Investors thinking about putting money into bitcoin need to separate the issue into two categories: the technology and the product, economist Mohamed El-Erian said Friday.
The blockchain technology behind bitcoin is solid, he said. The product? Not so much, at least in terms of its prospects as an actual currency and an investment as opposed to a trade.
"There is a presumption by a lot of advocates of bitcoins that it will become a currency. When you become a currency, you have massive adoption. That's what a currency means," El-Erian, chief economic advisor at Allianz, said at the Rabobank Food and Agribusiness Summit in New York. "That second bit is what gives me some problems. I do not see bitcoins attracting the amount of adoption that is implicit in the price today."
Bitcoin has been on a mostly meteoric rise that has been interrupted by a few violent downside swings. Earlier in the week it broke through $11,000, plunged below $10,000 on Thursday and was back above $10,500 in Friday morning trade.
The blockchain payment systems technology that powers bitcoin has been hailed by many on Wall Street, with El-Erian calling it a "major, major advance expected to be used increasingly in both the private and public sectors."
But he related a story in which he was asked by a friend whether he should buy bitcoin when it was half the current price, and El-Erian said no.
Though he would have realized a large gain, El-Erian said he does not regret the decision. He still would not recommend bitcoin for most investors.
"I don't think it's a fraud," he said. "The question is, do you believe it will become a currency?"
Though gaining popularity, he doesn't see bitcoin becoming a currency on the level of the U.S. dollar, the euro or other global exchange instruments.
"If you're a long-term investor, I wouldn't be buying bitcoins here," El-Erian said. "But I did say this at half the level where they are today."
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