How To Buy Bitcoin At 26% Off The Regular Price

Here’s a scorecard on eight ways to own crypto. The most intriguing: a low-cost coin trust available at a nice discount.

Are you interested in virtual currency, now trading at half the price it had last fall? Shop around. Among the many ways to get a piece of the action, there are wide differences in ownership costs. My favorite: a somewhat obscure bitcoin trust to be found in Fairfield, Connecticut.

There are pros and cons to every means of getting cryptocurrency exposure, including the little outfit in Fairfield. This survey covers eight bitcoin bets in descending order of my views on their desirability. You may have a different ranking, especially if you are speculating on a quick turnaround.

#1. Osprey Bitcoin Trust

This quasi-fund (ticker: OBTC), created a little over a year ago, is a knockoff of the much better-known Grayscale Bitcoin Trust. Both trusts are closed-end, in that investors have no right to redeem shares in return for cash or underlying assets.

Osprey is a lot more cost-efficient, with an annual expense ratio of 0.8% versus Grayscale’s 2%. These expense figures incorporate both portfolio management and custody costs.

The trusts trade at discounts to the value of the bitcoins they hold: recently 26% at Osprey, 28% at Grayscale. With either, you are making a bet both on crypto and on that discount. If the discount widens, you’re worse off than you would have been with a coin purchase. If it narrows, you have a windfall.

What might widen the discounts: a continued fall in crypto prices. Bear markets have a way of doing double damage to closed-ends, depressing their share prices even faster than prices decline on the assets they hold. That’s been true of stock funds since the Great Depression and it’s likely to be true of crypto trusts.

It’s happening right now. A 12% fall in bitcoin between Friday afternoon on May 6 and Monday afternoon precipitated a 16% fall in Grayscale’s price.

But the discounts might go away. That would happen if the Securities & Exchange Commission permits exchange-traded funds to hold virtual currencies. Both Grayscale and Osprey have vowed to convert their closed-end trusts to ETFs as soon as such things are allowed.

The ETF structure allows market makers to cash in unwanted fund shares (or buy new shares when shares are sought after) via a swap for underlying assets. That sets up an arbitrage that keeps an ETF’s price close to the fund’s net asset value.

So far the agency has rejected every application for a coin ETF, although last year it did green-light an ETF that holds bitcoin futures contracts. Why the distinction? The futures trade on the heavily regulated Chicago Mercantile Exchange, while coins trade in somewhat murkier venues.

A bearish view of coin trusts comes from Tyler Odean, publisher of Something Interesting, an insightful Substack newsletter on crypto. “The time horizon [for an SEC approval] is long,” he says. “Between now and then the discount is likely to deepen as the number of competitive ways to hold bitcoin also deepens.”

Still, I think the bet in favor of an eventually favorable ruling from the regulators is a reasonable one. Risky, yes, but not as risky as the underlying asset. It’s far more likely that bitcoin will crash another 50% than that the discount will make a comparable move from 26% to 63% (meaning: Your trust collapses from 74 cents on the dollar to 37 cents).

One more concern: liquidity. Osprey has but $100 million of coins in its vault, and its average daily share volume over the past year would be worth $400,000 at today’s share price. Big bettors have to step in cautiously.

#2. Your wallet

You can purchase bitcoins on an exchange, then have them exported to your cold-storage wallet. Market analyst Odean has used this for his long-term bets.

Pros: No counterparty risk. No management fee. If you do it right, no hacker risk.

Con: You might not do it right.

Self-storage entails a fairly elaborate procedure to protect your private key from being lost or stolen. Next week you might walk into an open elevator shaft, so you need some mechanism for survivors to retrieve that key. The computer you use to generate the private and public keys for your coin repository has to be permanently isolated from the internet. The medium on which the secret is stored must be secure; Odean mentions an etched piece of metal as an option.

There are services (Casa, Ledger and others) that make this process less painful, but ease of use comes with some increment of risk.

#3. Exchange storage

You could leave your coins for safekeeping at a coin exchange. If you want that asset segregated, and thus safe from the exchange’s creditors, yours’ll have to pay a custody fee.

At Coinbase Global, where the minimum account size for this service is $500,000, the fee is 0.5% a year. Some customers get a better deal. Osprey, which recently switched its custody from Fidelity Investments to Coinbase, appears to be paying 0.25% or less (its financial statements don’t reveal an exact amount).

If you can stomach some counterparty risk, or you just want assets available for trading, you can leave your coins in a deposit account at no charge. This is the crypto equivalent of keeping your Tesla shares in a margin account. But, unlike stocks at a brokerage firm, coins left with an exchange have no Securities Investor Protection Corp. to back them if the middleman gets into financial trouble.

#4. Foreign ETF

While our SEC bides its time, the Canadian regulator has authorized exchange-traded funds that hold cryptocurrency. One of them is the Purpose Bitcoin ETF, which holds coins now worth just over $1 billion.

Pro: The fund trades at very close to net asset value. The shares that are quoted (in Toronto) in U.S. dollars see $4 million of average daily volume.

Cons: The 1.5% annual expense ratio is a lot higher than Osprey’s. It’s not easy to get your hands on these shares in the U.S., as most brokers will refuse the buy order. On the Fidelity platform you can find Purpose under the ticker BTCC_U:CA, but it takes some digging.

#5. Grayscale Bitcoin Trust

This entity (GBTC) is the elder cousin of Osprey.

Pro: Liquidity. This trust has $20 billion of coins and sees an average daily share volume now worth $140 million.

Con: The stiff fee, 2% a year.

