Gary Shteyngart Goes Deep on Hedge Funds and Bitcoin

I really enjoy all that Gary Shteyngart publishes (see here and here, for example) . In his latest year-long project, Shteyngart has been researching finance, bitcoin, and has written an interesting article about Michael Novogratz for The New Yorker:

I like how Shteyngart brings his own life events into the story:

As a hungry, insecure kid growing up in eastern Queens, I remember watching the movie “Wall Street” and fantasizing about how I would look in suspenders and a contrasting collar. The men on the big screen did not have to understand themselves; the money made them understood. Although my greed had been expunged at Oberlin, and the financial crisis of 2007-08 had left me with a more or less permanent view of finance as an industry built on fraud, I found it hard to dislike some of my new acquaintances. The more intellectually vibrant ones came with backgrounds in advanced math and physics; they approached their trades like a puzzle, albeit one they were increasingly unable to solve. Others seemed to be flirting with the edges of sociopathy, or, at least, an inability to pass “Blade Runner” ’s Voight-Kampff empathy test.

Reflecting on the competitive nature from high school days:

At Stuyvesant High School, a competitive math-and-science school in Manhattan with a high proportion of first-generation immigrants, my classmates and I would get up every morning to wage battle over a hundredth of a percentile on our grade-point average; my new friends were fighting over so many basis points on their Bloomberg monitors. When we failed, we failed in front of our families, our ancestors, our future and our past.

Novogratz on Bitcoin:

He doesn’t think that cryptocurrencies will replace the dollar or the yen, but he believes that they will be a boon to countries in the developing world, where people don’t have trust in their fiat currencies, and that blockchain can revolutionize the way information is logged and shared and, in our age of data breaches, protected. “I’m good at selling the dream,” he said. “I can get onstage and get people to start saying ‘Hallelujah! Hallelujah!’ ”

Perhaps the most cogent piece of wisdom comes near the end of the piece:

After six years of exploring finance, I concluded that, despite the expertise and the intelligence on display, nobody really knows anything. 

Worth the read if you enjoy Shteyngart’s writing and/or are curious about the evolution of bitcoin and what some hedge fund managers are trying to do in the space.

Paul Ford on Bitcoin

Paul Ford has written an entertaining essay on Bloomberg, in which he shares his thoughts on Bitcoin:

Whenever I hear people talk about Bitcoin’s limitless future, I think about Dow 100,000. I first saw it in the old Borders bookshop at the World Trade Center. A few years later, the store was destroyed, and the book title was a sad joke. The markets lost interest in tech for years. Today all the Borders are gone, too.

I loved this sentence:

Consider Bitcoin a grand middle finger.

Ford’s view on how monetization can possibly happen:

Here’s what I finally figured out, 25 years in: What Silicon Valley loves most isn’t the products, or the platforms underneath them, but markets. “Figure out the business model later” was the call of the early commercial internet. The way you monetize vast swaths of humanity is by creating products that people use a lot—perhaps a search engine such as Google or a social network like Facebook. You build big transactional web platforms beneath them that provide amazing things, like search results or news feeds ranked by relevance, and then beneath all that you build marketplaces for advertising—a true moneymaking machine. If you happen to create an honest-to-god marketplace, you can get unbelievably rich.


Also worth reading is Paul Ford’s 2015 Bloomberg piece on “What is Code?”

Marc Andreessen on the Future of Bitcoin

Marc Andreessen, writing in The New York Times, has a very good piece titled “Why Bitcoin Matters” explaining Bitcoin and its potential. You have to remember that Mr. Andreessen has skin in the game (to quote Nassim Taleb), because he will do very well if Bitcoin succeeds. However, it is still worth the read.

What’s the future of Bitcoin?

Bitcoin is a classic network effect, a positive feedback loop. The more people who use Bitcoin, the more valuable Bitcoin is for everyone who uses it, and the higher the incentive for the next user to start using the technology. Bitcoin shares this network effect property with the telephone system, the web, and popular Internet services like eBay and Facebook.

In fact, Bitcoin is a four-sided network effect. There are four constituencies that participate in expanding the value of Bitcoin as a consequence of their own self-interested participation. Those constituencies are (1) consumers who pay with Bitcoin, (2) merchants who accept Bitcoin, (3) “miners” who run the computers that process and validate all the transactions and enable the distributed trust network to exist, and (4) developers and entrepreneurs who are building new products and services with and on top of Bitcoin.

All four sides of the network effect are playing a valuable part in expanding the value of the overall system, but the fourth is particularly important.

All over Silicon Valley and around the world, many thousands of programmers are using Bitcoin as a building block for a kaleidoscope of new product and service ideas that were not possible before. And at our venture capital firm, Andreessen Horowitz, we are seeing a rapidly increasing number of outstanding entrepreneurs – not a few with highly respected track records in the financial industry – building companies on top of Bitcoin.

For this reason alone, new challengers to Bitcoin face a hard uphill battle. If something is to displace Bitcoin now, it will have to have sizable improvements and it will have to happen quickly. Otherwise, this network effect will carry Bitcoin to dominance.

