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…