(CNBC) -With economic and geopolitical risks on the rise, bitcoin boosters are championing the ability of their crypto-currency, which hit an all-time high this week, to rival gold as a safe-haven play.
“When the existing money system has problems, people turn to bitcoin sort of like people used to go to gold in the old days,” Bobby Lee, co-founder and CEO of bitcoin exchange BTCC, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Wednesday (Jan. 4).
“Gold is very attractive in the old days. It’s something physical, tangible. It’s got this nice gold-color luster,” he said, but added, “You can’t actually buy and sell gold at night on your desk, at home. With bitcoin, you could do that. It trades 24/7.”
Bitcoin has been on a steady march higher for the past few months, hitting an all-time high this week. In early Asia trade today (Jan. 5), bitcoin was trading around $1,131.17, slightly off the all-time high of $1,141.16, according to trading platform Coindesk.
It climbed 122 percent in 2016.
China and India both have been big buyers as part of a broader global landscape that has pushed bitcoin’s acceptance further along. Chinese investors have bought bitcoin as the yuan has lost its value and as policymakers sought to strengthen capital controls to make it more difficult to take funds out of the country.
The surge in India has been driven thanks to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to withdraw 500 and 1,000 rupee notes as part of a crackdown on the black market.
The policy, called demonetization, removed 86 percent of the bills in circulation until a new issue of 500 rupee notes were made available and the 1,000 rupee note was scrapped in favor of a 2,000 rupee note.
Indians frustrated by the government’s decision to limit bank withdrawals during the swap from Nov. 8 to Dec. 30 may now be looking for a way to store their wealth that is (theoretically) out of Dehli’s reach in case of any other such fiat measures.
Another bitcoin booster also pointed to the crypto-currency’s diversification value, although he was less gung-ho about its ability to replace gold.
“I think it’s an interesting alternative asset class, especially as a hedge towards things like demonetization or other geopolitical factors,” David Moskowitz, CEO at Attores, told CNBC’s “Street Signs” on Wednesday. “If you do have a portfolio, I see very little harm in having a little bit of crypto-currency in that portfolio to hedge some of these different geopolitical events.”
Attores is a platform that uses blockchain technology to execute contracts. Blockchain is the technology underpinning the digital crypto-currency bitcoin. It works like a huge, decentralized ledger which records every transaction and stores this information on a global network to prevent tampering.
But there are some caveats to jumping into bitcoin.
BTCC’s Lee, for one, noted that the total market capitalization of all the bitcoin in circulation was only around $16 billion. That’s based on more than 16 million bitcoin.
“Compared to all the other assets, especially things like gold, stocks, real estate, $16 billion is just a drop in the bucket,” he noted.
Another caveat: Some of bitcoin’s recent meteoric rise may be on a supply-and-demand mismatch that might ease ahead.
In June, a change in bitcoin’s underlying rules meant those who were “mining” the crypto-currency – a process that awards users with bitcoin if they solve complex mathematical puzzles– received fewer rewards. This was due to the process known as “halving,” which essentially reduces the supply of bitcoin.
Bitcoin can also be extremely volatile, with trading during its eight-year history frequently shaken by hacking scandals on various trading platforms.
The price of bitcoin received a shock in August after the high profile hack of the exchange platform Bitfinex, where around $70 million worth of bitcoin were stolen from the exchange. The cyber theft led to the accounts of all customers on the exchange receiving a haircut of 36 percent.
Top: China and India are big buyers of bitcoin. Photo: Benoit Tessier | Reuters via CNBC
SOURCE: CNBC’s Leslie Shaffer with Luke Graham, Arjun Kharpal and Jeff Cox contributed to this article.