Bitcoin is in a massive trading frenzy, with prices for the digital currency breaking through many all-time price and volume highs. As Bitcoin’s weekend trade price reached over $2,000 U.S. dollars, many are wondering why.
Though many are still scratching their heads over what bitcoin is, let alone whether to characterize it as a currency or a commodity, trading records are being broken around the world. With prices for a single bitcoin currently exceeding the all-time high price for an ounce of gold, analysts are bewildered by the fervor. So what’s behind the frenzy?
Most of the new buy-ins would appear to come from Japanese exchanges. Asian speculator demand has led Bitcoin growth in recent years. And, when the Chinese government restricted its Bitcoin exchange withdrawals in January of this year citing “capital flight concerns,” Asian traders moved over to the Japanese markets. Japan’s regulations have sharply contrasted with China’s crackdown, and have instead regulated bitcoin as a “legal currency.” In response, these permissive regulations have grown both exchange and retailer uptake.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., popular news outfits such as CNBC have taken a sharp deviation from prior characterizations of Bitcoin as an absurdist investment and are instead depicting the asset as a mechanism to hedge against “political chaos” in the U.S. stock market. The evidence for such uptake amongst U.S. investors is weak, but it does appear that Bitcoin’s performance has been decoupled from most major economic indicators. As such, bitcoin may very well represent a viable asset class to new investors for the purpose of risk diversification.
So what’s really motivating these new investors? It’s hard to tell for sure, but there are a number of signs that the people who need and consume bitcoin are growing. Peer-to-peer Bitcoin market indicators have sustained a constant and steady growth rate, and while these charts typically understate growth (some say drastically so) they would suggest a strong component of fundamental value for the asset. U.S., China, and Russia dominate off-exchange trading activity with approximately eight million U.S. dollars per day in each country, and representing a combined total of 70 percent of the worldwide Bitcoin usage “on the streets.” But what is street usage?
Bitcoin usage by non-investors includes participants in darknet markets, ransomware victims, and gamblers. All three markets are at record numbers. Widespread ransom attacks in 2017 are a weekly (if not daily) occurrence, both with large initiatives such as “wannacry” in this week’s news, as well as individually targeted users such as last month’s “Orange is the New Black” Netflix leaker. Underreported in the headlines is the rampant growth of Bitcoin deposits in online sports book and online casino gambling. Some experts suggest that nearly half of the online gambling industry’s deposits are now being made in bitcoin.
But with baseline usage growing steadily, why the sudden uptake in above-board Japanese speculation? Perhaps the best explanation for the recent price increase is the growth of speculators who are purchasing so-called “ICOs” and “alts.” These investments represent a new blockchain “stock market” that’s unregulated and growing fast. The market for these digital securities is now being heavily marketed by prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalists such as Skype’s Tim Draper and Twitter’s Fred Wilson as a way for unaccredited investors to get in on Silicon Valley investment riches. As these ICO proto-stock markets grow, those who wish to invest in these blockchain products need bitcoin in order to place their bets. Seemingly, much of the Japanese volume is related to speculators who are purchasing bitcoin to hold on its own or to participate in the day trading markets that these securities have created.
Like all things Bitcoin, the reasons for uptake are shadowy and convoluted. But what’s certain is that 2017 has been a banner year for crypto-currency enthusiasts, more scandals are around the corner, and there’s never a dull moment in the world of blockchain.