Bitcoin is the “digital gold” — at least, that’s what its fervent advocates claim.
They argue that the buzzy digital currency is the 21st century’s answer to precious metals, and may one day replace gold as a major store of value for investors.
But is bitcoin likely to actually replace real gold in mainstream investors’ eyes any time soon? According to Morningstar Equity Research analyst Kristoffer Inton, the answer is a resounding no.
In a recent research note for investors, the analyst laid out five criteria that gold, as a “safe-haven investment,” fulfills — and that bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies would also need to succeed at in order to be considered as an investment on a par with (or superior to) the shiny precious metal.
Notably, these criteria don’t include volatility — something investors want to avoid at all costs for safe-haven investments. Bitcoin is, infamously, prone to extreme bouts of volatility. In the space of under a year, its price has skyrocketed from around $4,000 to almost $20,000, before falling back to around $6,500 today.
So what are they? The five areas are liquidity, functional purpose, scarcity of supply, future demand certainty, and permanence.
Gold successfully ticks the box on every one of these criteria, while bitcoin only manages two (at a push), Inton argues.
First up, liquidity. An investment vehicle needs to be traded regularly, and bitcoin is remarkably illiquid, as crypto investors hoard (or “hodl”) their digital coins. “Current levels of trading see daily volume of roughly 0.5% of all existing bitcoins,” Inton wrote. “Gold averages more than 5 times as much volume, with nearly 3% of all existing gold being regularly traded.”
Next: As well as being a universally recognised store of value, gold actually has a functional purpose— from its utilization in computer circuit boards to ornamental jewellery and teeth replacements. Bitcoin’s only purpose is as a currency and store of value — and right now, it’s only rarely accepted for actual purchases (rather than speculative trades).
Bitcoin does, however, have scarcity of supply, a necessary component for retaining value. There will only ever be a maximum of 21 million bitcoins in existence, a rule written into its code from day one.
Is there future demand certainty for bitcoin? That’s a very big unknown. The digital currency has been around for less than a decade, in a period of significant technological and political upheaval; even if cryptocurrencies catch on in the mainstream, there’s no guarantee bitcoin will be one of the ultimate winners. In contrast, gold has been universally accepted as valuable for more than 5,000 years of human history — it’s a pretty safe bet for investors that it won’t have totally devalued a year from now.
Lastly, there’s permanence— the question of whether the given investment resource itself degrades over time. Gold is a precious metal that doesn’t tarnish; bitcoin, too, won’t rot or deteriorate. (Though if people stop widely using bitcoin, the network will degrade in quality and could eventually disappear altogether; gold would continue to exist even if it ceased to be used as an investment vehicle tomorrow.)
“We think it’s unlikely that cryptocurrency will meaningfully attract safe-haven investment dollars away from gold,” Inton wrote. “For cryptocurrency to challenge gold’s investment case, we think additional certainty surrounding blockchain’s use, additional certainty around the popularity of one cryptocurrency over another, and improved trading volume will be needed.”