT
- M is the money supply
- V is the velocity of money in a given time period
- P is the price level
- T is the transaction volume in a given time period
If you double the money supply of an economy, and V and T remain constant, then the price P of everything should theoretically double, and therefore the value of each individual unit of currency has been cut in half.
The majority of mainstream economists accept the equation as valid over the long-term, with the caveat being that there’s a lag between changes in money supply or velocity and the resulting price changes, meaning it’s not necessarily true in the short-term. But the long-term is what this article focuses on.
If you know any three of the variables, you can solve for the final one. In other words, we can rearrange it into:
P = (M*V)/T
From that point, P will give us the inverse ratio of Bitcoin to whatever currency we use for our T variable. In other words:
Bitcoin Value = 1/P = T/(M*V)
The total number of bitcoins in existence (M) is a little under 19 million, and it will max out at under 21 million over the next several years based on its algorithm. That’s the easy part.
Now we have to come up with estimates for V and T, which is the hard part.
Let’s start with a velocity example. Suppose you had a town of just two people, a farmer and a carpenter. The only money in the town is that the carpenter has $50. If, in the course of the year, the carpenter buys $30 in carrots and $20 in tomatoes from the farmer, and then the farmer pays the same $50 to the carpenter to build a fence around her property to keep pests out, then a total of $100 in transaction volume (economic activity) has occurred. The money supply is $50, and the velocity of money is 2.
The velocity of the United States M1 (highly liquid) money supply (shown here) hit a high of over 10 in 2007 and is now around 4.
The velocity of the United States M2 (moderately liquid) money supply (shown here) hit a high of 2.2 in 1997 and is currently at less than 1.5.
Currently, the velocity of Bitcoin is much higher on average, but the problem is that a large portion of this velocity is just trading volume, not spending volume. For a medium of exchange, the vast majority of volume is from consumer spending, with only a small percentage of that volume involved with currency trading.
Bitcoin however has a significant percentage of it just being moved around by speculators, rather than people going down to their coffee shop and buying a cup of coffee with some Bitcoin fractions. There’s no way to know what percentage is moved around for spending compared to what percentage is moved around for trading/speculation.
But anyway, we have actual velocity, even if the number itself is questionable, and we have what the typical velocity range of a major fiat currency is. When I value Bitcoin, I will use a range for the velocity value to imagine a few different scenarios.
The final (and hardest) part is T. This is the variable that represents the actual value of goods traded in bitcoins per year.
Let’s start with criminal activity, since that was one of Bitcoin’s original applications. (Editor’s note: This example became less and less relevant over time because as it became easier to track, Bitcoin’s use-case for illegal activity has diminished.)
PwC estimates that global money laundering is $1-$2 trillion per year.
According to CNBC, the United Nations estimates that the global drug trade is worth $400-$500 billion per year, and that organized crime in general clocks in at $800-$900 billion, with much of that figure coming from their drug trafficking.
Most broadly of all, this research paper estimates that the global black market is equal to about 20% of global GDP, or about $15 trillion annually.
If we imagine right now that 10% of the global black market economic activity occurs in Bitcoin and nobody else uses Bitcoin, it would mean $1.5 trillion in goods/services is exchanged Bitcoin per year, which would be immense.
Going back to the Bitcoin = T/(M*V) equation, if M is 17 million bitcoins in existence, and we use V as 10, and T is $1.5 trillion, then each bitcoin should be worth about $8,800. Let’s call that an unrealistic high end estimate.
- If T is $500 billion and V is 10, then each bitcoin is worth under $3,000.
- If T is $100 billion and V is 10, then each bitcoin is worth under $600.
- If T is $10 billion and V is 10, then each bitcoin is worth under $60.
I’m going to argue in my next section that the transaction volume of Bitcoin is on the bottom end of that range. It’s nowhere near $1.5 trillion, and probably not even a tenth of that.
Now, black market activities aren’t the only use of Bitcoin. A variety of companies accept Bitcoin like Microsoft, Overstock, Expedia, Newegg, plus other companies listed here. But it still seems more of a novelty at this point.
Besides estimating the current value of bitcoins, we can estimate the future value of bitcoins.
