It seems all too fitting that Facebook’s plans to launch a digital coin were leaked in the second-to-last week of a year that saw the tech giant’s reputation pummeled and cryptocurrencies crash and burn. It’s like grilling a shit sandwich over a dumpster fire.
Bitcoin–and the cryptocurrency industry as a whole–plunged this year, after a gravity-defying surge in recent years. The price of the digital coin hit nearly $20,000 late last year. And then in early 2018, it began to fall. Though it hit a few plateaus, the price has still tumbled; today it hovers at a little over $3,000.
So what happened? And is there any hope for a recovery? To answer both, you have to look at quite a few factors.
When bitcoin was rising last year, it seemed like a trend everyone from your grandmother to your barista was suddenly becoming hip to. Of course plenty of folks cautioned that it could be a bubble, but it’s always hard to realize such a thing when you’re in the midst of it. It’s free money, right? Why not get in on it? (Just don’t remortgage your house!)
All the signs, however, were there. Like previous bubbles, people were basing their belief in the cryptocurrency on their emotions, not any intrinsic value. Then there was the FOMO element, which only compounded things. Essentially, bitcoin became an international fever. Random companies were “pivoting to blockchain” for no apparent reason other than that it seemed like a way to create buzz. But when the bubble bursts, FOMO turns into fear of losing, which makes for an especially rapid plunge.
Among those who called it, hedge fund manager Mark Dow wrote almost exactly a year ago about his decision to short bitcoin after future trading on it first began:
But this time feels different. It feels like a bubble. The fever in the post-Thanksgiving moonshot ran hotter than we’d seen before. We also began to see a robust supply response.
Bubbles are complex dynamics. What they all have in common, however, is they require emotion to truly go parabolic. Moreover, the less we understand the object of the bubble, the greater the scope for greed and FOMO to fill in the blanks.
Dow, at the time, simply could not come up with a good reason for the crypto’s insane performance. The only logical explanation: It’s a bubble. His views were especially prescient. He told Bloomberg this month that he made a profit twice due to this canny call.
Other early warning signs
But to understand the dynamic that led to this year’s depressing year for crypto, we actually should start a few years before 2018. In bitcoin’s early days, Mt. Gox was the go-to service for handling transactions. Then, in 2014, it halted transactions and slowly copped to a crypto-hack to the tune of $473 million, the biggest hack of its kind at the time, and it gave many people pause. But it was still early enough for people to believe that the blockchain system was still getting all the technical kinks out.
But the hacks didn’t stop. In 2016, the DAO–a blockchain organization that was based on Ethereum–lost what was worth $50 million at the time, due to a technical error someone seized upon. This, once again, sent shockwaves through the community–but also had the unfortunate impact of normalizing these types of hacks for some people.
At the end of 2017 and beginning of 2018, more people–especially those in the mainstream finance world–were paying attention to bitcoin and cryptocurrency trading. And in early January 2018, the Japanese exchange Coincheck disclosed a hack worth a whopping $534 million. This happened right around the time that bitcoin slipped from its peak value, and it certainly seemed to accelerate its drop.
According to Stephen Innes, the head of Asian trading for the foreign exchange Oanda, hacks were the first element to have a chilling effect on crypto. Hearing the amount of money that thieves were able to take, he says, “Consumers got very concerned that their money could go missing.”
In the wake of both Coincheck’s hack–as well as a big one that hit the South Korean exchange Coinrail–governments in East Asia began to crack down. Over the course of a few months, China, Japan, and South Korea all announced different measures to better regulate crypto-trading. The world was watching to see if this new technology would hit the mainstream–and government crackdowns following gigantic hacks helped poison the public perception.
Indeed, following its nearly $20,000 peak, bitcoin in early 2018 dropped to around $10,000 and hovered there for a while.
Lack of institutional support
Beyond the clampdown by some governments, what bitcoin really needed to achieve sustained success was overall mainstream acceptance. While some financial institutions announced projects exploring blockchain-based solutions, many others balked.
JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon, for instance, made multiple comments throughout the year expressing his general antipathy for cryptocurrency. Dimon’s thoughts could most easily be summed with this quote: “I don’t really give a shit about bitcoin.” Warren Buffett also didn’t have kind words–calling it “probably rat poison squared”–which almost certainly sent a clear message to curious investors.
When some of the most respected people on Wall Street make comments like that, it “takes a huge element of mainstream out of the market,” says Innes. Essentially, these heavy hitters were telling their minions that bitcoin wasn’t worth their time.
