Prof Aswath Damodaran (AD, henceforth) is a well-known name in the field of corporate finance and valuation of financial products. It is unfortunate that despite his formidable reputation in valuation of financial products, his latest “Musing on market” is a complete let down (You can read complete post here). He starts the blog by classifying investment assets into four categories. These are: Cash generating assets, Commodity, Currency and Collectibles. The first three categories do not need any clarification. But what about Collectibles? Picasso’s paintings fall into this category because they do not generate cash and, therefore, cannot be valued but it has a price. So, according to AD, something may have price but no value. For him “value” is synonymous with discounted future cash flow that an asset generates. So if an asset does not generate future cash flow, then it has no computable “present value” or “value”. This definition of value is a highly myopic interpretation of notion of “value” that has been debated from the time of Adam smith to Gerard Debreu. This apparent distinction between price and value leads him to differentiate between trading and investing. The only difference between a trader and an investor is that they make different intertemporal choices. An investor in collectibles has a choice to sell it immediately or sometimes in future. It follows logically that he finds that it is worthwhile to wait to get a higher price in future. Or he may get more pleasure holding it for a long time to come. The DCF valuation that financial instruments are subjected to, can be looked upon an estimate of the future market price. That is why; there is a market of financial instruments. If DCF is a correct estimate of “value” of any financial instrument then there is no reason why every dealer of a treasury would not have the same opinion about the intrinsic value of that instrument. If every trader has the same opinion would the market exist? According to him, traders do not bother about value but they only concerned about price. This begs the question – how price is determined in financial market?
Although we are really not concerned about the distinction between value and price, the issue becomes relevant in the context of Bitcoin- the subject matter of AD’s blog. Per force, AD has to categorize Bitcoin per his own classification scheme. Bitcoin does not generate cash; it is not a commodity too. So we are left with only two categories for Bitcoin to be slotted. AD now considers the definitional attributes of a currency. These are well accepted and standard- unit of account, medium of exchange and store of value. Surprisingly AD finds that Bitcoin satisfies all the criteria to be designated as currency. According to AD, anything which is fungible, divisible and countable can qualify to be a candidate “unit of account”. If this is true, then theoretically any currency in any jurisdiction can function as currency. In fact, in some African countries, many small shops quote their merchandise in USD terms. But their balance sheets have to be prepared in terms of domestic currencies as per the law of the country. The acid test of anything to qualify as currency is that whether one can pay tax with that thing or not. AD gives three reasons for Bitcoin’s failure to take off as the preferred currency for majority of people. These are: – inertia, price volatility and competing crypto currency. He fails to note the most important reason- no sovereign backing. We have heard of dollarization of many domestic currencies because of people’s lack of trust on the domestic sovereign’s ability to preserve the purchasing power of that currency. But we must note that in no case people of such country start using the neighboring country’s currency, which could be as inflation prone as the former. In other words, backing of a powerful and trustworthy sovereign engenders the trust that is required for something to function of currency. The properties “medium of exchange “and the “store of value” neither jointly nor severally can make anything – real or virtual- a unit of account.
The problem with the ongoing effort to declare Bitcoin as currency is rooted in this historically untenable proposition that money originated from the act of barter. There is enough anthropological and numismatic evidence to the contrary. The renowned numismatist P. Grierson gave the simplest definition of money – ‘all money that is not coin or, like modern paper money, a derivative of coin’. Historically, coins were always associated with an issuing authority. Thus sovereign backing is a prerequisite for something to become money in a specific jurisdiction.
So Bitcoin is not a currency or money proper. Of course, we can argue that the community of Bitcoin coin users can be considered as forming a “jurisdiction”. The “Bitcoin” is a currency of that virtual jurisdiction. But then Bitcoin can be considered as a currency of only that country. Then, the population size of that country would be smaller than Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe (200K) of West Africa. The currency of that country, Dobra, suffered so much depreciation that the government had to issue a new Dobra in exchange of 1000 earlier Dobra. No foreign exchange trader has ever considered Dobra as a tradeable instrument. Bitcoin is experiencing appreciation of similar magnitude and, therefore, people are considering it as a lucrative financial asset. But to consider Bitcoin as a tradeable instrument would be blasphemous in the rarefied group of forex traders. AD, of course, suggests exactly the same in regard to Bitcoin.
It might be fashionable to hold an extreme libertarian view in the current dispensation of USA. In that environment, as the then Citigroup Chief Chuck Prince told in an interview, just when sub-prime crisis was knocking at the door of wall Street – “when the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing”. This was on July 10, 2007. On October 5, Merrill Lynch announced a US$5.5 billion loss, revised it to $8.4 billion on October 24. We hope that gullible investors awash with liquidity do understand that music is bound to stop sometime and who knows who would be standing without a chair then.