• Dramatic action by global central banks and governments to combat the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a massive increase in government debt, boosting interest in traditional “hard” stores of value such as silver and gold.
  • The finite nature and lack of state sponsorship have been tailwinds to bitcoin in these unusual times; however, cryptocurrencies remain generally in their infancy. Extreme volatility and sky-high regulatory risks make the asset class a highly speculative investment and not an appropriate strategic holding in a goals-based investment portfolio.

Cryptocurrencies, a digital media of exchange originally designed in response to the global financial crisis, are once again grabbing headlines. After a gain of more than 1000% in 2017, their combined market value fell close to 80% over the next 12 months. Recently however, bitcoin has rebounded substantially, surpassing its all-time high, and investors are once again questioning the potential role of cryptocurrencies in a broad investment portfolio (Exhibit 1) (Download PDF to view exhibits).

As COVID-19 wreaked havoc through 2020 on the global economy, monetary and fiscal policy authorities responded with stimulus measures that far eclipsed responses during the global financial crisis. For example, over a three-month span in 2008, the U.S Federal Reserve (Fed) added $1.3 trillion of assets to its balance sheet. By comparison, in the three months following the first mandated COVID-19 shutdowns, the Fed added roughly $3 trillion in assets to a balance sheet that now tops $7.2 trillion (Exhibit 2).

Throughout the first half of 2020, growing economic uncertainty and a weakening U.S. dollar (due to the growing debt to GDP position of the U.S.) drove investor interest in traditional “hard” currencies such as gold and silver. Following the U.S. election in November, bitcoin in particular rapidly appreciated on the prospect of additional fiscal measures, as well as positive vaccine news, both of which raised the specter of inflationary pressure (Exhibit 3).

As technology disruptors, cryptocurrencies and blockchains, or the public digital ledgers where cryptocurrency transactions are recorded, do appear to have promise. The digital assets tend to attract individuals seeking a degree of privacy that they cannot get from conventional banking and payment systems. Meanwhile, corporations, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and even central banks and government institutions are more interested in the underlying technologies driving cryptocurrencies.

Many organizations are looking at how this technology can be used to improve operations and business outcomes. Their aim is to create a direct, secure and verifiable person-to-person system for payments that would be entirely private and digital, thereby removing traditional third-party intermediaries like banks. Whether this leads to actual paradigm shifts or just fosters marginal enhancements to businesses remains to be seen. Ironically, wider acceptance of these technologies may require more centralization and third-party verification, which would cause them to become more similar to the systems they were designed to replace.

As can be expected given the nascent currency or technology, cryptocurrencies can exhibit extreme levels of volatility. Bitcoin, the most widely followed cryptocurrency, has exhibited realized volatility in excess of 100%, far exceeding that of the S&P 500 Index, gold or the euro. (Exhibit 4).

The cryptocurrency market is just beginning to mature, and the supportive value of digital coins remains difficult to price. We view them as highly speculative instruments, which makes them an unsuitable investment choice for pursuing important financial life goals — particularly for investors who can’t afford the high risk of permanently losing money. In our view, it is far too early to consider including cryptocurrencies in a strategic investment portfolio.

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Index Definitions

  • S&P 500 Index: The S&P 500 Index is an unmanaged, market-weighted index that consists of 500 of the largest publicly-traded U.S. companies and is considered representative of the broad U.S. stock market.

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This material represents an assessment of the market environment at a specific point in time and is not intended to be a forecast of future events, or a guarantee of future results. This information should not be relied upon by the reader as research or investment advice and is intended for educational purposes only.

There are risks involved with investing, including loss of principal. Information provided by SEI Investments Management Corporation (SIMC), a wholly owned subsidiary of SEI Investments Company (SEI).