Meanwhile, there has been plenty of speculation that bitcoin’s big rise may have been due to a pump-and-dump scheme. One theory that the U.S. Justice Department is reportedly looking into is that the digital coin Tether (which is supposedly pegged to the U.S. dollar to make for a less volatile cryptocurrency) was used to manipulate the bitcoin market and cause a large run-up in price. This theory stems from an academic paper, which cast Tether in a very damning light. And it also led many to believe that the initial bitcoin craze was manufactured and destined to bust.
Another institutional hit for bitcoin–which probably had the most sustained effect–was the SEC’s refusal to approve a bitcoin exchange-traded fund (ETF). This would be a path for more mainstream people in finance to dabble with blockchain; it would allow investors to dip their toes in bitcoin without owning the actual asset. Not only that, but it would make bitcoin available on the most prominent financial markets. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), however, has yet to allow such a fund to exist–mostly because it is unable to monitor crypto-transactions in order to avoid market manipulation.
The inability to get SEC approval really held back bitcoin and cryptocurrencies in general. It sent the message, says Innes, “that there wasn’t underlying support from Wall Street.” Meanwhile, the price dropped from around $10,000 to $6,000.
But it wasn’t just outside pessimism that led to the slump, but infighting as well. Blockchains are decentralized, and democratic systems require buy-in from participants in order to keep the engines running. When there’s a schism that can’t be decided by the majority, all hell breaks loose.
In 2016, this became apparent with the DAO hack. One way to fix the problem was to implement what’s known as a “hard fork,” which would essentially update the Ethereum-based software to fix the technical gaffe that caused the hack to begin with. But DAO users had to agree to this change, and there were dissenters. Though the hard fork was approved, it created two active blockchains with two different sets of rules. Ultimately, this hack–coupled with the inability to deal with it–caused the DAO to end in 2016.
This year we saw a similar fight break out–this time over bitcoin cash. This coin, mind you, is not bitcoin, though it is built on the same architecture. It was created by a group of miners who disagreed with some of the fundamentals of the initial bitcoin system, and so they forked a new blockchain and went their own way. In terms of market capitalization, bitcoin cash has always been one of the top cryptocurrencies–in the ranks of Ethereum and XRP.
This past autumn, the bitcoin cash community–which was created due to a technical disagreement with the larger bitcoin sector–started a civil war. Essentially, bitcoin cash developers had diverging views on the software update for the system, and so they decided to implement another hard fork. This created two new bitcoin cash sects. Internally, the fork caused a lot of strife; one of the most popular bitcoin alternatives was unable to reach a consensus, and instead had to create two different paths that would essentially go to war with each other.
When the hard fork arrived–and participants had to choose which path to take–the entire cryptocurrency market dropped. This is very likely what caused bitcoin to drop from the $6,000 range to around the $3,000-$4,000 range. Which brings us to today, with the cryptocurrency bottoming out at less than 80% of what it was a year ago.
Is there any hope?
We’re certainly in a much different place now than we were 12 months ago. What was a hot commodity has turned into a hot potato nobody wants to touch. Still, this almost certainly won’t be the end for bitcoin, or cryptocurrencies as a whole. Despite the realization that it was a bubble, even the toughest critics see some sort of a future.
Dow, the man who first shorted bitcoin, for instance, even mentioned in his initial post that a person can be “simultaneously bullish on blockchain and bearish on bitcoin.” And he just announced that he’s ending his short.
Meanwhile, even the most enthusiastic bitcoin evangelists are realizing that a retooling is in order. Michael J. Casey, a senior adviser for blockchain research at MIT’s Digital Currency Initiative, recently wrote about how the crypto-winter has arrived, but it may lead to better things down the line:
The good news is that the glare of public opinion will eventually dissipate, and that as the spotlight diminishes, real developers will find themselves in a healthier environment within which to do the work needed to unlock this technology’s potential. We saw a similar period of constructive building during the 2014-2016 hiatus.
But whatever new products are produced, they will now have a harder time struggling with acceptance. Whether we like it or not, message and image are important.
That seems to be the overall message from most. Even Innes, who has been critical of bitcoin and crypto-trading for quite a while, admits that this doesn’t mean the blockchain is bunk. He, in fact, sees things looking up. “If this base can hold,” he says, “[the price will] start drifting up.” But not because of fervor or blind faith that bitcoin is the future, but due to advances on the technology side.
“This is a legitimate technology–it’s going to expand,” he says, “My longer-term view is nowhere near where some of [my current] views are.” It could even perhaps hit $10,000 again, he says. But that will probably take a few years. For now, we wait and see.