Today guest host Chris Solarz continues his conversation with Tim McCourt, the Global Head of Equity Index and Alternative Investment Products at CME Group, James Koutolas, CEO of Typhon Capital Management, and Roy Niederhoffer, President of R.G. Niederhoffer Capital Management. Listen in to learn more about the future of cryptocurrency technologies, the unprecedented strength of the blockchain in Bitcoin, and how the SEC and world economies are looking into cryptocurrencies.
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Welcome back to Top Traders Round Table, a podcast series on managed futures brought to you by CME group where our guest host today, Chris Solarz, continues his conversation with James Koutoulas, Roy Niederhoffer and Tim McCourt where they discuss the current state of the crypto space. So, without further ado, let’s rejoin the conversation.
When I see the spectrum of products available for offer on the crypto, on the hedge fund side now, the media says that there are over three hundred crypto hedge funds perhaps trading ten billion dollars. I put them on a spectrum from very short-term to very long term.
So, at the very short-term, we have the arbitrage guys, the exchange arb guys that we’re seeing now. The arb is, perhaps, so well squeezed that now they’re doing triangular arbs, maybe they’re doing bitcoin dollar on one exchange versus bitcoin Ether on another exchange versus Ether dollar on another exchange. They’re becoming a little more complex because perhaps the easy money has been made over these past few years.
So, those are probably the shortest term. Then we’re seeing trend followers, if we just go out along the spectrum, who are probably holding it for weeks to months. Somewhere in the middle, we see what has emerged as coin pickers. I would liken this to the long/short equity industry where they’re truly looking at fundamentals. They’re looking at the bottoms up. They’re trying to figure out if ripple is going to outperform other currencies. They’re trying to find the best one. There’s a lot of beta in this strategy, but they’re trying to perhaps beat the index which necessarily hasn’t been established yet.
In the long/short equity world these stop pickers now have really established themselves. They would usually put a short on that, and they’re really producing alpha. What you’re getting from these coin pickers are very long-biased beta type plays, hopefully, beta higher than the index.
Then we haven’t talked about some of the seven to ten-year holding period investments, and this is where we see a lot of investments. These are the venture capital investments, and this is where Yale made a big splash in investing in just about last month.
Perhaps the easier way to invest in crypto is investing in the pick-and-shovel type equity investments of crypto funds because you’re investing in a classic private equity type situation. You’re not necessarily taking the coin the risk which is a very, very big risk which we’re going to talk about a little later, and that’s also seen a lot of inflows.
At the institutional level, particularly on the public pension fund level, there has been very, very little movement. We’re going to talk about why that’s very, very slow coming. They’ll probably be the very last to embrace this asset class.
But, who has embraced the asset class right now are high network family office type investments. Somewhere in the middle the E&F community is really, really starting. Perhaps some of the leaders in this space have started to go in, but they’ve been in it for a longer time through venture capital. Sometimes the VC funds might have twenty investments and one or two of them have been crypto for a few years. So, when I talk to E&Fs, some of them might be proud to say that they have crypto investments, but it probably represents a very small amount of their actual risk at this point. But, never the less, it is true that they are invested. Well, that’s kind of the big space there.
Actually, I have a comment on that. I would say that ninety percent of the people that I’ve talked to that have made investments have actually used the term “pick-and-shovel.” I’m starting to get worried about whether the pick-and-shovel trade is the crowded trade, not the crypto trade, but the pick-and-shovel.business that was created in:
You can’t just say, “Well, I’m investing in pick-and-shovel and expect to get a great return. You have to be very careful picking managers and expect them to have unusually deep deal flow and access. I don’t think you can have a naive approach and just say because I saw a few deals. I always say that the deals that I get a personal look at out there that ninety-five percent of the apples have been picked off the tree before I see a deal. So, I think for me, at least, I would want to be with a very, very professional picker of venture deals in this space.
Isn’t it fair to say, Roy, if your thesis plays out over the next ten years, or next ten to twenty years, and crypto becomes a real part of the capital structure of different companies, it decentralizes large swaths of industry, then almost every investment today is pick-and-shovel?
