Depending on who you ask, you can get an incredibly wide range of opinions on bitcoin. What cannot be denied is the astonishing run the largest cryptocurrency has had this year. Bitcoin is up a jaw-dropping 1,630% year to date; at this writing, one bitcoin trades for $14,798. Of course, by the time you read this it could be worth $1,000 or $100,000, or anywhere in between. The only thing more noticeable than bitcoin's meteoric rise this year has been the extreme volatility the price has seen along the way.
Bitcoin for beginners
For those still a little confused (yes, I'm raising my hand too), bitcoin is a cryptocurrency. OxfordDictionaries.com simply but helpfully defines a cryptocurrency as "a digital currency in which encryption techniques are used to regulate the generation of units of currency and verify the transfer of funds, operating independently of a central bank." Think of it as a digital currency that does not need an intermediary to store or complete transactions.
Bitcoin is powered by blockchain technology. A blockchain is a decentralized and distributed ledger, meaning it is not regulated by a central authority like a bank, and can be accessed by multiple parties at different times. A finalized transaction is recorded on a "block." When the block is full, it is added in sequential order to the end of the chain and becomes part of the immutable database. For bitcoin, the blockchain records transaction details like the amount and time, but always anonymizes the parties who took part in the transaction.
While the rise of bitcoin has been exciting to watch, many are skeptical of its recent run-up (including yours truly) and wish there was a way to gain exposure to the cryptocurrency without actually buying a bitcoin. If that describes you, you're in luck: these three stocks might be a better way to invest in bitcoin.
Benefit from bitcoin risk management
In its annual 10-K filing, CME Group (CME -0.20%) says it is the place "where the world comes to manage risk." The company makes the claim because it facilitates trades on futures and options "based on interest rates, equity indexes, foreign exchange, energy, agricultural products and metals." This wide range of benchmark products will get even wider when, on Dec. 18, the company will begin to offer futures contracts on bitcoin through its CME Globex electronic trading platform. With such a heated frenzy around the future of bitcoin and speculation on its price, the cryptocurrency could see heavy trading -- and for each trade, CME Group charges transaction, settling, and clearing fees.
In CME's third quarter, total revenue was up to $890.8 million, a 5.8% increase year over year, while adjusted earnings per share were $1.19, a 13.3% rise year over year. One of the best things about CME's business model is that an increase in trading volume comes with no extra cost. So, if bitcoin futures trading really does take off, the company's sky-high operating margin could increase even more: In 2016, its operating margin was 61%.
A cryptocurrency "picks and shovels" play
Legend has that during California's famous gold rush in the late 1840s, the merchants who sold the picks and shovels made more money than the miners who dug for gold. Along the same lines, consider NVIDIA Corporation (NVDA -4.20%) as a way to invest in bitcoin. NVIDIA specializes in designing graphics chips that turn out to be ideal for mining cryptocurrencies, because they can handle the high amounts of computational power needed. As CEO Jen-Hsun Huang explained in the company's third-quarter conference call:
[T]he ideal platform for digital, new emerging digital currencies turns out to be a CUDA GPU [NVIDIA's graphics processing unit]. And the reason for that is because there are several hundred million NVIDIA GPUs in the marketplace. If you want to create a new cryptocurrency algorithm, optimizing for our GPUs is really quite ideal. It's hard to do. It's hard to do; therefore, you need a lot of computation to do it. And yet there [are] enough GPUs in the marketplace, it's such an open platform that the ability for somebody to get in and start mining is -- very low barriers to entry.
GPUs bought for the singular purpose of mining for cryptocurrency are still a relatively small portion of NVIDIA's overall revenue. CFO Colette Kress estimated these sales amounted to about $70 million in the third quarter and $150 million in the second. Those totals amounted to roughly 2.7% and 6.7% of overall revenue respectively. Yet NVIDIA's cryptocurrency figures are undoubtedly understated. That's because while most crypto-miners purchase application-specific GPUs, some still purchase gaming GPUs, which would then be accounted for in NVIDIA's gaming revenue.
The rest of NVIDIA's business continues to hum. Its GPUs are ideal for powering data centers, video game graphics, and AI applications. In its most recently reported quarter, revenue rose to a record $2.64 billion, a 32% increase year over year, and EPS grew to $1.33, an incredible 60% increase over last year's third quarter.
It's hip to be Square
Square Inc. (SQ 3.97%) has found a number of ways to innovate the payment-processing space with platforms like Square Capital and Caviar. In November, the company announced it was letting a small number of its Cash app users buy and sell bitcoin on the platform. Previously, in order to buy bitcoin, consumers had to sign up to a platform designed specifically for that purpose. Square Cash, because it serves multiple purposes, including a way to make P2P payments, makes it more convenient than other bitcoin trading platforms.
More importantly, it is also a way for Square to gain market share against other P2P platforms, like PayPal's Venmo and Apple Pay Cash. It also might indicate Square is taking steps to allow its Cash app users to buy and sell things in bitcoin, and even allow merchants using Square's payment-processing services to accept bitcoin at the point of sale.
In the company's third quarter, adjusted revenues increased to $257 million, a 45% increase year over year, and adjusted EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) increased to $34 million, an amazing 195% year-over-year increase.
The Foolish takeaway
Investing in bitcoin can be a scary proposition. There is no definitive way of knowing how to value it. It doesn't produce free cash flow, and its trial period to store value is terribly short compared to other more tried-and-true methods. That's why it's important to remember that, when it comes to investing, there is more than one way to take advantage of any budding opportunity.
If you think there is something to cryptocurrency and bitcoin, but are not sure what the right price is to get in on the phenomenon, an investment in one of these three companies -- CME Group, NVIDIA, or Square -- might be a smarter choice. All three have exposure to bitcoin and cryptocurrency in some fashion but, more importantly, also have improving fundamentals and growth prospects as innovative leaders in their space. While there is virtually no chance that any of these three companies will match bitcoin's dazzling rise of the past year, their relative stability probably makes them a smarter and more diversified investment in the long run.