Ron Insana: Peter Thiel's 'sociopaths' know something he doesn't

Warren Buffett during an interview with CNBC's Becky Quick on February 24, 2020.
Gerry Miller | CNBC

My first experience with one of the men Peter Thiel called a "sociopathic grandpa from Omaha" was in the early 1990s.

Joe Kernen and I were winding up a "stocks to watch" segment and discussing Berkshire Hathaway's earnings. As part of that discussion, we chatted about our favorite companies within Warren Buffett's portfolio.

Mine was See's Candy, having spent 17 years of my life in Southern California, where See's was sold. Joe's was NetJets.

Suffice to say, less than 24 hours later, there were two large boxes on my desk in which were 10 pounds of See's candy and a note, "Thanks for the mention. Warren."

I had never met Buffett before so I gave him a call, thanked for the candy, assured him I had no intention of sharing it with my colleagues.

He laughed and told me to tell Joe not to expect a jet.

Billionaire Peter Thiel slams Warren Buffett as crypto's 'enemy number one'
Billionaire Peter Thiel slams Warren Buffett as crypto's 'enemy number one'

Since then, we have had a cordial professional and personal relationship. As I also have had with Jamie Dimon and Larry Fink, both of whom on Thursday joined Buffett as being identified by libertarian investor Thiel as part of a "finance gerontocracy." The group is holding back the further development of Bitcoin to protect its own financial interests, Thiel said.

It's a bit of the pot calling the kettle black, since Thiel is using that criticism to defend and tout his holdings of bitcoin.

Further, I have never in my dealings with any of these gentlemen found them to be sociopathic, backward-looking or unwilling to accept new ideas, or technologies, if they could profit from their use in mainstream finance.

Warren Buffett is arguably the greatest single investor of our lifetime, Dimon, our most savvy bank CEO, and Fink, whose $10 trillion-plus investment company pioneered more accessible ways for the public to invest, is the builder of the biggest asset manager in the world.

This does not mean that these aging titans of business are infallible, nor are they entirely without blemish nor missed opportunities.

They are, however, students of money and market history, astute investors and wealthy, especially Buffett, beyond our wildest dreams.

In fact, you would need to total the net worth of all the world's crypto billionaires to surpass Buffett's wealth.

Some will accuse me of pandering to these men. I am well beyond the point of pandering, either in my life and or in my career. In point of fact, I never pandered at all. Never needed to.

What I have found among Bitcoin and crypto enthusiasts, or supporters, though, is that they try far too hard to convince the world that a new global currency is necessary to democratize finance and offer assistance to those with little access to banking, payment systems or investible assets.

You can simply achieve that by giving everyone in the world a smart phone and links to simple financial apps.

The problem with bitcoin

Bitcoin remains a solution in search of a problem.

Payment systems are evolving rapidly, giving many benefits to consumers from reduced transaction costs, to secure payments to smart contracts and to speedier processing and clearing, all of which are happening even as Bitcoin's value stalls.

Blockchain and Ethereum are largely responsible for that payment systems revolution while other systems are emerging even more rapidly that will create increasing efficiencies from which consumers will benefit, with or without bitcoin or the 12,000 other crypto currencies minted thus far.

Thiel's highly personal attack on Buffett, Dimon and Fink does nothing to make the case for bitcoin.

On its own, bitcoin is far too volatile to stand as a unit of account, a medium of exchange or, arguably, a store of value — in short, it has none of the properties that define a currency, or money, at all.

I have been horribly wrong on the price of Bitcoin. But not so much on its use case.

It still represents a small fraction of the world's currency system. Its $820 billion market value (whatever that means for a "currency") is small when compared to dollars in circulation globally and pales in comparison to the $13 trillion value of the world's outstanding stash of gold, the hard currency of choice for most of the planet.

Thiel believes that wealthy, powerful men like Buffett, Dimon and Fink are suppressing what he describes as a "revolutionary youth movement."


Perhaps the other explanation is that maybe, like many of us approaching, or exceeding, retirement age, we've witnessed so many investment cycles, so many fads, manias and bubbles that we can more readily and easily identify flights of financial fancy that we remain more naturally dubious.

And we would prefer to warn the public of their inherent risks that trade them for personal reward. If this be sociopathy, then let's make the most of it!