Suppose that cryptocurrencies really take off, and in ten years, 10% of global GDP trades hands in cryptocurrencies, with half of that being in Bitcoin. At about 2% GDP growth per year, the global GDP in ten years will be about $90 trillion USD, which means $9 trillion in cryptocurrency transactions including $4.5 trillion in Bitcoin transactions per year.
If T is $4.5 trillion, M is 20 million bitcoins in existence by then, and V is 10, then due to the Bitcoin = T/(M*V) equation, each bitcoin should be worth $22,500 by then.
And here’s a bearish scenario. If Bitcoin drops in market share to just 10% of cryptocurrency usage, and cryptocurrencies only account for 1% of GDP in ten years, and M is 20 million and V is 10, then each bitcoin will be worth about $450.
And I mean, it could drop to zero if its usage totally collapses for one reason or another, either because cryptocurrencies never gain traction or Bitcoin loses market share to other cryptocurrencies.
Here’s a table I put together that shows what each bitcoin should be worth in the future with a matrix of different velocity and global annual transaction volume figures in USD. Velocity is on the horizontal axis and transaction volume is on the vertical axis, with the money supply being constant at about 20 million in the near future:
As you can see, there’s a huge range for what bitcoins should be worth in the coming decade or so, depending on how much economic activity they eventually become used for and what the velocity of the coins is.
If you stick to a velocity of 5 or 10 and look down those columns, you can then just focus on what level of economic activity you expect Bitcoin to be used for in the next decade, which will give you a rough idea of what it might be worth at that time.
Method 2) National Currency Comparisons
(Editor’s Note: This is a second medium-of-exchange calculation that is worthwhile to know, but in my opinion no longer a key way to think about cryptocurrency valuation.)
Now, let’s keep it a bit simpler by not worrying about monetary velocity. Let’s just compare cryptocurrency adoption compared to fiat currencies as a rough order of magnitude sanity check.
Trading Economics has a list of the size of the M2 money supply of each country, converted to USD. The United States has over $18 trillion.
Right now, Bitcoin is worth worth $250 to $400 billion. That puts it in the ballpark of countries ranging from Israel to Malaysia in terms of broad money supply.
This chart gives an idea of the active user base of Bitcoin, since the ledger is public. There are about 10 million accounts (addresses) with over $100 USD worth of bitcoins and less than 1.5 million with over $10,000 USD worth of bitcoins. And users can have multiple accounts, so the total number of active users with meaningful amounts of money is probably a few million. For reference, the Bitcoin subreddit has about 1.8 million subscribers.
And then we’re back at the question of how much economic activity (the equivalent of GDP) that actually occurs in Bitcoin from these million or fewer active users. How much of the $400 billion+ global annual drug traffic market uses bitcoins? Or how much of the $15 trillion global black market? How much legal economic activity is occurring in bitcoins? It’s difficult to say.
Considering there are fewer active Bitcoin users than Israel citizens, the average Israeli citizen is quite well off, and most Bitcoin users probably only do a tiny portion if any of their economic activity in Bitcoin, there’s nowhere near as much economic activity in Bitcoin as Israel’s GDP.
But it could be a tenth as much, which means the value of all bitcoins together could be about a tenth as much as Israel’s money supply. That implies Bitcoin is heavily overvalued right now.
If 500,000 people do an average of $10,000 in Bitcoin economic activity per year (not trading, just actual spending), that would only be $5 billion in actual Bitcoin economic activity. That’s a tiny fraction of Israel’s nearly $400 billion economy, and Bitcoin’s total value would be a tiny fraction of Israel’s money supply (therefore just a few billion dollars worth), meaning each bitcoin should be worth like a hundred bucks and it’s currently grossly overvalued in tulip territory.
However, one argument for why Bitcoin is worth more now than it should be based on its estimated current economic activity, is because some people expect its adoption rate to go up quickly.
Suppose for example that within 10 years, Bitcoin surpasses Canadian dollars in terms of economic activity to become a top-ten world currency. Canada has 38 million people and a GDP of $1.8 trillion and their M2 money supply is worth over $1.5 trillion.
If there are 8 billion people in the world in ten years, and 5% of them use Bitcoin, that’ll be 400 million Bitcoin users. If the average Bitcoin user does only 10% of their economic activity in Bitcoin and 90% of their economic activity in typical currencies, then that’s the equivalent of 40 million people using Bitcoin for 100% of their economic activity, or roughly the size of the Canadian economy assuming similar average per-capita economic activity.