#6. Futures

CME Group’s Chicago Mercantile Exchange lists bitcoin futures contracts, each for five coins. Trading volume, almost all of it in the nearest month, typically runs to $1 billion a day. Settlement is in dollars; no wallets are involved.

Pros: Good liquidity, minimal counterparty risk and the potential for leverage. You can control $2 of crypto by putting down $1 of cash.

Cons: Taxes, trading costs and contango. Bitcoin futures share these three afflictions with many commodity futures.

At tax time you have to declare paper gains and losses on futures, with 40% treated as short-term (at high tax rates).

Rolling over your futures position monthly, which you probably would do in order to stay in the most actively traded contract, will cost you 12 commissions and bid/ask spreads per year.

The contango is a big deal. It means that the futures price at which you’re buying is at a premium to the spot price. On bitcoins the contango is a volatile number usually falling between 3% and 6% annualized. Contango reflects both the cost of financing a stockpile of a commodity and the cost of securing it. In the case of crypto, securing the asset against hackers is not simple (see #2 above).

Futures aren’t bad for day-to-day trading. They are a poor choice for someone hoping to achieve a long-term gain.

#7. Futures ETF

The ProShares Bitcoin Strategy ETF (BITO) holds long positions in bitcoin futures. Here, atop the steep contango of the Chicago trading pits, you have the opportunity to fork over an additional fee: the 0.95% a year assessed by the fund.

ProShares has attracted $900 million for this product. From naïfs.

#8. MicroStrategy

Chairman Michael Saylor has turned this business analytics firm into a crypto betting parlor. The corporation has used mostly borrowed money to acquire 129,200 bitcoins.

The stock had an interesting day May 9. With bitcoin down 14% from where it was Friday afternoon, MicroStrategy shares went down 26%.

Tyler Odean sees these shares as a simultaneous bet on three things: crypto, a mediocre software business and Saylor’s ability to withstand margin calls. He likes the first bet but not the other two.

I aim to help you save on taxes and money management costs. I graduated from Harvard in 1973, have been a journalist for 45 years, and was editor of Forbes magazine from 1999 to

Source: How To Buy Bitcoin At 26% Off The Regular Price

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Sanctioning Russia On The Blockchain: Following The Money To A Network Of OTC Providers

Sanctions can only work if those who are supposed to enforce them understand exactly what to do so that they cannot be circumvented easily. Russia’s extensive network of Over-The-Counter (OTC) providers requires an extensive review by sanction committees, as they might be adopted to circumvent sanctions.

As described in the previous release, due to the limited liquidity of cryptocurrencies and Decentralized Finance space in general, it remains close to impossible for Russia to circumvent SWIFT-based systems by using crypto. However, Russians might still hold up to $200 Billion USD in crypto assets, besides running the third-largest crypto mining industry in the world. These funds can potentially be cashed out with Russian OTC providers.

The fifth EU sanction package on Russia limits the crypto asset holdings of Russian nationals, individuals, and legal entities established in Russia to €10,000 (with the same account, wallet or custody provider). The use of Russian OTC providers, which represents a network of physical providers offering cash payouts from crypto, could be adopted to circumvent these sanctions.

In oversimplified terms, OTC refers to a process in which individuals theoretically could agree on a price and meet to complete a transaction. An example of such a process could be a personal meeting in which one side brings bags with cash or any other pre-agreed means of value, and the other side could conduct a transaction on the blockchain on the spot. Transactions primarily with larger sums of money could be risky, to say the least.

Contrarily to peer-to-peer exchanges (P2P) which involve independent parties, OTC exchanges act comparable to physical pawn shops. At dedicated physical locations with announced opening hours, individuals can visit and exchange their cryptocurrencies in Russia for cash or bank transfers.

Depending on the business models of virtual assets service providers (VASPs), both OTC and P2P providers have existed in various jurisdictions since the beginning of financial interactions between individuals.

An example of such a platform in the EU is LocalBitcoin, registered with the Finnish Financial Supervisory Authority. Unlike Russian OTC providers which are subject to the 6th Anti Money Laundering Directive of the EU and connected to its so-called Counter-Terrorism Financing (CTF) legislation, LocalBitcoin is a unique case.

Existence of such a platform in the EU is only possible in Finland, as the rest of the EU has followed the recommendation of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to define and include Digital Assets in the national legislation and created an oversight program as a regulator.

It can be argued that the current regulatory frameworks remain far from perfect, but there is increased interest in incorporating DeFi into traditional financial compliance programs.

Such requirements to register a P2P or OTC exchange are way different within the Russian Federation. On the one hand, Russia approved use of cryptocurrency as an investment tool or a payment method as of Q1 2021 but on the other its national bank proposed a long list of bans that should outlaw the circulation of cryptocurrencies within the country.

Due to such unclear legal circumstances, licensing and supervisory programs are close to non-existent. In the absence of platforms that have chosen ‘compliance excellence’ as their differentiating business strategy, for example, Coinbase or some Scandinavian VASPs, many Russian providers have to operate in the gray space to say the least.

What is surprising is the fact that even though Russians store up to one fifth of the national bank’s reserves in digital assets, the public side has decided to not provide much clarity for the VASPs or any other players in Decentralized Finance (DeFi).

By not providing clarity for players in the Digital Assets space, the governments in Moscow and Minsk continue to lose on potential tax revenues and regulatory oversight of over 623 crypto platforms identified so far, associated with Russia and Belarus. The logic to continue to lose out on easily taxable capital gain from crypto investments remains questionable.

