The Ledger: Legendary Investor Jim Breyer Warns of Crypto ‘Nuclear Winter’
Greetings from China, where Fortune just concluded its 2018 Global Tech Forum in Guangzhou, a city whose industrial potency permeates the air, literally, in the form of a throat-tickling miasma. I am spending the week unwinding in the revivifying climes of Hong Kong, puffing my lungs on hopeful gusts off the Pearl River Delta while the cryptocurrency markets suffocate.
For devotees of The Ledger, the highlight of Fortune’s conference was remarks made by Jim Breyer, a billionaire investor who remains amply bullish on blockchain-based businesses, despite the unrelenting Bitcoin bloodbath. The present Blackstone- and erstwhile Walmart– and Dell-board director said during the event’s final keynote session on Friday that he continues to be “very interested” in the technology, while cautioning that the near future will be a slog for investors. These are the times that try investors’ souls; “we are close to a nuclear winter right now with cryptocurrency,” Breyer warned. (You can view his portfolio investments, which include Circle and Ethereum, here.)
This is not the first time investors have sought fallout shelter. Cryptocurrency bubbles have popped before. “AI winters,” periodic slumps in artificial intelligence excitement, are well-documented phenomena. In the early 2000s, in the aftermath of the dot-com denouement, venture capitalists—the survivors, anyway—shuddered at the thought of backing Internet companies. But that didn’t stop Breyer from placing a prescient bet on Facebook in 2005, when shares in the then-upstart were worth mere cents on the dollar. The deal would prove to be one of the venture industry’s biggest bonanzas, reaping billions of dollars for Accel Partners, where Breyer worked before setting out on his own with the self-named firm Breyer Capital in 2013.
“These cycles keep happening every decade or so,” Breyer said, referring to the repetition of technologic booms-and-busts. This seasonality is, he said, “inevitable.”
What makes Breyer so sure blockchains will rebound? In addition to drawing analogies to past experience, he said his many meetings with students, entrepreneurs, and technologists the world over inspired his faith. “So many of the very best computer scientists and deep learning PhD students and post-docs are working on blockchain because they have so much fundamental interest in what blockchain can mean,” Breyer said, name-checking a variety of top-tier academic institutions, including ones at which he holds advisory roles, including Tsinghua University in Beijing as well as Harvard and Stanford universities in the U.S.
Put simply, Breyer said: “You don’t want to bet against the best and brightest in the world.” If he is right—as he has been many times before—the sun will one day shine again. But for now the lot of futurist financiers must prepare to gasp in the pall of skies occluded. The bomb has dropped and, yes, winter is upon us. Take cover.
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…Rekt. Please, stop the pain, Ouch, ouch—it hurts. But it could get way worse! SEC slaps ICO-pumping celebs with fines. Read my lips: more taxes? Crypto payola is a problem. China likes blockchain, not crypto. GDPR headaches. Mike Novogratz gets crushed. Treasury Department sanctions Iranian Bitcoin addresses. Why a Nobel Prize-winning economist thumbs his nose at crypto.
BALANCING THE LEDGER
On this week's Balancing The Ledger, Jen sat down with Pascal Gauthier, president, chairman, and cofounder of Ledger, the cryptocurrency hardware wallet-maker which, incidentally, shares a name with Fortune's fintech team. They discussed security, Black Friday sales, and the privacy-oriented coin Monero.
Hero to zero. Two fellows affiliated with USAID, a federal agency in the U.S. responsible for foreign aid, and an employee of Social Solutions, a welfare-focused consulting firm, assessed the success rate of 43 blockchain programs aimed at international development. The results were distressing: the authors found no evidence to support claims by the technology's vendors that it either reduced costs or increased security of data. In fact, these blockchain companies contravened the primary, ostensible benefit of using blockchain tech—transparency—by keeping the details of their implementations secret.
Here's an excerpt of a blog post by the study's authors.
We fared no better when we reached out directly to several blockchain firms, via email, phone, and in person. Not one was willing to share data on program results, MERL [monitoring, evaluation, research and learning] processes, or adaptive management for potential scale-up. Despite all the hype about how blockchain will bring unheralded transparency to processes and operations in low-trust environments, the industry is itself opaque.
MEMES AND MUMBLES
Go with the flowchart. The reports of Bitcoin's death are greatly exaggerated. Nic Carter, a cryptocurrency researcher, tweeted a flowchart mocking news outlets for sounding a death knell for the cryptocurrency. The digital coin is still very much alive and kickin', Carter contends.
Really, don't post it everywhere.
FOMO NO MO'
Don't miss out: Paul Donovan, chief economist at UBS, eviscerated Bitcoin in an internal blog post for the Swiss bank's global wealth management division. He called the recent cryptocurrency bubble "evil." Later in the week, Donovan appeared on CNBC to take another bite: "Right from the start of the hike in late last year, it was fairly obvious that this was going to end badly, unfortunately, for some of the people who weren't protected by any kind of regulation and got sucked into the process," he said.
Here's an excerpt from Donovan's original broadside. (HT to Bloomberg reporter Julie VerHage for sharing a screenshot of the text on Twitter.)
The cryptocurrency bubble may be in its death throes. A loss of over 80% is not healthy. Economists said from the start that Bitcoin and the like would never be currencies. They never will be currencies. Their designers are brilliant at maths. Their designers appear to know nothing about economics. Real value comes from matching supply and demand. Cryptocurrency supply can go up. It cannot go down. Demand for cryptocurrencies can go down. Demand was created by blind faith, not real economics. The failure to balance supply and demand destroys value. Value is being destroyed right now.