EDITOR'S NOTE: There comes a time when a person, curious about monetary value, ponders whether money is a “made-up thing”; its value, subject to the whims of social convention. Well, after a year of volatile meme stocks, crypto swings, and the latest NFT investment craze, it’s easy to see just how fuzzy and unstable monetary value can be. Yet isn’t the global economy, based on fiat-determined valuation, a convention that’s ossified in its own fuzziness and instability? Can it be that all monetary value seems fleeting and fake above the baseline of intrinsic value? Whatever the case may be, it’s easy to see, as the article explains, how money has never felt more fake than it does now. Perhaps baseline value is a matter of function over time. And given the short time span of a human being, it’s also easy to see how sound money is misrecognized as a non-functional relic.
The market feels like a bubble. Does it matter?
Calvin Becerra went viral earlier this year for a less-than-ideal reason. He got bamboozled out of what he claims is some $2 million in cryptocurrency and NFTs and complained on Twitter about the incident. Scammers pretended to be interested in buying one of his NFTs in a Discord channel and tricked him by saying they could help him fix a problem with his crypto wallet. During troubleshooting, they raided his wallet. The experience, he says, “felt like death.” He’s gone to great lengths to get the stolen digital assets back, paying hundreds of thousands more dollars to retrieve the tokens, including, most importantly, his three bored apes.
For many outsiders, it’s hard to grasp paying so much money for a trio of cartoon monkeys once, let alone twice. At some point, you’ve just got to let sunk cost be. But Becerra, 40, insists it’s worth it — he believes in NFTs, or at the very least, the moneymaking power of them. “They’re important to me because of the value that they will continue to increase by,” he says. “They’re huge.”
He’s right that NFTs — non-fungible tokens, little digital assets that exist on a blockchain — are having a moment. What’s not really clear is why. Then again, everything about money feels a little strange at the moment. Between NFTs, crypto, and GameStop, AMC, and other meme stocks, money has rarely felt more fake. Or, at the very least, value has rarely felt so disconnected from reality.
The concept of value is a fuzzy one, and valuation is often more art than it is science. Psychology has always played a role in money and investing — and there have always been bubbles, too, where the price of an asset takes off at a rapid pace and disconnects from the fundamental value. As Jacob Goldstein wrote in Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing, all money is sort of a collective myth. “Money feels cold and mathematical and outside the realm of fuzzy human relationships. It isn’t,” he wrote. “Money is a made-up thing, a shared fiction. Money is fundamentally, unalterably social.”
The social aspect is clear in much of what’s going on now, whether it be a group of investors on Reddit trying to take down a hedge fund betting against GameStop or people paying thousands of dollars to claim ownership of digital art they could effectively have for free. But why certain groups of people have trained their focus on certain items is hard to parse. Becerra insists there’s a utility to the apes — there’s merchandise, events, and he sees having them as the “new world flex,” like a watch or a nice car. “Everything’s hype, a social media world, right?”
Lately, the hype aspect of money has felt more true and important than ever.
It’s been a weird year in money
Historically, the economy was theoretically based on labor and value creation at the individual level, and on the structural level, voting shares in companies based on their financial fundamentals and future value, said tech industry veteran Anil Dash, CEO of the programming company Glitch. But that idea died long ago. “A machine is what it does, and the purpose of the system is the output of the system. And the purpose of our financial systems ... is to create ever more detached financialization that can just generate what the industry calls wealth and what the rest of the world just doesn’t see.” In other words, the confusing status of value today is a feature, not a bug.
You can see this clearly in the markets in 2021.
One of the first big stories of the year was the GameStop saga, and it was a fun one. An army of day traders on the Reddit forum r/WallStreetBets drove up the price of the game retailer’s stock in a matter of days, forcing halts in trading and costing some hedge funds that had been betting against the stock quite a bit of money. They rallied behind a guy who goes by Roaring Kitty; in one YouTube video about GameStop, he pretended to smoke a cigar while wearing a cat mask.
There have been all sorts of efforts to ascribe some bigger takeaway to the GameStop story — perhaps it was a populist uprising or a sign that there was something very broken in the market. But generally, most of the efforts to pull a concrete meaning out of GameStop fall flat. It was a relatively ephemeral incident where, as is often the case in investing, there were some winners and some losers. GameStop’s stock price has remained relatively high, compared where it was before January 2021, because enough investors have stuck around to keep it there.
