Bitcoin: The Appetite for the Unknown

Lior Alkalay - Contributor

Over the past month, Bitcoin has become almost synonymous with the word bubble. In fact, Google searches for the combination words “Bitcoin” and “bubble” has jumped exponentially. That is unsurprising considering Bitcoin’s phenomenal ascent—piercing through record after record.

Even as calls and forecasts for Bitcoin’s eventual collapse intensify, the enthusiasm has intensified, as well. The cryptocurrency is now available for trading on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange floor, making its way forward as a form of legal tender. It’s also unsurprising, then, that in another Google search, the word combo of “buy” and “Bitcoin” is also at a record high.
So, how can we gauge Bitcoin? We cannot! And that is what I call the Unknown Factor.

Bitcoin Google Search Data
Chart courtesy of Google Trends

Bitcoin is No Tulip

Some prominent figures including Jaime Dimon CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co and John C. Bogle-founder of Vanguard Group. have labeled Bitcoin as a bubble, even the world's most famous investor Warren Buffet has been a skeptic on Bitcoin labeling digital currencies a “mirage.” In fact, most of all, the latest Bitcoin surge is compared to the Tulip Mania that took place way back in the 17th century in the Dutch Republic. Back then, Investors got caught up in a frenzy of tulips and began speculating on their price. A bubble was inflated, and eventually, like every inflated bubble, in 1637 the tulip bubble burst, leaving investors “wounded” and with “hefty losses.” The difference between then and now is that a tulip is, for lack of a better description, a “useless asset.” As a commodity, the tulip, albeit pretty, is nothing more than a decaying flower with no real use or applications in food or industry. Unlike a commodity such as gold or silver, a tulip cannot be used for jewelry.
Continue reading "Bitcoin: The Appetite for the Unknown"

Commodities: Time For A Strategy Shift

Lior Alkalay - Contributor

Commodity prices are facing a shift. As inflation heats up and growth stabilizes, the commodity arena is gradually tilting in favor of growth-oriented commodities such as Oil and Copper Meanwhile, commodities associated with inflation protection, e.g., Gold and Silver, are not only losing their allure but face growing sell pressure.

The thought of selling precious metals just as inflation is showing signs of coming back may sound counter-intuitive. After all, precious metals are one of the more well-known methods of hedging against inflation. So, why are precious metals tanking just as inflation is coming back?

Because the capacity of precious metals as an inflation protection method emerges when investors believe that inflation is understated in the official numbers. When inflation becomes fact, we begin to see the classic, "buy on rumor, sell on fact" response; i.e., investors start selling precious metals. Since Gold and Silver do not pay interest, their investment appeal decreases when rates rise. But, when inflation is under-reported, effective rates are lower and the value of the currency, in our case the Dollar, is eroded. And, in this case, precious metals gain appeal for preserving value and as an alternative investment. That would explain Gold’s price surge from July $1,210 an ounce in July to $1,350 in September, when US headline inflation numbers caught the market off guard with a fall to from 2.7% in February to 1.6% in June, meaning inflation was understated.

This dynamic also explains the fire sale that hit precious metals in the aftermath of the Fed's September rate decision. The Fed signaled a rate hike as soon as December and another three in 2018. Gold responded by shedding 3.6% in two weeks.

Chart courtesy of

All the while, the rest of the commodities space was holding rather well in the face of higher rates. In fact, in aggregate, excluding precious metals, commodities prices were gaining. One good example is the iShares S&P GSCI Commodity-Indexed Trust ETF (GSG), which embodies exposure to the broad commodities market from energy and agriculture to precious metals and gained 0.54% during Gold's selloff. Continue reading "Commodities: Time For A Strategy Shift"

China: Signals From Dim Sum Bonds

Lior Alkalay - Contributor

Over the past three years, a dark cloud has been looming large in China—a massive debt bubble. It seems that, with each bit of good news, whether it’s GDP growth hitting 6.9% for the second quarter in a row, exports climbing to 7.2% Year on Year or Retail Sales surging by 10.4%, the dark cloud of a looming debt crisis grows darker and more menacing. So, when investors suddenly find their appetite whetted for Offshore Chinese debt, one should sit up and take notice.

Chinese Offshore RMB bonds, amusingly nicknamed Dim Sum bonds, are relatively new in the market, existing only since 2007. The Dim Sums’ appeal is, that they trade on offshore markets, rather than in mainland China, thereby allowing investors to buy Chinese debt without the risk of interference from Chinese regulators. As a result, the performance of Dim Sum bonds reflects the sentiment of Chinese debt more accurately. Continue reading "China: Signals From Dim Sum Bonds"

S&P 500: Any Juice Left?

Lior Alkalay - Contributor

The S&P 500 (CME:SP500) closed for the week at 2,472.10, after hitting an all-time record, after gaining 10.5% year-to-date. The S&P’s forward Price-to-Earnings ratio, a key ratio for investors, is 17.8 above the 10-year average of 14. And this brings up the inevitable pondering; is there any juice left in the S&P 500?

In searching for an answer, the intuitive starting point might be the S&P’s valuation. We’ve already pointed out that the S&P 500 is trading at a high valuation compared to its 10-year average. Furthermore, according to Factset research, earnings for the 500 companies which comprise the S&P 500 are expected to rise by 9.3% as compared to 9.26% in 2016. Now, while that is a solid figure, it also suggests earnings growth is not accelerating and may even suggest the acceleration in earnings growth is over. And if earnings growth is likely to decelerate in the coming years it cannot account for the S&P500’s 17.8 PE ratio. So, there’s no valid reason why the S&P’s valuation would be the catalyst for another surge. Why not? Simply because it's too high. In fact, the real catalyst isn’t within the S&P500 or even within the stock market; instead, the real reason lies within the Bond market. Continue reading "S&P 500: Any Juice Left?"

Nikkei 225: Follow The Trail

Lior Alkalay - Contributor

Since the start of 2017, the Nikkei 225 has lagged in performance; with a 2.8% return since 2017 began, it lagged the S&P 500'S 2.8% RETURN, and it lagged its Asian peers, the Hang Sang and the South Korean KOSPI, which gained 16% and 16.7%, respectively, year to date. Despite all that lagging, however, the future trend for the Nikkei 225 might be the most promising. The reason? The BoJ’s monetary policy, and how it is trailing the performance of the Japanese economy.

BoJ Policy vs Reality

In a recent speech at the University of Oxford, Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda stressed that, despite the latest improvement in Japan’s economic performance, inflation (the rise in prices) is still far from the BoJ’s target of 2%. As the official statistic released from Japan’s statistic Bureau suggests, Kuroda is right. Japan’s headline inflation hit 0.4%, still persistently close to 0%. Add to that the risk of another sell-off in oil and the downside risk for Japanese inflation seems very present. Together, that makes it incumbent upon the Bank of Japan to keep its ultra-loose policy. Nonetheless, something about Japan’s official data doesn't add up. Continue reading "Nikkei 225: Follow The Trail"