After seeing its value crater for much of 2022, bitcoin has quietly seen its price double over the past year.
The price of the popular cryptocurrency hit an 18-month high of US$37,344 this past week, with its value up more than 100 per cent year-to-date. Despite the surge, BTC hasn’t returned to its all-time highs of US$67,617 seen in November 2021.
Analysts who spoke to Global News say the cryptocurrency space is settling after a year of both scandal and tough market pressures, and hopes for more mainstream adoption for bitcoin and its peers in the months to come are fuelling a run-up for the asset.
Greg Taylor, chief investment officer at Purpose Investments, says there was a “pretty big washout” for crypto in 2022 with many investors cashing out of the asset after its run-up in value towards the end of 2021.
Central banks around the world were also ramping up their interest rate tightening cycles in 2022.
Alex Tapscott, managing director of the digital asset group at Ninepoint Capital, says this prompted a flood of exits from the stock market into relative safe havens such as the U.S. dollar. As equity markets took a hit amid the swirling uncertainty of rising interest rates, cryptocurrencies were not immune to the pressure, he says.
“Bitcoin and the asset class as a whole really didn’t stand a chance,” he says.
Crypto also faced existential challenges with the folding of numerous exchanges and cryptocurrency tokens, as well as the high-profile collapse of FTX. That exchange, once valued at a peak of US$32 billion and hailed as a leader in the industry, was at the centre of a trial that most recently saw founder Sam Bankman-Fried convicted of defrauding investors.
In the wake of the FTX collapse, Tapscott says regulators started sharpening their knives with an “aggressive” approach to the sector, which further weighed on growth prospects.
But he says the negative impact from FTX’s unravelling was baked in at the time of the collapse, and the fraud conviction marked a “punctuation point” for the chapter of crypto’s history and a chance to “move on” for the industry.
“Markets are forward-looking,” he says. “So after the collapse of FTX, I think a lot of people felt, ‘What more could go wrong here?’”
As much as FTX left a stain on the crypto industry, Taylor says the removal of “bad actors” and speculative forces in the industry is now helping to stabilize the space.
“The system is getting healthier,” he says. “The increase in regulation, I think at the end of the day, will be positive as you get more trust in the system.”
The U.S. side of the industry may soon take another step towards the mainstream as well with the rumoured launch of bitcoin ETFs south of the border.
Exchange-traded funds allow investors to get exposure to an entire basket of securities like stocks, bonds, and other assets without having to own them outright.
Bitcoin ETFs have been approved for years in Canada as well as in Europe. However, Canada’s securities regulator has warned investors – particularly non-professional or retail investors – about the risk involved in cryptocurrency.
“The Canadian Securities Administrators (CSA) is warning investors that trading in crypto assets comes with elevated levels of risk that may not be suitable for many investors, in particular retail investors,” it said in a Nov. 2022 reminder. “Generally speaking, the value and liquidity of crypto assets are highly volatile.”
Bitcoin ETFs have been approved for years in Canada launched in Amsterdam earlier this year for a European first. Purpose Investments launched the first bitcoin ETF in the world in 2021, and Taylor says that it’s seen strong demand from investors.
ETFs can be an attractive way to invest in the crypto market because it doesn’t involve any of the technical onboarding that comes with directly owning bitcoin or other tokens, he explains.
Ninepoint, too, has launched a bitcoin ETF in Canada. Tapscott says having an ETF for crypto is similar to investors wanting exposure to gold assets, but not wanting to store gold bars in a safety deposit box.
When the first gold ETF launched in the U.S. nearly 20 years ago, the price of gold surged, he notes.
Taylor says there has been pushback about launching bitcoin ETFs from the Securities Exchange Commission in the U.S. for years, but recent signals that BlackRock, the largest ETF provider in the world, is filing to launch such a product are lending legitimacy that approval may be on the horizon.
“When you see an ETF in the space come and someone the size of BlackRock involved, I think that’s caused a lot of excitement as potentially when they do get one of these proofs you could see a lot of buying as the sector becomes more mainstream,” Taylor says.
Tapscott says there’s another force bearing down on the crypto industry that’s making bitcoin feel especially scarce.
The crypto industry relies on “miners” who take on the job of producing more tokens like bitcoin through an energy-intensive computational process. The amount these miners will be paid per BTC token is going to be cut by 50 per cent in an event dubbed the “halving” expected in April 2024.
“That is, by proxy, going to reduce the supply of new bitcoin by about half,” Tapscott explains.
Bitcoin prices have typically rallied in the past following halvings, according to Reuters. Six months after the first halving in 2012, the price jumped to $126 from $12. After the second halving in 2016, it went to $1,000 from $654 within seven months and in 2020 it shot up to $18,040 from $8,570 in the same time period. (All figures USD.)
While traditional equity markets have continued to face a correction as of late as central banks warn interest rates might need to stay higher for longer, these same forces that pushed crypto assets down in value last year might turn into a boon, Taylor says.
Higher inflation and interest rates can push market players outside of the “traditional banking system” into physical assets like energy and gold, he explains, as investors seek a safe haven from central bank rates.
There are some arguments that cryptocurrencies could fit into this real asset group and benefit in a higher interest rate environment.
Tapscott says he expects that the crypto industry will be a hot topic during the upcoming 2024 presidential election, after which the space should benefit from increased clarity on how regulators will approach these assets.
There could still be “volatility” in cryptocurrencies, but he notes the same is true of technology stocks and other higher-risk assets. But the more mainstream adoption the market sees, and the more use cases for blockchain-backed technologies become widespread, the better the future for bitcoin and its crypto counterparts.
“Is bitcoin risky? Yeah, I mean, I think any investment carries its form of risk,” he says.
“You can talk about interest rates and halvings and ETFs all you want, but if you want an industry or a technology to be successful, it needs to be widely adopted and become economically impactful.”
— with files from Reuters