Opinion: My ill-fated dip in the cesspool of cryptocurrency

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Representations of cryptocurrency Bitcoin in Paris on March 9.Benoit Tessier/Reuters

Rob Csernyik is a 2022 Michener-Deacon fellow and a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.

When Bitcoin hit an all-time high of nearly US$74,000 on March 14 – pushing the cryptocurrency market to a dizzying US$2.8-trillion – I was not in the cheering section. Months before, I had started cashing out my meagre crypto and related holdings for about $20 in profit.

For some investors, the recent crypto valuation rebounds suggest a return to the unbridled optimism that characterized much of the last decade. It’s a reason to hold or to buy more. But for others – millennials, including me, with limited funds to allocate – it’s an escape hatch we’re wise to take.

The fresh territory to explore? It’s not unchartered, only sleepier: the sturdier footing of blue-chip stocks or exchange-traded funds, particularly those with attractive dividend payouts.

In May, 2020, with fewer places to spend my money because of COVID-19 lockdowns and tumbling equity prices, I started a self-managed investment account. It hasn’t grown into a massive nest egg, but is now worth several thousand dollars.

I’m not alone. The same calendar year I started, Canadians opened more than 2.3 million new do-it-yourself investment (DIY) accounts, according to Investor Economics, a financial services research firm. This was nearly three times the number opened in 2019.

Bitcoin ownership was on the rise, too: 13 per cent of Canadians by 2021, up from 5 per cent in previous years according to the Bank of Canada. Crypto mining stocks and exchange-traded funds (ETF), which Canada had before the United States, made it easy to buy crypto as a theme without opening a separate wallet.

It was easy to get swept up in the excitement and the feeling that if I wasn’t invested in crypto, I was missing out. I steered my savings toward it and, like my fellow emerging DIY investors, encountered a steep learning curve. Going in, I knew the days of massive returns the first-movers of crypto reaped were over, but I treated them as interchangeable with high-risk stocks.

But I gave them too much space in my portfolio. Prices shifted more quickly than news cycles could keep up with, and I got used to seeing outsized gains. They made me hungry for more. After the crypto crash in the spring of 2022, my portfolio’s related holdings floundered. I saw my returns drop lower than I felt comfortable with.

Having spent the last few years grimacing at my portfolio has led me to reconsider my appetite for risk. For me, this was mostly a revision of how crypto fit in. In hindsight, I can see how investing similar dollar amounts in more thoughtfully chosen equities or ETFs would have helped me reach more modest but still reasonable growth goals without the risk of crypto.

That’s why, when I saw my Bitcoin investment finally in the black again, I hit sell. My profit was tiny, but I could reallocate the funds toward something more carefully chosen, instead of plucked from the headlines because everyone else seemed to be buying it.

A defining moment came while listening to an investor call for a freelance story I was working on. A Goldman Sachs Wealth Management executive was asked for her thoughts on the new Bitcoin ETFs that were recently approved for trading in the United States.

She was unequivocal: investors should not allocate to cryptocurrencies or crypto ETFs as part of their investment portfolios. It was as speculative as gambling at a Las Vegas casino. That I had been considering my crypto allocations “investments” in the classic sense suddenly seemed naive.

Granted, this is ultimately a personal decision. Some people like to speculate and have enough wealth that they don’t need to worry about losses. But much of the DIY crowd, including me, are not in that category. We can’t afford to be. I’m not much of a gambler, and besides, to grow my portfolio to contribute to a property down payment or to assist with retirement requires a more considered approach.

I vowed, after hearing the executive’s remarks, to step up my divestment and reallocate more selectively. When an opportunity came to sell my bit of Ether at a profit, it went. Same with a handful of crypto mining stocks.

I feel more positive and secure toward my investments since making this pivot, even if my portfolio hasn’t grown significantly since. I also find myself paying less attention to the constant headlines about them. That’s why I barely notice some of the headlines about Bitcoin selloffs trimming back some of the most recent record-breaking gains.

There are enough horror stories about everyday people betting big on cryptocurrency and losing their savings or selling off their holdings at a loss because they fear it will only get worse. If the chance to break even or turn a small profit appears, save yourself.


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About the Author: Daniel