Up, up, up

Tuesday rush hour, at the foot of Bay Street outside Union Station, downtown Toronto.

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Around the time of Y2K, which most Millennials never heard of, investors went goey for tech. Nortel exploded (before it imploded). The NASDAQ surged daily. Kids with skateboards and cool URLs went public with profitless companies and made millions. Then it all blew up.

The tech bubble bust. Science and technology mutual funds – then an absolute rage – lost 80% of their value. Investors who had gone all-in, believing dot-coms and the Internet would become the backbone of modern life, were crushed. Panic selling in late 200 and early 2001. Then came Nine Eleven to finish things off.

Now we know the techies were right. Seventeen years ago it was inconceivable every single person on the sidewalk would have a smart phone, that Uber would replace taxis, AirBnB supplant hotels, landlines become relics, Russia use Facebook to throw the US election or something online called Amazon be one of the biggest companies in the world. And, hey, let’s not forget about yesterday’s blockchain bubble blog.

So what did people do wrong in the first tech-fueled equity romp when they got all sauced up with hormones and hype? Two things. They engaged in massive speculation, bidding up the value of companies with visionary ideas, epic burn rates and no earnings (did someone just say ‘Tesla’?). Investors were swept along on vision and promise, not profits and dividends. They paid a massive price. They will again.

Second, they lacked balance. Thinking diversification was for people dumber than them and only old ladies bought bonds or blue chips, they passionately put 100% of their investment bucks into one thing (did I just hear ‘Bitcoin’?). When the herd was moving in the same direction, it was euphoric and thrilling. When reality arrived, so did the losses.

All this seems relevant at a time when tech issues have been propelling stock markets to new highs. Happened again Tuesday. The Dow, S&P and Nasdaq all soared. Even the limp old TSX has been catching up, and also sits at a pinnacle. As I mentioned days ago, the same has taken place in Japan, Europe and with emerging markets.

The obvious question: another bubble? A rerun of 2000, or even 2008?

Last time I said it was irrational to expect a 20% market correction just because an index had reached a new summit. Comparisons with Y2K or the credit crisis (or 1929, 0r 1987) are meaningless without context. This time loads of tech-based companies are making money. Look at Apple ($45 billion profit in three months) or Google ($22 billion profit). Amazon is trashing department stores and just bought a supermarket chain. Practical, real-life, broad-based applications of devices, products and services using online platforms have created wildly successful corporations. Share prices have soared. Investors collect dividends. These are valid businesses.

So the Dow looks vertical mostly because companies are making money. Corporate profits are advancing double-digits. There is more to come.

The advance will also come on the shoulders of a humungous US corporate tax cut (35% down to 20%), full employment in the US, and the beating-down of anti-global populism in Europe. The world economy is growing at 3%. Bankers worried about deflation two years ago are now raising interest rates to quell inflation. Never again in the life of you or your children will there be 2% long-term mortgages.

This is a world in which you should expect growth to continue, and be reflected in financial assets. But as markets move higher, spurred by entrepreneurs and execs who have figured out how to make passion also make money, there’ll be corrections, dips, shocks and surprises. The higher they go, the more violent the moves.

So we seemed to have figured out the tech thing (with some notable bubble companies and commodities). Now you need to understand balance. It’s a hard lesson to grasp when everything’s going up. Not when they fall.

The point of a 60/40 portfolio is to have two-fifths of your money in stuff that’s less volatile, pays a predictable income stream or is negatively correlated to the more excitable equity markets. No, 40% should not go into bonds – only some. The best choice right now (for a portfolio large enough to have several positions) is 10% in short government bonds, 6% in corporates, 3% each in high-yield and provincial debt, plus a little cash and about 15% in preferred shares. The prefs turn out a 4% tax-advantaged dividend plus increase in capital value along with rates. The bonds stifle volatility and have a history of rising when stocks are falling. Of course, do all this through ETFs, to spread the risk.

So far this year a balanced, diversified portfolio is ahead about 9.5%. Tesla stock is up 66%. Bitcoin is ahead 700%.

Sexy isn’t everything. Look at me.

Unleashed

Being paleo, I’m no Bitcoin buddy. But you can’t ignore this thing. There’s a growing mob of people convinced the future of money will not be like the past. No fiat currency. No central banks, No government controls. No interest rates. No printing presses. No cash tied to political decisions or interference. As a result Bitcoin, and other rival cryptocurrencies, have spawned a Wild West of finance. Compared to this, real estate in Toronto or Vancouver is a giant, boring, brain-dead GIC.

The latest news comes as Bitcoin advanced to $8,000 US. That’s a 700% gain this year, taking the total value of the invisible, digital, unbankable currency to $130 billion. Along the way there has been extreme volatility – three recent plunges of 25% each, enough too freak out even the most iron-gutted investor.

Despite this, the number of supporters is ramping up daily. Surprisingly, now the doomers have signed on. Some people say Bitcoin is sucking off a lot of support from the traditional hedge-against-paper-money, which is gold.

Wow. Look at this chart. Gold’s comatose. Bitcoin is on fire.

Of course, why someone who thinks the world might blow up would put all their faith in money that only exists if you have a good Internet connection and a charged-up phone is curious. Our gossamer grid might be the first piece of infrastructure to fail. Go figure.

But the appeal of digital money to those who trust no elected person, national government, central banker or multinational, globalist corporation is obvious. Bitcoins are hard to mine, unlike the way the US government prints trillions of dollars, for example, or the Fed simply balloons its balance sheet. A limited supply is intended to maintain value – but it also means when demand for the stuff increases (like now) the worth of each digital unit inflates wildly.

Bitcoin isn’t actually money you can possess and hoard. Instead your pile is kept in a virtual wallet forming part of an online payments network which is completely decentralized. That’s called the blockchain – at the heart of the up-yours mentality which created digital currency. Anonymous. Sovereign. Free.

Bitcoiners (and the lovers of other forms now rivaling it) look at the way the world almost went off a cliff during the credit crisis and have decided they want nothing to do with a system that can ricochet, domino-like into utter mayhem. At least that was the genesis. Now speculators, traders and institutions are piling on, with the smell of quick profits in their nostrils.

Next month, for example, Bitcoin futures will start trading on the world’s biggest exchange. There are now bitcoins backed by gold. Could it be long before we see one tied to dollars? Will digital money ultimately be co-opted by global financial institutions who themselves are looking for relief from capricious national governments and paternalistic central banks? With free trade having broken barriers everywhere, a single protectionist leader like Trump has the potential to wreak havoc. Maybe non-political, uncontrollable, non-inflationary money is the answer – freed from the jerking around that one nation’s interest rate policy can create.

So, yes, Bitcoin has a future. But we’re not there yet. And investing in it poses extreme risk.

The very thing that attracts – the absence of manipulation – is what also makes digital money toxic to average investors. Fiat currency (the stuff we use every day to finance our lives) is tightly controlled by central banks to smooth out wild gyrations affecting its value. They do this by expanding or contracting the overall money supply, adjusting the cost of money (interest rates), actively fighting inflation and deflation and working with governments to issue and control public debt. Just look at what the Fed has done since 2008. Astonishing. And witness what an engineered collapse in interest rates did to Canadian housing prices. Stunning.

As a paleo, bitcoins are not in my portfolio. The volatility’s too much. The downside too great. But this week the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board revealed it has a staff of 100 people watching, analyzing and possibly preparing to jump in.

Imagine that. Your CPP dollars, out there, braless, untamed, astride blistering neurons with survivalists and nomads. Now I need a scotch.