Your Guide to Cashing Out Bitcoin! - Something Awful

Cryptocurrencies and the circle of competence

A quick note to investors that believe the intrinsic value of bitcoin is 0 because they can't do a DCF on it: this isn't the place to argue with me about it. I suggest you read a bit more about what it actually is (hint: not a currency). I've defended its value in plenty of other posts on this sub. It's a $40+ billion market, so at least a few people agree with me. I welcome you to short the crypto of your choice if you think it's worth nothing. This is a post for folks that believe that cryptocurrencies have at least some discernible value and are considering investing in them.
If we have a strength, it is in recognizing when we are operating well within our circle of competence and when we are approaching the perimeter. – Warren Buffett
Given the tripling of the cryptocurrency market cap in the last few months and the 3- to 10-fold increases in virtually every major altcoin, cryptocurrencies like Ethereum and of course Bitcoin have been getting a stunning amount of attention in the press and on this subreddit recently.
If you follow the cryptocurrency world closely, you know that there have been a huge amount of dubious ICOs (initial coin offerings) on the market recently. It's an explosive time in crypto.
It's also a frustrating time for many long term bitcoiners and crypto fans, because we're faced with a barrage of questions from outsiders who see the returns and want to buy in to the "next big thing" and make a quick buck. This is a warning to those people.
Everyone is a genius is a rising market. It's hard to go wrong these days in crypto. Even coins of dubious merit like Ripple, Dogecoin, Stellar, NEM were pumped 5 times without any fundamental change. Speculators/investors have thrown money at crypto indiscriminately and efficient markets have 100% broken down. The altcoin pump right now is roughly comparable to the Dot Com crisis of the early 2000s.
  1. New tech promises to change the world
  2. Investors jump in on hype and promises
  3. A surge of IPOs (ICOs) occurs to capitalize on this
  4. "Greater fool" traders pile in, thinking they can make money even if the underlying is unsound
  5. Analysts claim "this time is different" while seasoned old hands refuse to participate
  6. Tech is proven not to be as developed as everyone thinks, market tanks
  7. Select few decent companies survive, all the trash is destroyed
  8. Tech eventually fulfills expectations, 10 years later, but none of the investors from the early days make money on it
However, canny (and skeptical) investors can still make money on crypto, as cryptocurrencies are inevitable, and will continue to expand and proliferate, even when the altcoin crash comes.
Something to realize first of all is that the crypto market is heterogeneous. It has straightforward cryptocurrencies (bitcoin, litecoin, dash, monero), smart-contract cryptos (ethereum, ethereum classic) and a whole bunch of crypto tokens that follow dedicated platforms (golem, augur, steem). Not mentioned are ripple and stellar because they aren't really cryptocurrencies at all.
The investing theses for all of these categories is radically different. The measure of success for a currency or store of value is adoption, merchant use, low volatility, a large network, and real world acceptance as something worth owning. Bitcoin has this right now, which is why it's more than 50% of the ecosystem, and none of its competitors are even close. Monero, Zcash, and Dash are a special case in that they try and make transactions anonymous and privacy, allowing for use cases on the darknet markets, for instance.
The tech underlying bitcoin is essentially sound, although it is having a scalability crisis, which you should read about. It can't right now serve as a currency which will buy you a cup of coffee - the transaction fees are too high. However if you want to send $200,000 from Mexico to Indonesia or China to the Philippines, you can do it within 20 minutes, and with fees of a few dollars. And if you want to store your wealth in a vault that is totally secure, and cannot be debased by a central bank, bitcoin is a good bet. This is highly relevant to folks in India that just had cash abolished, to Venezuelans, to Argentines, to Cypriots, to Nigerians, anywhere local currencies are weak and volatile. The potential value of a competing cryptocurrency lies in whether it can improve materially on bitcoin, whether it means incorporating off-chain scaling (segwit with litecoin), making it more private and fungible (monero), automating governance (decred), and so on.
Then there are cryptoassets that incorporate smart contracts. These – ethereum and its derivatives – exploded when the SEC denied the Bitcoin ETF back in march and bitcoiners got worried and started diversifying. This is the market segment that is highly risky, even by crypto standards, in my opinion. Ethereum is a protocol that allows contracts to self-enforce. Programming power to run the contracts is paid for with ethereum. Two parties agree to a contract, and it then self-executes. It's secured by a decentralized computing network of ethereum miners, so the contracts cannot be shut down by a government or corporation. It's pretty clever. Last year, a $150+ million contract was drawn up with ethereum, which would act like a venture capital fund, picking good investments just based on the votes of the token holders. This was called a Decentralized Autonomous Organization, and it was hacked before it could do anything. Well, it was exploited based on the code and so the exploit was totally "fair" given that the contract was meant to be inevitable, once agreed to. However, the creators of Ethereum didn't like the idea of losing $50 million, so they decided to collectively agree to amend the rules of the protocol itself (violating "Code is Law"), and jump onto a new one, which they would also call Ethereum, although it was really Ethereum 2.0. Some people got upset by this, because they thought that immutability and not arbitrarily rolling back the code was more important than some investors losing money because of poorly written code. They created Ethereum Classic, which is the original Ethereum chain. This wasn't what the Ethereum 2.0 folks thought would happen, but it did happen, so there are two competing Ethereum chains now.
