Bitcoin: The Inflation-proof E-Currency of the Future, or Not

Bitcoin LogoIf I were to design a new currency I would design something very much like BitCoin.  It is a digital currency with about 6.5 million units in circulation. BitCoin will never have more than 21 million units of currency in circulation…. ever.  Bitcoin is divisible into tiny fractions of a unit down to millionths of a BitCoin and smaller.

BitCoin is digital money.  Imagine PayPal but without the hassle, or the commissions.  Image digital gold.  Gold which is mined (by computers), but has a known maximum supply of 21 Million ounces.

Gold’s value is largely related to its relative rareness.  Gold’s usefulness is pretty limited except as jewelry and a form of currency.  Industrial uses of gold consume only a small fraction of gold’s supply.  And gold can be mined faster than it is consumed.

Gold cannot be as easily traded or exchanged as BitCoins.  Yes gold ETFs can be exchanged for cash which in turn can be used for web transactions, but this is a multi-step process.  BitCoins, however, can be easily exchanged from person-to-person or person-to-business with ease.

Today each BitCoin is worth more than $13.  BitCoin valuations have fluctuated rapidly.  One person, according to Forbes, turned $20,000 into $3 million by buying Bitcoins early then selling them for a killing.

BitCoins may one day be worthless relics on discarded hard drives.  Or BitCoins may become the E-commerce alternative replacing PayPal.  Right now BitCoins seem to be priced about what the current mining cost will bear.  The cost of mining is measured in 1) electricity (energy) and 2) depreciation of the graphics cards used to mine new BitCoins.  This tends to put a short-term ceiling on BitCoin prices.  However, the BitCoin system makes the cost of BitCoin mining escalate geometrically.  Eventually, if all goes optimally, the mining cost will be come prohibitively expensive.

If BitCoins gain wider and wider acceptance I anticipate they will hold or increase in value.  However if either of the following happen they will end up virtually worthless: 1)  BitCoins simply don’t gain wide acceptance, and lose acceptance over time.  2) The algorithmic infrastructure underlying BitCoin is found to be flawed.  There is yet another alternative:  That a BitCoin-like system is created the competes with the original BitCoin.  Finally one more possibility:  various governments outlaw BitCoins.

In closing, BitCoin is a brilliant idea and a risky “investment”.  It is riskier than gold, silver, or index ETFs.  It is similar in risk to buying options, because the value can rapidly go to zero.  However, it is an interesting speculative play that is potentially inflation-proof.  Inflation-proof because, unlike government currencies, the printing presses (BitCoin mines), are held in check.  Buying 1500 dollars worth of BitCoins is no sillier to me than buying a $1500 gold coin. Just make sure you guard your BitCoins like you would your expensive gold coin… security, security, security.   Because BitCoins can be stolen, just like gold.  And they can be stolen without the thief even setting foot in your house.

401k Plan Redux (Coming Soon to Your Company?)

Poker Chips (financial asset allocation)My current employer is radically revamping its 401K plan.  I have noticed that companies tweak their 401K plans about annually, and dramatically change them every 5-7 years.  This time it’s big. One of the choices allows for both ETF and mutual funds purchases.  The EFT option has me excited.

So far in my career I have worked for three Fortune 500 technology companies.  Long story short, I have two 401Ks and a couple IRAs.  Between them I have about 8% invested in ETFs and the rest in mutual funds.  After the 401K redux, I’ll likely have about 30/70 ETF to mutual fund mix.  I’ll keep my asset allocation largely the same, but I’ll work out a bit of math here and there to do so.  Some mutual funds stay, some funds go, some switch to higher expense-ratio versions, and some are frozen from new money after a certain date.  Over time my retirement assets may approach a 50/50 ETF-to-mutual-fund ratio.

A similar 401K change may be coming your way soon.  The booming ETF trend is continuing unabated with over $1 trillion dollars in assets under management in 2010; some predict that doubling by 2015.  Why?  1) Institutional investors like ETFs, 2) retail investors like ETFs, 3) exchanges like ETFs, 4) brokerages like ETFs.  Generally for the same reason: lower costs.

The upside of more options is access to better options and greater potential for diversification.  The downside is trading fees for ETFs… $7.95 under the new 401K paradigm.  Wise, infrequent purchases can mitigate trading costs.  This requires a bit of financial planning, but is not really a big deal for serious investors.  And there are ~25 ETFs that trade for free.  One can invest in them every paycheck (like buying EEM for free) then periodically, every 6 months or one year, bite the bullet to sell EEM (for free) and buy the better ETF VEU.  Brilliant — low fees and true dollar-cost averaging.  [Not my idea, but a good one.]

In summary, fear not the change to more ETF-centric investing.  Your particular company may pull a fast one on you… but in many cases not.   Read ALL the fine print before determining the case.  I’m glad I did, and I sense greater investing opportunity.

Advertising and Promoting a Small Business

{EAV_BLOG_VER:520117bfcf76c4b9}   See the odd characters at the start of this blog post?  They are just part of my effort to build my small business.  The allow another website, in this case Empire Avenue to verify that I own this finance blog.  Promoting and growing a small business is a marathon.  That’s why I’m thinking of starting yet another venture, websqurl.com, to help bloggers and small businesses build their web presence in a very “white-hat” way.

Sorry for this bit of shameless promotion.  I’ll be right back to real finance blog posts soon.  Ya know… personal finance, ETFs, savings, investing… that kind of stuff.

9.2% Unemployment, not just for Europe

Not hiring 2011 When did I wake up in Europe? I want to go home, to the USA that I remember.  9.2% unemployment is for France and Italy.  I’ve been to these countries — nice places to visit — but not to work hard and get ahead.  High unemployment is cultural, normal, systematic.

Is Germany the new USA?  It’s the only European country doing well.  Germany has pride and strength of purpose.  Germany has its fiscal house together.

Is the USA becoming the next France?  Jobs for government workers, modest jobs security for those with jobs, and very few prospects for the unemployed and for recent college graduates.

The fixes for our current economic mess are not rocket science.  I agree with Bill Clinton’s recent comments… the corporate tax rate needs to be reduced.  The U.S. government needs to reduce the self-employment tax that is a huge drain on U.S. small businesses.  Congress and the Administration need to encourage, rather than stymie, domestic oil and natural gas production.  Finally,  an intervention is needed to halt Washington’s latest spending bender.  Washington has been drunk behind the wheel of a massive M1 tank, trying to drive the economy, whilst drifting lane to lane and taking out the odd car here and there.   That tank, fueled by 14+ trillion of debt, is about to find the price of fuel is about to rise.

Now is not the time for platitudes, or experiments.  Now is the time for prudent action.

I am sad that the Space Shuttle is being retired.  Such action is merely a symbol of where the US Government, en masse, sees the USA heading.  This need not be the case.  The US, as a whole, has all that we need to succeed.  We are are free, independent, creative, and motivated.   The US has shown repeatedly the resilience to challenge adversity and thrive.  Why so few lawmakers can see this — communicate this — is baffling to me.  Are they simply economically ignorant?  Or indifferent?

Until some economically sane action emerges from Washington, I am hedging my personal finances.  I’m positioning against the real possibility of long-term, government-sponsored inflation.  I’m factoring in the likelihood of the government CPI (CPI-U Urban Consumer Price Index)  understating true inflation and overstating the real US GDP.

There is a chance, a glimmer of a chance, that the current debt ceiling negotiations will lead to economically sound changes.  I think the chances of that are less than 20%.  I will watch closely and act accordingly.

Entrepreneur in Training

Small Biz Business PlanWalking to the Rockies game yesterday, I was struck by the bustling entrepreneurial spirit on display.  From the myriad pop-up game-day parking lots (ranging from $25 – $40 per spot), to the ticket sellers (“I buy tickets”, means “I sell tickets”), to the independent street vendors outside the ballpark marketing peanuts and beverages for half the in-ballpark price.

I have been an entrepreneur in training for most of my life.  For much of that time I didn’t associate the term entrepreneur with what I was doing, nor would I have been able to spell it.  Yet there were several entrepreneurial things I did even before graduating from high school.

  • Ran a paper-route (at age 12)
  • Door-to-door newspaper sales.  To get more revenue and “signing bonuses”
  • Picked up odd jobs to make a few bucks.  Jobs like fence painting, baby sitting & lawn mowing
  • Traded collectible cards… for fun and for profit
  • Built a “sluice-box” and panned for gold

In college I did even more.  I was trading and auctioning collectible cards via Usenet and the Web… in addition to trading face-to-face.  I found that trading up (trading several lower-value cards for one or two high-value cards) was my most lucrative strategy for making money.  I had to give up my personal collector’s mindset; to be willing to break up my collections when good deals became available.    I learned to put together targeted, marketable, ready-to-use (turnkey) sets in order persuade folks to part with one of their rare, sought-after cards.  As I got more market savvy, I learned to trade high convenience for high value.  This helped hone my fledgling negotiation skills.

I built up a reputation as a trustworthy vendor/trader who represented the quality of my cards honestly, who mailed them promptly, and packaged them carefully so they arrived in good condition.  I was doing this before anyone ever heard of eBay.

In college, I developed a software product called Visual Math 3D.  Looking through my notes, the proposed company structure was:

EngimaSoft, a division of Paradigm Software, a branch of Millennium Corp.

No shortage of boldness there!  I see now that others have grabbed most of these names.  Good for them, they are good names.

Visual Math 3D had a logo and marketing pitch for the cover of the box.  Unfortunately, I had too much school work (and school play) to bring the software to market.  Had I been more business-savvy at the time I would have brought in one or two partners to help market the product.  Who knows… it could have grown into a competitor of Mathematica, AutoCAD, or Excel — it had aspects of all three.

I continue to be an entrepreneur in training.  I’ve learned a few things.

  1. Business cards:  I have business cards now! 🙂
  2. Smile, listen, and mingle.
  3. Listen to feedback.
  4. Keep your sales pitch short, then converse like a real human being, not a sales droid.
  5. Market both yourself and your company/venture.  Online and offline.
  6. Market to people who are actually interested.  Don’t waste time selling ice to Eskimos.
  7. Advertising.  A necessary evil.  Yes, you will likely have to part with some capital to grab the right people’s attention in a positive way.
  8. Branding.  Logos, tag lines, style.  Done right branding creates a sense of professionalism, familiarity, and trust.

Financially my most successful ventures have not been lofty, swing-for-the-fences efforts.  Balhiser LLC’s rental property has earned over $10,000 and prospects remain good.   The Sigma1 proprietary-trading group is currently up $2700, but markets are fickle.  My card trading activities netted about $1200 over 4 years.  My paper route earned about $1100 over 1.5 years.

Except for the rental property business, all my business ventures have been self financed and operated on shoe-string budgets.  They have also been part-time, night and weekend activities.  I have a full-time career in engineering, and while my employer hasn’t given me the golden handcuffs yet, I do wear a nice silver pair.  Thus entrepreneurship will continue to be a part-time activity

My entrepreneurial successes have been modest, yet I am undaunted (at least most of the time).  Today I am a minor league entrepreneur.   I believe that within the next ten years I am likely to make it to the majors, because I have good ideas, tenacity, and passion.  Luckily I know several successful entrepreneurs, and I listen to and learn from them.  They encourage and inspire me when I need a little emotional support.

Entrepreneurship is not for everyone.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to teach in a classroom; entrepreneurship must be experienced.  It can be fraught with setbacks and dead ends.  Passion can turn lead to burnout and frustration.  Yet entrepreneurship can be exhilarating, stimulating, empowering, fulfilling and fun.

Entrepreneurs continue to drive the US economy.   The best, most concise, most creative ideas come from entrepreneurs .  Entrepreneurs also deliver mundane, but necessary goods and services ranging from car washes, to restaurants, street-side baseball snacks,  and rental properties.

The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in the US.   Recessions wipe out jobs, and some of the unemployed try out an entrepreneurial path.  While many fail, some succeed.  Some that succeed thrive, and build the businesses of tomorrow.  These people create not only jobs for themselves, they create jobs for others.  They drive innovation and keep America competitive.

I am not expert on entrepreneurship, but I am an entrepreneur.  I work with other entrepreneurs and admire their spirit.  While Washington pays lip-service to entrepreneurs, it seems to be ignoring the obstacles it puts into place, impeding entrepreneurs:

  • Self-employment taxes.  Small business pays Social Security and Medicare twice on every dollar earned.  Even on the very first dollar.
  • Employment and payroll rules and regulations.  The red tape is one reason I hesitate to hire any employees.
  • Regulations.  The only reason my hedge fund is not open to the public (at least to select accredited investors) is the mountain of regulatory requirements.

Even against daunting odds and government red tape, entrepreneurs find a way.  There are many who let red tape and taxes cause them either not enter the entrepreneurial game or quit it out of frustration.  This is a shame, and a loss for the US economy.  There are those who give up one entrepreneurial path (their first) choice, to pursue an alternate entrepreneurial path.  This, too is a loss, but perhaps not a severe.  Finally, there are some small businesses that simply stop growing… not from lack of opportunity, but to avoid the deep, sticky, red tape of employment law.

Right now I’m the category of entrepreneurs who are forgoing (for now) my first venture: the Sigma1 Hedge Fund, and pursuing my secondary venture — financial blogging.  I have a couple accredited investors willing to invest with me, but I have told them for now to put that on hold.

It’s not that financial blogging is not enjoyable, it’s simply far more difficult to make reasonable profits from a finance blog.   Given a choice, I’d rather make $250,000/year from blogging than managing a hedge fund.  It’s much more likely that managing a hedge fund has a greater chance of making that kind of money.  That, dear readers, is why blogging is my second choice for a business undertaking.

Entrepreneurs, I’d love to hear your stories.  How you succeeded, how you failed, what you learned?  Has government (federal, state, local) red tape gotten in your way?  Have you found ways to succeed in spite of all that?