From the Internet to Crypto - How the World’s Richest Have Sized Things Up
Throughout history, the thoughts and perceptions of the masses have been shaped by leaders of politics, industry and entertainment.
The greatest minds of our time have often predicted and touted some of the most prolific innovations. Lended the support of these voices, these very innovations have shaped the way the world works.
A prime example would be the Internet. The technology revolutionized communication in the 1990s and led to a surge in investments in Internet-based companies.
What followed is now known as the dotcom bubble - a rapid rise in equity born out of speculative investing in these dotcom companies eventually led to a stock market crash, with many companies with millions of dollars of market capitalization ending up worthless.
However, a lot of companies managed to survive this period - especially Amazon, which is now the biggest Internet retailer in the world and the third most valuable public company globally.
Ironically, some of the greatest investors of our time missed the boat on Amazon and other tech companies - showing that even the most revered industry leaders can get it wrong from time to time.
It’s interesting to see how some of these thought leaders have gauged emerging technologies over the past 25 years. Four of the five richest men in the world have had diverging opinions, as we’ve seen with their predictions on the internet almost two decades ago.
In 1996, Microsoft founder Bill Gates wrote a now famous essay titled ‘Content is King’, where he outlined his prediction for what would make the internet a world-shaping invention. His opening line pretty much hit the nail on the head, in terms of how a lot of the Internet is monetized:
“Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting.”
Meanwhile world famous investor Warren Buffett was wary of investing in internet based companies in the 1990s - something he has since admitted he regrets.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos had more faith than most - enough to quit his full time job and start his own Internet-based company. According to CNBC, Bezos saw the potential of the sector due to the massive growth in the space, as recalled in a speech at Princeton University in 2010:
"I came across the fact that Web usage was growing at 2,300 percent per year. I'd never seen or heard of anything that grew that fast, and the idea of building an online bookstore with millions of titles — something that simply couldn't exist in the physical world — was very exciting to me.”
Crypto and blockchain
These contrasting views highlight the difference between industry revolutionaries over the years. This has also been the case with Bitcoin, blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies more recently. As the sector grows in prominence, the brightest minds have offered predictions, thoughts and appraisals of virtual currencies.
Some of it is positive, and some of it is negative. Nevertheless, we take a look at four of the five richest people in the world and their take on Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies in general. They’re ranked from richest downwards, as per Forbes’ prestigious list.
No.1: Jeff Bezos
2018 will go down as the year that Jeff Bezos became the first ever centi-billionaire. The founder, chairman and CEO of Amazon net worth is now over $100 bln, making him the wealthiest man in the world.
His company has gone from strength to strength over the years, and is now the world’s largest online shopping platform.
However, it’s almost impossible to find any comments made by Bezos directly talking about Bitcoin, cryptocurrency or blockchain technology.
The most we have is historical rumors that Amazon would start accepting Bitcoin as a payment option on its platform, which to this day has not happened.
There was further speculation when Amazon purchased three domain names that hinted a move towards the acceptance of cryptocurrency in October 2017.
Amazon Web Services partnered with R3 late in 2017 to provide one of the first ever distributed ledger technologies on the platform - the Corda project. Ironically, this was a week after Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy said the company wouldn’t launch blockchain-based services.
Despite all of this, we are yet to hear what Bezos thinks about cryptocurrencies and blockchain. Given the scope of his company and his own influence, any commentary from the world’s richest man would no doubt have an effect on the industry.
No. 2: Bill Gates
The principal founder of Microsoft is responsible for developing one of the most popular operating systems around and is ranked as the second richest individual in the world by Forbes. Gates formerly occupied that number one spot from 2014 to 2017.
His wealth is a result of his ingenuity and he has now shifted his focus to philanthropic endeavors. Some of these projects, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are using blockchain technology to solve problems plaguing developing countries.
The Foundation has supported projects like Bitsoko in Ghana, which has pioneered a Bitcoin merchant payment processing and Bitcoin wallet service in Ghana and other African countries.
With that being said, let's take a look at some of Gates’ most notable takes on Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies over the past few years.
During a Reddit Ask Me Anything in February 2018, Gates delivered some cynical remarks about cryptocurrencies in general.
Gates hit out at the anonymity of virtual currencies, saying they were ‘not a good thing’ as they hindered the identification of money laundering, tax evasion and funding of terrorism. He also went on to say that cryptocurrencies had "caused deaths in a fairly direct way” because they enabled people to buy hard drugs anonymously:
"Right now cryptocurrencies are used for buying Fentanyl and other drugs so it is a rare technology that has caused deaths in a fairly direct way. I think the speculative wave around ICOs and cryptocurrencies is super risky for those who go long,"
Gates’ latest take on Bitcoin was in an interview on CNBC’s Squawk Box, where he said that he “would short it if there was an easy way to do it”. Gates added that Bitcoin and initial coin offerings (ICOs) offered nothing as an asset class and that people should not expect a rise in value.
While he was fairly harsh on Bitcoin and ICOs, he gave a more measured take on blockchain technology:
“There’s some really good technology in terms of sharing databases and verifying transactions that is talked about as blockchain. That is a good thing.”
Gates’ crypto philanthropy
These sentiments are a far cry to his more optimistic take on Bitcoin in an interview back in 2014 on Bloomberg TV’s Smart Street show. At the time, Gates extolled the virtues of cheap transaction made possible by Bitcoin:
“Bitcoin is exciting because it shows how cheap it can be. Bitcoin is better than currency in that you don’t have to be physically in the same place and, of course, for large transactions, currency can get pretty inconvenient.”
