While investors focus on the losses that are piling up in the stock market, the cryptocurrency space has suffered far more. The bears say it has further to go, but that may depend on what happens to stocks.
Bitcoin, the grand daddy of crypto currencies, is trading around $38,400 per coin as of January 25, 2022. It has suffered a 50% decline since its record high in November 2021. Ethereum, the second most popular coin, has dropped from almost $5,000 to $2,400. In total, the combined crypto market has lost $1.4 trillion over the past week.
At one time, crypto speculators argued that coins like Bitcoin danced to their own music and were uncorrelated with the boring stock and bond markets. Others like Nayib Bukele, the President of El Salvador, made Bitcoin legal tender in his country. Some professional sports stars announced their desire to be compensated in crypto, and even the Mayor of New York City, Eric Adams, said he would be converting his first three paychecks into Bitcoin and Ethereum.
As more celebrities (like Matt Damon) and companies expressed willingness to accept payment in crypto currencies, it seemed crypto’s extreme volatility might be a thing of the past. More and more retail and then institutional players began investing in crypto currencies. Company managements from Tesla’s Elon Musk to MicroStrategy’s Michael Saylor expressed confidence in the viability of this market. That may have been true, but underneath the hype things have changed. As many traditional investors began to consider electronic currencies, the currency market changed.
That was good news at first, as crypto bulls argued that “crypto had finally come of age.” But traditional investors soon began to consider electronic currencies as just another risk asset. As a result, over the last two years, the prices of coins such as Bitcoin and Ethereum have increasingly become linked to the movement of stock prices.
In tougher markets, like we have been experiencing since the new year, investors tend to sell riskier assets like commodities, stocks and now crypto. So, who has been selling? Retail investors for the most part, according to reports from the Wall Street Journal. That makes some sense, since crypto currencies (in hindsight) were a main beneficiary during the pandemic of the wave of government stimulus money and extended unemployment checks that found its way into many American pockets.
As in every market, as certain coins hit historical highs back in November 2021, many retail buyers poured money into the coin market at its peak. Now, these investors (called weak hands by the crypto faithful) are heading for the exits all at once, while institutional investors, inured to the ups and downs of the market, hold steady. Some believe that there may be a political angle to this sell-off as well.
The government continues to monitor and study ways of reigning in some of the excesses of this cryptocurrency market. There have been recent reports in the media that the Biden Administration is gearing up to issue a cryptocurrency executive order asking federal agencies to determine crypto risks and opportunities. The specter of a flurry of government regulations dealing with everything from national security to oversight on transactions, products, and platforms, has investors worried.
As the crypto market matures, some misconceptions are becoming apparent. Clearly, the idea that cryptocurrencies could act as an inflation hedge has now proven to be a myth. Nor do they act as a safe haven (like the U.S. dollar) in times of geopolitical uncertainty. Volatility, however, seems to a distinguishing and enduring feature.
The fact is that this marks the eighth time that Bitcoin has fallen 50% or more since its inception in 2009. In each case, the price has risen to a higher price, although there have been times when it has traded sideways for months to years. It is not, as many believe, a get-rich-quick scheme, or sure-fire way to riches. Strip out the mystique—what it ultimately could be, or should be—and what do you get? Cryptocurrencies are simply another class of risk assets. What’s wrong with that?