Bitcoin's not a fraud ??? but don't risk it

I've lost count of the number of times I've been asked about Bitcoin as an investment. And it's no wonder - if the crypto-currency hadn't been invented by a shadowy tech guru, it could have been the stuff of a movie director's wildest imagination.

Take the aforementioned "inventor" of Bitcoin, who may or may not be one of the half-dozen people suspected of being behind the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. Then, add in the fact that his invention came to prominence on the eBay-for-criminals website Silk Road, and that the libertarians love it because there's no role for government and you can't be identified.

I can almost see Matt Damon in the role of action hero Jason Bourne. Or Daniel Craig, on Her Majesty's secret service as Bond, trying to bring the bad guys down.

Then there's the legion of supercomputers "mining" new coins in China and Eastern Europe, and reports of people who threw out hard drives with Bitcoins saved on them, or who paid for two pizzas with Bitcoins that are now worth $20 million.

And, as we come to the halfway point in the movie, the price of a Bitcoin is again in the ascendancy.

But rather than 007 or Jason Bourne, could our hero be a mega rich, perfectly coiffed bank CEO? After all, it was JP Morgan chief executive Jamie Dimon who recently said Bitcoin was a fraud.

Or is Dimon the bad guy here, trying to protect the stuffy world of old-school bankers and their rich shareholders from disruption that would make the world a better place?

It's a fun idea for a movie, but that question is all too real. Bitcoin is imagined by its proponents as a win for privacy and for a currency free of government influence. There's no central bank. No official cash rate. No account names.

For its detractors, Bitcoin powers a shadowy "dark" economy where criminals can operate unfettered, and the central bank tools - designed to moderate booms and busts - would be useless ??? meaning the Reserve Bank and its ilk would be powerless when the next recession hits.

And then there are the speculators, for whom none of the above matters. The only question: will it keep going up?

I use the word "speculators" deliberately, here. The world can't decide whether Bitcoin is a currency - a replacement for the Australian dollar, Japanese yen and the like - or a so-called 'store of value', more akin to gold bars, free from the ravages of dollar-denominated inflation. And even if it could, there's no reasonable basis upon which to value Bitcoin.

The strongest bull case on valuation I've heard rests on the fact that the number of available Bitcoins is limited, therefore the more people who want one, the higher the price should naturally go. Which is true if the number is truly limited. And true only if people continue to demand them.

The potential (or perceived) imbalance of supply and demand is what drives most bubbles, of course. When speculators believe there'll be excess demand of tulips, nickel or lithium, for example, the price rises. Often, unsustainably, as investors in each of those asset classes will tell you.

Foolish takeaway

Which is not to say it's a fait accompli. When crude oil was discovered, smart people reasonably deduced it would power the world economy for decades or centuries to come. Others might have scoffed. On man's speculation is another's fortune ??? or destruction.

Buying Bitcoin is the antithesis of smart, deliberate long-term wealth building. The latter will see you get rich, slowly. The former will be faster - but in which direction?

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Scott Phillips is the Motley Fool's director of research. You can follow Scott on Twitter @TMFScottP or email The Motley Fool's purpose is to educate, amuse and enrich investors.

This story Bitcoin's not a fraud ??? but don't risk it first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.