The Chinese Understand Bitcoin Better Than You Do

Although we don't believe in timing the market or panicking over daily movements, we do like to keep an eye on market changes -- just in case they're material to our investing thesis.

Lots to discuss today, but before I go any further, I'd like to salute Nelson Mandela, who passed away yesterday. His human rights achievements are universally recognized, but check out this review of his unsung economic legacy, courtesy of Bloomberg Businessweek.

Following five consecutive days of losses, stocks are finally getting a lift this morning, ostensibly on the back of a strong November employment report. The S&P 500 and the narrower, price-weighted Dow Jones Industrial Average are up 0.85% and 0.82%, respectively, at 10:17 a.m. EST.

The U.S. economy added 203,000 jobs last month, as the unemployment rate fell three-tenths of a percentage point to 7%, the lowest rate in five years. Both figures surpassed economists' median forecast. Through November, monthly payroll growth has averaged 189,000, above than last year's 183,000 and the highest figure since 2005, when the economy added 207,000 jobs per month.

Oddly, yesterday, lower-than-expected initial jobless claims figures for the most recent week were blamed for a fall in stock prices on the basis that a strengthening economy will prompt the Federal Reserve to reduce its monthly bond purchases earlier than anticipated. Today, however, it appears that traders are willing to embrace the "growth narrative" instead -- hey, economic growth and lower unemployment must favor increased consumer spending, and that is surely a boon for corporate profits.

China's bitcoin slap-down
Bitcoin has gotten a lot of press this week, so I think it's worth saying a few words about the cryptocurrency. It appears that bitcoin proponents had hoped that China would continue to look on the digital currency with a benevolent eye, but those hopes were dashed when authorities declared that it is a "virtual commodity that does not share the same legal status of a currency. Nor can, or should, it be circulated or used in the marketplace as a currency."

In the space of a year, China has become one of the most active markets for bitcoin trading, and that may well continue. The Chinese have a taste for gambling and the government confirmed its citizens "have the freedom to participate in Bitcoin transactions as a kind of commodity trading activity on the Internet, provided they assume the risks themselves." Chinese banks, on the other hand, will be restricted from using bitcoins.

In response to the news, the price of a bitcoin fell from a high of $1,240 to $870 intraday. That's real volatility! Bitcoin may end up gaining widespread acceptance and revolutionizing payment systems, but, for now, it is mainly the province of lunatics, fraudsters, and speculators. I would strongly urge investors not to view a foray into this market as any different from a trip to Vegas and, as such, it should be kept entirely separate from one's investment activities.

If you are curious about bitcoin, make sure to educate yourself properly. Reviewing the bitcoin website is a good place to start; the FAQ section contains the following warning: "You should never expect to get rich with Bitcoin or any emerging technology. It is always important to be wary of anything that sounds too good to be true or disobeys basic economic rules."

Caveat emptor!

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