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Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) seem to have exploded out of the ether this year. From art and music to tacos and toilet paper, these digital assets are selling like 17th-century exotic Dutch tulips—some for millions of dollars.
But are NFTs worth the money—or the hype? Some experts say they’re a bubble poised to pop, like the dotcom craze or Beanie Babies. Others believe NFTs are here to stay, and that they will change investing forever.
An NFT is a digital asset that represents real-world objects like art, music, in-game items and videos. They are bought and sold online, frequently with cryptocurrency, and they are generally encoded with the same underlying software as many cryptos.
Although they’ve been around since 2014, NFTs are gaining notoriety now because they are becoming an increasingly popular way to buy and sell digital artwork. A staggering $174 million has been spent on NFTs since November 2017.
NFTs are also generally one of a kind, or at least one of a very limited run, and have unique identifying codes. “Essentially, NFTs create digital scarcity,” says Arry Yu, chair of the Washington Technology Industry Association Cascadia Blockchain Council and managing director of Yellow Umbrella Ventures.
This stands in stark contrast to most digital creations, which are almost always infinite in supply. Hypothetically, cutting off the supply should raise the value of a given asset, assuming it’s in demand.
But many NFTs, at least in these early days, have been digital creations that already exist in some form elsewhere, like iconic video clips from NBA games or securitized versions of digital art that’s already floating around on Instagram.
For instance, famous digital artist Mike Winklemann, better known as “Beeple” crafted a composite of 5,000 daily drawings to create perhaps the most famous NFT of the moment, “EVERYDAYS: The First 5000 Days,” which sold at Christie’s for a record-breaking $69.3 million.
Anyone can view the individual images—or even the entire collage of images online for free. So why are people willing to spend millions on something they could easily screenshot or download?
Because an NFT allows the buyer to own the original item. Not only that, it contains built-in authentication, which serves as proof of ownership. Collectors value those “digital bragging rights” almost more than the item itself.
NFT stands for non-fungible token. It’s generally built using the same kind of programming as cryptocurrency, like Bitcoin or Ethereum, but that’s where the similarity ends.
Physical money and cryptocurrencies are “fungible,” meaning they can be traded or exchanged for one another. They’re also equal in value—one dollar is always worth another dollar; one Bitcoin is always equal to another Bitcoin. Crypto’s fungibility makes it a trusted means of conducting transactions on the blockchain.
NFTs are different. Each has a digital signature that makes it impossible for NFTs to be exchanged for or equal to one another (hence, non-fungible). One NBA Top Shot clip, for example, is not equal to EVERYDAYS simply because they’re both NFTs. (One NBA Top Shot clip isn’t even necessarily equal to another NBA Top Shot clip, for that matter.)
NFTs exist on a blockchain, which is a distributed public ledger that records transactions. You’re probably most familiar with blockchain as the underlying process that makes cryptocurrencies possible.
Specifically, NFTs are typically held on the Ethereum blockchain, although other blockchains support them as well.
An NFT is created, or “minted” from digital objects that represent both tangible and intangible items, including:
Even tweets count. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey sold his first-ever tweet as an NFT for more than $2.9 million.
Essentially, NFTs are like physical collector’s items, only digital. So instead of getting an actual oil painting to hang on the wall, the buyer gets a digital file instead.
They also get exclusive ownership rights. That’s right: NFTs can have only one owner at a time. NFTs’ unique data makes it easy to verify their ownership and transfer tokens between owners. The owner or creator can also store specific information inside them. For instance, artists can sign their artwork by including their signature in an NFT’s metadata.
If you’re keen to start your own NFT collection, you’ll need to acquire some key items:
First, you’ll need to get a digital wallet that allows you to store NFTs and cryptocurrencies. You’ll likely need to purchase some cryptocurrency, like Ether, depending on what currencies your NFT provider accepts. You can buy crypto using a credit card on platforms like Coinbase, Kraken, eToro and even PayPal and Robinhood now. You’ll then be able to move it from the exchange to your wallet of choice.
You’ll want to keep fees in mind as you research options. Most exchanges charge at least a percentage of your transaction when you buy crypto.
Once you’ve got your wallet set up and funded, there’s no shortage of NFT sites to shop. Currently, the largest NFT marketplaces are:
Although these platforms and others are hosts to thousands of NFT creators and collectors, be sure you do your research carefully before buying. Some artists have fallen victim to impersonators who have listed and sold their work without their permission.
In addition, the verification processes for creators and NFT listings aren’t consistent across platforms — some are more stringent than others. OpenSea and Rarible, for example, do not require owner verification for NFT listings. Buyer protections appear to be sparse at best, so when shopping for NFTs, it may be best to keep the old adage “caveat emptor” (let the buyer beware) in mind.
Just because you can buy NFTs, does that mean you should? It depends, Yu says.
“NFTs are risky because their future is uncertain, and we don’t yet have a lot of history to judge their performance,” she notes. “Since NFTs are so new, it may be worth investing small amounts to try it out for now.”
In other words, investing in NFTs is a largely personal decision. If you have money to spare, it may be worth considering, especially if a piece holds meaning for you.
But keep in mind, an NFT’s value is based entirely on what someone else is willing to pay for it. Therefore, demand will drive the price rather than fundamental, technical or economic indicators, which typically influence stock prices and at least generally form the basis for investor demand.
All this means an NFT may resale for less than you paid for it. Or you may not be able to resell it at all if no one wants it.
NFTs are also subject to capital gains taxes—just like when you sell stocks at a profit. Since they’re considered collectables, however, they may not receive the preferential long-term capital gains rates stocks do and may even be taxed at a higher collectables tax rate, though the IRS has not yet ruled what NFTs are considered for tax purposes. Bear in mind, the cryptocurrencies used to purchase the NFT may also be taxed if they’ve increased in value since you bought them, meaning you may want to check in with a tax professional when considering adding NFTs to your portfolio.
That said, approach NFTs just like you would any investment: Do your research, understand the risks—including that you might lose all of your investing dollars—and if you decide to take the plunge, proceed with a healthy dose of caution.
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