In the past year or so, many analysts and others in the world of economics have predicted a recession. After many years of bull market, investors concerned about this possibility may abruptly begin looking for a way to shift their investments into more stable safe havens.
The traditional move would be to hedge against stock volatility with gold. This has proven an effective method in the past, but a newer alternative is challenging the old-school safe-haven. Launched in 2009, bitcoin ushered in a new era of digital currencies. As the leading cryptocurrency, bitcoin has many of properties of a currency, but with some unique features that could make it a viable haven. Ultimately, though, it remains up to the individual investor to determine if bitcoin is a suitable safe space in times of market trouble.
Below, we'll compare gold and bitcoin as safe haven options.
Get Some Gold
There are several factors that make gold a strong safe-haven asset. It’s valuable as a material for consumer goods such as jewelry and electronics, and it is scarce. Regardless of demand, supply remains disproportionately low. Gold cannot be manufactured like a company issues new shares, or a federal bank prints money. It must be dug up from the ground and processed.
Accordingly, gold has almost no correlation with assets like currencies, and stock indices such as the S&P 500. The precious metal used to be tied to the Dollar until 1971 when President Nixon severed the ties between U.S. currency and gold as a base. Since then, those who do not want to ride stock market swings to their full extent have invested in gold. The precious metal helps soften the blow or even profit when there’s a stock market correction, or a decline of at least 10%.
Gold usually performs well during corrections because even if it doesn’t necessarily rise, an asset that remains static while others decline is quite useful as a hedge. Plus, as more people flee stocks and invest in gold, the price rises accordingly.
Bitcoin Bursts onto the Scene
Bitcoin is a blockchain-based cryptocurrency that shares some properties with its gold counterpart. In fact, many have called bitcoin “digital gold” in the past due to its weak relationship with all other assets—stocks especially. Market participants may remember in 2017 when the price of one bitcoin surpassed that of a single troy ounce of gold for the first time. As of January 2020, bitcoin’s price is above $8,700, but how is it so valuable? More importantly, should those running from stocks consider investing in the cryptocurrency?
Like gold, there is a limited amount of bitcoin. Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous creator of bitcoin, limited the total supply to 21 million tokens. Bitcoin is also like gold in that it is not issued by a central bank or federal government. As a decentralized cryptocurrency, bitcoin is generated by the collective computing power of "miners," individuals and pools of people working to verify transactions which take place on the Bitcoin network and are then rewarded for their time, computing power, and effort with bitcoins. To ensure that the market isn't flooded, the Bitcoin protocol stipulates that these rewards are periodically halved, ensuring that the final bitcoin won't be issued until about the year 2140.
Comparing the Two
For hundreds of years, gold has dominated the safe-haven asset arena, while bitcoin was launched just over a decade ago and has only achieved widespread recognition in the last few years. Below, we'll compare these two investment options head-to-head:
1. Transparency, Safety, Legality
Gold’s established system for trading, weighing and tracking is pristine. It’s very hard to steal it, to pass off fake gold, or to otherwise corrupt the metal. Bitcoin is also difficult to corrupt, thanks to its encrypted, decentralized system and complicated algorithms, but the infrastructure to ensure its safety is not yet in place. The Mt. Gox disaster is a good example of why bitcoin traders must be wary. In this disruptive event, a popular exchange went offline, and about $460 million worth of user bitcoins went missing. Many years later, the legal ramifications of the Mt. Gox situation are still being resolved. Legally, there are few consequences for such behavior, as bitcoin remains difficult to track with any level of efficiency.
Both gold and bitcoin are finite entities, although it's difficult to say which will be exhausted first. In this way, bitcoin and gold are fairly even when compared directly.
3. Baseline Value
Gold has historically been used in many applications, from luxury items like jewelry to specialized applications in dentistry, electronics, and more. In addition to ushering in a new focus on blockchain technology, bitcoin itself has tremendous baseline value as well. Billions of people around the world lack access to banking infrastructure and traditional means of finance like credit. With bitcoin, these individuals can send value across the globe for close to no fee. Bitcoin's true potential as a means of banking for those without access to traditional banks has perhaps yet to be fully developed.
It’s much easier to get cash for gold than cash for bitcoin. In the limited number of exchanges that allow fiat withdrawal, all impose daily limits, meaning that bitcoin is not as liquid as it could be. People world-wide gold and are willing to pay for it while bitcoin’s market is limited.
One major concern for investors looking toward bitcoin as a safe haven asset is its volatility. One need look only to the price history of bitcoin in the last two years for evidence. At its highest point, around the beginning of 2018, bitcoin reached a price of about $20,000 per coin. About a year later, the price of one bitcoin hovered around $4,000. It has since recovered a portion of those losses, but is nowhere near its one-time high price point.
Besides overall volatility, bitcoin has historically proven itself to be subject to market whims and news. Particularly as the cryptocurrency boom swept up a number of digital currencies into record-high prices around the end of 2017, news from the digital currency sphere could prompt investors to make quick decisions, sending the price of bitcoin upward or downward quickly. This volatility is not inherent to gold for reasons mentioned above, making it perhaps a safer asset.
In recent years, a number of alternative cryptocurrencies have launched which aim to provide more stability than bitcoin. Tether, for instance, is one of these so-called "stablecoins." Tether is linked with the U.S. dollar in much the same way that gold was prior to the 1970s. Investors looking for less volatility than bitcoin may wish to actually look elsewhere in the digital currency space for safe havens.