Is Bitcoin Safer Than Gold?

 | May 19, 2017 | 1:00 PM EDT
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With President Trump's problems and political grandstanding dominating the daily news cycle, several major stories have been pushed out of the spotlight. A global cyberattack that covered 150 countries, 200,000 computers and major institutions like FedEx (FDX) , the U.K. National Health Service and the Russian central bank has received comparatively limited coverage. At the same time, the alternative digital currency, Bitcoin, which was born in cyberspace, has reached all-time highs. Gold gets honorable mention as a safe haven, but not much more. But where does the real risk, as well as the real value, lie? 

In view of the severity of the latest cyberattack, it is only prudent to examine cybersecurity in relation to our financial system. The central bank of Russia, Bank Rossii, was one of the victims of this latest attack, but the Federal Reserve Bank of New York was also a victim of cybertheft as recently as February 2016. That heist of $81 million was linked to Bangladesh and possibly North Korea. 

With these types of large international players constantly attacking the core of banking and finance, how safe are all the digital dollars that we have stored in cyberspace? Cybersecurity experts estimate that there are over 200 million attacks on the system daily. Although very few of these attacks succeed, their severity continues to grow, exposing the inherently fragile nature of our highly interconnected financial system. This risk underscores the value of holding a real asset whose value is not dependent upon the financial system. 

Bitcoin has got everyone talking these days. Even though it is a relatively new phenomenon (it's only been in existence since 2009), it has captured the imagination of many in the financial community. With an eight-year track record, bitcoin has demonstrated that it has value. The question is, how much value and value measured by what

Bitcoins can be attained by digitally mining for them or in exchange for other currencies. Its value lies in the qualities it possesses. Like other forms of money, it is a medium of exchange, unit of account and store of value. According to a research produced by Cambridge University in 2017, there are 2.9 million to 5.8 million unique users actively using a cryptocurrency wallet, most of them using bitcoin. Clearly bitcoin has a use as a medium of exchange and unit of account, but will it perform as a store of value? Only time will tell. 

Currently bitcoin is valued at 1 bitcoin to roughly $1,850. Quite a valuation for a currency backed only by an algorithmic data mining process married to the good faith and trust of its users. The question remains, will bitcoin users be able to reach into the cybersphere and grab those bitcoins in times of financial stress, or will that wealth simply vanish in a haze of government intervention, cybertheft or internet malfunction. 

Where does gold fit into this modern crypto world of finance? For the answer, we return to the basic properties of money. Gold clearly is a unit of account. It is measured and valued against all other major currencies daily. Gold is a medium of exchange. Gold remains a staple of all major central bank reserve assets. It remains valued as a medium of exchange in global trade especially in times of stress. This has been demonstrated most recently by Iran, Venezuela and Greece using gold to settle debts. 

The most important use of gold, however, could very well be its property as a store of value. For more than 5,000 years, gold has been synonymous with wealth. Its inherent physical properties have been universally valued. Gold is not tied to any country, financial system or counterparty. It is no one's liability.

In fact, it is the only tangible, liquid, non-financial asset that is practical to own outside the financial system while remaining marketable at transparent prices across the world's financial centers. 

This is where the real value of gold lies. It is a store of wealth outside the digital, crypto and cyber worlds of finance. Physical gold greatly reduces, if not totally eliminates, this new, unknown cyber risk. Gold will never just vanish into the ether or be stolen by a phantom hacker on the other side of the planet. So as I watch the news and assess where the risks to wealth lie, I think physical gold is a pretty good place to be. And it sure is nice that it's cheap now relative to most other asset classes. 

David Yoe Williams Jr. is a principal at Strategic Gold, a Naples, Fla.-based firm that buys and stores physical gold for investors.

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