Jan van Eck is driven by a deep curiosity about how the past informs the future. In the summer of 2020, as Covid ravaged communities and disrupted workplaces, the CEO of VanEck, an $80.4 billion asset manager, decided that the firm’s summer interns needed to take a step into the past and learn some market history. He created and taught a 16-unit course on the history of finance, beginning with one of his favorite historical figures, Alexander Hamilton.
“I’m always looking for disruptive, transformative trends or technologies or political developments,” says van Eck. “History can help us identify different scenarios and outcomes.”
In 1991, van Eck joined the firm founded by his father, a pioneer in international and gold investments. Fifteen years later, he led VanEck’s foray into exchange-traded funds, or ETFs, which now account for 90% of assets under management.
Van Eck recently spoke with Barron’s from his office in New York about the headwinds facing gold, why he’s bullish on
and blockchain technology, and what worries him about China. An edited version of the conversation follows.
Barron’s: Will the Federal Reserve manage to temper inflation without causing a recession?
Jan van Eck: My definition of success around inflation goes to whether wage expectations can be tapered down to the Fed’s inflation target. Commodity and agricultural prices will be addressed by additional supply in the short term, but wages are the key component of our services economy. They can be the toughest to corral. The world economy was going at 200 miles an hour coming into last year, and the Fed is trying to slow it down. It will take a long time for some of its contractionary policies to result in a balanced labor market.
Gold prices, at a recent $1,850 an ounce, haven’t moved much in the past two years. What is the outlook?
The price of gold has a lot to do with confidence and “real” interest rates [adjusted for inflation]. We are far from positive “real” interest rates right now, so it should be a good environment for gold. But we don’t know how far the Fed is going to go. That’s what’s holding gold back right now.
No. 2, part of the demand for gold has been siphoned off into Bitcoin, which is emerging as a long-term competitor to gold. Gold will do better when everyone is worried about a global recession and asking when the Fed will cut rates next. Until then, gold has had some headwinds.
You’re a fan of digital assets, such as Bitcoin. Why?
Investors see it as a complement to gold. That’s the short version. Bitcoin has limited supply; the supply is visible. And it’s very hard, almost impossible, to change that. Bitcoin will go to half the market cap of gold, or $250,000 a Bitcoin, but that could take decades. It’s hard to put a time frame on it.
Bitcoin has further price appreciation because it’s maturing. And its institutional adoption is increasing every year. It isn’t just institutional investors, but also governments around the world that are looking to it as a useful asset.
My base-case assumption is that it will take a place in portfolios similar to silver’s historical role. Gold was the primary asset, but sometimes people bought silver or other precious metals. People looking for a store of value will look to gold, but also to Bitcoin. We’re in the middle stages of that adoption cycle, and there is further upside.
How much Bitcoin should investors have in their portfolios, and what is your allocation?
Investors should have somewhere between half a percent and 3%. My allocation is higher because I have a particularly high conviction.
I like the idea of buying some, putting it in your portfolio, and not worrying about it. Also, Bitcoin is an evolving asset. The technology is undergoing political threats and other stresses on the system. Last year, China banned the mining of Bitcoin. That was a huge systemic test of Bitcoin’s resiliency, and it was able to adjust its mining-difficulty mechanism and move the mining or validation of the network elsewhere.
VanEck was among the first firms to file for a spot Bitcoin ETF, more than five years ago. Any movement at the Securities and Exchange Commission on approving it?
The SEC doesn’t want to approve a Bitcoin ETF until it gets jurisdiction over the underlying cryptocurrency exchanges, which has to happen through legislation. And in an election year, it’s unlikely that legislation will happen. I am excited that there are bipartisan conversations about what that legislation should look like.
Some firms offer direct crypto investing in advisory accounts and 401(k) plans. Any plans for VanEck to do that?
No. We launched a Bitcoin ETF that invests in Bitcoin futures, the
VanEck Bitcoin Strategy
ETF [ticker: XBTF].
Ethereum’s switch to a “proof of stake” protocol has been delayed. Are you bullish on Ethereum?
has talked about moving from proof of work to proof of stake. Proof of work is heavy use of computational power to solve math problems to validate transactions on the blockchain. Proof of stake is a different, less energy-intensive method of validating transactions on the blockchain. The question about Ethereum’s move to proof of stake is one of the biggest questions around blockchain technology. This upgrade has been delayed for several years. With so much usage, it’s a technical, nontrivial task. Our base case is that it happens within the next 12 months, and that there will be a lot of changes to the blockchain ecosystem. It’s hard to know what the five leading blockchains will be in five years.
Do you own Ethereum?
Yes, I have owned it since 2019. We’re bullish on the category. More than $3.5 trillion of economic value transacted on the Ethereum network last year, driven by financial applications and NFT [nonfungible token] popularity. Ethereum’s competitors, such as Solana, offer a different tradeoff between speed and centralization. A diversified portfolio makes sense.
Where do you see Bitcoin and crypto a year from now?
Bitcoin has a great future. In 2017, I thought that the drawdown risk was 90%, which is dramatic. I think that the maximum drawdown risk now is 50% or so. That means it should have some floor around $30,000. But it can take years and multiple cycles for Bitcoin to fully evolve as it continues to gain adoption.
Blockchain is going to be used by many to get more efficiency and reduce risks in the financial system. There are companies we haven’t yet heard of that will lead financial-services firms in this $1.5 trillion asset class.
Before Covid, you traveled often to China. What is your outlook on its economy?
I’m looking for signs of optimism for equity investors in China, as a lot of investors are. I find them a little harder to see than others. China and the U.S. are the big drivers of world economic growth. If you look at the recent PMI [purchasing managers index] data out of China, both manufacturing and services were contracting. I’m looking for signs of spring, but we don’t see them. Obviously, it’s their reaction to Covid. But coming into the year, I would have expected more stimulative actions than we’ve seen so far.
VanEck is known for its ETFs. What are the long-term thematic plays behind the
VanEck Green Metals
VanEck Digital Transformation
One of the multiyear thematic plays is the resources transition, or the need for the six billion people on the planet to have less of an impact on the environment. Green metals are used to help produce electric vehicles. The multiyear theme is a combination of a 10-year bear market in commodities—shares of commodities producers were selling at very cheap valuations early this year—and the multiyear forward-looking trend of an energy transition. As the Ukraine war has reminded us, that’s not going to be solved in the next month. Companies we like include
First Quantum Minerals
Glencore is restructuring toward a superior green metals portfolio of assets, combined with an increasing focus on recycling of these metals. First Quantum has been focused on increasing its nickel production from Australia and Zambia for EV batteries. MP Materials is reasonably priced and is the only integrated rare-earth mining and processing site in North America; rare earths are used in EVs, wind turbines, drones, and such.
Another multiyear theme is blockchain disruption. DAPP invests in publicly listed companies related to blockchain or cryptocurrencies. In a way, they are a small reflection of all the types of companies that are involved in blockchain. We like
[RIOT], a beaten-down Bitcoin miner with a relatively strong balance sheet and renewable-power supply;
[SI], a leading crypto bank that serves as a link between crypto investors and the banking system; and
[VOYG.Canada], a retail-focused crypto broker with a zero-commission model.
What is the biggest risk for the markets?
I’m worried about Chinese growth. We’ve been through several decades in which China has been such a huge contributor to global growth. So, I want to keep an eye on China. It doesn’t mean you have to invest there, but you always want to keep an eye on the health of the Chinese economy.
Also, we need to withdraw from the extreme fiscal and monetary stimulus used to combat the economic fallout from the Covid pandemic.
Write to Lauren Foster at [email protected]