The Mona Lisa Test

TL;DR: What could you do with the Mona Lisa? You could make money by selling it. Good… But then you wouldn’t own it anymore and you would pay tax on your profit. Another option is to use it as collateral and take out a loan against it. If you did that you could immediately access its value in cash. You would still own it and watch its value increase over time. You wouldn’t pay any tax because a loan is a liability, not an asset. This is what the rich do with assets everyday; it’s the reason Bill Gates owns more farmland than anyone in the USA, and one of the reasons why proposed tax hikes on the super rich is wholly irrelevant. It’s also a reason why bitcoin, when viewed as an asset rather than a currency, could be a game changer for low income people who find other assets prohibitively expensive or complex.

What Is The Mona Lisa Test?

I have been working on a brief series of questions designed to gauge someone’s understanding of the concepts of investment. In the Notes below I explain the various profitable paths of action an individual could take if they owned the Mona Lisa. These explanations show what can be done, broadly speaking, with assets of all kinds.

Why devise the test?

This came about because at this point in my life I am shocked that investment isn’t generally taught in schools and, in my experience, is rarely talked about in any context other than real estate. Most of us will work most of our lives for money and yet we haven’t found the time or inclination to understand how the stuff works. Most of us grew up through education systems and communities and yet have no idea about such a fundamental thing? The basic principles of assets and investment can be understood in a matter of minutes. If we do not systematically pass on this knowledge via schools or mainstream social discourse the stratification in society will only increase and become more extreme.

The Mona Lisa Test

Further down in this post you will find a comparison of asset classes and an analysis of bitcoin as the most accessible asset for low-income people. I am particularly interested in looking from a global perspective, not just one country, culture, or economy. We know the current financial system works very well for some people, but it is useful to understand who the system punishes, and how.

  1. The Mona Lisa is the world’s most famous painting. Do you think it is valuable and why?

2. If you were given the Mona Lisa as a gift would you be pleased and why?

3. You could keep it, sell it, hold on to it and sell it later, use it as collateral, charge people to view it. What would you do with it?

4. What are the potential pros and cons of these actions (keep it, sell it, use it as collateral, hold on to it and sell it later)?

5. If you could afford to buy 1% of the Mona Lisa would you buy it?

End of Test

My anecdotal evidence finds that most people say they would sell it immediately or sell it later. Both of these options have disadvantages, and from a purely financial perspective, are not the optimum choices. If you sold it on the day you received it you would pay tax on your financial gain (depending on your country’s tax laws) and you would no longer own the Mona Lisa.

If you held on to it and sold it later you could not access the value of the of the painting until you sold it. So there would be a waiting period before accessing its value. In addition to the time required for value appreciation, when you sold you would pay tax on the financial gain and no longer own it.

Charging people to view it would require considerable costs and expertise (perhaps initially setting up a gallery, employing staff and security, and marketing). This course of action, alone, would require significant time to realise the value of the painting

Use the Mona Lisa for maximum return and avoid all tax altogether — legally

The most financially optimal option would be to use the Mona Lisa as collateral. This would allow you to take out a loan against the value of the painting. You could immediately access the value associated with the Mona Lisa and you would still own it. You would pay no tax because the loan is a debt, and you have not realised any gains on the asset (i.e. sold it).

If you wanted to, you could use the money you loaned against the Mona Lisa to buy five Picasso paintings and you could use all five of these as collateral to take out more loans to buy more paintings. This process could be repeated ad infinitum. This process would mean you would own many works of art that will continue to rise in value (if you bought the right ones), you would have access to the cash value associated with them, and at no point would you pay tax on these assets because you have not realised the profits on them, only taken debt against them. People with a sufficient understanding of the current financial system and the means to buy assets can avoid tax as a matter of course (avoiding and evading tax are not the same). That avoidance of tax, within the current system, increases the gap between the rich and the poor.

Oftentimes, when leaders speak of raising taxes on the super rich it is wholly irrelevant. The super rich often pay tax less tax than nurses or teachers. A carefully constructed portfolio of assets and liabilities is often a major reason (along with the utilisation of tax havens, trust funds, dividends etc).