Well, I think that’s true, although we have to remember that a lot of these companies are proposing decentralized solutions for things that already have a pretty well functioning centralized solution if we think about what a decentralized Spotify might look like. Well, if you’re a recording artist, holy cow, I can get 99% or 100% of my royalties instead 5% of my royalties.
Well, that sounds great, but I kind of like Spotify. I feel reasonably safe taking an Uber, but do I want to decentralize Uber that has no central authority to take some responsibility? I think, in a lot of cases, we’re facing pretty good solutions from many of the applications, and there may not be a need.
As Novogratz very sagely says, for more than five or ten blockchains to support the whole world. So, creating a whole new coin to support a whole new ecosystem may not be a good investment either. So, I can see a lot of bearish and negative views on many of these companies.
Some of these things, and probably things that are inconceivable right now, we’ll just take for granted ten years from now. But, many conventional applications are not particularly high profit or even that useful compared to the centralized version that already exists.
This is the perfect segue into the con section. I think we’ve been quite bullish on the asset class and I want to talk to our listeners about some very real problems. Roubini has been one of the biggest outspoken critics of crypto. He gave testimony to Congress, which I would encourage everyone to read. It’s a thirty-page piece. It came out just a few weeks ago.
In it, he talks about the inconsistent trinity of crypto. That it’s not scalable, number one; it’s not decentralized, number two; and it’s not secure, number three. He’s made some splashy headlines. He has called crypto a stinking cesspool, and he’s called bitcoin the mother of all scams. I would love to get your opinion. Can we go through each of these three different counterpoints?
Crypto is not scalable.
That’s just false. It’s incredibly scalable.
Well, can you talk about the fact that bitcoin does seven transactions per minute versus VISA at forty thousand per minute. If bitcoin is truly going to be a mechanism to transfer wealth it needs to be able to compete with Western Union and all of our current ways of transferring money and it’s not scalable now.
Right now and never scalable are very different points. Look at lightning at work for bitcoin.
Can you explain that?
So, basically, it uses a process called sharding, which instead of having each node on the network process every single block for every single transaction they process sub-blocks that are then uploaded to the master chain. That’s something that Roy probably knows the numbers, but it massively increases...
It demonstrates twenty thousand per second, I think.
So, you’re wrong there Roubini, so what’s the next one?
I think there’s one more. He also talks about costs. Basically, with bitcoin cash, you can send for free. Most of the networks are down to cents. I think for about a buck fifty you can send a hundred million dollars of bitcoin.
And that just happened, someone just sent a hundred million dollar transaction for a dollar.
Certainly, cost wise... If anyone has ever tried to send a wire transfer to a bank, especially one that you don’t deal with every day, you’re talking hours if you can get them to do it at all at any significant size. In terms of scalability, in terms of rapidity of transactions, in terms of the ease and efficiency of sending it, actually, you have to be very, very careful because it’s so easy and so efficient to send bitcoin, to send these cryptos from place to place.
Now, for security, listen, the blockchain itself is one of the most secure things ever created.
I always hedge, I’m a lawyer, right?
I’ll go with Roy, the most secure thing ever created. In infrastructure, in general, I think you always see a last mile problem when you’re deploying new technologies just like high-speed internet. We had gigabyte Ethernet and dial-up modems for awhile in this country. Solutions come up like DSL, now you’ve got a hundred gigabytes at home from Comcast.
This security issue with blockchain is that last mile; it’s the wall, it’s people using insecure passwords or two factor which everyone has been trained to think that two factor is super safe, but now you’ve got phone number spoofing techniques. So, there are solutions to improve two factor with app-based authentication, for example. This is one of those gaps where look, it’s scary. If you get hacked for three hundred million dollars worth of bitcoin, that’s a bad day, but the security on that last mile is rapidly, rapidly improving.
You say that blockchain has never been hacked, and it’s very secure, and that part is true, but the majority of transactions are not taking place on the blockchain, they’re taking place at exchanges and of the top ten exchanges...
The platforms, which comes into the irony of the decentralized argument is that to actually transact, to actually get Fiat currency you have to go onto an exchange and these exchanges are vulnerable to hacks and probably the top ten, I think six or seven or eight of them have been hacked. This is where we see the sensational headline like, “Korean exchange looses thirty million dollars overnight.”
