What advisors should know about bitcoin’s millennial appeal
It wasn’t because I thought it was gold. And I doubted it could kill the dollar.
So why did I buy bitcoin? The answer has more to do with the community than the currency, and may contain lessons for advisors working with millennial clients.
My introduction to bitcoin was a bit unusual. When I was reading “Digital Gold,” a book about its origins by Nathaniel Popper of The New York Times, I recognized the name of someone who had attended my high school, Erik Voorhees. The founder of digital currency exchange ShapeShift, Voorhees was also one of the early advocates of the cryptocurrency.
I called him up to see what I could learn.
I got a crash course in the history of money. Voorhees talked about the role of trust in fiat currencies, and how the purpose of a blockchain was to replace trust networks. (The blockchain, which powers bitcoin, is little more than a big public record of transactions.) His excitement was infectious.
The blockchain could be used for just about everything: car titles, music rights, land deeds, even health care vouchers. If it went in a filing cabinet, Voorhees said, the blockchain could replace it. Currency was just the first of many applications. He explained how, according to Metcalfe’s law, the value of a network grows exponentially with each user. He told me to read Neal Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon” to get a better grasp of digital currency and cryptography.
Most of it went right over my head.
But the enthusiasm I saw from Voorhees — and the informal band of technologists that Popper describes in his book — stuck with me. I watched news reports about how the community navigated crises and weathering hacks as the system underwent growing pains. Each time the community found a path forward, the currency’s value crept up.
If enough talented and dedicated people want an idea to become a reality, it’s probably inevitable.
If you advise millennial investors, it’s worth keeping in mind that we came of age in an era of ideas that live or die on networks. From Facebook to Netflix, companies have adopted user growth, rather than just profit, as their key metric of success. From that vantage point, bitcoin’s vibrant and growing community is hugely valuable.
So I bought a small amount of bitcoin over the summer with the idea that, if enough talented and dedicated people want an idea to become a reality, it’s probably inevitable.
I wasn’t the only one who was inspired. Coinbase, the leading cryptocurrency exchange, now has more than 10 million users. And bitcoin’s value has surged around 1,200% this year, according to data from CoinDesk.
It helps that I’m right in bitcoin’s sweet spot: 43% of millennial men would prefer to own $1,000 worth of the cryptocurrency over government bonds, according to a recent survey by Harris Poll for Blockchain Capital.
"I was making money hand-over-fist, and I couldn’t sleep," says Dave Grant of his brief dally in the cryptocurrency.
I don’t know what the price of a bitcoin should be. As a payment system, it hasn’t been deployed in any meaningful way beyond the black market. And there are practical concerns around how the system could ever scale — just look at how much energy it uses.
Oh, and then there’s the volatility. I didn’t jump for joy when my investment doubled — and then tripled. Like others, I found the price shocks frightening. What financial education I had centered on modern portfolio theory, and nothing about bitcoin seemed to fit into that model.
Still, I couldn’t ignore the optimism that the crypto-world had for this bizarre coin.
As a twenty-something who can only view my retirement through a telescope, I can afford to be patient. I’ve resolved to leave my bitcoin stake alone for a decade and not think too much about. (That’s proven to be nearly impossible, given the headlines.)
I don’t see that small stake in cryptocurrencies as an investment. Maybe it’s a gamble. But I prefer to think of it as something else: a few coins thrown into a fountain that might someday bring good luck.
Advisors may rightly balk at clients — millennial or otherwise — who want to own bitcoin. Rather than fight them on it, I’d suggest you listen to their reasons for wanting to own it. Do they want to ride the wave, or are they convinced it has a future?
Their answer could give you insight into their mindset as an investor and help you be a better advisor. You may even decide that, having cautioned them on the high level of risk, a small stake could scratch their itch without endangering their portfolio.