Life as I see it podcast episode #11 Bitcoin pt.2

 

This is my second podcast about Bitcoin. In it, I mention some links where you can read about some of the potential problems with bitcoins and then talk at length about some of the other potential uses of the protocol. Notice how I keep using the word potential? The links for the pitfalls are rather technical from an economics point of view, I don’t think there is any real discussion of the cryptology or network configuration. Ran across a great article in the NYT. Do read it, I found a lot to be interested in it.

 

How and Why Bitcoin will Plummet in Price by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution

The Marginal Cost of Cryptcurrency by Robert Sams at cryptonomics.org

A list of 83 different cryptocurrencies

Why Bitcoin Matters from the New York Times by Marc Andressen

 

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Life as I see it podcast episode #9 Bitcoin

 

My friend Mary had asked me to talk a bit about Bitcoin. It turned out to be a more complex topic than I had realized. In this podcast I talk about what Bitcoin is, what are the advantages and disadvantages of it, and some of the more important aspects of it. I think the even more powerful aspects of Bitcoin is still to come. I’ll do another podcast about those…

Something I mentioned that I’d get back to but didn’t in the podcast was the ability to do multiple transactions with the same bitcoins. It is possible to game the system but you would have to have 51% of the processing power of the entire bitcoin mining capacity. This became a bit of an issue the other day when the largest group of bitcoin miners announced that they control 45% of the processing power of the whole network. They did come out and say that they had no plans of going over the 51% level. Makes sense that they wouldn’t want to wreck the system, after all, they would be in the position to lose the most if they called into question the integrity of the system.

I mentioned that fees are low because miners are rewarded in bit coins. It isn’t clear how that will change once you can no longer mine new bitcoins.

 

Here are some extra links to read up on Bitcoin:

 

Bitcoin wiki. Wikipedia is always a good place to start for an overview.

Bitcoin values in different currencies. 

Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution talking about the problems of Bitcoin competitors. 

Horace Deidu of Asymco talking on The Critical path podcast about Bitcoin. A rambling, expansive talk on Bitcoin.

 

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"He saved the American auto industry"

I keep hearing about how Obama saved the US auto industry and I don’t understand why this is going unchallenged. FIrst off, by “US auto industry” they must not mean Ford, and it does include a majority foreign owned company. And by “saved” they mean that GM and Chrysler were prevented from going through the regular bankruptcy process. This companies were never in danger of disappearing altogether. How many airlines have gone through bankruptcy? Answer: all of them save Southwest. There isn’t any reason to think that GM would have gone away. What happened instead was that the Obama administration jumped in and did things their way. What happened? Bondholders like pensions, mutual funds (which are common 401k investments) hedge funds, and any other retail investor got 5 cents on the dollar despite the fact that they should have been first in line for compensation. The government ended up getting around 87 cents on the dollar and the UAW got about 76 cents on the dollar.

This was a pure political play. Right now the government is sitting on 10 billion dollars of GM stock and is currently sitting on a stock loss of about 16 billion. That’s a cool $26 billion all in order to secure UAW, and by extension unions in general, votes. That’s just at GM. Any job can be saved if you through enough money at it. It would have been far cheaper to simply mail a check to the people that lost their jobs via regular bankruptcy hearings and much more equitable.

Funnily enough, I don’t like the fact that taxpayers are out 26 billion and Obama spinning it as a success. The fact that it is trumpeted as a reason to vote for him makes my head spin.

Investment grade debt

Most actual investment (as opposed to places to park your money) involves buying debt. Or to put it another way, you loan money with the hope of making more later on. Bonds are the most common way to do direct investment, you have a time frame and a specific rate of interest. Stock IPO’s are another way of investing in a company. 

When you buy a bond from a company, you look at how likely it is that you’ll be repaid based on the business involved. If its a good company with good products, they will create profits and be able to pay you your interest. But what about municipal and sovereign debt? There are no profits to be had, just ongoing tax collection. On the face of it, that seems pretty safe, that’s what governments do after all. But all isn’t well in tax land. Europe continues to crumble, their very currency may go away. When that happens, there is an excellent chance that the folks that loaned them those Euros will be left holding the bag. We’re also hearing about more and more municipalities declaring bankruptcy. A casual glance at states like California make you wonder how safe those bonds are as well. 
My (perhaps not so humble) suggestion is to invest in productive, profitable businesses instead relying on tax collection for your investment. It’s common sense really, invest in things that have upside! Or think of it this way, how much do you trust politicians? How much do you trust that they’ll do the smart thing with your money? More and more we’re seeing what that trust will get you, a lot less money.