GameStop has come to epitomize an era of meme investing, where ordinary investors are piling into stocks and cryptocurrencies and digital assets not necessarily because they believe in the underlying value of the thing they’re buying (though some do) but instead because it just seems like a thing to do. Dogecoin or NFTs or stock in theater chain AMC get popular online or in their social circles, and they turn around and think, why not?
“For a huge swath of the retail world, the mentality has merged of what is trading versus what is investing versus what is essentially just gambling,” said Tyler Gellasch, executive director of Healthy Markets, a nonprofit.
The scenario has generated quite a bit of finger-wagging from Very Serious People who say what’s going on is beyond the pale, that investing is supposed to be about underlying value and the real, tangible worth of a thing. NFTs and Shiba Inu coin, they say, are clearly fake. At the same time, so is so much of what’s going on in finance and the economy already — including the spaces the Very Serious People occupy.
During the 2008 financial crisis, for example, exotic financial instruments created out of subprime mortgages among Wall Street and banks helped take the economy down. They also revealed regulators to be asleep at the wheel. Very recent history makes it hard to take the Very Serious People in finance and government seriously as responsible stewards of the global economy. The financial industry has gone to great lengths to create new financial products with the potential to do more harm than good in the name of making more money.
“To have a boomer burn down the planet and then have them wag a finger that crypto’s bad for the environment? Please, that’s absurd,” Dash said.
“Money feeling strange in 2021 is based on a decade of money slowly feeling strange for lots and lots of different people throughout the world,” said Lana Swartz, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia who focuses on money. “We’re at a stage where the government and financial institutions are revealed to be less dependable than we ever imagined they would be, so why not YOLO?”
A made-up quote from a 2021 Onion article gets at the attitude:
NFTs might be bizarre speculative bullshit, but what isn’t? Aren’t we all just finding ways to turn everything that exists into something we can make money off of? I might be throwing away thousands of dollars on NFTs, but you’re throwing away thousands of dollars on TSA PreCheck or lottery tickets or donating to political candidates or raising children. Critics will say NFTs are wasteful and can be used for fraud and other crimes—fine, yeah, find me something that isn’t?
The view may be nihilistic, but in the current scenario, it isn’t entirely wrong. So much of the economy feels like a scam — the gig economy, student loans, the hope of retirement, a 9-to-5 job. Consumers are always being tricked and squeezed by corporations. The promise of the middle class is fading fast, so for a lot of people, it just feels like you might as well lean into whatever financial chaos is available to try to hit it big. If housing prices are so high you’re never going to be able to own a home, why not try your hand at real estate in whatever the metaverse is?
Crypto feels like a scam. So does a lot of the economy.
It’s easy to be dismissive of the current state of casino capitalism, where random people are just tossing random money at random anything. It’s also relatively easy to recognize that this landscape is likely to be one where there are few winners, and the winners are probably going to be the people who were already winning, financially.
“For every one person that makes money, you have 100 people that have lost money. It’s basically just a giant wealth redistribution scheme,” said Stephen Diehl, a software engineer in London who recently laid out a scathing and widely read critique of the crypto asset bubble. “Why it seems so fake is nobody can quite figure out what these things are, and they’re being presented to different people with different stories.”
Dash is one of the originators of the NFT concept, but he worries about the clearly fraudulent nature of some dealings in the market. “They had to coin the phrase ‘rug pull’ to describe the fraud that happens in NFT communities because that type of thing is so common. What does that tell you?”
Value is ultimately a story, one we tell to ourselves and to others. In the United States, we’ve convinced ourselves of the story of the dollar, which is backed by the full force of the US government. But it’s ultimately just a piece of paper. Cryptocurrencies and NFTs and AMC all come with their own stories, which, admittedly, can be on the kooky side.
There’s more to the current money landscape than dogecoin and meme stocks that makes the whole thing seem a little fake. The stock market soared during much of 2020 and 2021, even during the depths of the pandemic, making it hard not to wonder what the whole thing is for. The federal government was able to deliver a lot of money through monetary and fiscal relief to keep the markets — and regular people — afloat. It’s a lesson that when the government needs to find money, it can. But whether or not the influx makes money feel fake depends on your perspective.