If Bitcoin’s reasonable market cap becomes worth, say, $1.5 trillion in that scenario (comparable to Canada’s M2 money supply), and there are 20 million bitcoins in existence by then, each bitcoin would be worth $75,000. That’s a bullish scenario, but not impossible. It explains why some people are willing to pay several thousand dollars per bitcoin today.
Method 3) Pure Store of Value: Percent of Net Worth
(Editor’s note: For Bitcoin in particular, this type of model is one that I still consider to be more valuable at the current time.)
Lastly, let’s compare Bitcoin value to gold value.
As the years go by, cryptocurrency adoption and payment rates are not really increasing by much. Not many businesses accept them and most people don’t seem to care about paying with them. Bitcoin’s usage in particular has shifted more towards being a store of value and a network that allows users to transmit value, rather than as a day-to-day medium of exchange.
Similarly, people buy gold not because they want to spend with it, but because they know it has permanent storage value for its utility. So, let’s assume Bitcoin has shifted to that status, and that it never takes off as an actual form of payment but instead just serves as a store of value for some people. Since Satoshi released the blockchain technology to all, Bitcoin has no unique claim to the underlying technology. Instead, it merely relies on network effects as the first mover in the cryptocurrency space, and money tends to be a “winner take all” game.
The world has about $400 trillion in wealth if translated to U.S. dollars. This consists mainly of stocks, bonds, real estate, business equity, and cash.
All the gold in the world is worth maybe $10 trillion, based on the World Gold Council’s estimate of how much gold has been mined and what the per-ounce price is. In other words, maybe 2-3% of global net worth consists of gold.
This is one way that analysts speculate about potential price movements in gold in a fundamental sense- they ask what if more people want to own gold in their net worth, due to various factors such as currency depreciation? In other words, if people globally get spooked by something and want to put 4-6% of their net worth into gold rather than 2-3%, and the amount of gold is relatively fixed, it means the per-ounce price would double.
If Bitcoin’s total market capitalization achieves half of the global value of gold ($5 trillion, or about 1-2% of global net worth) and the number of bitcoins at that time is 20 million, then each bitcoin would be valued at $250,000
If Bitcoin only achieves 10% as much global value as gold (well under 1% of global net worth), then each bitcoin would be worth about $50,000
If Bitcoin only achieves 5% as much global value as gold, then each bitcoin would be $25,000.
If Bitcoin collectively is only worth 1-2% of gold, then each one is down to $5,000 to $10,000.
Stock to Flow
(Editor’s Note: I added this section in 2019 or so, and don’t update it.)
Each commodity has a stock-to-flow ratio, which is a measure of how much is mined or produced per year compared to how much is stored.
Agricultural commodities, oil, copper, iron, and other industrial commodities generally have stock-to-flow ratios that are below 1x, meaning that the amount of them that is stored is equal to less than one year’s worth of production. Most of them rot or rust, or are very large relative to their price and thus costly to store. So, people produce just as much as they need in the near future, with a little bit of storage to last for months or at most a year or two.
Silver, being a bit more of a monetary metal and thus stored as coins, bullion, and silverware, has a stock-to-flow ratio of over 20x. This means that people collectively have over twenty time’s silver’s annual production ounces stored throughout the world.
Gold, being primarily a monetary metal, has a stock-to-flow ratio of 50-60x, meaning that there is 50-60 years’ worth of production stored in vaults and other places around the world.
When Bitcoin began in 2009, it had a low stock-to-flow ratio, but as more coins have come into existence while the number of new coins produced every 10 minutes has decreased due to its three pre-programmed halving events, its stock-to-flow ratio has kept increasing, and now roughly equals that of gold. Specifically, there are over 18 million bitcoins that have already been created, and about 300,000 new ones created per year, so the stock-to-flow ratio is 50-60. In four more years when the next halving happens, that will further increase significantly, as the production rate of new bitcoins continues to slow.
PlanB has put forth a stock-to-flow model that, as a backtest, does a solid job of categorizing and explaining Bitcoin’s rise in price since inception by matching it to its increasing stock-to-flow ratio over time. The line is the model and the red dots are the price of bitcoin over time. Note that the chart is exponential.