Eventually, lots of decentralized apps were funded, via tokensales. A development team would say: "we're going to use ethereum to create a decentralized cloud computing/AI/prediction/gambling/timestamping/social media network." And then investors would buy the tokens, expecting that eventually the dev team would deliver, and the tokens would be in demand, since they would be required to use the network. It's a bit like buying in-game-currency when the game is announced, anticipating that the game would be wildly popular and you'd be able to sell it on later at a profit or acquire it cheaply to buy in-game items later on. However, many of us think that the promises are a bit extravagant, and that investors in these ICOs are probably going to lose money. The incentives aren't well aligned. Founders can just not deliver and run off with the money, and there's no regulatory body to enforce that. And for Ethereum more broadly, many people are worried that the turing-completeness of the language will mean it will face serious threats and unforeseeable hacks, like with the DAO. Finally, Ethereum has increased from around $20 to $90 in a matter of months, which raises the question of whether a) the market realized its true value or b) it was pumped on speculation. There's a huge set of unknowns with a smart contract currency, and virtually none of the promised dapps are up and running right now, and the ones that are haven't really attracted large userbases or delivered. This is because the tech is in its infancy, and the developers are still learning how to use it properly. So we won't know if these sorts of decentralized networks are even possible to create on the timelines that investors are expecting. Therefore, ethereum investors buying it on the promise of the realization of this tech in the near future are almost guaranteed to be disappointed. Additionally, ethereum is making the switch to the largely untested Proof of Stake algorithm, which will change incentives that secure the network. This brings me to my key point:
Stay within your circle of competence. You can grow your circle – slowly. Cryptoassets are almost impossibly complex to grasp with just a cursory look. Investing in them requires weeks of reading and a very skeptical view.
The above was an introduction to cryptocurrencies, the different ones on offer, and why investing in ethereum is not the slam dunk everyone thinks it is. This portion of the post will tell you about the kind of due diligence you need to do if you want to invest, rather than speculate, in crypto.
The first thing to mention is that passive investing in crypto has historically been a terrible strategy. Just buying bitcoin almost always outperformed. This was due to the poor set of altcoins, and the size of bitcoin's almost insurmountable network effect. This sort of changed in March and April when bitcoin's dominance went from 80% to ~50%, and it remains to be seen if this will persist or not. But the point is, buying the index is usually an awful strategy in crypto, particularly because there are so many truly awful projects out there.
So what does it take to invest responsibly in cryptocurrencies? It requires at least a basic understanding of three disciplines: public-private key cryptography; programming, and how open-source projects function; and economics, particularly game theory and the quantity theory of money. This is why is is so difficult to apprehend easily: because very few people actually boast a sincere understanding of these three topics. I certainly don't.
You need to be able to determine whether the tech is actually going anywhere, and whether the task the developers have set themselves is possible or realistic. You need to know how open source networks are governed, and which models strike the best balance between efficiency of decision-making and fair consensus. You need to be able to measure the inflation schedule of the cryptocurrency, and see whether your coins are going to inflated away. You need to be able to make plausible guesses about the potential market for the crypto and estimate future values. Note that the payoff structure is not equity-like. It's more like early stage venture capital, or buying loss-making biotech companies. Here's my checklist of questions to answer, ordered by importance:
  • Does the project offer a significant improvement over its nearest competitor, or a reasonable chance of success in its stated aim? Is there a demand for this project? Does it have a concise and reasonable goal? (Narrower goal: higher likelihood of success).
  • Is the development team competent? Are they committed to the coin? What's their track record? Is is an active dev team? Do they have a roadmap for the future? Are they transparent about goals?
  • How is the development team funded? Is the currency corporate-backed? Is the funding transparent? Was the coin significantly premined? (Usually bad) Are developers paid via iterative community project crowdfunding? (Usually good).
  • What is the governance structure of the currency? Who holds ultimate control over decisionmaking? How are decisions made? Are they transparent? Are mining/developer incentives aligned?
  • Does the asset have acceptance and use today? Does it have a functioning use case? If it doesn't, does it have a decent chance of being accepted?