“Isn’t this the year that money has felt most real?” said Mike Konczal, director of macroeconomic analysis at the Roosevelt Institute. “Child poverty cut in half, unemployment insurance capable of giving workers actual bargaining power for a change, real wage increases across the majority of people, wealth doubling in the bottom 50 percent.”
It’s a strange place we’re in, which might explain why these tangible improvements don’t seem to dislodge national feelings of alienation. The state of the world and the economy can feel really hopeless. There’s mass distrust in institutions and in government, and economic mobility is increasingly hard to achieve. We’re in the midst of a pandemic that doesn’t look like it’s ever going to really end. NFTs feel like a scam, but then again, so does everything.
Becerra appears determined to stick with NFTs, despite having been very publicly scammed. After all, he’s gone to great lengths to get his bored apes back. When he talks about them, he vacillates between speculator and true believer, in one moment saying he plans to sell them if the price gets high enough, in another talking about them with quite a bit of affection.
“I’m not holding this forever. I don’t care about those apes that much, you know?” he said. He knows the hype could fade. Maybe that will take the sudden value of his cartoon monkeys with it; maybe it won’t. However, he considers the apes to be “blue chip” NFTs, a designation that in the stock world would put them on the same level as well-established major corporations such as Apple and Berkshire Hathaway. “That’s why someone like me, who has money, invests only in the blue-chip ones.”
Most of this is probably a bubble
Becerra, who describes himself as a motivational speaker, high-performance coach, and entrepreneur, compares the current moment in crypto to the 1990s. “This is our dot-com boom,” he said. Of course, the dot-com boom ended in a bust.
It’s impossible to look at what’s happening in investing now and not think that that the prices on many of these assets are divorced from their actual worth. The value of random NFTs and cryptocurrencies skyrocket seemingly out of nowhere, sweeping up hundreds and thousands of people in the process. Sometimes, the bubbles burst fast because the investment falls out of fashion or it winds up being a pump-and-dump scheme, where fraudsters are creating a buying frenzy around certain assets only to suddenly dump them and flee. The broader crypto bubble is still inflating.
If NFTs and crypto, as a concept, prevail, it’s unlikely all of the current projects and fads will. Everybody’s hoping they’ve got a golden ticket, or at least a gold-plated ticket, that they can sell before everyone else realizes what they’ve got is a fraud. Some people in the industry acknowledge that most of this stuff is likely to implode.
“The parallels with the dot-com boom are very apt, the reason being that like 99 percent of these coins out there are going to be worth zero in 10 years. But the ones that remain, the companies that remain … those are going to survive and create long-lasting things that change our lives,” said Jim Greco, managing director of crypto trading at Radkl, a digital trading firm. “Amazon survived the dot-com boom.”
If you buy into the idea that a lot of this investing is pretty divorced from reality, then the question is how long this lasts. For now, the music’s still playing, so people are dancing. How long the song keeps going depends on how long the people holding onto the assets can keep singing.
“It’s really incumbent on people who hold these investments to perpetuate their value, whether that’s through evangelizing to other people or by building systems to make it usable and useful and relevant,” Swartz said. “But then in order to realize the value, to translate it into money, you have to sell it.”
If and when the bubble around some of these hyped investments bursts, a lot of people are going to get hurt and lose money. In NFTs, evidence suggests those who are already wealthy and powerful are the ones ruling the roost, just like in the stock market. While there are true believers in crypto projects, so much of it is just speculation, and venture capitalists and hedge funds are more likely to win the speculation game than the little guys caught up in the mania.
Hilary Allen, a law professor at American University who specializes in financial regulation, said the risk around so many speculative and contrived investments on the market is more tied to the potential ripple effects. Essentially, is the current moment the dot-com bubble or the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis?
“If it’s just a dot-com bubble, it sucks for the people who invested,” she said. “But if it’s 2008, then we’re all screwed, even those of us who aren’t investing, and that’s not fair. It really depends on who’s getting into this and how integrated it’s getting with the rest of the financial system.”