Chart Source: PlanB
The model predicts a six-figure price in the coming years. Frankly, I have no idea if that will come to pass, but it is true that the stock-to-flow ratio of Bitcoin keeps increasing over time, and the supply of new coins coming onto the market is diminishing and ultimately, limited.
With this model, after each halving event every four years (where the number of new bitcoins created every 10 minutes decreases by half), the price of bitcoin eventually shoots up, hits a period of euphoria, and then comes back down to a choppy sideways level. Each of those sideways levels is a plateau that is far above the previous one. The recent level has been fluctuating around the $5,000-$15,000 region, and now it’s moving into the next level, according to that method of analysis.
(Editor’s note: These no longer capture my current thoughts on the asset class.)
Personally, I prefer precious metals to cryptocurrencies when it comes to alternative investments.
They have thousands of years of reliable history, and each precious metal has scarcity and inherent usefulness. They are all chemically unique, especially gold, and there are a very small number of precious metals that exist.
Cryptocurrencies on the other hand, while each one does have scarcity, are infinite in terms of how many total cryptocurrencies can be created. In other words, there is a finite number of bitcoins, a finite number of litecoins, and a finite growth rate of ether, and so forth, but anyone can make a new cryptocurrency.
What this means is that even if cryptocurrencies become popular in usage, they could become so heavily diluted by the sheer number of cryptocurrencies that any given cryptocurrency only has a tiny market share, and thus not much value per unit. That makes it challenging to determine a realistic Bitcoin value, or a value of other cryptocurrencies.
Right now, Bitcoin, Ethereum, and a few other systems have most of the market share. If cryptocurrencies take off in spending usage worldwide, and a small number of cryptocurrencies continue to make up most of the cryptocurrency market share, then it will likely be the case that the leading cryptocurrencies remain valuable, especially if you hold onto all coins when hard forks (currency splits) occur.
Blockchains are an extremely useful technology, and cryptocurrencies based on blockchain technology do have a lot of reputable applications as a means of global exchange.
The engineering method of problem-solving is break a difficult problem into several small parts and then solve them individually, or realize that certain parts are unsolvable and to identify which assumptions need to be made. The benefit of this article is that it quantitatively shows which assumptions are necessarily to justify various cryptocurrency valuations.
Here’s what it takes to come up with a reasonable forward-looking valuation estimate for a given cryptocurrency:
- Understand the numbers and growth rates of how many units can exist in that cryptocurrency. That’s easy.
- Estimate how much economic activity or value storage will occur in total blockchain cryptocurrencies in 5-10 years. That’s hard.
- Estimate how a given cryptocurrency will change or retain market share of total cryptocurrency usage. That’s hard.
Basically, it takes a lot of assumptions to determine anything close to an inherent value for units of any given cryptocurrency. I don’t know to what extent cryptocurrencies will be used for spending in the next 5 or 10 years. And I don’t know which cryptocurrencies will have the dominant market share over time, or if they’ll all be diluted.
But I recognize the largest cryptocurrencies as a reputable (albeit extremely risky) alternative asset class at this time, and it may be worth having a very small portion of a portfolio allocated to a basket of them.
Based on the estimated number of current users and current spending activity (inferred from the number of known addresses, volume information, and so forth) when applying the quantity theory of money, Bitcoin seems greatly overvalued. Bitcoin’s market cap is in the same ballpark as Singapore’s M1 money supply, even though it has far fewer active users and probably far less economic activity per user.
But considering where this technology could go within the next decade and the prices that bitcoins could reach if certain bullish outcomes occur, I don’t consider it tulip mania either for those that truly believe this could become a major global currency. I can at least see a rationale there and the most optimistic numbers do support their thesis.
Bitcoin values could go up by a lot, or they could fall to nothing, and it mostly comes down to how much and how fast Bitcoin or any of these cryptocurrencies can achieve widespread spending usage, if any of them ever do.
Right now, there’s already a lot of optimism backed in; bitcoins and other major cryptocurrencies are extremely expensive compared to their estimated current usage. Investors are assuming that they will achieve widespread adoption and are paying up accordingly. That means investors should apply considerable caution.
(Editor’s note: Check out my digital assets library for more recent thoughts. I also have a resources page with recommended books and services. )