At the time, Silk Road and other dark web marketplaces had recently been shut down - but Gates was still of the belief that Bitcoin had a lot to offer:
“The customers we’re talking about aren’t trying to be anonymous. They’re willing to be known, so Bitcoin technology is key and you can add to it or you could build a similar technology where there’s enough attribution where people feel comfortable that this is nothing to do with terrorism or any type of money laundering.”
What is more, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have long been supporting blockchain projects, especially in Africa. For example, in 2015, the Foundation donated $100,000 to Bitsoko, a Kenyan Bitcoin merchant payment platform.
The Foundation has been pushing for the development of virtual currencies in Africa, as they could provide a way for the poor to have access to cheap, transactional services.
While Gates holds Bitcoin at an arm's length, Microsoft has had a long association with Bitcoin and blockchain technology.
Back in 2014, the company’s website began accepting Bitcoin as a payment method, and its cloud computing platform Microsoft Azure launched its Blockchain Workbench that aims to allow companies develop, test and launch blockchain applications.
No. 3: Warren Buffett
Currently ranked the third richest man in the world behind Jeff Bezos and Gates, Buffett is a household name when it comes to investments and finance.
The current CEO and chairman of multinational conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett is considered one of the best investors in the world. When he speaks, people tend to take notice, especially when it comes to money and investments.
The ‘Oracle of Omaha’ has long been a skeptic of Bitcoin. As early as 2014, Buffett has been of the opinion that Bitcoin’s value is merely as a result of its capabilities as a transactional tool, which he believes can and will be replicated, as he told CNBC:
“Stay away from it. It’s a mirage, basically … it’s a method of transmitting money. It’s a very effective way of transmitting money and you can do it anonymously and all that. A check is a way of transmitting money, too. Are checks worth a whole lot of money just because they can transmit money? Are money orders? You can transmit money by money orders. People do it. I hope Bitcoin becomes a better way of doing it, but you can replicate it a bunch of different ways and it will be. The idea that it has some huge intrinsic value is just a joke in my view.”
It took a good three years for Buffett to grab Bitcoin-related headlines again, as the cryptocurrency began its biggest ever bull-run that eventually led to an all time high of $20,000.
In an interview with CNBC in January 2018, Buffett categorically stated that he would not trade Bitcoin, while predicting that cryptocurrencies as a whole would end badly:
“In terms of cryptocurrencies, generally, I can say almost with certainty that they will come to a bad ending. Now, when it happens or how, or anything else, I don’t know.”
Ironically, Buffett followed that very statement with another that suggested he wasn’t too clued up on the technical side of Bitcoin:
“We don’t own any, we’re not short any, we’ll never have a position in them. I get into enough trouble with the things I think I know something about. Why in the world should I take a long or short position in something I don’t know about?”
Buffett’s latest critiques of Bitcoin have been more fervorous. In April 2018, he suggested that buying Bitcoin was closer to gambling than investing in the lead up to Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholder meeting:
“Now, if you buy something like bitcoin or some cryptocurrency, you don’t really have anything that has produced anything. You’re just hoping the next guy pays more."
“You aren’t investing when you do that. You’re speculating. There’s nothing wrong with it. If you wanna gamble somebody else will come along and pay more money tomorrow, that’s one kind of game. That is not investing.”
The 87 year old further fueled that flame at the annual meeting where he was asked for his latest take on cryptocurrencies, stating “cryptocurrencies will come to bad endings.”
Buffett’s missed opportunities
While his stance on crypto is pretty clear, in 2017 Buffett admitted that he’d missed the boat on certain technology stocks over the years as reported by Fortune.
While Berkshire Hathaway have invested heavily in Apple of late, Buffett lamented passing the chance to buy Google stock when it launched its initial public offering in 2004 at the company’s 2017 annual meeting.
Buffett’s had a change of heart when it comes to tech companies, saying the market has ‘fundamentally changed’. According to Fortune, in 2017 the top five American tech companies were worth more than $2.5 tln - that is Amazon, Alphabet (formerly Google), Microsoft, Apple and Facebook.
Buffett said the same of Amazon in no uncertain terms: “I was too dumb to realize what was going to happen.”
It begs the question, are Buffett and some of his closest business partners like Charlie Munger missing the trick once again? Only time will tell, as it always does.
No. 4: Mark Zuckerberg
Currently rated the fifth richest individual on Earth by Forbes, Mark Zuckerberg is the cofounder, current chairman and CEO of Facebook.
The man has been in the news a lot lately, due to Facebook’s involvement in the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal.
Surprisingly, Zuckerberg has hardly been quoted in the media when it comes to his views on Bitcoin, cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology.
In fact, it’s hard to find much on the subject from Zuckerberg other than his own Facebook post in January 2018.
In that very post, Zuckerberg expressed his goals for 2018, which centered around making his social media platform a better tool for people in their everyday lives. Looking for areas to take inspiration from, Zuckerberg pointed to cryptocurrencies:
"There are important counter-trends to this – like encryption and cryptocurrency – that take power from centralized systems and put it back into people's hands … i'm interested to go deeper and study the positive and negative aspects of these technologies, and how best to use them in our services."
Ironically, Facebook and a number of the world’s biggest social media platforms and search engines announced plans to ban cryptocurrency and ICO advertising on their platforms.
Facebook’s move to ban these adverts are intended to prevent unwary investors from being duped by fraudulent services and scams - which could be an understandable endeavor.
However it ends up painting all cryptocurrencies and blockchain-based services and companies with the same brush, denying them one of the biggest advertising platforms in the world.
Winds of change
As we’ve seen, none of these influential leaders can predict the future, but almost every single one has left indelible marks in their various spheres of influence.
However, slowly but surely, it seems that blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies are creeping into these spheres and these same men will no doubt have very different opinions on the subject matter in the coming years.