Should Any Capital Be Allocated to Crypto Currency?

The Answer Depends on the Risk Budget

Kurt Winkelmann, Raghu Suryanarayanan, Ferenc Szalai

Since the introduction of Bitcoin in 2009 crypto currency has occupied the imaginations of many investors, in large part due to its relatively high returns: since 2014, Bitcoin has had an average annual return of approximately 61%, while Ethereum has had an average annual return of 55% since 2017. Moreover, as of 31/01/2022 the total capital globally held in crypto currency adds up to approximately $1.7 trillion.

Despite the understandable investor interest in crypto currency, a number of open issues remain. These issues are both practical and theoretical. From the practical perspective, investors’ main question is to determine how much capital to allocate to crypto currency versus other investments? The often-debated but principle theoretical question is what is the fundamental economic underpinning of crypto returns?

This note develops a structured framework that addresses the allocation to crypto currency relative to other investment choices. We start with the practical issue for two reasons: first, our framework builds on models that should be familiar to most investors; second, this framework provides a foundation for considering the theoretical issues. Subsequent notes will focus more specifically on these fundamental points.

The Basic Building Blocks of Investing - Risk and Return

By now, most investors are familiar with finding capital allocations to multiple asset classes by using risk and expected return assumptions. Those assumptions include each asset class’s volatility of return, its correlation with the return to all of the other asset classes and its expected return. In our minds, a reasonable starting point for the analysis is to calculate the historical volatility of crypto currencies with standard asset classes and existing fiat currencies. 

As an illustrative example, Exhibit 1 shows the historical volatility of monthly returns for Bitcoin ; US equities (as measured by the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index ETF); US Treasury bonds (as measured by the iShares US Treasury Bond ETF); Tesla; Gold, and the USD/EUR exchange rate. Tesla was chosen because it is another asset that has generated high returns and significant public attention, while Gold and the USD/EUR exchange rate were chosen as illustrative of perceived alternative substitutes to bonds. The exhibit shows the average return over the sample period for each asset or currency, as well as the beta against the equity market and the Sharpe ratio. All returns are excess returns (over the 3-month treasury bill). The statistics are measured with monthly returns over the period Oct 1, 2014 through December 31, 2021.

Exhibit 1 - Historical Return and Risk

Historical Return and Risk
Source: Navega Strategies LLC Research, Refinitiv, Vanguard, Blackrock iShares

Three points are clear from the exhibit, and likely to be known by all investors considering crypto currency:

Each asset's beta to the equity market and the historical correlation between asset returns, shown in Exhibit 2, provide more information about the relationship between returns. Several observations are in order:

Exhibit 2 - Historical Correlations and Equity Market Beta

Historical Correlations and Equity Market Beta
Source: Navega Strategies LLC Research, Refinitiv, Vanguard, Blackrock iShares

Finding Capital Allocations with Risk Budgets

We propose to address the issue of capital allocations to crypto currency through an analysis of alternative risk budgets , rather than finding allocations through the use of standard mean-variance optimization .

By contrast, focusing on risk budgets means that investors can make use of more easily estimable quantities such as volatility and correlation (for example, the data in Exhibits 1 and 2). Moreover, they can use these data to answer three questions:

1. How much risk is embedded in the current portfolio?

2. How much risk is allocated to each investment?

3. What happens to risk levels and risk allocation if capital is reallocated?

For example, Exhibit 3 shows the allocations, risk levels and risk attributions for four different portfolios. In the first portfolio, capital is split 50/50 between Bitcoin and Tesla. In the second portfolio, capital is reallocated from Bitcoin to Tesla so that the contributions to portfolio risk are split equally between each investment. The third portfolio is a standard allocation to equities and bonds, with 70% held in equities. In the final portfolio, 1% of capital is reallocated away from the equity market and into the risk balanced Bitcoin/Tesla portfolio. 

Exhibit 3 - Alternative Portfolio Risk Budgets

Alternative Portfolio Risk Budgets
Source: Navega Strategies LLC Research, Refinitiv, Vanguard, Blackrock iShares

None of the results in Exhibit 3 should be seen as especially surprising. Shifting allocations away from Bitcoin into Tesla reduces overall portfolio volatility from around 50% to just over 48%, with a more diversified portfolio. The risk reduction is due primarily to the lower volatility of Tesla relative to Bitcoin and the low correlation between the two return series. Similarly, it shouldn’t be surprising that a standard 70/30 portfolio has a much lower overall volatility than the Bitcoin/Tesla portfolio. Finally, it shouldn’t be surprising that even a small allocation to the Bitcoin/Tesla portfolio increases overall portfolio risk.

To be clear, this example doesn’t propose to answer the question of which portfolio is best. Each investor needs to make that determination on the basis of their own risk tolerance and their own views about relative investment returns. Rather, the example is meant to illustrate a practical approach that investors can take to differentiate between alternative portfolios. 

Caveats and Conclusions

The purpose of this note is to illustrate an approach to the challenge of determining allocations to crypto currency. Our intention was not to advocate for crypto currency (nor Tesla). Ultimately, what drives allocations to crypto currency are investor-specific views on relative returns and risk. 

We propose to address the underlying economics of crypto currency risk and return in our next note. More specifically, that note will consider the open fundamental questions, and how alternative resolutions to those questions could affect forward looking risk and return views for crypto currency.

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