“Is it not paradoxical that despite the Russian Prime Minister stating that Russians hold $200 Billion USD in crypto, Russia has not yet formulated a comprehensive legislation to legalize crypto or set a taxation process for it?” — Dominika Kuberska, PhD, Faculty of Economic Sciences, University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn.

With the absence of regulated players in Russia, there is a well-developed gray market of OTC exchanges that facilitate the trade of Digital Assets in exchange for rubles using both cash and bank transfers.

Sources, who desire to remain anonymous, underline that bank transfers to individuals or entities from OTC brokers are labeled as payments for IT or consultancy services. The Russian government will officially tax profits from such transfers with personal or corporate income tax (PIT, CIT).

Moreover, for customers that desire to purchase or exchange a significant amount of digital assets, there are at least ten physical brokers in Moscow or even price comparison websites like BestChange.ru that display the current rates of OTC providers in various regions.

Due to the nature of the business model, customers can often exchange cash for digital assets at the physical offices of these exchanges which can be visited by both individuals and the members of the Russian financial supervisory authorities, in case they would acknowledge their existence.

The majority of OTC providers operate without identifying their customers. Multiple sources report on direct cooperation between dedicated Ponzi schemes or sanctioned brokers with OTC providers. Even if hard evidence such as an agreement or email exchange between confirmed parties is continuously being collected, blockchain based analytics continues to provide indications for illicit transactions.

Russia has been connected with an elevated amount of illicit activities for a country that has a population of 144 million, which is 1.5 times bigger than that of Germany.

“Russia has surprisingly large amounts of confirmed illicit “Unicorns” like BTC-e/WEX exchange, Hydra dark web marketplace, dozens of pyramid schemes like PRIZM, the largest ransomware attacks and other cybercrimes which experts consider to be possibly parts of state-sponsored-activities” – Oleksii Fisun, Co-founder of Global Ledger Protocol.

With so many confirmed illicit activities coming out of one jurisdiction, it remains worth investigating how profits from illegal activities could be potentially cashed out. As described extensively in the previous article, the advantage of a public blockchain is that it remains visible and traceable.

An example of such confirmed illicit activity that could be cashed out with a Russian OTC provider, would be funds allocated in a cryptocurrency wallet provider called Konvert.im. It includes more than 100 transactions and has more than 69% exposure to funds originating from newly sanctioned Hydra Darknet Marketplace.

As Konvert.im represents an exchange, most certainly, their compliance must be aware of the origination of those funds from sanctioned Hydra. It is within such schemes the funds might be mixed with other funds that could potentially be forwarded to OTC providers for cash out.

Regardless of the choice of the provider used for Blockchain based analytics, due to the nature of Blockchain based investigations that accumulate all of the funds and its traces on the Blockchain between different brokers, there will always be a certain exposure to illicit traffic, which most likely will be at a single digit percentage wise.

Similar to accepting a physical banknote at the local farmer’s market, there could be a possibility that this banknote was used to conduct illicit activity in the past. This connection to illicit activity remains invisible on the banknote itself, but such a transaction is perfectly visible on the Blockchain.

Having said that, it remains impossible to state that an exposure of 69% to Hydra has been a technical mistake. It should rather be perceived as a dedicated action and tracing the money from Konvert.im to a Russian OTC provider might serve as a symbol that this strategy can and might be adopted to circumvent SWIFT-based sanctions and easily bypass a limitation specified in the fifth EU sanction package.

I’ve specialised in the topics on the intersection between Information Systems, Fintech, Insurtech, Cryptocurrency, Blockchain – Distributed Ledger Technologies

Source: Sanctioning Russia On The Blockchain: Following The Money To A Network Of OTC Providers

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What Are NFTs? Everything You Need To Know

NFTs are the latest cryptocurrency rage these days, with bands like Kings of Leon releasing their next album as limited edition “golden tickets,” and NBA digital collectibles being sold for millions of dollars. They’re interesting to collectors and cryptocurrency fans alike, but is there a future there? In other words: Should you spend some actual dollars to invest in a digital trinket?

What Are NFTs?

NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are a type of cryptocurrency created on a smart contract platform such as Ethereum, Avalanche or Solana. They are unique digital objects that can be cool to own or even profitable to trade. Think of them as digital collectible cards. They typically start out as something only enthusiasts care about, but if you get a rare one, it could be worth a lot one day.

What is fungible vs. non-fungible?

Cryptocurrencies can be fungible, meaning all the currency’s units (i.e., tokens) are the same and equal, like (for example) dollars or common shares of a company. You give me a dollar, I give you a different dollar back, and we’re both back to exactly where we started.

Non-fungible tokens are the opposite — every cryptocurrency unit, or token, is unique and cannot be replicated.

This “non-fungible” property can be used for many things, even certain types of currencies. But the current enthusiasm over NFTs is mostly fueled by digital art and collectibles. People have figured out that a unique, digital object can be interesting, cool, and even have a significant monetary value. It’s why the space has recently blossomed, encompassing thousands of projects involving artworks, gaming, and sports.

How do NFTs work?

It really depends on the platform. But given the vast majority of NFTs are created and traded on Ethereum, we’ll focus on that.

NFTs are created on Ethereum’s blockchain, which is immutable, meaning it cannot be altered. No one can undo your ownership of an NFT or re-create that exact same one. They’re also “permissionless,” so anyone can create, buy, or sell an NFT without asking for permission. Finally, every NFT is unique, and can be viewed by anyone.

So yes — it’s like a unique collectible card in a forever-open store window that anyone can admire, but only one person (or cryptocurrency wallet, to be exact) can own at any given time.

