Today is one of those days when I feel blessed to have such wonderful and interesting people in my life.
A few months ago I introduced you to Ben Yu, a Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur who’s easily one of the most unique people I know.
I first met Ben when he came to our summer entrepreneurship camp a few years ago.
I knew instantly that he was bright… and different.
He had already won the prestigious Peter Thiel fellowship, dropped out of Harvard, and started a successful company (in which I invested, alongside many of our Total Access members).
Among his many talents and interests, Ben is heavy into cryptocurrency.
And a few days ago as he was reading the latest Howard Marks investment memo, something caught his eye.
Howard Marks, of course, is the billionaire founder of Oaktree Capital.
His regular investment memos are highly insightful, and on Monday we told you about the latest commentary in which Marks cast a stark warning to investors.
Marks plainly states in his latest commentary that market valuations are at their highest levels in history…
… that complacency is at record levels, i.e. investors seem to think that the good times will last forever…
… that risk levels are quite high, while returns are incredibly low…
… and that investors are engaging in some damn foolish behavior.
Among them, Mark cites multiple examples of how investors are lining up to buy bonds issued by bankrupt governments.
In June, for instance, Argentina issued billions of dollars worth of bonds with a 100-year maturity.
Bear in mind that Argentina defaulted at least five times on its debt in the previous 100 years.
So it seems likely that the miniscule return investors will receive completely fails to compensate them for the risks they are taking.
Marks also wrote about cryptocurrency as an example of foolish behavior.
On the topic of Bitcoin, ether, etc., Marks states simply, “They’re not real!” and “nothing but an unfounded fad.”
And so… my friend Ben Yu took the liberty of emailing Howard Marks to engage him on the topic of cryptocurrency.
Ben was polite, but incisive as always, saying that Bitcoin is “no more or less real than any shared concept of money. . .”
His point is that the dollar isn’t “real” either. It’s merely a concept that people believe in.
Plus, over 90% of all US dollars in circulation, in fact, are already in digital form.
When you log in to your bank account and see a number printed on a screen, that account balance exists almost exclusively in bank databases. There’s very little “real” paper currency that exists.
So in this respect the dollar is also predominantly a digital currency.
The primary structural difference between the dollar and Bitcoin is that the dollar is completely centralized.
It’s controlled by an unelected committee of central bankers who wield dictatorial authority over its quality and supply.
Bitcoin, on the other hand, is DECENTRALIZED, i.e. controlled by its community of users.
Currencies have existed in various forms since nearly the dawn of civilization, and our ancestors used everything imaginable as a medium of exchange.
Salt. Rice. Giant, immovable stones. Gold.
In the early days of the United States back in the late 1700s, people even commonly used whiskey as a medium of exchange. Worst case you could always drink it.
Each of those currencies worked because people had confidence in them.
In Medieval Japan people knew that if they received rice as a payment, that same rice would be accepted as payment for goods or services somewhere else.
For people who truly understand cryptocurrency, Bitcoin has inspired similar confidence for its users.
And with good reason. The technical design of Bitcoin solves a number of major problems that plague conventional banking and monetary systems.
But if you don’t understand something, it’s hard to trust it. It’s hard to have confidence in it.
Howard Marks admits he is in that camp. And he actually responded to Ben. Personally.
I thought that was pretty cool. And he was quite gracious.
In his reply, he agreed with the value premise of cryptocurrency, saying “The dollar has value because people accord value to it. Bitcoin may be no different.”
But he went on to conclude that
My issue is that (as I understand it), people can create their own bitcoin, whereas they can’t create their own dollars. . . To me, the idea that people can create currency and have it accepted as legal tender makes no sense. But maybe I just don’t understand.
It was an honest, thoughtful response. And one that Ben has probably heard a number of times before. I certainly have.
Marks is a highly accomplished, sophisticated investor. And he admits he doesn’t understand Bitcoin.
I know a number of other accomplished, sophisticated investors, many of whom are household names. They don’t understand it either.
It’s common in human nature to fear, or at least be suspicious, of what we don’t understand.
And that’s the typical refrain I hear from very sharp financial minds, “I don’t understand Bitcoin, I think it’s a scam.”
Ignorance doesn’t make something a scam.
And given how big the cryptocurrency opportunity is, it’s certainly worth learning about before passing judgment.
Cryptocurrency is the future. Governments, major banks, tax authorities, stock exchanges, and even central banks are moving towards crypto.
It’s worth understanding.
But frankly it works both ways: while it’s foolish to disregard something out of ignorance, it may be even more foolish to buy something that you don’t understand.
Countless people are buying Bitcoin right now with zero understanding of its structure, challenges, or opportunities.
They’ve never heard of hash functions or SegWit. They’re just gambling that the price is going higher.
This is crazy.
There is absolutely no substitute for learning.
And if you’re looking for an easy place to get started, Ben also took the liberty of writing an easy-to-understand article: Cryptocurrency 101.
You can read it here.