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Fool's gold or safe haven? War puts bitcoin to the test

London(CNN Business) Advocates of bitcoin have long claimed that the cryptocurrency has much in common with gold. They envision a world in which traders flock to it in times of stress and use it to store value over time.

Now, Russia's war in Ukraine, which has roiled markets, is testing that argument in real time. The problem? Supporters and skeptics alike say it proves their point.

What's happening: The price of gold has surged almost 5% since the invasion of Ukraine two weeks ago. Before long, it could surpass the all-time high of $2,072 per troy ounce it reached in August 2020.

Bitcoin is trading about 4% higher. It rallied on Wednesday after President Joe Biden signed an executive order instructing the US government to examine the risks and benefits of creating a digital dollar.

Still, it's notching far larger swings than gold, and remains more than 40% below the record it notched this past November.

Cryptocurrencies have held up better than stocks since the war started. In the past, their trading was more closely correlated.

That's because aggressive sanctions cutting Russia off from access to the global financial system have increased bets that some countries and institutions will start to look more seriously at alternate ways to move money around the globe. Crypto networks stand to benefit.

"The reason that it has somewhat retained [its value] is the market viewing it as an alternative to traditional finance," Lux Thiagarajah, head of trading at BCB Group, told me.

The number of trades exchanging Russian rubles for bitcoin has spiked since the invasion, according to data from Arcane Crypto. Though it's still just a small portion of global transactions, it supports a broader narrative that cryptocurrencies have real value.

"We can definitely see that some Russians are using bitcoin as a hedge and to protect their savings," Marcus Sotiriou, an analyst at GlobalBlock, told me. This bolsters "the idea that bitcoin can act as digital gold," he added.

But Thiagarajah of BCB Group takes the opposite view. He emphasized that Russians turning to bitcoin is very different from investors viewing it as a safe bet. Its price remains extremely volatile, which doesn't inspire confidence among institutions that want to hold onto wealth.

"We don't view bitcoin as digital gold," he said. "Gold is by definition a safe haven."

Step back: Analysts at JPMorgan have calculated that if investors do start to treat bitcoin like gold, its value could rise to $150,000, roughly four times its current level. Yet the war in Ukraine doesn't appear to be a watershed moment, as debate continues.

Attention turns from Ukraine to inflation, briefly

Stocks surged and oil prices plunged on Wednesday as investors pinned their hopes to diplomatic talks between Ukraine and Russia. But as the war enters its third week, the mood on Wall Street has turned sour again.

The latest: A meeting between Ukraine and Russia's foreign ministers in Turkey ended without an agreement on a ceasefire. Global oil prices, which had pulled back 13% on Wednesday, rose more than 3%. Stocks also dropped, erasing some of the previous day's gains.

Attention now turns to the latest data on inflation from the United States, which holds major sway over policymakers' next steps.

The Consumer Price Index, which measures a basket of goods and services, stood at 7.9% in February, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Thursday. That's the highest level since January 1982.

The Federal Reserve intends to start raising interest rates later this month as it tries to rein in prices. But it doesn't want to move so fast that it triggers a recession — a task made more complicated by the war in Europe.

Last week, Fed Chair Jerome Powell indicated to Congress that he supports raising rates by 0.25 percentage points in March. That killed speculation that the Fed could opt for a supersized rate hike to show it was serious about fighting inflation.

But Citi economists Veronica Clark and Andrew Hollenhorst think a larger-than-normal increase could still be on the table later this year if data shows that inflation is staying strong. It's one reason they plan to closely scrutinize today's numbers.

"Inflation data will still have important implications for hikes beyond March," they said in a note to clients this week.

Amazon's stock is about to get much, much cheaper

Amazon shares are about to get 20 times less expensive, making it way more affordable for everyday investors to buy stock in the internet giant.

The company announced Wednesday that its board approved a 20-for-1 stock split, its first since 1999. If approved by shareholders in May, it will take effect in early June.

Breaking it down: Amazon closed Wednesday at $2,785 per share. If the split were to happen immediately, Amazon's stock would be worth $139 a share.

The new price tag is getting Wall Street excited, since it could lead to a larger investor base. Amazon shares are up 5% in premarket trading.

"The existential rise of low and zero-fee trading apps means stock-splits are more important than they have been for a while," Hargreaves Lansdown analyst Sophie Lund-Yates said.

Amazon also said it would buy back $10 billion of its stock. Such a move typically helps inflate the value of shares since it means effectively pulling the supply of stock out of the market.

Investor insight: The news could give Amazon's stock a much-needed boost. Its shares are down 9% over the past 12 months, lagging other Big Tech names. Microsoft's stock is 23% higher during the same period, while Apple shares have risen 35%. Google parent Alphabet — which also announced a stock split earlier this year — is 31% higher.

Up next (JD) reports results before US markets open. American Outdoor Brands (AOBC) and Oracle (ORCL) follow after the close.

Also today: The latest reading of the US Consumer Price Index posts at 8:30 a.m. ET.

Coming tomorrow: Consumer sentiment data for March from the University of Michigan's survey.

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