The conglomerate is making a comeback. But instead of combining jet engines with, say, broadcast television, the diversification play comes from cryptocurrency. On Monday, a securities filing from Tesla showed the electric vehicle company had purchased $1.5bn worth of bitcoin in January. Chief executive Elon Musk likes to tweet about bitcoin and digital currency Dogecoin, playfully or otherwise. But his company’s fortunes remain tied to ramping up production of vehicles. The $1.5bn investment in bitcoin is less than a tenth of Tesla’s cash balance and well under 1 per cent of its market capitalisation.

Musk’s foray into bitcoin is eye-catching but relatively tame compared with that of software boss Michael Saylor. The founder of dotcom-era darling MicroStrategy has called bitcoin “thermodynamically sound money”. In 2020 MicroStrategy spent $1.125bn buying bitcoin at an average price of $16,000 a piece.

Bitcoin surged on Monday to more than $43,000. One year ago, MicroStrategy shares traded at $150. They now exceed $900, implying a market capitalisation of almost $9bn. Roughly a third of that can be ascribed to the company’s bitcoin portfolio.

MicroStrategy could have used its cash balance to pay dividends instead — allowing shareholders to decide for themselves whether they wanted to make a statement about monetary decentralisation and blockchains.

Most companies take this route. Risk aversion also means that many let cash sit around, earning ultra-low rates, while others squander resources in conventional ways, such as ill-conceived acquisitions. The sudden appearance of alternative currencies, which fans claim double up as appreciating assets and stores of value, muddies those choices.

The likes of Google and Amazon, known for moonshot business ideas and incredible cash flow, might win shareholder backing to speculate in bitcoin. General Electric and IBM might struggle to get that kind of leeway, particularly as declines in cryptocurrency must run through income statements. Still, customer interest in cryptos is rising. Expect more companies to be forced into acknowledging the worthiness of digital assets — even if they continue to keep them off the balance sheet.

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