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I told you investing in bitcoin was a bad idea

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There goes bitcoin. The world’s most popular cryptocurrency has spent much of the past week in the grip of an old-fashioned crash.

Its value peaked just before Christmas at $19,434 per virtual coin. By this week, it had plunged to more like $9,000. Down more than 50 per cent in a month and many, many billions along the way.

Bitcoin isn’t the only one to have flipped. Other well-known cryptocurrencies, Ripple, Ethereum and Litecoin, are having a torrid time too.

This will have come as absolutely no surprise to anyone with more than a decade of experience in any market. We have pointed out that the cryptocurrency boom has been about as obvious a speculative mania as markets have ever seen. We have noted over and over that a private crypto can’t ever be money for the simple reason that governments won’t allow it to be — this crash may have been triggered by talk of banning bitcoin trading in South Korea.

We have refused to accept the idea that cryptos are somehow like gold — money that isn’t government-sponsored, but is still universally accepted as a global store of value.

Gold has many thousands of years of history as money. It is approved by central banks (they all hold vast hoards of it). It has a genuinely limited supply (algorithms can be changed, a couple of billion years of geology cannot). And it has an intrinsic value (you can make stuff with it).

Cryptocurrencies have none of these things. But here’s the thing. None of this means you shouldn’t be interested in the crypto boom bubble and bust. Perhaps the world of money is changing and perhaps buying cryptos is a long-term way to build your wealth.

Maybe this seeming crash is a mere stumble on the road to total monetary domination. I doubt it. But those regular readers who keep lists of my mistakes might add this one in pencil just in case. The point is that if you want to increase your long-term wealth faster than most other people, it is worth keeping a constant eye out for the next big thing.

An interesting reminder of this comes from a new paper from Hendrik Bessembinder of the WP Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. His conclusion is that most of the things we invest in aren’t worth the candle. By his calculations, 58 per cent of stocks return less than one-month Treasury bills over their lifetimes and “the entire gain in the US stock market since 1926 is attributable to the best-performing 4 per cent of listed stocks”.

Outperforming the market as a whole is only possible if you hold those stocks. For investors that can mean one of two things. You can recognise that separating brilliant from overhyped is really hard — something bitcoin investors may be grasping this week as, until recently, making money in cryptos had looked pretty easy. In which case, you would probably go for the full diversification strategy of just buying a tracker fund.

That way, you will get the overall performance without much stress or expense of fussing about finding the favoured 4 per cent. It seems a good idea to do this with a good part of your cash.

The other possibility is to forget diversification completely and devote your life to finding the few investments that will be the world’s big winners — or hire someone else to be relentlessly investigative on your behalf. You will say that most fund managers purport to do exactly that, using their special stockpicking skills to seek out the best individual companies to hold for the very long term. But that isn’t really so.

Look at the average investment presentation (there are plenty in my office I can send you if you have none to hand). You will see a barrage of charts, yield curve discussions, sector comparisons and relative valuation metrics. You won’t find much in the way of blue sky thinking, or discussion about what makes any particular company more innovative than others. Corporate longevity is also ignored (company lives are much shorter than they used to be — there is a lot of disruption out there).

So where should you be looking for funds that might just have a chance of holding the modern equivalent of the 4 per cent? There are some big funds that have a go, and we’ll come back to them another day. But bitcoin’s crash this week has coincided with the publication of the annual review of the Numis Smaller Companies Index. While jammed with the kind of charts and tables mentioned above, this reminds us yet again of the tendency of smaller companies to outperform.

Since 1955, the NSC index (which covers the bottom tenth of the UK stock market) has made a compound return of 15.2 per cent a year — that is 3.4 percentage points a year more than the FTSE All-Share.

Put that in real money, and you can see the miracle of compounding in action. The total returns from one pound invested in 1955 would have been worth £7,209 by the end of 2017; one pound in the FTSE All Share would have been worth £1,095.

There are all sorts of reasons for this, and there is also room for caution in small-cap investing at the moment, as historical returns have been lower in times of rising interest rates. But it does hint that if you want to give your chosen stockpicker a good chance of success, letting him or her loose in the world of small-caps — with a brief that involves looking for a mix of innovation and longevity — has potential.

It is a tough call of course. But there are some funds that are worth looking at. The Independent Investment Trust is mainly a small-cap fund and has some interesting-looking companies in it (albeit diluted by some housebuilders). Then there is Gervais Williams’ Miton Micro Cap Trust (which I hold myself, and have written about here before) and the Jupiter UK Smaller Companies fund.

But a new entry for this column is the Amati Smaller Companies Fund. I suspect it would be a bit too diversified for Professor Bessembinder as it has 60 holdings. But it aims to invest in companies at the front end of innovation and technology and has a fine record of doing so (think top quartile performance over one, three, five and 10 years). Additionally, it is small (£100m); reasonably priced (the management fee is 0.75 per cent); and has no exposure to cryptocurrencies (yet).

Merryn Somerset Webb is editor-in-chief of MoneyWeek. The views expressed are personal. merryn@ft.com. Twitter: @MerrynSW

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