Yes, I am a big dumb idiot. I, like many others, fell prey to the bitcoin frenzy last fall as the price continued to climb, and climb and climb, and just when I thought it couldn’t go any higher, it did. Although I had managed to purchase a small amount of bitcoin (0.16 BTC) at the Cryptocurrency conference in Atlanta (October 2013) for the now-unbelievable price of $120/BTC (using a bitcoin ATM they had there), I felt I had for the most part missed the boat on this whole bitcoin thing. But better late than never. I looked into mining equipment. Too expensive and too complicated (I’m an old school Mac guy, I’m not into compiling my own code in Ubuntu just to get some command line miner to work – I want point and click). But this cloud mining thing looked interesting. I knew just enough about Austrian economics to dupe myself into believing the business model of cloud mining companies made sense (“they are simply renting out time on their hardware to make an additional return on it” I thought). I read stories on line about how mining is for suckers, that the difficulty changes too quickly to make anything, but I dismissed those in my fervor to get some bitcoins at a really good price. I did some back of the napkin calculations that showed I could indeed make my investment back and then some. I was convinced! As it turns out, lazy, back of the napkin calculations don’t work. You actually need to do the fully detailed calculations… which I did not do until several months into it at which point it hit me like a ton of bricks, “YOU’RE AN IDIOT!” – it is mathematically impossible to make money in cryptocurrency mining. But so many people are doing it you say? That’s because they are wishful thinkers like I was or simply have not done the math yet.
From a strictly basic economics approach it should have been obvious to me that this business model made no sense. Why would you spend money on a piece of hardware and then you yourself not use it but rather rent it out at a rate of say $100/period even though if you used it yourself you could make $150/period? That’s the premise behind cloud mining: make more than you spent, otherwise what is the point. Intuitively it seems to make sense since we invest in all kinds of assets that produce returns (stocks, bonds, depreciable capital equipment, etc). The key difference here though is that if a stock produces a 2% dividend for me the stock itself still has value (assuming no insane market crashes). I can sell that stock at some later date for as much if not more than what I paid, and even if I sell for less, as long as the loss there does not exceed the dividends produced during that period, I still have realized a profit. But, with crypto currency mining the asset your are purchasing is simply time. As soon as it is used it is gone and worthless. When a mining contract is over there is no underlying asset for you to sell. In other words, for crypto mining to work you have to expect an investment return that approaches Ponzi-esque levels: a minimum 100% return during the holding period (of the contract). Even if we assume the crypto price in terms of fiat is increasing, the numbers still do not work. Why? Because you could have simply bought the crypto on the same day you started the mining contract and would have realized the same gain due to fiat inflation.
For example if it is $1/BTC on day 1 and you spend $1000 to mine for a year, you could have just bought 1000 BTC instead. So let’s say you mine for a year and only mine 500 BTC, but the price has gone to $10/BTC. You think you made out well because you spent $1,000 but now have $5,000… but you must recognize that you could have just bought 1000 BTC on day 1 and would now have $10,000. The loss must be accounted in the crypto currency you are mining relative to what you could have bought at the market price on the date the contract started.
I actually also dabbled in some Litecoin mining as well and bought one of those pre-built rigs off of Ebay. It was mostly plug and play… but it was extremely LOUD and HOT. As I considered where I could relocate this rig in my house I decided to run some detailed calculations to determine when I would turn a profit. And that is when I discovered I would never get my money out of what I paid for the rig, let alone all the electricity use as well. So I made the smartest move one can make when mining; I sold the rig. Because I sold it a mere 3 weeks after I had bought it the difficulty level had not changed appreciably and the market rate for the rig was the same. I sold it for exactly what I paid for it and managed to pocket the litecoins produced. So in all I netted about $100. So it is possible to make money mining but you must (a) buy the actual equipment so you have something to sell when done and (b) mine for under a month so difficulty increases do not depreciate your equipment by an amount exceedeing what you made in mining (as denominated in the currency being mined). Of course that is not really practical, but it is possible. The only other way to make money is if you just happen to already own the hardware needed to mine and can build a rig yourself (and live where electricity rates are low). Of course you must factor in the opportunity cost of any other endeavors you could have participated in that could have made more of a return. It wouldn’t make much sense for a neurosurgeon to waste his time building a rig, although for someone in high school or college it might (if they are not employed) in terms of opportunity costs.
