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.

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?

Millionaire by 40? Inflation says Big Deal!

40 years old is still several years off for me, but I it is very likely I will be a millionaire by the time I reach 40.  In fact, if you count my contributions to Social Security (including my employer’s half), the current value invested in my personal “Social Security Trust Fund” puts me there already.  But I’m certainly not counting on Social Security.

So, I’ll be rich right?  Wrong!   First there’s inflation.   Many economists say US inflation has been about 4% per year over the last century.  There’s a handy rule of 72 that says, for example, 72/4 = 18.  That means 4% inflation means that a million dollars today is only worth $500,000 in 18 years and $250,000 in 36 years.

Second, there’s taxes.  Over $300,000 of my holdings are in tax-deferred accounts such as 401k accounts and IRA accounts.  Sure this money is part of my net worth, but when it comes out at retirement I’ll likely be paying something like 30% tax on it.  That’s about $90,000 to Uncle Sam.  Poof!  Gone!

Back to inflation.  Inflation works like a stealth tax.  According to government CPI figures, US inflation increased just 1.5% in 2010.  That simply doesn’t jive with my experience.  My HOA fees increased 7%, my electric and water bill increased 8%.  Car insurance, home insurance, satellite TV, health-insurance premiums, internet, rooms at my favorite hotel, and meals at my favorite restaurant went up, by 4-10% last year.  Even the local sales tax increased almost 1%, making everything that much more expensive on top of everything else.  In Balhiser World 2010 inflation was about 4-5%, rather than the 1.5% according to the CPI.   Thus I have some new ideas about what CPI stands for…

  • Cagey Price Index  (Price? What price?  Prices are relative.)
  • Calming Price Index  (Nothing to see here. Relax. Inflation is under control.)
  • Clairvoyant Price Index  (Far away someone is substituting chuck steak for Filet Mignon.  Meat is meat.  And prices are low.)
  • Creative Price Index (2+2=3 for sufficiently small values of 2)
  • Cowardly Price Index (Please don’t be mad, prices aren’t that bad… see?)

Of course CPI officially stands for Consumer Price Index.  Let just say that for the next 72 years the official CPI is 4%, but actually inflation is 5%.  That handy rule of 72 says that at 4%, one million dollars today will be worth $62,500 of buying power.  At 5% buying power is cut in half to $31, 250.  Of a long enough time a 1 percent difference in inflation is a big deal.

So what?  Well, the CPI is used for a lot of things such as government cost of living adjustments, tax bracket adjustments, Social Security benefit increases, and money paid on Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities, to name a few.

It’s bed time so I’ll cut to the chase.

  1. One million dollars is not what it used to be, and is certain to be worth much less in the future.
  2. To try to remain solvent (and avoid unpopular austerity measures) the US Government has a powerful incentive to under-report inflation.
  3. Many investors and economists are beginning to believe that the CPI significantly under-reports inflation. Examples: “CPI Controversy”“Bill Gross says so”, “Forbes, pastries, and gold say so too”.

Softball, Baseball, Gold and Taxes

I’ve been rather unmotivated to update this financial blog lately.  The reason?  Taxes!  I generally like to keep the tone of this blog upbeat, and when taxes are on my mind my tone tends to be closer to beat up.  Speaking of… my tax payment checks are going in the mail today.  My property tax checks will be going out next month.

However, baseball season is now underway, and that is good.  And my softball league will start up next month… one of the highlights of summer for me.  I wonder how much complicated MLB player’s taxes are and how many states they have to file in?  Also US military personnel.  If I made the rules, US soldiers would not have to pay single cent of tax on their wages while in combat tours.

Whoops, I’ve done it again!  Thinking about taxes and spoiling the prospect of a good mood.  So on to the topic of gold.  I can’t seem to go anywhere with out seeing or hearing either “We buy Gold!” or buy physical gold from us because someone thinks gold will go to $2000 per (troy) ounce.

If I had some gold trinkets or coins sitting a drawer somewhere — gold items that didn’t have any sentimental value to me — I’d get some local cash quotes, pick the highest, and sell.  But as for buying gold… nah… I’d rather buy index funds or black gold, in the form of ETFs XLE and/or VDE.  In fact I currently own XLE, VDE, SPY, VTI, SCHB to name a few.

Well, I’ve got to cut off this financial/baseball/gold/taxes blog post early, as I’ve got to run the dog to advance canine training class.  Best investing wishes, and may taxes not bite too deeply this year.