The Fire Burning Beneath Crypto’s Meltdown
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The Fire Burning Beneath Crypto’s Meltdown

The cryptocurrency implosion followed rampant creation of new digital money, something that never ended well in the traditional world.

By James Mackintosh
Tue, Jun 28, 2022 11:36amGrey Clock 4 min

One of the simplest lessons of stock market history is that innovations often lead to bubbles and busts, from new tulip bulbs through canals and railways to the internet. Less well understood is that financial innovations count for double, as new tools expand the supply of what looks like money, allowing the bubble to grow larger—and the bust to be even more serious.

The cryptocurrency implosion currently underway followed rampant creation of new digital money, something that never ended well in the traditional world either.

The question for crypto enthusiasts is which lesson they should take from history. Are bitcoin and other crypto tokens crashing because of the usual excesses that accompany advances in finance? Or do they have the sort of fundamental flaws that will see them join cowrie shells and Sweden’s 20 kg copper coin as historical relics? I lean toward the latter.

Start with the positive view, such as it is. There was a massive bubble in bitcoin and crypto in general as speculators piled in with the hope of getting rich. It was accentuated by a failure to learn lessons from history, as decentralised finance (defi) reinvented many of the problems of excessive leverage and liquidity mismatches that have bedevilled traditional finance for hundreds of years.

So much, so normal. Pile on too much leverage, use short-term borrowing to finance longer-term lending, and disaster eventually results.

Crypto supporters point to previous “crypto winters” that eventually came good again, and say prices will recover. But this blowout and bust is different, because of defi.

In the booms and busts of the past decade crypto prices were pushed up and fell back down based on the level of interest, rather like Pokémon cards or Beanie Babies.

Defi changed everything, by creating a parallel crypto banking system—without any of the limits or safety nets that have been introduced in the real world in response to past busts. Only now are we starting to find out some of the problems, as brokers and lenders freeze withdrawals, multibillion-dollar “stablecoins” designed to hold a fixed value vanish, and wild leverage leads to widespread forced selling.

At the very minimum this suggests the new crypto winter will be worse than the last few. Defi speeded the bubble’s expansion, and now it is accelerating the deflation.

The irony in all this is that part of the original appeal of crypto was the cap on how many bitcoin can ever exist, something supposed to prevent the sort of unlimited money creation that worries many critics of government-issued, or “fiat,” currencies. Rather than unlimited creation of bitcoin, crypto ended up with unlimited proliferation of new tokens. The new structures of intermediaries and defi tools allowed even bitcoin to be reused or lent on, meaning multiple people thought they owned the same token. Lender Celsius Network is an extreme example: Those who deposited bitcoin and other tokens there were promised high interest rates, but have been unable to get their coins—which Celsius lent out—back.

In the 19th century, the Bank of England discovered that the private spread of bills of exchange could overcome limits on official money-printing set by the backing of gold. Crypto owners are finding something similar, as monetary innovation got round their favourite claim, that the value of their bitcoin was underpinned by its protection from debasement.

The biggest booms and busts in monetary history led to the total destruction of currencies, and that’s already happening to some of the flakier cryptocurrencies.

The hope for crypto is that the speculators who used too much borrowed money are cleared out, the proliferation of tokens is pared back, prices reset lower and the core cryptocurrencies can continue with their grand monetary experiment. Sure, they’re worth less, but survive.

The trouble is that crypto’s problems run deep. Bitcoin started in the hope that it would act as the equivalent of online notes and coins, offering sellers the security of knowing that a transaction couldn’t be reversed, unlike credit and debit cards. It failed to take off as a medium of exchange, as it is clunky and costly to use. Other cryptocurrencies are somewhat more practical for transactions, but all suffer from a core problem: The more they are used, the more expensive transactions become as a way to regulate capacity on the network. Like Uber, Bitcoin has surge pricing built in.

“In a way congestion is a feature, not a bug,” says Hyun Song Shin, economic adviser and head of research at the Bank for International Settlements in Basel. For normal currencies “network effects mean the more the merrier, but crypto achieves exactly the opposite, the more the sorrier.”

The BIS on Tuesday laid out a program for taking the best parts of crypto and using them in digital dollars, pounds or other currencies that could be issued electronically by central banks.

The other trouble with crypto: bitcoin advocates tried to overcome the cryptocurrency’s lack of use as a currency by rebranding it as “digital gold.”

The appeal of gold today is that it acts as a haven in bad times, and typically acts as a partial hedge against inflation. Bitcoin holders have discovered that not only is it not a hedge against inflation, it isn’t a haven either. Its price tends to move in line with risky assets, not safe ones. The gold price is up 4% in the past 12 months as inflation has soared, against a fall of 12% in the S&P 500 and a 43% loss for bitcoin. Digital, sure. Gold, not so much.

