Bitcoin: Ringing the Bell for a New Asset Class

June 02, 2016
7 min read

ARK Invest and Coinbase explore the merit of bitcoin as the first of its kind in a new asset class—cryptocurrency—distinct from all other asset classes. Universally, we think traditional asset classes must meet the requirement of investability. However, traditional asset classes then differ in their politico-economic features, correlation of price movements, and risk-reward profiles. In our white paper “Bitcoin: Ringing The Bell For A New Asset Class”, all four criteria are explored in the context of the major asset classes.

Bitcoin and its underlying blockchain technology have become a force of innovation since being introduced in the midst of the 2007-2008 Financial Crisis.[1] The utility of the technology has driven the value of the currency that rides on top of it—bitcoin with a lower-case “b”—to grow by more than 1,000 fold in the last five years.[2] This means a person who invested $1,000 in bitcoin at the start of 2011 would now be a millionaire. We believe that technical jargon, bad actors, price volatility, and sensational media have kept much of the masses away from what could be the biggest technological development since the Internet.

While this paper will not dive into the specifics of the technology,[3] ARK Invest and Coinbase encourage readers new to the subject to start with the originating white paper by Satoshi Nakamoto [4] and follow it with Marc Andreesen’s article in the New York Times.

Despite storing over eight billion dollars in value,[5] bitcoin still generates confusion around its classification as an asset. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) asserts that it’s a commodity, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) deems it property, and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has decided to approach it on a case-by-case basis.[6]

The term cryptocurrency further muddles the regulatory situation, as it implies cryptocurrencies are a subset of the currency asset class, which we think is not the case. In our opinion, it may be better to consider other naming conventions, such as cryptomark, cryptobit, cryptostamp, ledgermark, or consensobit.

The definition of an asset class was addressed in Robert Greer’s seminal 1997 paper, “What is an Asset Class, Anyway?”[7] In his paper, Greer lays out three superclasses of assets, which include capital assets, consumable/ transformable assets, and store of value assets. He goes on to say “the lines between asset classes can still be fuzzy,” as is the case with gold fulfilling both consumable/transformable and store of value asset profiles, as shown in the table below.

Greer derives his three asset superclasses from a study of “fundamental economic features” and the correlation of their returns.[8] Nested within the superclasses are traditional asset classes—listed on the left hand side of the table below—which is the layer of classification that this paper will focus on.[9]

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Building upon Greer’s work, ARK Invest and Coinbase have defined four distinct characteristics that delineate the boundaries among traditional asset classes:

  • Investability
  • Politico-Economic Features
  • Correlation of Returns: Price Independence
  • Risk-Reward Profile

First, we think that an asset class must be sufficiently investable, providing ample liquidity and opportunity to invest. Second, it should have a distinct politico-economic profile that arises from its basis of value, governance, and use cases. Third, an asset’s market value should fluctuate independently of other assets in the marketplace, exhibiting low correlation of returns. Lastly, the prior three characteristics should lead to a differentiated risk-reward profile, which can be broken down into absolute returns and volatility. Combined, these four characteristics clarify which assets belong in each class.

For example, equities and bonds are considered different asset classes because after fulfilling the investability requirement, they differ in the latter three characteristics listed above. The politico-economic profiles of the two are different: an equity provides a perpetual claim on a company’s future cash flows, while a bond provides fixed periodic payments over a finite period of time secured by a company’s underlying assets. They behave differently in the marketplace, as witnessed in a “risk-off” environment in which equities struggle and bonds rally. Their historic risk-reward profiles are different, as stocks tend to have higher absolute returns with higher price volatility, while bonds have lower absolute returns with lower volatility.

By analyzing bitcoin’s behavior in the context of these four criteria, ARK Invest and Coinbase aim to unearth its merit as a bellwether for the cryptocurrency asset class. That said, cryptocurrency as an asset class cannot be proven as unique without observing its behavior relative to traditional asset classes: equities, bonds, precious metals, real estate, energy products, and fiat currencies.[10]

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