Gambling. Speculating. Trading. Investing. Owning the future world currency. Whatever your thoughts about cryptocurrency, what could happen if you put your money in it?
Many will have reaped the rewards of cryptocurrencies’ meteoric rise to a market cap of approximately two trillion dollars. Indeed, few other asset classes could have matched the returns from cryptocurrency over the past year:
Performance of £1,000 invested in different assets (August 2020 – 2021)
→ Ethereum: £6,650
→ Bitcoin: £3,430
→ Apple stock: £1,340
→ Vanguard FTSE Global All Cap Index fund: £1,250
→ Cash: £999
→ UK Government Bond fund: £950
→ Gold: £880
The heady returns of cryptoassets are, however, only half the story. If the timing was right then you could’ve indeed profited generously. Conversely, if you bought at the peak only to panic as the price dropped, selling off in the trough, that list looks very different:
Performance of £1,000 invested in different assets, buying at peak and cashing out at trough (August 2020 – 2021)
→ Cash: £999
→ Vanguard FTSE Global All Cap Index fund: £960
→ UK Government Bond fund: £900
→ Gold: £830
→ Apple stock: £810
→ Bitcoin: £620
→ Ethereum: £440
There’s some suggestion that factors such as income, crypto knowledge and belief in crypto ideology are positively correlated with returns (1). In reality, given their volatility, ROI from cryptocurrencies was linked to the timing of your investment.
Up & down
It is this exquisite volatility that makes cryptocurrencies an uncertain bet. One analysis found that Bitcoin had an annualised volatility of 76% [range 35 – 120%] (2). Bitcoin’s weekly volatility is comparable to equities’ annual volatility. The Crypto-Index 20, an index of the top twenty cryptocurrencies by market cap, was significantly more volatile than major equity indices in the UK, Italy, Spain, France and Germany (3). Bitcoin’s price does appear to be decreasing in volatility as it becomes more mainstream, which may make it more attractive as part of an investment portfolio in future (4, 5).
Perhaps crypto’s most troubling facet for a potential investor isn’t volatility, but manipulability. The influence individuals can have over cryptocurrency prices is concerning, as is the prevalence of ‘pump and dump’ (6) scams for smaller coins. These manipulations can cause large price distortions (7). ‘Wash trading’ is another price manipulation strategy, with one study finding the majority of the trading volume on unregulated crypto exchanges to be artificially fabricated (8). Part of cryptocurrencies’ attraction is their decentralised nature, but falling outside the purview of regulatory bodies leaves them vulnerable to these interferences.
All for one
Another issue for would-be investors is the positively correlated price movements between most cryptocurrencies.
There’s a high correlation (>0.8) between the price of Bitcoin and other major cryptocurrencies such as Ethereum, Litecoin and Ripple (9). Bitcoin also shows positive correlation to the majority of altcoins (10). Although data suggests such price associations are fluctuant over time, in general Bitcoin maintains a significant influence on the price of most other cryptocurrencies (11, 12). Of the top ten coins by market cap, only the US dollar-linked USDC and USDT coins have weak/no correlations with the eight others (13). The aforementioned Crypto-Index 20 was more positively correlated than other major European equity indices (3).
Consequentially, within the cryptoasset class, there is less overall (price) diversity to be had. Indeed, one author concludes that “the idea of a diversified cryptocurrency portfolio [is]… a myth” (9) and another calls the high correlation “dangerous” for diversification (14). Despite this, several sources suggest a diversified cryptocurrency portfolio benefits from improved risk-adjusted returns (15 – 17). Overall this makes it difficult to draw any firm conclusions about the ideal way to diversify one’s cryptoassets.
More at stake?
Returns from cryptocurrency needn’t all come after riding a volatility rollercoaster. Staking is an increasingly popular way of generating ‘steadier’ returns from cryptoassets, without suffering at the hands of market timing. The cut and thrust of staking is that you tie up your cryptocurrency for a length of time in order to earn income/interest on it (18). (You’re rewarded for using your cryptocurrency to maintain the operation of a proof-of-stake blockchain system.)
The amount of cryptocurrency being staked has risen sharply, from just shy of $200bn in January to about $600bn in August (19). It’s a tantalising prospect too, with reported annualised rewards of anything from 2% to 31% (18). One site lists the average reward as 14.95% (19).
Benefits of staking (20):
• Generates income on top of potential capital gains
• Low technological entry requirements (especially vs. ‘mining’)
• Some resources allow you to stake with fractions of cryptocurrencies
• Removes the temptation to sell your cryptocurrency i.e. time the market
Downsides of staking (21):
• Can only stake certain cryptocurrencies
• Minimum amount required to stake some coins e.g. 32 Ethereum (∽£75,000 at the time of writing)
• Risks inc. security, illiquidity if price crashes, fines for accessing early/node not functioning
• Rewards fluctuate frequently
• Opportunity cost of owning the crypto required for staking vs. other cryptocurrencies/assets
In my opinion, comparisons to traditional savings accounts (22, 23) downplay the risks associated with staking. You may well earn better interest than the ∽1% offered by 1-year fixed-rate saving accounts (24), but will certainly be taking on extra risk to do so.