In my experience, everyday people have an understanding that a house is a good investment will most likely rise in value over time. They also have a good understanding that fiat currencies are constantly devaluing; they don’t generally try to understand why but they just accept it as a normal aspect of our financial system. A house is an asset. But it is only one example of an asset, and nowadays it’s an asset that’s hard to buy into. In the age of normalisation of money creation, all asset classes continue to rise in value as fiat currencies go down . It’s worth noting that the US Federal Reserve’s policy of quantitative easing over the past year, with a further $6 trillion possibly on the way, does not only have consequences in the USA. It expands the money supply globally and affects prices globally. Assets worldwide have risen as a result of monetary expansion. Assets are also routinely used by the wealthy to avoid paying tax. These factors create a stratification of society between those who can afford to own assets and those who can’t.

Bitcoin; the most accessible asset?

The Mona Lisa is a fairly specific case because it is almost unquestionable that it is valuable and that it will continue to gain value. Against a backdrop of regular quantitative easing there will always be just one Mona Lisa but there will be more government backed currency with which to buy it. Obviously, for almost the entire global population the Mona Lisa is too expensive to buy. But the monetary expansion over the past three decades has been inflating assets and devaluing cash so it is so what other assets are out there that are easier to own? Housing, real estate, silver, gold, stocks, bitcoin, art, oil, wheat, sugar, vintage cars, rare baseballs cards, sports teams, to name a few.

There are a great many people worldwide who cannot afford to buy housing, real estate, sports franchises, vintage cars, or even a gold coin. This might be more or less surprising depending on where you live and your personal circumstances. Even if you were eligible to take out loans or mortgages to acquire these assets the life sacrifices necessary

So what about the other assets? Works of art and baseball cards require specific knowledge about art and baseball and about the art market and the baseball card market in general. Oil, wheat and sugar, silver and gold have difficulties and costs associated with storage, transportation and sale and purchase.

Stocks are a generally more accessible asset. Yes they require knowledge of companies, their sectors, and wider macroeconomics but, since the introduction of fractionalised shares and online trading applications, stocks are now accessible to much more of the world’s population than the other assets. Fractionalised stocks allow an individual to purchase a piece of the stock for as little money as she or he would like to invest. This is clearly quite different from the Mona Lisa, a house, a car, a piece of land, a sports team, or even a 1 ounce gold coin, which all require a significant amount of capital to initially purchase. Unlike the aforementioned assets, it would most likely only require internet access and a bank account to invest in stocks. There is however the issue of the exclusion of people of certain countries or circumstances, either because they are unbanked or they are legally prohibited from buying stocks.

Stocks and virtually all the aforementioned assets across the world, are subject to systemic corruption and government intervention. Depending on where you live and your personal circumstances, you might view systemic corruption and government intervention as a good or a bad thing.

Bitcoin also requires internet access, and, most likely, a bank account (though not always). Like stocks, it can be bought fractionally with as little or much capital as you like. Like using an app to buy stocks, one can also buy bitcoin from home within a few minutes. There are minimal costs for storage, transportation, purchase and sale. There may, however, be difficulties associated with storage, you could lose your wallet and pass phrase and your bitcoin would be lost. Unlike stocks though, bitcoin does not allow for government intervention or systemic corruption. Any kind of intervention would require a sustained, costly, concerted action by 51% of bitcoin miners who are currently spread across the globe.

Assets are necessary to grow money money rather than to watch it decrease in value. Despite its drawbacks, I would suggest bitcoin is the most accessible to the most people globally, of all assets. It is unique in the sense that it has been accessible to the public before being accessible to financial institutions. It is more or less fair to say that the global public have had, thus far, a twelve year head start on institutions. By the end of this year I think that head start will have come to an end.

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Blockchain | Cryptocurrency writer — technical, philosophical, occasional advocacy. Contact: therobertmccracken@gmail.com

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Robert McCracken

Robert McCracken

Blockchain | Cryptocurrency writer — technical, philosophical, occasional advocacy. Contact: therobertmccracken@gmail.com

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