  • Has the asset's "market cap" tripled or quintupled in the last few months? Was this based on any fundamental changes (new software releases, etc) or just speculation?
  • What are the transaction volumes like? (Hint: divide market cap by monthly averaged daily on-chain tx volume to find a consistent ratio) What's the ratio of on-chain transaction versus exchange speculation? Has price gone up independent of transaction volumes?
  • How long has the asset been around? Think of the Lindy effect. Older is usually better.
  • What's the community like? Is there censorship? Does it have an active subreddit? Do the developers answer questions? Are they accessible? How big is the github community? (Hint: you can divide market cap by github commits to find a comparable ratio).
  • Are you psychologically able to hold this coin in a 90% downturn? Is this a high conviction thesis or are you betting on being able to sell it to a greater fool?
How long did it take you to learn about investing in equities? Reading balance sheets, running DCF and DRI models, figuring out how to value a stock based on comparables? Years? How many mistakes did you make before you figured out how to be responsible?
Cryptos are an asset class that is both radically different from anything that has existed before. They are also incredibly heterogeneous, as I argued above. It also leads to cultism – so bitcoiners generally take a dim view of ethereum, and vice versa. Monero fans generally don't like dash, and so on. You have to keep your mind open to understand new opportunities as they arise, and to stop yourself becoming too mentally invested in your project of choice. The vast majority of projects will fail within 5 years, so becoming overly certain of the success of one will probably devastate you. If you can stay balanced, stay honest about your crypto's chances of success and adoption, not get tunnel vision, and not take overly risky positions, you have a good chance of not losing everything. Remember the payoff structure. Heavily rightward skewed. A ton of cryptos earn no return and a select few earn an absurd (1,000-10,000x) return.
None of this is necessary if you just want to invest randomly in one of the top ten cryptos. That's the strategy of 95% of investors today. Pick a coin and go. If it's not bitcoin, I can pretty much guarantee you'll lose money. The newer, the worse.
I've not made an effort to convince you that cryptos have intrinsic value. If you've made it this far, you probably think they're worth something at least. However, they're probably not worth as much as the market is pricing them at right now. Especially not those in the ethereum family. I'm not going to tell you what to invest in, because that would defeat the purpose of this post. I'm telling you to do your due diligence before blindly buying a crypto. And that due diligence on ethereum is as complex and difficult as Tesla or Amazon DD. And that your skills in equity valuation are pretty much useless in this asset class. My circle of competence doesn't extend to options or lean pork futures, so I don't touch those. I suggest that until you really feel comfortable in crypto, you don't buy randomly.
Summative thoughts:
  1. Investing in crypto is hard
  2. 90% of people that invest at market peaks will lose money
  3. You have to extremely skeptical and invest in high-conviction positions
  4. Cryptos are exhibiting bubbly behavior right now, it's a pretty bad time to pick one out
  5. Cryptos are nothing like equities but they do have real value
  6. Cryptos are the future, but almost none of these coins will survive 10 years
  7. The older the better
  8. Governance is key
  9. These are speculative positions, only invest what you can tolerate losing
  10. You can make money investing in cryptos
  11. Passively investing in cryptos doesn't work
  12. It's a winner takes most market, there won't be 1 crypto that wins. There will be different cryptos for different use cases.
edit: deleted chart with probabilities of success because of subjectivity and oversimplification.
edit2: I've been overwhelmed with PMs so bear with me. also, please forgive any spelling errors on this post. I wrote it in one frenzied sitting.
edit3: I knew I would get a fair amount of resistance from ethereum investors (even though I attempted to keep my post as balanced as possible) but I was unprepared from the breathtaking volume of spam and diversity of attacks. One particular user has made 30 comments in this thread. I don't have a stake in ETC, period. The post is 3000 words long and most of it is about how to properly do your due diligence in a crypto. if ethereum fares poorly by standard due diligence metrics, then perhaps your issue is deeper than one post on /investing.
final edit: there have been some broken-hearted ethereum fans very busy organizing brigades against this post, and attacking me personally, and so on. It's all very incovenient. I can tell that I struck a nerve. This post isn't really about ethereum - it's about how to do research in crypto, and why you can't expect to profit handsomely without that due diligence. I mentioned ethereum because there are 3 or 4 breathless posts on here a day about its stunning gains and whether it's worth investing in. My answer: read about it first, from a diverse set of sources. A final note: I do not own any ethereum classic, I have never owned ethereum classic. I brought it up because it is part of the ethereum story, and an example of what happens when you have a contested hard fork. I do hope that ethereum succeeds, I am just cautioning against over exuberance.
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Backloggery Breakdown #16 - Updated layout & Banner vs Card Results

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