If nothing else, the old adage ‘if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is’ should ring loudly in the ears of any would-be stakers. Indeed, one author sagely concludes that “…staking, despite its FOMO-inducing growth, should be approached with caution, especially the newly-created protocols promising suspiciously high rewards” (18).
If cryptocurrency prices are too volatile, and staking too dicey, there are ways of gaining exposure to cryptoassets without necessarily incurring the same risks.
Dollar cost averaging
Dollar-cost averaging (DCA) is a common technique employed to reduce the risk of price volatility, typically that associated with equities (25). It also has behavioural benefits e.g. reducing the temptation to try timing the market. It’s increasingly popular in the crypto world, allowing individuals to slowly accrue cryptocurrencies over time (26). To backtest DCA, I used a comparison of $100/month for a year vs. a $1,300 lump sum (Aug ’20 – ’21).
If the object is to reduce volatility risk, DCA works. Lump sums in Bitcoin [-49%] and Ethereum [-54%] would have lost more value compared to a DCA technique [-33% and -32% respectively] during the Spring 2021 crash (27, 28). The story is similar if the timeframe is expanded out to a 10yr period, and for other cryptocurrencies too. I suppose overall it’s a smoother ride, but by no means plain sailing!
The cost of reducing volatility is, of course, by giving up some returns. DCA investors in Bitcoin and Ethereum would have been worse off than their lump sum counterparts over most any timeframe. The relatively high fees for buying and selling cryptoassets would also eat into the returns from DCA to a greater degree.
Exposure to the growing number of cryptoasset/blockchain/digital asset companies could provide some of the returns without the risk of owning the underlying cryptocurrencies. Which of these companies should one invest in? A diversified approach is likely to be better than betting it all on one business, although one blogger chalked up a seven figure sum from their exposure to one blockchain company (29).
Free-to-trade investment platform Trading 212* allows investment in user-created portfolios (‘pies’.) Crypto pies contain a variety of different companies with ties to the world of cryptocurrency, though they are not robust financial vehicles. Any average joe can make a pie; they are certainly amateur at best.
If you’re after a more professional instrument to gain crypto exposure, then funds may be a better option. Investors may prefer the convenience, familiarity and comfort of buying an ETF rather than individual equities or cryptocurrencies (30).
The Invesco Elwood Global Blockchain UCITS ETF is one of the largest blockchain funds (31). Its closest competitors are smaller, and with less raw cryptocurrency exposure (32). An investment in the Invesco ETF would leave you lagging on returns compared to pure Bitcoin (158% vs. 259%), though you’d have experienced much less volatility. All the options for cryptoasset ETFs are beset by high fees (≥0.65%), which could be off-putting for some investors.
As mentioned in Crypto III, Goldman Sachs are planning to release their own blockchain ETF. However, a look at the index that the ETF will be tracking reveals a fairly generic list of tech companies (33). None stand out has having particular DeFi, blockchain or crypto exposure. It’s almost as if Goldman want to profit from the name of blockchain (34), a strategy that plagues the world of ESG investing and is likely to creep into the crypto space too. Other companies are also at various stages of launching cryptocurrency ETF’s, including JP Morgan and NYDIG.
The CRIX index (35) is a fluid cryptoasset index that currently consists of five cryptocurrencies, although over 85% of it is comprised of just two (Bitcoin & Ethereum). One analysis shows that an investment in CRIX benefited a portfolio’s volatility and return when compared to Bitcoin alone (36). There are a variety of other cryptoasset indices, although investing in them isn’t always possible in the UK (37).
Indeed a major stumbling block to crypto-fund investing in the UK is the current lack of availability and therefore paucity of choice. It may only prove a temporary issue, however. The assets under management in crypto hedge funds nearly doubled from 2019 to 2020 (37), and there are predictions of the imminent arrival of more cryptoasset funds to the UK (38, 39). I expect that in the future investing in such funds will become easier, cheaper and a more popular way of gaining cryptocurrency exposure.
If you already own a diversified set of equities in your portfolio, one option for gaining increased exposure to cryptoassets is to simply do nothing at all.
More and more big name corporate players are getting in on the crypto act. Existing exposure to these companies may be enough to grab onto the coat-tails of crypto’s rising market cap. Furthermore, non-crypto funds are adding digital asset exposure to their holdings (37, 40). For example Blackrock’s Strategic Income Opportunities Fund, a self-styled ‘flexible bond strategy’, is adding the option to own Bitcoin as part of its holdings (41). Others may follow suit (42).
The rewards will almost certainly be lesser than the pure, unfettered exposure of owning cryptocurrencies directly, but it is also likely to be a less risky option.
No asset is an island
With the exception of ardent purists, investors are unlikely to own cryptocurrency in isolation. What impact could cryptoassets have on a multi-asset portfolio. Booster? Diversifier? Makeweight? Lead weight?
There’s reasonable evidence that Bitcoin could act as a diversifying part of a portfolio. Bitcoin demonstrates negligible [-0.1 to +0.1] or only weak positive correlation with a variety of other traditional assets (43, 44), including equities (2, 45), bonds (5) and commodities (12, 46). This could reduce portfolio risk (12, 47, 48). Ethereum demonstrates similar characteristics (49) and may even be a better diversifier (50).
