Bitcoin endorsed by top hedge fund manager

Stephen Foley
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Financial advisers who gathered in New York to hear leaders of the asset management industry impart their best investment ideas for the year ahead were given a surprising tip by one prominent hedge fund manager: Bitcoin.

Michael Novogratz, co-chief investment officer of macro funds at the $55 billion Fortress Investment Group, used a panel discussion on the prospects for emerging markets to trumpet the much-hyped digital currency, which he said could be used as a cheaper way of transferring money in countries with weak banking systems.

(Read more: Bitcoin buzz grows among venture investors)

Even if that did not come to pass, he said, there could be money to be made from a Bitcoin bubble along the way.

Banking on the Bitcoin craze

Speaking after his appearance at the UBS Wealth Management CIO Global Forum in New York, Mr Novogratz said that he and another Fortress colleague had taken personal positions in the yo-yoing currency three months ago.

Fortress itself looked at the idea. The market capitalization of the entire stock of Bitcoin in existence is $2.2 billion, and Fortress decided it was too speculative an investment for its own funds.

Bitcoin was launched in 2009 by an unknown computer scientist as an alternative to government-backed currencies. The stock of "coins" is limited, growing only according to a predetermined algorithm, and its value is untethered to anything except speculators' belief in its future growth.

(Read more: Of course you can have fractional reserve Bitcoin banks)

"Will more and more merchants allow you to buy stuff with Bitcoin? We'll see. My gut is yes, but you don't need to know that to make a bet," Mr Novogratz explained on the conference sidelines.

"There are enough libertarian . . . [anti] government guys to at least make this a bubble."

The price of Bitcoin has soared since the US Department of Justice moved to shut Silk Road, an online marketplace for drugs and other contraband, earlier this month.

More from the Financial Times:

UK police arrest 4 linked to Bitcoin website
Libertarian views underpinned Silk Road
Emerging markets rebuild forex reserves

Entrepreneurs who are trying to build businesses based on Bitcoin, and those seeking licences to act as legitimate money transfer businesses, welcomed the raid as an important step in Bitcoin's evolution from an underground currency to a potentially disruptive payments technology.

Bitcoin was trading at $124 before the raid and was $206 on Thursday.

Mr Novogratz may be the most prominent Wall Street figure to admit to dabbling in Bitcoin. Before joining Fortress in 2002, he spent 11 years at Goldman Sachs, and he is a member of the New York Federal Reserve's investment advisory committee on financial markets.

(Read more: Fund to let investors bet on price of bitcoins)

He declined to reveal how much he had spent on Bitcoin but said: "Enough that I am smiling that it has doubled."

Bitcoin's other investors include the Winklevoss twins, who are also trying to launch an exchange traded fund backed by the currency. Venture capital firms have preferred to invest in entrepreneurs building Bitcoin businesses, rather than the currency itself.