In a practical sense, an NFT is typically represented by a digital artwork, such as an image. But it’s important to understand that it’s not just that image (which can easily be replicated). Its existence as a digital object on the blockchain is what makes it unique.

How do I buy or trade NFTs?

NFTs are bought and traded just like any other cryptocurrency based on Ethereum, only instead of buying some amount of tokens, you buy a single token.

To do that, you should start by installing Metamask, a browser extension that lets you interact with various facets of Ethereum, such as exchanges and dApps (decentralized apps). MetaMask is also a digital wallet for Ethereum and all the tokens created on Ethereum (both fungible and non-fungible).

After installing the extension, you should buy some Ethereum (you can do it directly in MetaMask with a debit card or Apple Pay by clicking on “Add Funds”). But be very careful with your funds — store your MetaMask password and your wallet’s private key somewhere safe. Then, when you visit a website that sells NFTs (such as NBA Top Shot) or a marketplace where you can trade them (such as OpenSea), connect your MetaMask wallet to the site (only do that on sites you know are safe), and buy your first NFT.

Why do NFTs have value?

Of course, before you buy anything, you’ll probably want to know why it’s a good purchase. Indeed, why would anyone buy an NFT and why should there ever be a buyer willing to spend even more money down the line?

Ideally, the value of NFTs doesn’t just come from a game of digital hot potato, in which you purchase something hoping you’ll sell it for more later. And so on, until the whole thing crashes. Ideally, the NFT should be valuable to you because… you like it. If you’re an NBA fan, you might want to have an official NFT representing your favorite player. Or, perhaps there’s a digital cat that you really like.

Sure, in some ways, many NFTs are just a digital image that you can easily right-click and save to your computer. But NFTs also reside on the blockchain, which makes it extremely hard to truly copy them in their entirety. The blockchain entry also transparently tells you who created the NFT. If a famous musicians says: “Yes, that’s my Ethereum address that created this digital image of a possum.” Then that can be verified on the blockchain.

Some NFTs can be valuable in other ways. Say, for example, you buy an NFT related to an online game. Perhaps that NFT will one day give you special prestige in the game, or it could even be the basis for you getting some other, hard-to-get object; something that only you can have because every NFT is unique. If you’ve ever played World of Warcraft or a similar game, you know how valuable a piece of armor or a weapon can be. Now, with NFTs, no one can take it away from you, not even the game’s owners.

Let’s return for a second to that game of digital hot potato. NFTs are a nascent space, and there’s a lot of hysteria and scamming going on. You might see a certain NFT sold for millions, and think you’ll also be able to buy something for a few dollars and become rich selling it to someone later on. It can happen, but it’s rare.

And these things can be manipulated. For example, a cryptocurrency whale (someone that owns vast amounts of crypto money) can buy many NFTs and then “sell” them to himself (his other cryptocurrency address) for millions, artificially inflating the price. So be careful: Just because some NFT was traded for a lot of money, do not think this automatically means all other similar NFTs are valuable as well.

What are the most expensive NFTs?

In the early days of the space, we saw a blockchain game like CryptoKitties sell virtual cats for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Music producer 3LAU sold a collection of 33 limited edition NFTs for more than 11 million dollars. The musician Grimes (aka the mother of little X Æ A-Xii) even sold her digital art collection for $7,500 apiece, totaling $6 million in sales. CryptoPunks, which are amongst the most coveted NFTs around, regularly sell for millions. Yes, these things can get very pricey.

Are NFTs a good investment?

Buying an NFT because you like it, or maybe even to earn (or lose) a few quick bucks is one thing. But investing in NFTs is another. Again, it’s a nascent space. Even a Van Gogh painting or a rare Babe Ruth baseball card required some passage of time before becoming very valuable.

Given the digital nature of NFTs, it’s hard to compare them to prized physical artworks, such as statues and paintings. On the other hand, we live in a world where one Bitcoin is worth more than $50,000, so things from the digital realm can certainly be very valuable and even sustain that value over longer periods of time.

In any case, if you plan to invest in NFTs, you’ll need to dive deep into this complex world because each NFT market is slightly different. It’s also pricey — trading on Ethereum can be quite costly as the network’s recent congestion is causing fees to rise. Finally, you’ll need to think strategically and follow the often rapidly changing cryptocurrency trends. In short, it’s possible to earn money by investing in NFTs, but you’ll have to do your homework.

By Stan Schroeder

Source: What are NFTs? Everything you need to know.

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Money Has Never Felt More Fake

Calvin Becerra went viral earlier this year for a less-than-ideal reason. He got bamboozled out of what he claims is some $2 million in cryptocurrency and NFTs and complained on Twitter about the incident. Scammers pretended to be interested in buying one of his NFTs in a Discord channel and tricked him by saying they could help him fix a problem with his crypto wallet. During troubleshooting, they raided his wallet. The experience, he says, “felt like death.” He’s gone to great lengths to get the stolen digital assets back, paying hundreds of thousands more dollars to retrieve the tokens, including, most importantly, his three bored apes.

For many outsiders, it’s hard to grasp paying so much money for a trio of cartoon monkeys once, let alone twice. At some point, you’ve just got to let sunk cost be. But Becerra, 40, insists it’s worth it — he believes in NFTs, or at the very least, the moneymaking power of them. “They’re important to me because of the value that they will continue to increase by,” he says. “They’re huge.”