One immediately obvious and enormous area for Bitcoin-based innovation is international remittance. Every day, hundreds of millions of low-income people go to work in hard jobs in foreign countries to make money to send back to their families in their home countries – over $400 billion in total annually, according to the World Bank. Every day, banks and payment companies extract mind-boggling fees, up to 10 percent and sometimes even higher, to send this money.

Switching to Bitcoin, which charges no or very low fees, for these remittance payments will therefore raise the quality of life of migrant workers and their families significantly. In fact, it is hard to think of any one thing that would have a faster and more positive effect on so many people in the world’s poorest countries.

Moreover, Bitcoin generally can be a powerful force to bring a much larger number of people around the world into the modern economic system. Only about 20 countries around the world have what we would consider to be fully modern banking and payment systems; the other roughly 175 have a long way to go. As a result, many people in many countries are excluded from products and services that we in the West take for granted. Even Netflix, a completely virtual service, is only available in about 40 countries. Bitcoin, as a global payment system anyone can use from anywhere at any time, can be a powerful catalyst to extend the benefits of the modern economic system to virtually everyone on the planet.

And even here in the United States, a long-recognized problem is the extremely high fees that the “unbanked” — people without conventional bank accounts – pay for even basic financial services. Bitcoin can be used to go straight at that problem, by making it easy to offer extremely low-fee services to people outside of the traditional financial system.

A third fascinating use case for Bitcoin is micropayments, or ultrasmall payments. Micropayments have never been feasible, despite 20 years of attempts, because it is not cost effective to run small payments (think $1 and below, down to pennies or fractions of a penny) through the existing credit/debit and banking systems. The fee structure of those systems makes that nonviable.

All of a sudden, with Bitcoin, that’s trivially easy. Bitcoins have the nifty property of infinite divisibility: currently down to eight decimal places after the dot, but more in the future. So you can specify an arbitrarily small amount of money, like a thousandth of a penny, and send it to anyone in the world for free or near-free.

I think this is the most interesting/compelling use of Bitcoin to me:

Think about content monetization, for example. One reason media businesses such as newspapers struggle to charge for content is because they need to charge either all (pay the entire subscription fee for all the content) or nothing (which then results in all those terrible banner ads everywhere on the web). All of a sudden, with Bitcoin, there is an economically viable way to charge arbitrarily small amounts of money per article, or per section, or per hour, or per video play, or per archive access, or per news alert.

For example, I don’t want to pay the monthly subscription to The New York Times, because while I read a lot on the site, I don’t see the benefit of paying for a subscription when I can get to the articles for free via social media channels. But if the cost was something small, say $0.05 per article, then I would be more inclined to browse from the homepage directly.

Who Are the Bitcoin Millionaires?

Business Week profiles three people who are paper millionaires for having invested in Bitcoin:

Owners store their Bitcoins in electronic wallets, which are identified by a long string of letters and numbers. The wallet 1933phfhK3ZgFQNLGSDXvqCn32k2buXY8a, for example, currently owns 111,111 Bitcoins, which amounts to more than $15 million sitting on someone’s hard drive. Whose hard drive is a mystery: While anyone can view the wallets, the owners’ identities are not public. As of April 2, there were about 250 wallets with more than $1 million worth of Bitcoins. The number of Bitcoin millionaires, though, is uncertain—people can have more than one wallet.

Charlie Shrem, 23, discovered Bitcoins on a website in early 2011, when he was a senior at Brooklyn College. Shrem didn’t mine coins himself but bought them on Tradehill. His first purchase was 500 coins at about $3 or $4 each; he bought thousands more when the price hit $20. When he was still in college, Shrem started BitInstant, a company that allows its customers to purchase the digital currency from more than 700,000 stores, including Wal-Mart Stores and Duane Reade. Shrem wears a ring engraved with a code that gives him access to the electronic wallet on his computer. Friends tease him that a thief could cut off his finger to get the ring. “They started calling me four-finger Charlie,” he says.

My take: if they’re still invested in BitCoin, they might lose it all come next month. They better cash out quick. Oh wait, they can’t at the moment…

Bitcoin: The Currency of Mistrust

Felix Salmon has a very good post on Bitcoin (and the potential bubble associated with it). The gist of his argument is in these two paragraphs:

If you hold dollars, you’re trusting the US government not to destroy your wealth. Bitcoin, by contrast, is based on mistrust — it’s specifically designed so that it’s every man for himself. All in Vain was blamed by many in the bitcoin community for his stupidity: what was he thinking, keeping his wallet on a Windows computer attached to the open internet?

But even with bitcoin, people nearly always end up trusting someone – and the entity they’re trusting often turns out to be unreliable. MyBitcoin, turned out to be a fraud; Mt Gox was hacked. The latest hot new bitcoin company is Coinlab, but given how much money can be made by hacking into these companies, and given that law enforcement authorities are unlikely to make any attempt to go after the perpetrators, there will always be a pretty substantial risk that clients will lose their money.

In related news: Henry Blodget didn’t publish his take on April Fools’ Day.