As adults, we're taught that "get rich quick" is nothing more than a myth. With the exception of winning the lottery or hitting it big in a casino, wealth is typically built over one's lifetime through smart long-term investments. The stock market, for example, has gained 7% annually throughout its history, inclusive of dividend reinvestment and adjusted for inflation.
However, 2017 has turned the get rich quick debate on its head thanks to the year-to-date returns of cryptocurrencies. The aggregate market cap of all virtual currencies combined began the year at just $17.7 billion, but as recently as the end of November they briefly crept above $325 billion. That's good enough for a 1,700% return in a matter of 11 months. For some folks, that's a lifetime's worth of investment gains generated in less than a year.
Bitcoin $1 million? That's what these two crypto-bulls suggest
Yet, for some crypto-enthusiasts, the party is just getting started. What had seemed like an unfathomable call for bitcoin to hit $10,000 just months ago became a reality last week with bitcoin pushing north of $11,000 per coin just hours after taking out the $10,000 level. Next year, some bitcoin bulls are projecting the world's most valuable and popular cryptocurrency could hit $40,000 per coin.
But for some folks that's still not bullish enough. When speaking with CNBC on Squawk Alley last week, former hedge fund manager James Altucher professed his belief that bitcoin will make a run at $1 million by 2020. Here's what he had to say after learning that MGT Capital Investments CEO, and McAfee founder, John McAfee tweeted that bitcoin would reach $1 million:
I'll say $1 million by 2020, as well, easily. There's 15 million millionaires are the world. All their financial advisors are going to say, "Hey, buy a bitcoin. You need some exposure." There's only going to be 21 million bitcoins minted ever in history. That's also going to drive demand.
If bitcoin were able to pull off such a feat, it would have a market cap, assuming continuous mining, of probably around $19 trillion, putting it on par with, or perhaps slightly ahead of, the intrinsic value of all gold ounces on this planet (mined and still in the ground).
Don't laugh: bitcoin $1 million is always possible
As laughable as a $1 million price target might seems, we have to remember that $10,000 also seemed laughable earlier this year, yet here we are. If bitcoin is to reach this psychologically lofty milestone by the end of the decade, it would need four things to happen.
First, acceptance of bitcoin as a form of payment would have to be expanded on an enormous scale. Retailers such as Overstock.com have accepted bitcoin with open arms since 2014, but most major retailers do not. If, however, Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) began accepting bitcoin to purchase goods, that would be a game-changer and a major source of validation. Though Amazon has no current plans to accept bitcoin, it is worth noting that Amazon registered the amazonbitcoin.com domain name three years ago, and recently registered three additional Web domains: amazonethereum.com, amazoncryptocurrency.com, and amazoncryptocurrencies.com. Amazon may not be ready to jump aboard, but it's most definitely paying attention.
Second, the upgrades bitcoin is making and will make to its blockchain have to pay immediate returns. Blockchain is the digital and decentralized ledger that's responsible for recording all transactions in a secure and efficient manner without the need for a bank. Current upgrades have focused on boosting bitcoin's blockchain capacity, while shortening settlement times and transaction fees. If future upgrades entice a lot of enterprise interest, bitcoin could certainly rally.
Third, we'd have to see continued weakness in the U.S. dollar. A falling U.S. dollar typically sends investors who are holding cash to the safety of an asset like gold, which is a finite resource and store of value that typically does well when the dollar drops. However, bitcoin's 21 million coin limit also gives it a sense of "finiteness" in the eyes of investors. Dollar weakness should help spur continued bitcoin buying as a perceived store of value.
Lastly, we'd need retail investors' emotions to continue driving bitcoin higher. Since bitcoin isn't backed by the government or a central bank, it relies on excitement from retail investors to push its price per coin higher.
But it's highly improbable
While nothing is seemingly impossible with bitcoin, the chances of a nearly 10,000% return over the next three years seems highly unlikely. Aside from the fact that everything would need to go right for bitcoin to hit such a mark, two factors stand in the way of bitcoin $1 million.
To begin with, bitcoin's first-to-market advantage may not hold out through 2020 considering how low the barrier to entry is in the cryptocurrency space. If you have time, money, and someone who knows how to write code, you can create your own blockchain. We're currently seeing about 100 to 200 new virtual currencies hit the market each month, with each being a potential competitor to bitcoin as either a payment platform or blockchain threat. There's absolutely zero guarantee that businesses will prefer bitcoin over one of its more than 1,300 competitors.
The other downfall is the imminent listing of bitcoin futures trading by CME Group, CBOE Global Markets, and Nasdaq. Up until now, betting against cryptocurrencies like bitcoin hasn't been possible. However, futures trading will change that, allowing institutional investors who've stuck to the sidelines the ability to rush in and place downside bets on bitcoin. A "fairer" market, if you will, should expose bitcoin to a bifurcation of investor emotions, as opposed to the one-sided euphoric bullishness that's recently driven it higher.
Though bitcoin $1 million is always possible under just the right circumstances, I'm going to go on record and suggest that it's not happening by 2020.
John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Sean Williams has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon. The Motley Fool recommends CBOE Global Markets, CME Group, and Nasdaq. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.