He’s right that NFTs — non-fungible tokens, little digital assets that exist on a blockchain — are having a moment. What’s not really clear is why. Then again, everything about money feels a little strange at the moment. Between NFTs, crypto, and GameStop, AMC, and other meme stocks, money has rarely felt more fake. Or, at the very least, value has rarely felt so disconnected from reality.

The concept of value is a fuzzy one, and valuation is often more art than it is science. Psychology has always played a role in money and investing — and there have always been bubbles, too, where the price of an asset takes off at a rapid pace and disconnects from the fundamental value. As Jacob Goldstein wrote in Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing, all money is sort of a collective myth. “Money feels cold and mathematical and outside the realm of fuzzy human relationships. It isn’t,” he wrote. “Money is a made-up thing, a shared fiction. Money is fundamentally, unalterably social.”

The social aspect is clear in much of what’s going on now, whether it be a group of investors on Reddit trying to take down a hedge fund betting against GameStop or people paying thousands of dollars to claim ownership of digital art they could effectively have for free. But why certain groups of people have trained their focus on certain items is hard to parse. Becerra insists there’s a utility to the apes — there’s merchandise, events, and he sees having them as the “new world flex,” like a watch or a nice car. “Everything’s hype, a social media world, right?”

Lately, the hype aspect of money has felt more true and important than ever.

It’s been a weird year in money

Historically, the economy was theoretically based on labor and value creation at the individual level, and on the structural level, voting shares in companies based on their financial fundamentals and future value, said tech industry veteran Anil Dash, CEO of the programming company Glitch. But that idea died long ago. “A machine is what it does, and the purpose of the system is the output of the system. And the purpose of our financial systems … is to create ever more detached financialization that can just generate what the industry calls wealth and what the rest of the world just doesn’t see.” In other words, the confusing status of value today is a feature, not a bug.

You can see this clearly in the markets in 2021. One of the first big stories of the year was the GameStop saga, and it was a fun one. An army of day traders on the Reddit forum r/WallStreetBets drove up the price of the game retailer’s stock in a matter of days, forcing halts in trading and costing some hedge funds that had been betting against the stock quite a bit of money. They rallied behind a guy who goes by Roaring Kitty; in one YouTube video about GameStop, he pretended to smoke a cigar while wearing a cat mask.

There have been all sorts of efforts to ascribe some bigger takeaway to the GameStop story — perhaps it was a populist uprising or a sign that there was something very broken in the market. But generally, most of the efforts to pull a concrete meaning out of GameStop fall flat. It was a relatively ephemeral incident where, as is often the case in investing, there were some winners and some losers. GameStop’s stock price has remained relatively high, compared where it was before January 2021, because enough investors have stuck around to keep it there.

GameStop has come to epitomize an era of meme investing, where ordinary investors are piling into stocks and cryptocurrencies and digital assets not necessarily because they believe in the underlying value of the thing they’re buying (though some do) but instead because it just seems like a thing to do. Dogecoin or NFTs or stock in theater chain AMC get popular online or in their social circles, and they turn around and think, why not?

“For a huge swath of the retail world, the mentality has merged of what is trading versus what is investing versus what is essentially just gambling,” said Tyler Gellasch, executive director of Healthy Markets, a nonprofit.

The scenario has generated quite a bit of fingerwagging from Very Serious People who say what’s going on is beyond the pale, that investing is supposed to be about underlying value and the real, tangible worth of a thing. NFTs and Shiba Inu coin, they say, are clearly fake. At the same time, so is so much of what’s going on in finance and the economy already — including the spaces the Very Serious People occupy.

During the 2008 financial crisis, for example, exotic financial instruments created out of subprime mortgages among Wall Street and banks helped take the economy down. They also revealed regulators to be asleep at the wheel. Very recent history makes it hard to take the Very Serious People in finance and government seriously as responsible stewards of the global economy. The financial industry has gone to great lengths to create new financial products with the potential to do more harm than good in the name of making more money.

“To have a boomer burn down the planet and then have them wag a finger that crypto’s bad for the environment? Please, that’s absurd,” Dash said.

“Money feeling strange in 2021 is based on a decade of money slowly feeling strange for lots and lots of different people throughout the world,” said Lana Swartz, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia who focuses on money. “We’re at a stage where the government and financial institutions are revealed to be less dependable than we ever imagined they would be, so why not YOLO?”

A made-up quote from a 2021 Onion article gets at the attitude:

NFTs might be bizarre speculative bullshit, but what isn’t? Aren’t we all just finding ways to turn everything that exists into something we can make money off of? I might be throwing away thousands of dollars on NFTs, but you’re throwing away thousands of dollars on TSA PreCheck or lottery tickets or donating to political candidates or raising children. Critics will say NFTs are wasteful and can be used for fraud and other crimes—fine, yeah, find me something that isn’t?

The view may be nihilistic, but in the current scenario, it isn’t entirely wrong. So much of the economy feels like a scam — the gig economy, student loans, the hope of retirement, a 9-to-5 job. Consumers are always being tricked and squeezed by corporations. The promise of the middle class is fading fast, so for a lot of people, it just feels like you might as well lean into whatever financial chaos is available to try to hit it big. If housing prices are so high you’re never going to be able to own a home, why not try your hand at real estate in whatever the metaverse is?

Crypto feels like a scam. So does a lot of the economy.

It’s easy to be dismissive of the current state of casino capitalism, where random people are just tossing random money at random anything. It’s also relatively easy to recognize that this landscape is likely to be one where there are few winners, and the winners are probably going to be the people who were already winning, financially.

