Globalization is driving the economies of the world toward greater and more profound integration. People across the globe are now connected through vast, complex supply chains that span oceans and continents. 

From the comfort of your home in the U.S., you can log on to Etsy and order a beautiful, handmade blanket from Turkey that will arrive at your door in a few weeks. You do not need to travel to Turkey to purchase the blanket, and the Turkish vendor is happy that their products are available to a global market. 

The growth of these kinds of international peer-to-peer transactions is hindered by the fact that most countries each have a distinct currency that is government-controlled and that generally cannot be spent elsewhere. The process of transferring money between people in different countries can be quite complex as the funds need to pass through intermediary banks along the way. This complexity takes time and adds a cost to the transfer in the form of fees. 

A little over a decade ago, an ingenious new digital currency known as Bitcoin was launched that sought to address these and other global currency problems.

An unknown individual (or group of individuals) going by the name Satoshi Nakamoto invented Bitcoin (and the underlying blockchain technology) and shared the idea in a groundbreaking 2008 paper entitled Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System. The introduction of this paper states that: “Commerce on the Internet has come to rely almost exclusively on financial institutions serving as trusted third parties to process electronic payments. While the system works well enough for most transactions, it still suffers from the inherent weaknesses of the trust based model.” 

Bitcoin relies on what Nakamoto refers to as “cryptographic proof” (hence, cryptocurrency) instead of trust. This proof comes in the form of Bitcoin’s blockchain ledger, which unlike the ledger of a traditional bank, is open to and shared amongst users in the Bitcoin network. 

As a complete reimagination of the traditional currency and banking system, the transformative potential of Bitcoin is enormous. A decentralized digital currency that is free from government control offers users an entirely new way to move and make money.

For those interested in the investment potential of this innovative new currency, there are a few important points to understand.

What is Bitcoin?

Bitcoin is a decentralized digital currency. It is not backed a government or issued by a central bank, and its value relative to local currency moves with the forces of supply and demand.

As of early 2020, there are roughly 18 million Bitcoins in “circulation,” with another 3 million yet to be added. New Bitcoins enter circulation by a process known as “mining.” People using powerful computers (“miners”) compete with each other to solve complex mathematical problems in a race to verify a new set of Bitcoin transactions. The first miner to do this correctly is rewarded with a certain number of Bitcoins.

Mining is a costly, energy-intensive endeavor, but it is not the only way to acquire Bitcoins – most people simply buy them. The process is relatively straightforward. Start by downloading a digital wallet, which is a kind of program that stores your Bitcoins and payment information. Next, simply go to the Bitcoin website (or an exchange where Bitcoin are traded), link your digital wallet, and select how much Bitcoin you would like to purchase. Once your payment goes through and after the transaction is verified by miners, you will be the proud owner of some quantity of shiny new Bitcoin.

As a decentralized alternative to the traditional banking system, Bitcoin can be bought and sold anywhere in the world where there is an internet connection. 

This is an important point because traditional banking does not adequately function in many places across the world. Take Venezuela, for instance, where hyperinflation over the past few years has led to a rampant devaluation of the nation’s currency, causing food to become extremely expensive and widespread hunger to run rampant. Venezuela’s leaders staunchly refused humanitarian aid from outside countries and slapped heavy fines on incoming money transfers. 

Desperate citizens turned instead to Bitcoin for help. Bypassing the incompetent Venezuelan government entirely, people from around the world sent Bitcoins directly to Venezuelan families in need.

Why Invest in Bitcoin?

As an investment, Bitcoin is undeniably in the high-risk, high reward category. Bitcoin prices have fluctuated wildly over the past several years. A single Bitcoin cost about $1,000 at the beginning of 2017, and by December 17, 2017, Bitcoin hit a peak price of about $20,000. You may recall that there was something of a Bitcoin “frenzy” during this price runup. Alas, the party was not to last, and prices fell sharply throughout 2018 before rebounding moderately in 2019 to a respectable $7,200 by New Years Day 2020.

Volatility aside, it is hard to deny Bitcoin’s outstanding performance when looking at the entire price history. According to data compiled by Bloomberg, Bitcoin posted gains of more than 9,000,000% since July 2010. As a point of comparison, the S&P 500 and Dow Jones each roughly tripled during the same period. 

Past performance is, of course, no guarantee of future results, and radical changes are underway in the cryptocurrency market that will create heavier competition for Bitcoin.

Facebook is planning to launch a digital currency called Libra, and countries such as China, Russia, and Iran are looking to create their own forms of cryptocurrency to circumvent U.S. sanctions. 

Bitcoin is the original cryptocurrency and has been around long enough to work through many of the kinks that have arisen. Interest in Bitcoin is likely to remain high for the foreseeable future, and it will continue to be a potentially highly-lucrative, if risky, investment option for adventurous investors. 

How to Invest in Bitcoin

There’s no arguing the investment potential of Bitcoin and its related technologies. But the fact remains, with that high upside comes the risk of big downsides as well, and Bitcoin prices have been on something of a roller coaster over the last two years. 

However, investing in a mutual fund or ETF that offers exposure to the Bitcoin market and its underlying technologies can be a way to temper some of this volatility. Although there is still no pure cryptocurrency ETF available, a search on Magnifi suggests that there are a number of funds available today for those investors interested in investing in the technology without buying Bitcoin directly.