That’s one of the reasons I don’t trade Asian exchanges. I think the security practices that we’ve seen in the U.S. platforms are much, much stronger. Gemini and BitTricks are using CloudFlare; you’re protected from denial of service attacks. You’ve got some account insurance at Gemini. The security there is better, and it’s getting better every day.
Again, to me, a platform is a last mile problem because the blockchain obviously can do peer to peer transactions. You don’t need those platforms unless you want to trade it and have active pricing on that. If Roy and I wanted to go and buy a pizza together, we could transact on our phones. You don’t need to go through a platform to do that.
I think we have to really recognize the difference between a transaction and an asset ownership on the blockchain. The blockchain itself is secured by... To say it’s the most powerful network in the world doesn’t even quite do it justice.
The security, to give you sense, there was just an article that I read last week: the third most powerful computer in the world, one, two, and three. This number three is performing a few quadrillion operations per second. So, that’s petaflops. The bitcoin network is ten thousand times as large as that and growing probably ten percent or twenty percent a month, if not more.
So, you have to put together, to do a fifty-one percent attack, which, by the way, doesn’t mean that all the prior transactions are somehow suspect. If a fifty-one percent attack, which is what everyone is very afraid of if someone can get control of fifty-one percent of the network, then it’s all over. No, it’s not all over. It doesn’t change what you have on the prior blockchain of ten years of history and who has what asset. It just changes a certain number of transactions that have occurred subsequent to the attack. Of course, everyone immediately sees it coming as well.
In order to do that you would have to literally create as large a computer network as already exists. And, [ you've got to create not only] the largest computer network in the world, but plus not just one percent, because fifty-one percent begins to let you do it, but it’s more like ninety percent. You’ve got to control eighty to ninety percent of the hash rate of the network.
So, now you’re up to five to ten times the size of the largest computer network in the world to hack the bitcoin blockchain. To me, that is the most secure electronic security every created. Quantum computing always comes up, do we have to worry about that? No, because if there is any hint of that on the horizon, there will immediately be a hard fork of bitcoin which addresses that problem. There are already quantum resistant coins out there.
The more general point is that all of these features that we talk about from coin to coin, from ecosystem to ecosystem, this one can do it for free, this one does a hundred thousand transactions, this one has a thirty-second block time. All of these features are like the way bacteria develops antibiotic resistance. They graft on DNA from other bacteria and with coins, everything is in the public domain. They can grab features from each other, and there is going to be this beautiful evolution in an anti-fragile way.
What Nacine Taleb calls antifragile, meaning that every problem that occurs, every chink in the armor, every injury to the system doesn’t just get repaired, it gets stronger. And, every exchange is stronger than they were last year because they know what happened last year. Every custody solution is stronger because they know about all the hacks. That’s what’s happening, and it’s happening so fast. It’s never happened like this in any ecosystem.
So, I’m extremely optimistic that all of these arguments that we’re hearing from Roubini and others are arguments of eight and ten years ago, that were fixed four years ago or two years ago, and if they’re not fixed today, in their hypothetical sense, they’re going to get fixed in three months or three years.
I think it’s one of the most interesting things about the blockchain because it is a living, breathing digital organism. Bitcoins, for example, adding the lightning network, it’s adding atomic swaps where you could have an inset transaction across a chain into another currency, and bitcoin was the first. It is supply constrained, at the end of every year since it was launch it has been the largest by market cap, and it’s why we call it internally the “Mac Daddy Coin.”
What is the counter argument though? We talk about bitcoin being finite. There’s only ever going to be twenty-one million bitcoins printed, but already we’ve seen forks in bitcoin gold, bitcoin cash. You talked about perhaps a hack where we simply fork. That then is infinite, you’re simply just recreating it, and the centralized ownership of that will create the fork. And, that is almost an internal inconsistency with this finite supply of bitcoin.
Well, again, centralized ownership. We’re not talking about that. There’s not one person that makes that decision in most of the cases. Some coins do have more centralized governance, which in my view is a problem and that will eventually evolve out as people realize we really do need a more democratic process.