Caution is due, however, as it seems that cryptocurrencies’ correlation with equity markets increases when they are in a downturn (36, 51). This is presumably due to a run from volatile assets during troubled times. Some suggest that Bitcoin’s correlation to equity markets is increasing over time (5, 45). This means that holding cryptocurrencies mayn’t quite have the same protective effect on your portfolio as other traditional diversifying assets such as bonds, property or gold.
What about returns? Most of the data I found seems to suggest cryptocurrencies improve portfolio returns. Care must be taken with the literature, however, as I think there’s likely to be a fair degree of publication bias.
Cryptocurrencies in general seem to improve portfolio risk-return (52 – 54). Bitcoin, added in various amounts to a mixed portfolio, improved performance (2, 5, 45, 50, 53, 56). This appears to be by increasing returns and risk simultaneously. One study concludes that Bitcoin improved risk-adjusted returns to a greater degree than Ethereum (57). Ethereum still improved returns though and with lesser increases in volatility than Bitcoin. I’m sceptical of the idea that cryptocurrencies could improve performance while simultaneously decreasing volatility (58).
As one might expect, the positive impact of crypto on returns was seen in ‘tangency‘ (optimal risk/return) portfolios rather than minimum-variance portfolios. Cryptocurrencies play little-to-no role in improving (53, 54), and may even worsen (36), the latter’s performance.
How much is enough?
“What percentage of my portfolio should be cryptoassets?” is a question that’s ultimately unanswerable. You can find suggestions for just about any allocation, some of them based on nothing more than gut feeling and many relying on less.
Cryptoasset allocation roulette. Simply choose one of these varying recommendations:
1 – 2% (69)
1 – 4% (70)
1 – 5% (71)
1 – 10% (72)
2 – 5% (68)
A 0% allocation will suit some, particularly those aiming to minimise their portfolio volatility. Unsurprisingly, the head of Bitcoin-laden company Microstrategy believes “a 0% allocation is the wrong number for every investor” (59). One article suggests starting at an allocation of 0.5% and modifying your asset allocation based on how you predict Bitcoin will perform vs. equities (60). A 2020 survey by Fidelity found that the 91% of respondents planned to have a cryptoasset allocation of at least 0.5% (61).
Many of the analyses of cryptocurrency in a mixed portfolio used a 5% allocation to Bitcoin (2, 5). The oft-quoted Yale study (62) suggested a 6% Bitcoin allocation, though it’s probably an out of date recommendation. A more recent paper suggests the optimal amount of cryptocurrency in a portfolio is 4.6% Bitcoin and nothing else (53). That number is almost plumb in the middle of the findings from the ARK group (63), who suggest an allocation of 2.55% (for minimal volatility) or 6.55% (for maximal risk/return). Others prescribe only ‘small’ doses (15, 45).
FI Scribbles suggests <5% of a portfolio in cryptoassets, at least appropriately calling it a “finger in the air” recommendation (64). Foxy Monkey has a similar 5% holding (65). In a rare venture outside of real estate, The Property Podcast propound that if they were a billionaire, they would “absolutely stick…£50m or £100m in Bitcoin”, giving them a <5-10% allocation (66). Perennial personal finance aficionados Monevator have written a framework for deciding whether you should even own any at all (67).
An alternative strategy would be to own a certain amount of a cryptocurrency itself, rather than a certain value. For example, aiming to own 1 whole Bitcoin (73). Or if you believe Bitcoin will one day hold all the world’s capital value, then you only need ~0.003 of a Bitcoin to own your ‘fair share’ (74).
The putative benefits of cryptocurrency in a portfolio appear to be felt even if it only represents a small percentage of your overall holdings. With little robust evidence about the optimal allocation, the maxim ‘only invest what you can afford to lose’ springs to mind.
Watch the space
Cryptocurrencies are likely to remain an attractive investment option for many, owing to their (historical) propensity for high returns. Alongside these potential rewards come high volatility, manipulability and within-class correlation. Methods for reducing volatility risk are available to varying degrees, including dollar-cost averaging, diversification through funds and exposure via existing equities.
There’s reasonable evidence that cryptocurrencies could be a beneficial part of a multi-asset portfolio, diversifying and improving returns in tandem. The optimum allocation to cryptoassets within a portfolio, however, will depend very much on the individual investor’s situation. Most recommendations are for under 5%, but for many a smaller allocation will seem more appropriate.
Overall, drawing long-term conclusions from the short-term data on cryptoassets’ performance is fraught with risk. Increasing adoption may bring reductions in both volatility and trading fees, as well as confidence that the space won’t implode. Conversely, burgeoning popularity may consign the extreme returns of cryptocurrencies to halcyon days. Overall, an attitude towards cryptoassets that’s neither fanatical evangelism nor unconsidered dismissal seems most reasonable.
All prices correct at the time of writing.
*If you sign up using this link we both get a free share.
Disclaimer – I own the following cryptocurrencies: Bitcoin, Ethereum.
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