Bitcoin’s cheerleaders are making the most of this year’s Blockchain Week, the annual New York junket where past promotional stunts have included renting Lamborghinis to park outside events (to create an impression of the untold wealth inside). After a deeply chastening 2018 for cryptocurrencies, you might have expected a little more circumspection from the digital money crowd. Think again.
Over the past month, the price of a Bitcoin has jumped by 40% from about $5,000 to more than $7,000 (it hit a low of just below $3,500 earlier this year), and crypto celebrities have been quick once more to play on the public’s Fear Of Missing Out. Cameron Winklevoss, one half of the famous Facebook twins, tweeted: “‘I wish I bought more.’ — Said Everyone.” Vinny Lingham, known as the “Oracle” for his knack of timing crypto trades well, said he would become a “raging bull” if Bitcoin’s price held above $6,200.
Anyone with a zoom out function on their price-chart screens can see that this Bitcoin recovery is a mere blip next to its dramatic 2017 high of almost $20,000. But what counts is the direction of travel. If history is a guide, crypto offers a new bubble after every bust. Mike Novogratz, the blockchain investor who reiterated his Bitcoin bet at the recent SALT hedge fund conference, challenged mega-bear Nouriel Roubini to wear an “I Love Bitcoin” T-shirt if its price was still above $6,000 at the end of 2019. Roubini wisely sidestepped the bet.
Regaining control of the narrative on price today is critical to the price of Bitcoin tomorrow. This is an asset with no cash flows backing it and extremely limited real-world application, and one that is uncorrelated to financial markets. As such, it is driven by the madness of crowds, not fundamental analysis. A study by Yale economists last August found that gains beget gains: A one-standard-deviation increase in the current day’s Bitcoin return predicts a 0.33% increase in the next day’s. And getting people talking on the internet helps enormously. A one-standard-deviation increase in the Twitter post count for the word “Bitcoin” yields a 2.5% increase in week-ahead Bitcoin returns.
As you’d expect, bad news has the opposite effect. The Yale study constructed a ratio between Google searches for the phrase “Bitcoin hack” and searches for the word “Bitcoin,” and showed that a one-standard-deviation increase of the ratio led to a 2.75% decrease in Bitcoin returns the following week. Considering the string of grim headlines recently, from the hack at the Binance exchange to allegations of an $850 million cover-up at Tether and Bitfinex (which said the the assertions were false), the bulls have even more reason to shout louder on Twitter to dominate the conversation.
Indeed, talking up the next surge on the Bitcoin index appears to be the only tactic left to the boosters. There are no other new stories left to tell to convert the masses. Bitcoin is not a convenient global spending currency, as retailers found out when transaction fees surged in 2017. It’s not a reliable store of value, at least judging by the price drops of more than 80% that have occurred twice in the last six years. And it is not a get-rich scheme for the masses, despite those carefully parked supercars on New York’s streets. While more than 2 million Bitcoin addresses hold more than $1,000, only about 118,000 have more than $100,000, according to data on people’s crypto “wallets.”
Still, social media remains fertile territory for those looking for suckers. Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google have watered down their ban on crypto promotional ads, and Facebook is said to be working on its own cryptocurrency. There might be time for another spin of the Lambo before the next regulatory crackdown.
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Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.
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