“For every one person that makes money, you have 100 people that have lost money. It’s basically just a giant wealth redistribution scheme,” said Stephen Diehl, a software engineer in London who recently laid out a scathing and widely read critique of the crypto asset bubble. “Why it seems so fake is nobody can quite figure out what these things are, and they’re being presented to different people with different stories.”

Dash is one of the originators of the NFT concept, but he worries about the clearly fraudulent nature of some dealings in the market. “They had to coin the phrase ‘rug pull’ to describe the fraud that happens in NFT communities because that type of thing is so common. What does that tell you?”

Value is ultimately a story, one we tell to ourselves and to others. In the United States, we’ve convinced ourselves of the story of the dollar, which is backed by the full force of the US government. But it’s ultimately just a piece of paper. Cryptocurrencies and NFTs and AMC all come with their own stories, which, admittedly, can be on the kooky side.

There’s more to the current money landscape than dogecoin and meme stocks that makes the whole thing seem a little fake. The stock market soared during much of 2020 and 2021, even during the depths of the pandemic, making it hard not to wonder what the whole thing is for. The federal government was able to deliver a lot of money through monetary and fiscal relief to keep the markets — and regular people — afloat. It’s a lesson that when the government needs to find money, it can. But whether or not the influx makes money feel fake depends on your perspective.

“Isn’t this the year that money has felt most real?” said Mike Konczal, director of macroeconomic analysis at the Roosevelt Institute. “Child poverty cut in half, unemployment insurance capable of giving workers actual bargaining power for a change, real wage increases across the majority of people, wealth doubling in the bottom 50 percent.”

It’s a strange place we’re in, which might explain why these tangible improvements don’t seem to dislodge national feelings of alienation. The state of the world and the economy can feel really hopeless. There’s mass distrust in institutions and in government, and economic mobility is increasingly hard to achieve. We’re in the midst of a pandemic that doesn’t look like it’s ever going to really end. NFTs feel like a scam, but then again, so does everything.

Becerra appears determined to stick with NFTs, despite having been very publicly scammed. After all, he’s gone to great lengths to get his bored apes back. When he talks about them, he vacillates between speculator and true believer, in one moment saying he plans to sell them if the price gets high enough, in another talking about them with quite a bit of affection.

“I’m not holding this forever. I don’t care about those apes that much, you know?” he said. He knows the hype could fade. Maybe that will take the sudden value of his cartoon monkeys with it; maybe it won’t. However, he considers the apes to be “blue chip” NFTs, a designation that in the stock world would put them on the same level as well-established major corporations such as Apple and Berkshire Hathaway. “That’s why someone like me, who has money, invests only in the blue-chip ones.”

Most of this is probably a bubble

Becerra, who describes himself as a motivational speaker, high-performance coach, and entrepreneur, compares the current moment in crypto to the 1990s. “This is our dot-com boom,” he said. Of course, the dot-com boom ended in a bust.

It’s impossible to look at what’s happening in investing now and not think that that the prices on many of these assets are divorced from their actual worth. The value of random NFTs and cryptocurrencies skyrocket seemingly out of nowhere, sweeping up hundreds and thousands of people in the process. Sometimes, the bubbles burst fast because the investment falls out of fashion or it winds up being a pump-and-dump scheme, where fraudsters are creating a buying frenzy around certain assets only to suddenly dump them and flee. The broader crypto bubble is still inflating.

If NFTs and crypto, as a concept, prevail, it’s unlikely all of the current projects and fads will. Everybody’s hoping they’ve got a golden ticket, or at least a gold-plated ticket, that they can sell before everyone else realizes what they’ve got is a fraud. Some people in the industry acknowledge that most of this stuff is likely to implode.

“The parallels with the dot-com boom are very apt, the reason being that like 99 percent of these coins out there are going to be worth zero in 10 years. But the ones that remain, the companies that remain … those are going to survive and create long-lasting things that change our lives,” said Jim Greco, managing director of crypto trading at Radkl, a digital trading firm. “Amazon survived the dot-com boom.”

If you buy into the idea that a lot of this investing is pretty divorced from reality, then the question is how long this lasts. For now, the music’s still playing, so people are dancing. How long the song keeps going depends on how long the people holding onto the assets can keep singing.

“It’s really incumbent on people who hold these investments to perpetuate their value, whether that’s through evangelizing to other people or by building systems to make it usable and useful and relevant,” Swartz said. “But then in order to realize the value, to translate it into money, you have to sell it.”

If and when the bubble around some of these hyped investments bursts, a lot of people are going to get hurt and lose money. In NFTs, evidence suggests those who are already wealthy and powerful are the ones ruling the roost, just like in the stock market. While there are true believers in crypto projects, so much of it is just speculation, and venture capitalists and hedge funds are more likely to win the speculation game than the little guys caught up in the mania.

Hilary Allen, a law professor at American University who specializes in financial regulation, said the risk around so many speculative and contrived investments on the market is more tied to the potential ripple effects. Essentially, is the current moment the dot-com bubble or the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis?

“If it’s just a dot-com bubble, it sucks for the people who invested,” she said. “But if it’s 2008, then we’re all screwed, even those of us who aren’t investing, and that’s not fair. It really depends on who’s getting into this and how integrated it’s getting with the rest of the financial system.”

Emily Stewart

Emily writes about the intersection of business, politics, and the economy. She is specifically interested in how people experience the forces of capitalism and money. Prior to joining Vox, Emily covered politics at The Street, including the rise of Donald Trump and the stock market’s reaction to politics and policy. She graduated from Columbia University and resides in Brooklyn, New York.

