Have you heard about the next big thing in investing? No, it's not legal marijuana, albeit pot stocks have been nothing short of unstoppable over the past year. It's actually digital currency bitcoin, which has risen by nearly 900% over the trailing-two-year period. What once cost a consumer or investor around $255 per bitcoin will now set you back around $2,500.
Why have digital cryptocurrencies like bitcoin been such a hot commodity of late? It appears to be a confluence of catalysts that have accelerated momentum behind bitcoin, Ethereum, and other digital currencies.
Why bitcoin has risen nearly 900% in two years
Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are relishing in newfound media coverage. Between the sheer outperformance of these digital currencies compared to the broader stock market, to recent ransomware attacks (e.g., WannaCry) where the perpetrators demand payment in bitcoin in order to "unlock" a computer, bitcoin is in the spotlight. The more media coverage it receives, the more interest there will likely be in this burgeoning payment and investment platform.
Weakness in the world's most prominent currency, the U.S. dollar, may be helping as well. President Trump has, on numerous occasions, proclaimed the U.S. dollar to be too strong. A weaker dollar can help promote the export of American goods, but U.S. consumers aren't typically huge fans of seeing their currency weakened. Some investors have used the dollar's weakness as an opportunity to invest in bitcoin, which is a "finite" resource since the maximum number of bitcoin is limited to 21 million. The fact that the dollar's monetary base can be expanded infinitely and bitcoin is limited provides the belief to some investors that bitcoin could be a better means to preserve and grow wealth over time.
Bitcoin has also benefited from a growing acceptance of the currency by countries, industries, and businesses. Japan declared the cryptocurrency legal tender earlier this year, while some retailers within the marijuana industry have been using bitcoin as a bridge currency between bank-issued debit and credit cards and marijuana product purchases. Since marijuana is a federally illegal substance, most banks won't deal with pot-based businesses, so bitcoin services act as an intermediary by allowing consumers to buy bitcoin and pay for their pot products that way. Bitcoin services then transfer that bitcoin back to cash for the marijuana business in return for a nominal service charge.
Brand-name businesses that surprisingly accept bitcoin
Yet what might be most surprising is just how many brand-name businesses are now accepting bitcoin as payment. Here are five businesses that have welcomed bitcoin with open arms.
The very first large consumer-facing company to lead the charge for bitcoin was online e-tailer Overstock.com (NASDAQ:OSTK), which in January 2014 partnered with bitcoin exchange Coinbase to allow customers to pay for thousands of items with bitcoin. Shortly after its decision to carry bitcoin, CEO Patrick Byrne announced that his company would carry between 5% and 10% of its bitcoin paid as reserves. If this policy still holds true, Overstock would have seen a very handsome appreciation in those reserves by now, albeit bitcoin remains a nominally small component of its business.
2. DISH Network
In May 2014, satellite television operator DISH Network (NASDAQ:DISH) announced that it would begin accepting bitcoin as payment for its content services. As with Overstock, DISH partnered with Coinbase as the payment processor for its bitcoin transactions. Bernie Han, who was at the COO of DISH at the time, said, "DISH is now accepting bitcoin because we are listening to customers and providing them with the choice and convenience they want."
While governments have resisted referring to bitcoin as a "currency," tech giant Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) has embraced it. Since December 2014, Microsoft users have been able to use their bitcoin to purchase content in the Windows and Xbox stores. Microsoft was also behind the launch of Azure Blockchain as a service platform that allowed large-scale businesses to use blockchain to facilitate the settlement of financial data. More recently, Microsoft announced that it was adapting Excel 2017 so users can calculate, format, and analyze bitcoin on the platform.
Intuit (NASDAQ:INTU), the software giant behind do-it-yourself tax preparation software TurboTax and business accounting software QuickBooks, also accepts bitcoin. In late 2014, Intuit and BitPay announced integration of bitcoin payments into the QuickBooks PayByCoin service. This service allowed for next-day settlement into customers' bank accounts, thus eliminating a lot of the volatility inherent with bitcoin, and also provided an attractive business-to-business opportunity for cross-border clients who would otherwise face traditional banking obstacles and delays in the form of a bank transfer.
Payment processing platform PayPal (NASDAQ:PYPL) has also broadened its horizons by accepting bitcoin -- albeit in a roundabout way. In September 2014, PayPal announced that it would begin accepting bitcoin as payment via its integration with Braintree. This was also the same month that partnerships with CoinBase, GoCoin, and BitPay were announced. At the time of its announcement, Scott Ellison suggested that PayPal would merely act as the intermediary, with costs of the transaction to be decided by the merchant and payment processor. However, since its spinoff from eBay, PayPal's promotion of bitcoin has slowed.
Here's why more businesses aren't accepting bitcoin
Following bitcoin's massive run higher and growing legitimacy with brand-name businesses, you might be wondering why more businesses haven't jumped on board. The answer can probably be boiled down to two factors.
First, bitcoin is still exceptionally volatile, and even overnight settlements could result in businesses losing out on a lot of money. For example, bitcoin prices plunged by more than $200 in a single day between June 25 and June 26. Businesses that had conducted transactions in bitcoin with next-day settlement could have seen between 7% and 10% of their deal value depleted in a matter of hours. While bitcoin's lack of governmental backing is one reason investors like it so much, this same absence of backing, and the thinness of its trading volume, create substantial volatility that keeps businesses away.
The other big issue is that bitcoin could draw the ire of regulators. For example, bitcoin acting as a bridge currency for marijuana purchases looks like the perfect reason for U.S. lawmakers to consider imposing regulations on the cryptocurrency. As long as the government leaves bitcoin alone, it has an opportunity to thrive, but this Fool doesn't believe the U.S. government is going to allow bitcoin to expand without imposing a system of checks and balances. Any sort of regulations on acquiring or holding bitcoin could crush the digital currency's price.
I remain steadfast in my belief that bitcoin belongs nowhere near your portfolio for the time being, regardless of its recent performance or its acceptance by brand-name companies.