We need to talk about Lionel Messi. Not the widely scrutinized transfer from Barcelona to Paris St. Germain (PSG). Not all the goals and trophies. Not even the reported $41 million annual salary he will rake in over the next two years, although you are getting warmer. You see, PSG announced today that their “welcome package” for the 21st century’s greatest soccer player includes an undisclosed number of “$PSG fan tokens.” Yes, you read that correctly, part of Messi’s pay is in cryptocurrency. This seems like a good time to stroll down memory lane to the last time superstar celebrities’ unorthodox compensation packages made headline news—and what it showed about sentiment toward high-flying assets.
The year was 2007. Back then, euros were the talk of the town. By mid-November, the newfangled currency was up over 70% versus the dollar since January 2002.[i] Supermodel Gisele Bundchen was reportedly demanding payment in euros. The Wu-Tang Clan, which gave the world “dolla dolla bill y’all” in the mid-1990s, had also switched allegiance, pricing their album in euros if you bought it off their official website. Outshining them all was Jay-Z, who flashed stacks of €500 euro notes in a music video. All the celebrity interest had financial headlines sure the dollar was dead and the euro would rule global currency markets for all of time and space.
Half a year later, the party ended. The euro’s exchange rate versus the dollar plateaued in spring 2008 before plunging late in the summer as collapsing hedge funds hogged headlines and money flew back to the world’s favorite “safe haven” in times of crisis. The euro staged a brief recovery in 2009, but the eurozone debt crisis truncated it. For the next seven years it slid jaggedly lower, nearly reaching parity with the dollar by late 2016. A partial recovery since hasn’t returned it even close to its late-2007/early-2008 heyday, when one euro equaled nearly a buck fifty. At last look, it was just $1.17, making one hope Gisele and the Wu-Tang Clan had either excellent market timing or a good currency hedging strategy.[ii]
So, the logical question must be: Is Messi, umm, messing up? Is he receiving payment in a shiny new vehicle that everyone is enamored with at just the wrong time?
Beyond the headline allure, there is no logical reason for Messi to want to own a boodle of $PSG fan tokens. There are only two things he can do with them: spend them on PSG merchandise or trade them on the open market in hopes of reaping big gains.[iii] Option one amounts to being paid in monopoly money or club swag, which, why. He will get plenty of that gratis.
Option two raises all sorts of questions, like, what is his cost basis? According to CoinMarketCap.com, the token’s value more than doubled from $22.49 to $49.90 since Messi’s pending transfer hit the rumor mill early this month.[iv] In a classic buy the rumor, sell the news, it is now down to $41.34 as of midday Thursday.[v] When Messi officially signed with PSG on Tuesday, the token was at $38.14. Will that be his cost basis? Or will it be the issuing price, which was €2.00 in January 2020 (about $2.20 at January 2020 exchange rates)?[vi] That last question has big tax implications, considering France taxes cryptocurrency profits at a flat 30% and applies income taxes to compensation received in crypto.[vii]
Now, Messi isn’t the first athlete to receive some portion of their contract in cryptocurrency. NFL offensive lineman Russell Okung famously demanded payment in bitcoin late last year via Twitter—and received it.[viii] But, unlike Okung, it doesn’t seem like Messi and his people demanded the coin’s inclusion in the compensation package. No, all of today’s media coverage makes it look a lot more like something PSG and their crypto partner, Socios.com, threw in for publicity purposes. There are currently 2,906,328 $PSG fan tokens floating around the Internet, but the maximum potential supply is 20,000,000.[ix] That leaves PSG and Socios plenty of room to issue more. The two parties split the proceeds 50/50 on all new issues, so if they can ride the Messi gravy train to issue another round at inflated prices, that is potentially a nice windfall.
The Messi saga isn’t this week’s only big and mildly insane crypto news. Earlier, AMC announced it will start accepting payment for movie tickets in bitcoin—another obvious publicity stunt. It might sound like a wonderfully convenient way of the future until you remember that when you buy something with bitcoin, the IRS deems you to have sold bitcoin, making it a taxable event. If you go to the movies once a month and buy your ticket, popcorn and Cherry Coke in bitcoin, then you have sold bitcoin 12 times and must report each on your tax returns. That means 12 different receipts to file away. Twelve capital gains to calculate. Oh and paying extra for premium tax prep software if you opt not to do your taxes the old-fashioned way, with pen, paper and a green lampshade. So the takeup here probably won’t be huge, but hey, AMC gets a splashy press release!
This isn’t a crypto forecast, but as the euro showed over a decade ago, high pop culture interest usually follows big price increases. It isn’t a leading indicator, and often, it is a sign of the euphoria that accompanies (and in many cases lingers after) a peak. So just because Lionel Messi is reeling in tokens and you can spend bitcoin at the movies, it doesn’t mean these securities are headed to the moon from here. Nor does it add much legitimacy, despite some claims. If you are going to buy now, you need much better reasons than that.
[i] Source: FactSet, as of 8/12/2021.
[ii] Ibid. Also, this presumes the rumors about Ms. Bundchen’s preferred compensation were true, which there is some debate about.
[iii] Or avoiding big losses.
[iv] Source: CoinMarketCap.com, as of 8/12/2021. $PSG Fan Token price on 8/3/2021 and 8/8/2021.
[v] Ibid. $PSG Fan Token price on 8/12/2021 at 11:00 AM PDT.
[vi] Source: Socios and FactSet, as of 8/12/2021.
[vii] “Taxation of Bitcoin and Cryptocurrencies in France,” Vladimir Tosovic, Blockpit, 5/26/2021.
[viii] Well, sort of. His team, the Carolina Panthers, paid in dollars. But half of the salary was transferred through a cryptocurrency brokerage, which converted it and then delivered Okung the bitcoin.
[ix] Source: CoinMarketCap.com, as of 8/12/2021.
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