Source: From crypto to meme stocks to NFTs, money has never felt more fake – Vox

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Amazon Funds Its Empire By Squeezing Its Marketplace Sellers

Amazon has always presented its Marketplace, where outside businesses sell products through Amazon’s platform, as one of its biggest success stories: mutually beneficial to Amazon, sellers, and customers alike. But a new report says those benefits are increasingly lopsided — in Amazon’s favor.

The report, which comes from the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), asserts that Amazon takes a larger and larger cut of sellers’ earnings through the various fees it levies on them. These fees have become so lucrative for Amazon that they now represent the company’s most profitable segment as well as its fastest-growing revenue stream, according to ILSR. And because sellers are paying Amazon high fees, customers may face inflated prices, even when they shop beyond Amazon’s borders.

“Amazon is the only winner here,” Stacy Mitchell, ILSR co-director and author of the report, told Recode. “It’s exploiting its monopoly power over these small businesses to pocket a huge and growing cut of their revenue.”

You might consider this to be a good business strategy on Amazon’s part, as it’s certainly paid off for the company. And some sellers on Amazon’s platform say they’re happy with the arrangement — at least, for now. But a growing number of others argue that Amazon’s dominance over the e-commerce market and its power over its sellers has given rise to anti-competitive practices that hurt Amazon’s competitors, competition in general, and consumers.

“Amazon’s dominance is bad for businesses, jobs, and America’s competitiveness,” Rep. David Cicilline, chair of the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee, told Recode. “This important study makes clear that Amazon is crushing sellers through abusive policies that make it nearly impossible for everyday businesses to get ahead.”

These are some of the same issues identified by regulators and lawmakers who have accused Amazon of abusing its market dominance. They say it’s further evidence that action must be taken to curb Amazon’s power — and some of them are already working on legislation.

“It is important to understand how tech platforms can exploit their power to hurt small businesses and raise prices for consumers,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, chair of the Senate Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee, told Recode. “This report highlights how Amazon’s tactics can lead to that result and why Congress must act to set clear rules of the road for the digital giants that dominate our online economy.”

Amazon disputes the report’s findings, calling it “intentionally misleading” for lumping its mandatory fees and optional services together as “seller fees.” Amazon maintains that all of its fees — mandatory and optional — are competitive with what similar services charge, and that many sellers are successful without taking advantage of those optional services. But Mitchell says many sellers feel compelled to pay those ostensibly optional fees if they want their businesses to stay afloat.

Marketplace: The gift that keeps on giving (to Amazon)

Marketplace is a huge part of Amazon’s business. In his 2020 letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos said it accounted for nearly 60 percent of Amazon’s retail sales, which come from nearly 2 million sellers. So when you buy a product on Amazon, chances are it was sold by an independent business using Amazon’s platform. Amazon isn’t providing that platform for free.

“The trade-off that any seller is dealing with is you get access to a huge audience, you get access to scale, the ability to scale your sales, but it comes at a cost to margin,” Andrew Lipsman, principal analyst at eMarketer, told Recode.

The cost to sellers is increasing every year, according to ILSR’s analysis, making business unsustainable for some sellers while Amazon’s profits grow.

The new ILSR report found that Amazon’s seller fees accounted for an average of 19 percent of sellers’ earnings in 2014. That’s almost doubled to 34 percent in 2021. And while seller fees accounted for 14 percent of Amazon’s entire revenue in 2014, that figure is up to 25 percent in 2021. Amazon will pull in $121 billion from seller fees alone, ILSR estimates.

That revenue translates to a lot of profit — more than even Amazon Web Services (AWS), Amazon’s cloud computing platform typically believed to be the company’s most profitable arm. AWS netted $13.5 billion in 2020, according to Amazon’s financial data. ILSR estimates seller fees netted $24 billion. (Amazon says these figures are inaccurate but did not provide its own; the company’s public earnings statements also don’t combine seller fees in this way.)

“Everyone thinks AWS generates all of Amazon’s profits,” Mitchell said. “But in fact, Marketplace is this massive tollbooth that gushes profits.”

Seller fees primarily come from three things: sales, fulfillment, and ads. Every item sold is subject to a referral fee, which is Amazon’s commission. Over the years, that’s stayed pretty consistent at 15 percent (it may be lower or higher, depending on the product category). According to ILSR, those referral fees made up the majority of seller fees as recently as 2017.

Since then, however, the majority of fees come from Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA), Amazon’s service that stores, packs, and ships sellers’ items to customers. Ad revenue is steadily gaining ground as more sellers pay for more ads to get prominent placement on Amazon’s site, including on product pages and search results.

Sellers who use FBA pay Amazon a fee based on the size and type of item they sell. Sellers also have to pay to ship items to and from Amazon’s fulfillment centers and to store them there. For some sellers, this might be a cheaper or easier option than doing it all themselves. Amazon says FBA’s pricing is competitive with similar fulfillment services if not cheaper, and sellers aren’t required to use it.

But help with logistics isn’t the only appeal of FBA for many sellers. Enrolling in the FBA program is the only way that most sellers can qualify for Prime. (Some sellers may qualify for Seller Fulfilled Prime, but it’s not accepting new enrollees at this time.) Getting that Prime badge is huge for a seller. Amazon shoppers — especially those 200 million Prime members — are far more likely to buy products that qualify for Amazon Prime. But that’s not only because they want to take advantage of the free shipping. It’s also because customers may not even see non-Prime offerings in the first place, thanks to the mechanics of the so-called Buy Box.