So to help people out I have put together a spreadsheet using Google docs where you can estimate mining returns. It is set up for BTC but one could do the same for any crypto currency, the principle is the same. The document shows an example of the currently most expensive Cloudhashing.com mining contract (1 TH for $2999) using the Global Hash rate of 8/19/2014 as the starting point and an average change in difficulty of 20%. With those numbers you can see you lose 75% of what is spent. The only way to make a return is if difficulty changes were 1% or less (or they could cut their price by a factor of 4). The spreadsheet is Read Only on the web but you can download it and then make changes to it offline. Trust me, no matter what mining contract you see, plug it in here and you’ll see it’s a loser. And if it is a winner then you can be sure it is a “pre-order” contract. Don’t do it, trust me. I fell for the pre-order Butterfly Labs mining contract last December. Had they delivered that product on the day I purchased it, I would have made a return. But they knew it would be months before it was delivered so they could price it aggressively such that it appeared to be a money maker. Six months later after no delivery on the contract I luckily qualified for a 100% refund (which I had to wait another 45 days to get). But to their credit they did finally refund all of my money. I made out far better getting my money back than if they had delivered the contract in the February time frame originally promised. Their reputation for taking money and not delivering for months (if ever) suggests to me they are simply using their customers as a source of 0% financing. They collect pre-order money from suckers like me, then hold our money for 7 months, and then finally return it with 0% interest. But like a Ponzi-scheme, this will only work as long as they continue to entice new suckers into doing the same. I will give them the benefit of the doubt and assume it is not a pure Ponzi scheme, but rather that they are using the “loaned” funds to invest in their business and grow it. I’m just glad I got out when I did.
Cloudhashing.com is a bit different from Butteflylabs.com. Cloudhashing actually delivers their contracts when you buy them, it’s just that given their pricing it is not possible to ever make a return. They have a “revenue reinvestment” scheme which sounds like it makes sense; reinvest your mined returns in order to stay ahead of the difficulty changes. But all you’re doing is running to stand still if you participate in the RRP. But in theory and in practice it can’t work as it falls prey to the same problem of mining itself; you’re better off just buying the BTC. Ultimately I think they and all other mining companies operate on the same principal. Instead of investors they have customers who freely give them their money, they use that money (risking none of their own) to buy the equipment, they then charge the customers 10% of their return (and may very well be mining on the side using the equipment paid for by their customers). A parallel would be this: I sell the ability to receive a dividend from some penny stocks. You give me $100, I use that $100 to buy shares of penny stocks. Those stocks pay a $2 dividend per month. I give you $1.80 and I keep $0.20. After 1 year you’ll be lucky to have made $20 (thus an $80 loss), I’ll have $2, and then the “contract” is over. I’m making $2 per account/per year risk free by using your money to buy the stock. After a year the penny stocks are worthless so there is no way to recoup that initial investment. Now all I need to do is scale up to a massive level and make a pretty decent amount of money risk free.
So, this whole essay begs the question, “If it always make more sense to buy than to mine, shouldn’t it be impossible for any crypto currency to get off the ground?” Yes, quite literally that is true. But, fortunately, turning a profit is not the sole motivation behind everyone’s actions. I’m certainly not saying turning a profit is bad, simply that people do things for reasons other than profit. A painter might paint his whole life for pleasure and never realize a profit from that endeavor. Then when he dies his painting shoot up in value and then people are buying and selling them for profit. In a sense that his how crypto mining operates. The miners don’t make anything, but the traders who buy their product do.
Mine because it is fun. Mine because you want to help grow the market. Mine because you want to be a part of history. Mine for any number of reasons, just don’t mine because you want to make a profit. You won’t. The only people that make a profit in the crypto currency game are those that are (a) very lucky and found good deals on hardware or (b) people selling mining equipment or mining contracts. If you just want to make money then just buy what you can afford to lose. It is a purely speculative market so the only profit you’ll see is if the crypto you buy gains value relative to other goods.
So there you have it, the perspective of a former miner and cloud miner on why neither makes any sense if your sole intention is to make a profit. I hope this information gets out there and helps others to avoid buying mining contracts that are a total loss from Day 1. I was a victim of my own lack of due diligence and placement of trust in companies that I expected to deliver what was implied (net gain) by the nature of the product. That’s the free market, if you aren’t careful you can get hurt. Well now I’m here as part of that market to warn others away from participating in these “products”. Eventually there will be enough of us warning everyone else that these companies will simply go away, but sadly not without having made off with a lot of money. Caveat emptor.
Postscript Jan 9, 2018, Just found this article, guess my speculation on what Butterfly Labs was doing was vindicated: