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Associate Professor of Finance on Bitcoin rally: Blockchain technology is ‘real and effective’

Bitcoin is currently on its longest winning run since 2019. Bryan Routledge, Associate Professor of Finance at the Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University, joins Yahoo Finance Live to break down how Bitcoin rallied to record levels this year and the outlook for crypto in 2021.

Video Transcript

- Bitcoin at a record once again. It touched above 28,000 overnight. And it has had quite a run thus far in 2020. Hasn't had the end pullback that we saw, for example, in 2017. Let's talk more about what could happen next for Bitcoin as well as for the bigger cryptocurrency complex.

Brian Rutledge is joining us now. He's an Associate Professor of Finance at Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business. He has written a lot about cryptocurrency, but about blockchain as well.

And it's actually there, Brian, that I want to begin because as Myles my co-host has pointed out frequently, the blockchain conversation is definitely not as prominent now as it was in 2017. The focus has really come in on Bitcoin and its rise. Do you think that that's sort of a mistaken perception? Do you think that there is still-- I mean, is-- is blockchain out there? Is-- how much is it being used? And what's sort of the use case as we move forward?

BRIAN RUTLEDGE: Wow. OK. Lots packed in there. I think the-- the thing-- the thing to appreciate about Bitcoin and its rise in price-- I mean, 28,000 is remarkable. 3,000 was remarkable for Bitcoin in the sense it is built on blockchain technology. And so I think the fact that you're not talking about it is, in some sense, an acknowledgment that blockchain technology is effective. So it is big dollars that are in Bitcoin that are built on this underlying-- underlying blockchain technology of competitive decentralized recordkeeping.

And if you had asked me in 2013 if this was going to be viable, I certainly wouldn't have said yes. And so I think the-- some of the price of Bitcoin is a bit of a mystery in the sense of why it has quadrupled over the year. But the fact that it is what it is I think is a validation that the blockchain technology is real and effective.

And then the second half of your question, I think, is, what's the sort of killer app for blockchain technology that's waiting to happen? I think that is still unanswered. And it is a very good question in the sense of, where will blockchain technology go beyond just, say, record keeping on who owns Bitcoin?

- You know, Brian, the perspective that I have on Bitcoin is basically from Finance Twitter and public media, so it's everyone bragging about how smart they are because they own all these coins and they went up a lot. I'm curious how your students-- what your conversations with your students are like as it relates to the entire crypto space, what they're interested in right now.

BRIAN RUTLEDGE: I mean, it is-- an awesome thing to put on your syllabus is cryptocurrency, blockchain technology. You just-- you track students. It is-- I think it's a really interesting and attractive thing for a student in the same way it's an interesting, attractive thing just in general in the sense of, it is a mashing up of economics and business with the underlying technology of cryptography and distributed computing.

And so there is really interesting technology problems that are there. And then, there are really interesting business problems. And so it-- it-- it's a rich, fun topic to teach because the students are just-- they're keen.

- Brian, just based-- based on your understanding of Bitcoin and its history and where it's been this year, do you think what we're seeing in terms of price action reflects that at some point in our lifetimes, Bitcoin might be a viable replacement to the dollar?

BRIAN RUTLEDGE: That's a good question in the sense of, what is it people are buying Bitcoin for and the sort of speculation? But the two things that people might be thinking about-- one is it's an alternative to something like gold. And we think about-- gold is not sort of an alternative to the dollar, but people hold it in their portfolio as, say, a hedge against inflation. We don't use gold in our everyday transactions.

The price of gold is much higher then the intrinsic value of gold you would find. And so people moving into cryptocurrencies or Bitcoin as a, here is something that is commodity-like that is independent of, say, the Federal Reserve, and I want to hold that as a hedge against inflation. That-- that-- that is not a-- that's a sensible argument. It's belayed a bit by the fact that the price of Bitcoin is stunningly volatile. It's orders of magnitude more volatile than the price of gold or even the stock market.

And then, I think the second sort of reason that people might think about Bitcoin as something they want to own is, it is perhaps access to this blockchain technology in the sense of, I want to own a piece of this future technology. And there, I think-- you know, like all bets, it's risky.

And the bet there is twofold. One would be that blockchain technology indeed will be something new and useful. And then the second part of that is that Bitcoin would be relevant in that, I don't know, blockchain-enabled future.

And I guess-- when thinking about that one, if you go back to, I don't know, the internet in the 1990s and thinking about, gee, I want to-- I think this is going to be revolutionary, it was pretty hard to see where the internet was going, and harder still to pick, I don't know, Amazon over Pets.com or Netscape or somebody.

- Yeah. And most people-- a lot of people didn't do that correctly, certainly. I mean, but speaking of forecasting, Brian, you received a grant from the International Institute of Forecasters for your work on forecasting. When it comes to Bitcoin price, is there any way to even do it with any degree of accuracy?

BRIAN RUTLEDGE: The financial prices in general are hard to forecast in part because everybody is trying to forecast them, so the famous or book of Burton Malkiel of a random walk down Wall Street is still applicable in the sense that, for the most part, prices go up or down with almost equal probability per day. There's lots of people trying to sort of find some wedge of a signal in there to predict the price of Bitcoin.

The-- the-- if you do have some-- so, no. I have no forecasting ability. If you think you have some forecasting ability, Bitcoin prices are attractive in the sense that they are just so volatile, right? And if-- if you think you can forecast something, predicting, forecasting something that's volatile lets you make a lot of money.

- Yes, it does. And a lot of people certainly have done that even if their forecasts have been wrong. So we'll see what happens next year. Brian, thank you so much. Happy new year to you, and we'll see what ends up happening with those Bitcoin prices.

Brian Rutledge is an Associate Professor of Finance at Carnegie Mellon's David Tepper School of Business. Thank you so much.