But, there’s one winner and that, right now, is bitcoin compared to all the forks of bitcoin. Not a single fork in the history of crypto has achieved more than ten percent of the original form. There’s always one winner that’s ten X or more. Usually, it’s more like a hundred X or a thousand X the value of the new fork that has the great features. That’s what we’ve seen so far. So, I don’t see forks as a potential competing supply. With twenty-one million bitcoin cash, that’s fantastic.
There are twenty-one million bitcoin with ten X plus in market cap. I also don’t see new coin creation because there is no reason to have new coin if your original coin can get the same features as your new coin. As we see that, I think that there will be more centralization. I think we already see a power log distribution of the coins and we’ll probably continue to see the major coins beat out the smaller coins for that reason.
Finally, I think we have to think about if the appreciation is going to come, where is the investment going to take place? When institutions want in on a market, they don’t pick security or the accurate system that has one percent of the liquidity; they go with the most liquid places if there is really going to be a big increase. So, our view is that we’re going to see institutions interested in the very top coins if not just bitcoin because of the liquidity.
In the case of bitcoin itself, you also have a beautiful quality that it has in that all the other coins or many of them are denominated in bitcoin. I like to say, it’s like if you’re in Mexico and you want to go to Dubai, well, you’re not going to trade a Peso or Dirham, you’re going to go to dollar first.
So, the bitcoin is, essentially, the dollar, the safe haven asset, the lingua franca of the crypto world and because of it, it has extra value. It’s far more liquid. If you want to transact a million dollars, it’s hard in most of the coins. It’s trivial in bitcoin. If you want to transact ten million, you’re going to have trouble anywhere but bitcoin. If you want to put ten billion to work, it’s going to be over thirty days over a year in bitcoin only. So, that’s where I think the centralization of the market cap is going to take place.
James, you mentioned Tether. Can you tell us and tell our listeners a little bit about the background on that and why it’s so controversial today?
Yeah, so Tether is what’s known as a core book stable coin, and it’s run by an Asian Exchange called Bitfinex and basically the premise there is that on a crypto platform you’ve got to trade token for token. You can’t trade dollar for token unless you’re coming into something like Tether. So, operation and the way it works is that an investor wanting to trade crypto will send a wire in dollars that will go into Tether, supposedly the dollars are held in a bank account, and then you’re given a...
Tether is tethered to the U.S. dollar; therefore one Tether equals one U.S. dollar.
But it’s something that trades, right. So, it’s broken the buck, to use money market speak a couple of times. It doesn’t have a true audit. There’s some speculation out there that it potentially has been used to manipulate the price of bitcoin by creating fictitious tethers and since that process is not audited, it’s really hard to tell the legitimacy.
So, there’s been a wave towards creating other, stable coins. So, Gemini and Coinbase have launched their own. I’m a partner in Basis which we raised a lot of money to start from the leading VCs and to have kind of a stable value coin that doesn’t fluctuate like bitcoin has done in the past in order to be a store value to trade other coins. It’s a major, major issue on the digital platforms.
Exactly. Well, I want to switch topics a little bit. We’ve talked about custody, regulation, and volatility. I think these are the three big hurdles for institutional investors. James, could you give us an update on regulation? SEC has been looking into this for many years. They have made a few rulings, but where do we stand?
Yeah, so the SEC’s focus is primarily in the ICO market. In the early days of ICOs up until fairly recently, a lot of issuers were going out and putting out something called a utility token where they claimed that it was just a network use right as opposed to actual equity in a company.
Can we back up a little. ICO is an Initial Coin Offering.
Initial coin offering, right. It basically plays off of the concept of an initial public offering which is a highly, highly regulated process of offering equity to public markets.
So, the ICO has been an inherently unregulated process where issuers basically tried to circumvent securities laws by arguing that these tokens are not securities because they don’t give value in the company. The SEC chairman Clayton has come on and said basically that every ICO that he has seen looks like a security.
There’s this staple of common law called the Howey Test which lays out guidelines for whether an instrument is a security or not a security. It has been my view from the beginning that a utility token concept is absolutely a violation of securities laws.
So, an offering has to be one of three things. It’s either not a security, which the utility token, I think, fails on that, or it’s a registered security, something like an IPO, like a share of Apple, is a registered security or it’s an exempt security.
So, exempt securities are normally offered under something called Regulation D, and those are limited to accredited investors or higher. They have restrictions on transferability, with a twelve-month lockup. So, a lot of these ICOs have said, “OK, here’s a token and you can trade it immediately.” Well, that’s a violation of security laws. “Here’s a token we didn’t make a form D filing with the SEC.” That’s a violation of securities laws.
So, I really caution people who are looking at ICOs. I estimate that probably ninety percent are just outright scams. The other remaining ten percent, probably ninety percent of those are going to fail. I think the industry is going to have a problem with class actions and securities litigations with so many of these offerings that were not done in compliance with securities’ laws.
I think this has been the big problem over the past year. I think those numbers are exactly right. Eighty percent have been outright frauds. Of the ICOs that launched last year, I think there was over six billion, almost eighty, ninety percent are already out of business.
This has really contaminated the whole crypto story because you have real stores of value, like bitcoin, you have real protocols like Ethereum that are vying for the future of the internet; building the supercomputers of the future of the world. Then you’ve got hundreds of other tokens that are really just riding this wave. [There are] a lot of charlatans have raised a lot of money, and that’s exactly what the SEC is going after, a lot of these unregistered securities that were really issued as if they were equity in a company, but not registered.
Roy, you have a lot of institutional investors, and you’re very, very close to this space. What are your institutional clients talking about when they talk to you about crypto? Are they interested? Have you seen inflows into your crypto fund and if not, what are the hurdles for investment?
Right now there’s a lot of interest in blockchain, I think, in very much the way people who invest are interested in private equity and venture. But, crypto hasn’t gotten yet, except in a few cases, the very forward-looking institutions. There hasn’t been a tremendous pool of interest, yet.
I think crypto is a little bit like the way alternatives were thought about twenty years ago where you have the more forward-looking institutions learning about it, starting to put their toe in the water. But, taking a step back, in October we had something very important for diversified portfolios, with stocks down, and with rising interest rates.
Now, for those of us who have been in business for a long time, that’s how I thought the world worked. The ‘70s were certainly that way. It was true except for the crash of ’87, and it was true all the way into ’97 that stocks and bonds went in the same direction.
The Greenspan put, the liquidity that was injected into the market - this poor guy Alan Greenspan, two months into the job the market crashes and the Fed basically says we’re going to provide whatever support we can with liquidity. Well, what if that stops happening?
I think we now have a Fed chair that is very, very independent and is willing to say, “You know what? We’re going to do what’s right for the economy, and we can send stocks and bonds down together."
Now, it’s not just stocks and bonds. You may not be marking your venture investments, your private equity deals but they’re down too, and your exit of your little angel investment, that’s not happening in today’s market when the stock market is moving four percent every hour.
What we’re in a world of is can you find an investment that gives you a stable rate of return that is uncorrelated, or even stable completely, with zero correlation because it doesn’t move at all. In October bitcoin price change was approximately zero point zero percent and everything else in the world, with very few exceptions, was down.
As institutions become aware and understand what this represents, that it’s different from gold, it’s different from art, it’s different from cash because you get a return that’s above the cash rate, that excess return from investing in...
Right now you can lend, and there’s a yield curve already for bitcoin but it’s going to be very robust, they’ll be securitized lending. We call those bonds and notes, eventually, and you’re going to be able to get somewhere between live or plus one or two to live or plus six or something like that, as there’s a beautiful positively sloping yield curve a few years from now, no correlation, and no ability to increase the supply, the way companies can create more stock or the way government can create more supply of bonds or currency.Harvard has been around since:
On one side you have two hundred trillion of unfunded U.S. obligations; on the other side, you have twenty-one million bitcoin, period. Where do you want to be to earn your live or plus two, live or plus five percent? I think the institutions are going to get that, eventually, and they’re going to come in a way that we have not seen yet in any way, shape, or form. That’s my argument for bitcoin – a one million or even more reserve currency market cap, which means fifty trillion, seventy trillion market cap. That is, obviously, a thousand times, ten thousand times where we are.