Italy is taking on water

Italy has now officially gone over the “Oh Shit!” threshold for financing its debt. It can’t roll over its debt obligations when the interest is north of 7%. There are talks of the IMF getting involved which means that the US taxpayers may end up footing some of this before its over. Germany is supposedly looking at drafting language to allow countries to leave the Euro zone. They have gone from wanting to do anything to keep the Euro going to this in the span of a few weeks. Greece was manageable, but Italy is not. If they are able to scramble and eek out some sort of something or other to keep Italy from defaulting, it will totally tap out Europe. What about the other countries teetering on the brink? Spain, Portugal, Ireland. Hell, even France isn’t looking so hot.

It’s looking bad. I hate sounding like a broken record, but it is painful to watch this unfold. There’s no question that Europe’s issues are going to depress everything even if they manage not to drag anyone else down with them. I really worry that the Obama administration, or even the Fed on its own (can they do that?) will jump in and try to bail out Italy. The IMF is a back door way of doing it, but there may need to be much more cash needed than is in the coffers of the IMF. It’s not as though we have any money to send them of course, any aid we send would be in the form of printing vast sums of money, again. At some point, worthless currency will be chasing bad debt. It would have to come to a crashing halt at some point, right?

What needs to happen is what econo-wonks call “deleveraging”. In regular speak, that means writing off and clearing away debt. Clearly, there is far more debt than there is funds to pay for it, so a lot of people that bought those bonds will have lost all that money that they “invested.” Treasury bonds have microscopic yields right now. As James Grant has pointed out, you earn interest in exchange for debt. Right now, treasuries will pay you less than the inflation rate, so you’d be losing money. Money market funds are currently paying a single basis point in interest. That is one one hundredth of a percentage point. As Mr. Grant says, it is “the profitless assumption of risk.” Every place you put your money has risk, if you put it in something that pays you nothing, all you have is risk…

It looks like everything is bound to go down in value during this mess, everyone is going to lose something. Gold is looking like a good way to store your value… probably. I still like my idea, wait for stocks to take a big hit and then get my money out of the money market fund. I’m hoping to jump in at a point where most of the losses have already occurred, but trying to call the bottom of a market is always a fool’s errand. I don’t have a good idea when the best time will be for buying stuff, but I hope I know it when I see it!

 

Hold on folks, it’s going to get ugly!

Planning for disaster update

Ok, the moment I withdrew the bulk of my portfolio from stocks, the market went on a bull run. Grrr.. That’s the thing about being conservative, you avoid the downside, but you miss the breakouts too.

 

Still, noting has changed for the better in Europe. There’s still a lot of shuffling of deck chairs over there. It all looks pretty flimsy. Greece is still on the verge of default, and there’s no telling how that is going to affect the rest of Europe, but it won’t be good. Both Italy and France are facing downgrades on their debt. In response, the ECB is about to ban the reports of downgrades… Like I said, I’m still sure of what is going to happen, we’ll see how the next 4 or 5 months play out. I’m still sitting on mostly cash and I think that will be the best position when the events in Europe start to unfold.

Planning for disaster

From Megan McArdle’s blog:

 

“In an interview with IMF advisor Robert Shapiro, the bailout expert has pretty much said what, once again, is on everyone’s mind: “If they can not address [the financial crisis] in a credible way I believe within perhaps 2 to 3 weeks we will have a meltdown in sovereign debt which will produce a meltdown across the European banking system. We are not just talking about a relatively small Belgian bank, we are talking about the largest banks in the world, the largest banks in Germany, the largest banks in France, that will spread to the United Kingdom, it will spread everywhere because the global financial system is so interconnected. All those banks are counterparties to every significant bank in the United States, and in Britain, and in Japan, and around the world. This would be a crisis that would be in my view more serrious than the crisis in 2008…. What we don’t know the state of credit default swaps held by banks against sovereign debt and against European banks, nor do we know the state of CDS held by British banks, nor are we certain of how certain the exposure of British banks is to the Ireland sovereign debt problems.”

