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Cryptocurrencies crash in brutal sell-off, with bitcoin down nearly 10 percent

The digital currencies have fallen sharply in recent days, and it’s unclear when it will end.

Monitors display bitcoin and Coinbase signage during Coinbase's initial public offering on April 14 at the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York. (Michael Nagle/Bloomberg News)

Cryptocurrency investors woke up to grim news Wednesday: A brutal sell-off sent prices crashing across the board, wiping more than half a trillion dollars off the market.

Bitcoin, the most popular and valuable token, fell by more than 20 percent in early morning trading before recovering some of its losses. It sank below price levels not seen since January. Many other top tokens followed suit. Dogecoin investors, who had enjoyed astronomical growth this year, seeing their holdings skyrocket by roughly 10,000 percent, were hit especially hard. The meme-inspired cryptocurrency tumbled by more than 30 percent.

Coinbase, one of the largest cryptocurrency exchanges in the world, reported service disruptions Wednesday morning. An error screen displayed when Web users traveled to the homepage. Customers reported that they were unable to log in, see their balances or trade their tokens, the company said.

“We’re seeing some issues on Coinbase and Coinbase Pro and we’re aware some features may not be functioning completely normal,” the company said in a series of tweets from its support account. “We sincerely apologize for any trouble caused by this issue, and we thank you for your patience with us today.”

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The crypto market is known for its extreme volatility. Individual tokens can nosedive or catapult in a single hour, and longtime investors have gone through cycles of upswings and downturns. But the market has roared since the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the world. Hordes of new investors have thrown their money into digital currencies, drawn by the allure of sudden price spikes and life-changing winnings. Regulators, too, have taken notice, concerned with the dangers posed to novice investors and the potential for price manipulation.

“What is causing this violent sell-off? Take your pick!” said David Bahnsen, chief investment officer of the Bahnsen Group, a wealth management firm. Bahnsen pointed to a confluence of factors and negative headlines that may have triggered the event. One possible factor was billionaire executive Elon Musk saying that his company Tesla would no longer accept bitcoin as payment for its vehicles and that the company might have already sold its bitcoin holdings. Another factor could be the renewed fears of ransom-taking criminals using cryptocurrency to carry out their plans. What’s more, Chinese officials signaled they would crack down on financial institutions that offer services tied to cryptocurrencies, Bahnsen said, pouring water on the whole concept.

“But at the end of the day, it drops like this for the same reason it previously skyrocketed the way it did — it is primarily held by rank speculators who lack a thesis for ownership rooted in fundamentals or reality or some definition of value. Speculation cuts both ways and reflects weak hands when things turn south.”

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Stock traders were also reeling on Wednesday, as all three major indexes on Wall Street dropped — continuing a slump this month after record-shattering growth.

“Stocks and cryptocurrencies have been showing signs of froth over the past few months and were due for a pullback,” said Richard Saperstein, chief investment officer of Treasury Partners, a wealth management firm.

The mood on some trading forums reflected a mix of resilience and frustration. “I firmly believe this. I’ll repeat it: you haven’t earned anything and you haven’t lost anything until you sell,” said one user on Reddit. Another wrote: “I Bought The Dip: And Other Affirmations You Can Say to Center Yourself Right Now.”

As of Wednesday afternoon bitcoin stood at roughly $38,000, its value cut drastically from an all-time high of about $65,000 in April.

Many of the most valuable tokens by market capitalization remained down by double digits well into afternoon trading.

After appearing to trigger several market-moving events this month, sending prices diving, Musk took to Twitter once again Wednesday to deliver commentary on cryptocurrency. His latest post was a rallying cry of sorts, using the emoji for “diamond hands” — a visual phrase common among online traders to show one’s unwavering commitment to holding a position, even as the market twists and turns drastically.

Earlier this week, Musk clarified that his electric car company did not in fact sell its bitcoin holdings, which Musk himself appeared to suggest over the weekend, rattling investors.

The outsize power of celebrity billionaires and influencers to steer the market has drawn scorn from committed investors and from regulators worried about manipulation. While U.S. financial officials have only begun to contemplate a new regulatory regime to oversee cryptocurrency, other governments, including China, have taken an antagonistic approach.