By Eric C. Jansen – As awareness of bitcoin grows, it’s increasingly likely that some of your clients will ask you questions about it, if they haven’t already.
Assuming you aren’t informed on the subject, even a superficial understanding of bitcoin and its vehicle, blockchain technology, may involve rearranging some mental furniture in your mind’s economic living room.
Bitcoin has an undeniable PR problem that’s doubtless influencing some clients’ opinions. Yet, these opinions are often uninformed, as bitcoin is still a mystery to much of the public.
Incidents of fraud and manipulative hype, along with wild swings in value, have resulted in the popular myth that bitcoin is inherently risky, fraudulent and without any legitimate use. In some ways, this is like saying that all securities are necessarily high-risk because of frauds perpetrated to boost value, or that the almighty dollar itself is corrupt because of criminal acts to get it. To see this, to separate fact from fiction, clients need some basics about what bitcoin is and how it works.
Here are five talking points for client meetings:
• Bitcoin is a technology, a currency and a payment network. It was conceived for the Internet and the digitally connected world we now live in, and is unlike existing means of transmitting value, most of which were created long before the Internet existed. Bitcoin’s launch in 2009 marked the first time in history that it became possible to transfer currency person to person (P2P) anywhere in the world nearly instantaneously and at little cost, without an intermediary such as a bank.
• Bitcoin can potentially reduce the cost of remittances to close to zero. Every day, immigrants throughout the world stand in line to cash their paychecks and wire money back to their families in their native countries. Despite all the new technology that has been created, the average cost to send those funds sits at about 7 percent, with banks charging the most—an average of 10.44 percent. That means for every $100 sent, the immigrant’s family ends up with only about $90, sometimes even less.
• Bitcoin enable privacy that other payment methods don’t. Every time you use your debit or credit card (with or without a chip), a complex series of behind-the-scenes transactions and data transfers occur. At each step in the process, your private banking information is exposed to potential security breaches. In the last few years, Target, Home Depot and most recently, Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor, all arguably using outdated payment systems, have been hacked, exposing the credit card data of millions of individuals.
Bitcoin is fundamentally different. When making a payment using bitcoin, what you’re transmitting to the world over the blockchain network is nothing more than a digital message that can only be unlocked by the recipient, using a private key. So, unlike traditional credit or debit card payments, bitcoin transactions contain no sensitive data. If a hacker steals the information in the transaction, all they will know is originating and destination addresses—nothing more. Thus, there’s nothing to hack in transactions. In some highly publicized incidents, private keys stored on exchanges have been hacked, but these exchanges were insecure. Careful bitcoin owners prevent this by using one of the more secure exchanges or storing bitcoin themselves, using recommended security protocols.
• Bitcoin has no intrinsic value, but neither does the dollar. At its most basic, currency is just tokens that we use to confer value, and bitcoin is simply a digital currency or representation of value. Like the dollar, bitcoin has value because people believe it does. When a currency fails, it’s because a nation’s citizens no longer have confidence in it.
• Although there’s a growing interest in bitcoin by people of all ages, surveys show that millennials are the most interested. In one survey, about 25 percent of male millennial (defined as age 18 to 34) respondents expressed an ownership preference for bitcoin over stocks, bonds and gold. Another survey found that 27 percent of millennials view bitcoin as more trustworthy than large banks. This is consistent with data showing millennials’ general distrust of large institutions, and their high comfort level with technology and P2P arrangements in the emerging sharing economy—attitudes that make bitcoin an acceptable alternative to conventional payment systems.
This is by no means a recommendation for advisors to go head-long into bitcoin. But it’s a good idea to get ahead of the popular understanding of it to answer clients’ questions today—and to keep from being left behind tomorrow.
Eric C. Jansen, ChFC, is the founder, president and chief investment officer of Westborough, Mass.-based AspenCross Wealth Management (AWM), which teaches clients how to make smarter financial and investment decisions and to use disruptive technology to help them live the lives they want. AWM also provides cryptocurrency educational services to clients nationwide, and recently began accepting bitcoin as payment for financial planning services.