When multiple sellers offer the same item, Amazon’s algorithm picks one of them to be the default purchase on the product’s page. This is called “winning the Buy Box,” and when the customer clicks to add an item to their cart or to buy now, the seller who won the Buy Box is the one who gets the sale.

Prime items are far more likely to win the Buy Box than non-Prime items, and customers rarely click on that small “other sellers” link or the small “new and used” box where all the other listings are housed. This gives sellers a major incentive to pay for FBA, even if it costs more than taking care of the shipping themselves.

These FBA fees have been great for Amazon, which has dramatically expanded the logistics network that powers FBA as well as the number of sellers participating in the program. Five years ago, about half of Amazon’s top 10,000 sellers worldwide used FBA. By 2019, it was 85 percent. Amazon even offers a version of FBA for products ordered from other e-commerce services, including Shopify. Dave Clark, the CEO of Amazon’s consumer business, believes his company will be the largest delivery service in the United States by early 2022.

FBA aside, there are other ways sellers are paying Amazon more and more in the hope of generating sales. Amazon has been making a big push into digital advertising recently, and seller ads are part of its strategy. Critics have accused Amazon of increasing the number of sponsored slots in search results to increase ad inventory, and of charging more for the ads in them. (Amazon says the number of ads varies, and pricing is determined by an auction.)

Because of this, some sellers feel like they’re paying more and getting less. Amazon itself says these ads increase product visibility, which can translate into more sales. But that also means less visibility for the products in organic search results that earned their placement through strong sales and positive reviews. Sellers are already competing for this space with Amazon’s own products, and that competition might not be fair, as Amazon reportedly ranks its own products above others that had higher ratings. (Amazon has disputed these reports and says its ranking models don’t take into account whether the product is made by Amazon or offered by a third-party seller.)

Either way, many sellers increasingly feel pressure to buy ads just to get the same search placement (and sales) they once got for free. In a statement to Recode, Amazon maintained that FBA and ads are not mandatory and that sellers may find them beneficial.

“Sellers are not required to use our logistics or advertising services, and only use them if they provide incremental value to their businesses,” an Amazon spokesperson said.

How sellers’ problems affect your wallet

If you’re not a seller that relies on Amazon to survive, you might not see how any of this affects you. If you’re an Amazon customer, you might even think that this system is ensuring that you can buy products at the best price. But you might be wrong.

“Whether you shop on Amazon or not, you are paying higher prices because of its monopoly power,” Mitchell said.

When sellers have to raise their prices to account for Amazon’s increased fees, they often pass those costs along to the customer. And, thanks to Amazon’s fair pricing policy, sellers have to offer the same price on other platforms that they do on Amazon — even if their costs to sell on those platforms are less. If they don’t, Amazon may suspend or demote their listings. Sellers don’t want to take that risk, which could be potentially devastating to their business.

This policy could mean that, as sellers adjust their prices to account for Amazon’s fees, prices end up being higher elsewhere, too. It also makes it harder for other e-commerce platforms to compete with Amazon and challenge its market dominance, since they aren’t able to offer lower prices that would attract more customers. The lack of options means sellers are basically stuck with Amazon if they want to reach its exponentially larger and loyal consumer base.

Sellers have helped Amazon grow to own 40 percent and 50 percent (depending which report you cite) of the e-commerce market in the United States, and in some product categories, its share is far higher. Its closest platform competitor, Walmart, has just 7 percent. Amazon is often the first place online shoppers look for products — even before search engines — especially if those shoppers are Prime members. A large, established company can pull itself out of Amazon, as Nike did in 2019, and still do fine. Most businesses don’t have that luxury.

“Small businesses don’t have other options when it comes to the digital economy,” Rep. Ken Buck, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee, told Recode. “Amazon continues to use their monopoly power to crush competition.”

One solution is for lawmakers and regulators to step in. Some are trying: The European Commission announced last year that it is investigating whether Amazon gave preferential treatment to itself and sellers that used FBA when determining who gets the Buy Box. The fair pricing policy and its potential to inflate prices across the internet is the basis of the District of Columbia’s lawsuit against Amazon, as well as a class action lawsuit filed by Amazon customers last year.

Several members of Congress — Buck, Cicilline, and Klobuchar among them — have introduced bills that would forbid some of Amazon’s practices they believe to be anti-competitive. These bills came out of a 16-month-long House antitrust subcommittee investigation into Big Tech companies, including Amazon. The committee accused Amazon of luring in customers and sellers with artificially low prices and Prime memberships that the company loses money on, only to raise rates as soon as Amazon’s market dominance was assured.

The proposed legislation would forbid Amazon from giving its own products prominent placement, unless it earned that place organically, and from requiring sellers to pay for ads or services like FBA in order to get preferred placement. One bill would forbid Amazon from competing in a marketplace it also owns, and could force Amazon to split off into a first-party sales company and a company that operates a platform for third-party sellers.

Amazon has responded to all of this by denying that such measures are necessary or that it’s doing anything wrong. The company has become one of the biggest lobbying spenders in the country, and it’s been emailing select sellers to warn them that pending antitrust legislation could make it difficult or impossible for them to sell their products on Amazon.

After years of studying Amazon’s business practices, Mitchell, of ILSR, thinks the best solution is arguably the most drastic.

“Policymakers could regulate Amazon’s fees — basically accept it as a regulated shopping monopoly, like a utility,” she said. “But I think a much better, more market-oriented approach is to break it up by splitting Amazon’s major divisions into stand-alone companies.”

Source: Amazon funds its empire by squeezing its marketplace sellers

 

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