None of this means bitcoin or its cousins are definitely doomed. If people keep buying into the story of digital gold despite the evidence, it might thrive. If there’s a new burst of speculative hysteria, its volatility makes it attractive to gamblers. Or its supporters, desperate to find some value in the long strings of numbers they paid so much for, might come up with a new spin to tempt buyers back.

But in the long run, crypto’s best hope of survival is to come up with some useful function in the real world. That will require another round of innovation, and there’s no reason to think it will be the existing cryptocurrencies, let alone bitcoin, that will be the winners.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: June 22, 2022.



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Why Prices of the World’s Most Expensive Handbags Keep Rising

Designers are charging more for their most recognisable bags to maintain the appearance of exclusivity as the industry balloons

By CAROL RYAN
Tue, Mar 5, 2024 3 min

The price of a basic Hermès Birkin handbag has jumped $1,000. This first-world problem for fashionistas is a sign that luxury brands are playing harder to get with their most sought-after products.

Hermès recently raised the cost of a basic Birkin 25-centimeter handbag in its U.S. stores by 10% to $11,400 before sales tax, according to data from luxury handbag forum PurseBop. Rarer Birkins made with exotic skins such as crocodile have jumped more than 20%. The Paris brand says it only increases prices to offset higher manufacturing costs, but this year’s increase is its largest in at least a decade.

The brand may feel under pressure to defend its reputation as the maker of the world’s most expensive handbags. The “Birkin premium”—the price difference between the Hermès bag and its closest competitor , the Chanel Classic Flap in medium—shrank from 70% in 2019 to 2% last year, according to PurseBop founder Monika Arora. Privately owned Chanel has jacked up the price of its most popular handbag by 75% since before the pandemic.

Eye-watering price increases on luxury brands’ benchmark products are a wider trend. Prada ’s Galleria bag will set shoppers back a cool $4,600—85% more than in 2019, according to the Wayback Machine internet archive. Christian Dior ’s Lady Dior bag and the Louis Vuitton Neverfull are both 45% more expensive, PurseBop data show.

With the U.S. consumer-price index up a fifth since 2019, luxury brands do need to offset higher wage and materials costs. But the inflation-beating increases are also a way to manage the challenge presented by their own success: how to maintain an aura of exclusivity at the same time as strong sales.

Luxury brands have grown enormously in recent years, helped by the Covid-19 lockdowns, when consumers had fewer outlets for spending. LVMH ’s fashion and leather goods division alone has almost doubled in size since 2019, with €42.2 billion in sales last year, equivalent to $45.8 billion at current exchange rates. Gucci, Chanel and Hermès all make more than $10 billion in sales a year. One way to avoid overexposure is to sell fewer items at much higher prices.

Many aspirational shoppers can no longer afford the handbags, but luxury brands can’t risk alienating them altogether. This may explain why labels such as Hermès and Prada have launched makeup lines and Gucci’s owner Kering is pushing deeper into eyewear. These cheaper categories can be a kind of consolation prize. They can also be sold in the tens of millions without saturating the market.

“Cosmetics are invisible—unless you catch someone applying lipstick and see the logo, you can’t tell the brand,” says Luca Solca, luxury analyst at Bernstein.

Most of the luxury industry’s growth in 2024 will come from price increases. Sales are expected to rise by 7% this year, according to Bernstein estimates, even as brands only sell 1% to 2% more stuff.

Limiting volume growth this way only works if a brand is so popular that shoppers won’t balk at climbing prices and defect to another label. Some companies may have pushed prices beyond what consumers think they are worth. Sales of Prada’s handbags rose a meagre 1% in its last quarter and the group’s cheaper sister label Miu Miu is growing faster.

Ramping up prices can invite unflattering comparisons. At more than $2,000, Burberry ’s small Lola bag is around 40% more expensive today than it was a few years ago. Luxury shoppers may decide that tried and tested styles such as Louis Vuitton’s Neverfull bag, which is now a little cheaper than the Burberry bag, are a better buy—especially as Louis Vuitton bags hold their value better in the resale market.

Aggressive price increases can also drive shoppers to secondhand websites. If a barely used Prada Galleria bag in excellent condition can be picked up for $1,500 on luxury resale website The Real Real, it is less appealing to pay three times that amount for the bag brand new.

The strategy won’t help everyone, but for the best luxury brands, stretching the price spectrum can keep the risks of growth in check.

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