 

Sounds pretty dire. The good news is that it is two to three weeks away. If you’re going to have a banking crisis, it’s best to have it in slow motion. I’ve been worried about this for a while and it struck me the other day, this is an ideal investment situation. There’s no reason to go down with the ship. I liquidated the vast majority of my holdings in my 401k and am now mostly in cash. I closed out my stocks with a small profit. Now I’ll wait until things implode and buy when stocks are cheap. Foolproof, right?

Welllllll, there’s one little problem. My cash is actually held in a money market fund. Those are usually considered the safest types of accounts and are treated just like cash. The potential problem is that if the credit default swaps (essentially insurance against going bankrupt), are what the above paragraph was taking about, that’s the counter party risk that can bring down the banking system. If a CDS needs to be redeemed, money sitting in money market funds will be a likely place to get the money necessary to pay out the claims. Oh, and my 401k isn’t FDIC insured, so if the money market goes away, so does all of my retirement.

So what to do? I really don’t feel like losing a lot of money like I did the last time the stock market melted down. I was overseas and out of touch in 2008, this is unfolding slowly enough that I feel like I should be able to avoid it. My plan is to act quickly once things look bad. I hope to buy as soon as things tank.

 

Of course if we’re all lucky, this won’t happen. I won’t be in any worse of a situation. I do want to be prepared if things come to a head though. Hang on to your hats folks, this could get rough. Oh, and stay away from bank stocks:)

Competing currencies (Good news from Zimbabwe)

Zimbabwe has been the poster child of central bank excess but this article from the Globe and Mail talks about how they have gotten out of their inflation hole and has given them a chance to get back to normal. They still have lots of trouble, but at least their currency isn’t hamstringing them any longer. How did they rebound from 89.7 sextillion percent inflation? They abandoned their currency. They allowed people to use whatever they wanted as money.

The effect has been dramatic. Folks use The Rand, the dollar, the pound, the euro, and the kwacha and things are functioning again. It has removed the Zimbabwean central bank from the equation and has forced the government to spend only what it has on hand. The government has abetted this by first announcing that the Zimbabwean currency was no longer valid and then allowing people to use whatever they want.

Backing a currency with gold or silver has a lot of logistical issues regardless of the wisdom of it. Competing currencies are a valid alternative to enforce discipline on central banks. If we can’t control them, we should at least have the ability to leave them when we want to.

What happens when the Fed has an auction and nobody shows up?

Yesterday, yields on treasuries jumped from 3.51% to 3.78%. That hasn’t happened since 1980. What happened? Well, the big news is that the Chinese didn’t show up. So they didn’t buy any of our debt. Neither did pension funds or insurance companies. Uh oh. This could be bad. If what we have to pay to service our debt goes up too much, we will be in much worse shape than before. Our interest payments will eat up more and more of our budget. Here’s to hoping that we can keep those prices down…

Things seem to be falling apart

Wow wee, that was a rough couple of days. I’m sure there’s going to be more panic selling the rest of this week too. The strange thing is that the downgrade doesn’t seem to have hurt treasuries, people seem to be flocking to them as a safe haven even though those are the things that are no supposedly less safe. Weird.

We’re also waiting for Europe to finally fall over under its own weight. Of the countries in the eurozone, only Germany looks OK. Now Italy, France, and Belgium are drawing attention along with the usual suspects of Ireland, Greece, Spain, and Portugal. Of course American banks are covering the European banks…

This latest market crash makes me glad I’m not in mutual funds. When the market tanks, so do the funds. The problem is that there isn’t a good way to know if your fund is going to rebound, if they have chosen poorly, or how they will rebalance their portfolio. All of my retirement is in individual stocks. We always hear that is more risky than mutual funds. Maybe it is under normal situations, you never know when a seemingly healthy company can go south. But when the market tanks, it is far easier to make decisions on what to let go, what to keep, and what to buy. I did unload a few stocks when it was clear that things were going to go down. My portfolio has dropped in value of course, but I know that what I have kept is going to be OK. It is reassuring to look at my stocks and know why I have invested in them instead of gnashing my teeth over what idiots the fund managers are. I’m the only idiot running my account and I’m glad for it right now.