So, I hear that conceptually, my concern is that, once you have widespread adoption and acceptance of cryptos and they’re used to it, they’re comfortable with it, what stops Fed coin, which is the government tokenizing the U.S. dollar, banning other cryptos. If they make transacting illegal like they did in gold, previously, and then automating taxation on the blockchain and force every transaction to go through government controlled private blockchain? That’s a big risk.
I think you’re absolutely right. Well, a Fed coin is basically subject to the same overprinting potential because you don’t have a constraint in supply of U.S. Dollars. It may be electronic. It’s a beautiful way to collect taxes. You can even have negative interest rates and take people’s electronic holdings of a Fed coin.
So it actually enables policies that are not feasible with zero, because people can just put their cash in the safe at that point. So, my view is that it may eventually come down to a power play between the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department. The Treasury says, holy cow, there’s two hundred billion of crypto net wealth. We want a piece of that as people transact. We want that as a revenue source. Maybe we can make a dent in that two trillion that we owe.
Don’t forget about the state pension fund abilities.
Sure, there’s enormous liabilities coming. My view is that the Treasury Department wins that battle, but it’s possible that the Fed and all the Central Banks say, “You know what, this is a threat to our authority, to our issuance authority, and we’re going to try to ban it.”
We have to think globally. That may not be true in every country. Even if it were to happen, if it were to happen in Europe but not in the U.S., the U.S. economy is twenty-five percent of the world economy that might be enough to take bitcoin up by a hundred X or a thousand X by itself.
All of these things that we’ve talked about, all of Roubini’s objections, all of the fear that we have of volatility, all of the potential for over-regulation, the corruption of a few or many of the ICO deals, every one of these things is a reason that these cryptocurrencies are as low as they are and there’s a chance that every one of these things turns out to be an accurate objection.
I’m not saying I’m a hundred percent sure to be right about this, but if I’m ten percent likely to be right, to give you a thousand X appreciation? That’s a pretty good expectation trade.
So, what is the chance that I’m correct? Maybe it’s three percent, maybe it’s thirty percent? I think it’s probably sixty percent. That’s just my view; I’m obviously a bull. Rabini may say it’s one percent. There’s a one in a hundred chance that Niederhoffer is right about this, but it’s a thousand X return. It’s still a good trade.
Probably, right now, there is no other type of trade with that asymmetry when we look across equities and bonds that are still trading at all-time highs right now, even though we’ve had, perhaps, a ten percent correction from its high on September 21st.itcoin, perhaps at the end of:
I think, with respect to the price of bitcoin, I think it’s tough to forecast. I think in my position, and CME’s position is we’re fairly agnostic to the price of bitcoin or the price of the future. What we’re really focused on is such that when people either think that it’s going up or it’s going down, we actually like people to disagree on price. It facilitates trading, and when they need to trade or when they need to manage that risk, or they need to invest or liquidate their positions they can do so at CME in a tried and trusted fashion and enjoy all the efficiencies and safeguards that CME provides when needing to do so.
Thank you, Tim.
Spoken like a true exchange.
James, any final thoughts? Where do you see the price of bitcoin, one million, one million and one?
Jamese going to see one million by:
I hope you’re right. Roy, you get the final word here. We know your price target is one million dollars.
Are you doctor Evil?
I think we’re sitting here with the largest exchange in the world as our host. That tells you something about what’s happening to liquidity, with institutional custody, with the acceptance. This is just one more data point, and I think, again, there’s just a possibility that I’m right about my bullish stance on this. But, it’s a bet that I think is a positive expectation bet, with huge potential return. Everyone, I believe, should have a piece of this in their portfolio because of the structural reasons I’ve discussed, and we talked about today, and the trajectory that it appears to be on in every place in the whole crypto blockchain ecosystem. So, the barriers represent opportunities; the negative feelings represent bearish sentiment. As they say with the stock market, the S&P climbs a wall of worry. There’s never been a wall of worry higher than the crypto wall of worry.
Well, thank you Roy, and thank you James, and thank you Tim, and thank you to all the listeners of Top Trader Round Table. This is Chris Solarz signing off.
And there you have it. Thank you much, Chris, for great conversations about all things crypto.
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