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The unbearable stability of bitcoin

Bitcoin’s doing fine, thanks for asking.

Amid a shaky few months for markets, the world’s favourite cryptocurrency has been remarkably stable, trading in the narrowest range since late 2020:

You might take a different view on this depending on priors such as whether you bought, when, and in what amount. Perspectives may include:

It’s also possible you haven’t been following bitcoin’s daily fluctuations closely because you’re a grown-up who invests in solid assets like UK government bonds.

Whichever way you approach it, for a currency that did this during the pandemic —

— the flatness of recent months is a little … eerie.

Volatility’s also muted:

What’s going on? Morgan Stanley strategists Sheena Shah and Kinji Steinmetz have taken a look in a note published Thursday.

Their top takeaway is that most of those who got into bitcoin since the start of 2021 are currently holding (or HODLering) the bag — and that the tokens themselves aren’t moving around much:

Almost 1 year into the bitcoin bear market, most who bought bitcoin in 2021 are facing heavy losses and appear to be waiting for any rallies to close their position. A record number of bitcoin units haven’t been used for any transaction in the past 6 months, currently at 78% of total and this number continues to rise (Exhibit 1).

What this means, if we oversimplify a bit, is that those who bought/received bitcoin more than 6 months ago are holding onto their positions, with some likely waiting for a price recovery. For the remaining 22% of bitcoin units held by the shorter term investors who did transact bitcoin in the past 6 months, estimates suggest their average breakeven price is just over $22.3k (+7% from current but was as high as 20% a few days ago, see Exhibit 2)

(Shah and Steinmetz note that there are couple of key caveats here: the first is that it assumes each wallet is owned by a different entity, the second is that it can’t account for off-blockchain transactions.)

As might be expected, that lack of movement has coincided with a downturn in activity on most exchanges other than market leader Binance, which has cut fees to drum up more business and now hosts about a fifth of all volume:

The elephant in the room is of course ethereum, which had a publicity boost last month when its blockchain survived an update. Nice! ETH now tracks equity markets more closely than bitcoin, a dynamic that suggests it may be the more normalised risk asset of the two. Some in the market “may now start to question … the trading dynamics” for bitcoin as a result of ETH move to a proof-of-stake model, Morgan Stanley says.

The analysts note that bitcoin tends to find strong support at just above $18,100, suggesting traders are buying dips below this level.:

Coverage over the summer identified $20k as a key support level, below which forced liquidations of leveraged positions were needed. We’d speculate recent dynamics suggest $18k could be a similar pain point. (If you’re a hugely leveraged bitcoin whale, please get in touch.)

Public bitcoin miners meanwhile aren’t mining as much, which should also be providing some support. Indeed, they’re having a extra torrid year (even by crypto standards) amid surging energy prices. The share prices of some of the biggest listed ones — Marathon Digital, Riot Blockchain and Core Scientific — have been dreadful:

(Core Scientific announced it may seek bankruptcy while this article was being written!)

It’s circumstances in which highly-leveraged holders might want this kind of stability to be underpinned by serious, long-term investors holding BTC. Shah and Steinmetz:

As trading volumes fall and there are fewer market participants, intraday traders and market markets have an increasing influence on prices. Their activity is more likely to be impacted by technical price and momentum than say longer term asset managers.

Company-driven bitcoin adoption efforts continue apace, encouraged perhaps by the UK installing its first laser-eyed prime minister. MS’s team is a little sceptical about how much any of that matters:

In recent months, traditional financial companies have increasingly been announcing new crypto products to offer their clients exposure to the markets and facilities to be able to buy, sell and hold the underlying crypto…

The companies are saying they have introduced the products due to client demand but looking at the recent flows in and out of exchange traded products and the trends for trading volumes described above, we continue to think that unless there is material upward price volatility it may be difficult to see that real demand pick up materially.

Stability looks good, at least relative to what’s happening elsewhere. But thinning volumes in a market that has no utility beyond store of value, where the actions of its few active daily participants are being determined by technical resistance and support levels, is not a symptom of robust health. Though we’re far too jaded to say the best has passed for the mother of all cryptos, its flatlining after the plunge might signify nothing other than that it’s now an asset class on life support.

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