Bitcoin is proving ‘a terrible inflation hedge’ so far this year
Bitcoin is failing to hold much weight as an inflation hedge, for now.
Ever since Satoshi Nakamoto outlined a vision in 2008 for what is now the world’s largest cryptocurrency, followers and fanatics across the digital asset realm have billed Bitcoin as the ideal store of value in times of rising prices. With no government backing and a limited supply of 21 million coins, its value cannot be subject to devaluing the same way that, say, the U.S. dollar could if the Federal Reserve elected to flood the market with supply. Ultimately, it’s a form of digital gold—or so the pitch goes.
And yet, with inflation now raging in the U.S. and proving to be anything but transitory, Bitcoin has fallen off a cliff.
The 13-year-old crypto has cratered about 30% over the past month, a violent tumble that acts as a helpful reminder that Bitcoin is not all that different from any other preteen wanting to act older than its age. It may not quite be ready to be the inflation hedge it could eventually become.
“Let’s face it, it’s still a relatively new product,” TD Ameritrade chief market strategist JJ Kinahan says. “We’re not sure how it’s going to perform.”
Until now, Bitcoin has never truly been tested in a high inflationary environment. For the past 25 years, the Fed has operated with the goal of trying to keep inflation around 2%, and since Bitcoin was created, it has largely managed to do just that, outside of a brief tick higher in 2018. The COVID-19 pandemic’s ongoing disruption to both supply chains and workforces has dramatically upended the inflation picture in the U.S., though. Prices for personal consumption expenditures not including food and energy, an inflation measure preferred by the Fed, have skyrocketed above 2% since March, hitting a recent peak of 4.1% in October.
Inflation first began to show signs of rising in March, which Bitcoin responded to by jumping to an all-time high of almost $65,000 in mid-April. But the crypto plunged soon after, marking what would be the start of a volatile summer for digital assets with investors concerned about high inflation and global regulators circling the markets. But Bitcoin eventually found its footing once again, and on Nov. 10 it reached another new all-time high north of $68,000. However, that same day, the Labor Department reported that the consumer price index had risen 6.2% over the course of the prior year, marking the highest inflation rate since 1990. (It’s since been toppled by a 6.8% reading for November.) Bitcoin promptly headed in the other direction and hasn’t looked back since. A single Bitcoin cost about $48,300 as of Tuesday at 6:20 p.m. ET, according to CoinMarketCap data.
“Over the past two months, it’s been a terrible inflation hedge,” Oanda senior market analyst Ed Moya tells Fortune. “Yes, it has shown signs of being an inflation hedge. But by no means is it one.”
Bitcoin, which now commands a market capitalization of more than $910 billion, is not alone in its recent struggles.
Crypto falling fast
Crypto markets more generally have fallen in dramatic fashion too. The total market capitalization of all tokens tracked by CoinMarketCap has dropped more than 27% since hitting an all-time high around the same time that Bitcoin did. Stocks have proven to be fraught with volatility as well. Wall Street’s favorite fear gauge, the Cboe Volatility Index, surpassed 30 in late November for only the second time this year. Even gold—long hailed as the gold standard of inflation hedges—has sold off some 5% since Nov. 17 to $1,772.66 per ounce.
Part of what has thrust Bitcoin’s status as digital gold into question is the simple fact that it remains primarily tied to speculative trading, which makes it a highly volatile asset, says Boston College finance professor Leonard Kostovetsky. There have been 13 days in 2021 alone when the price of Bitcoin has moved more than 10% in one direction, Kostovetsky says. “So it seems strange to think that a person who is worried about holding dollars because they lost 7% of their value over the last year would be comfortable holding Bitcoin which could (and often does) lose that much value in a single day,” Kostovetsky wrote in a Dec. 13 blog post.
“If I wanted to keep my money safe, I’d rather be keeping it in Amazon stock than Bitcoin,” Kostovetsky told Fortune over the phone.
None of which is to say that Bitcoin can’t become an inflation hedge used by the masses.
It is already being deployed as one by some investors, including hedge fund titan Paul Tudor Jones. And an October report from Bloomberg Economics’ Björn van Roye and Tom Orlik concluded that inflation and hedging against uncertainty were the main drivers behind about half of Bitcoin’s then-recent price moves.
What needs to happen for Bitcoin to be more widely seen as a hedging tool in times of high inflation is more adoption, which will eventually come with regulatory clarity and easier accessibility, Messari senior research analyst Mason Nystrom says. In the meantime, Bitcoin can still be used as one, Nystrom says. It’s just a matter of investors looking at it with a long enough time horizon. Bitcoin is still up on the year more than 60%, after all.
“Even though Bitcoin is volatile in the short term, it has historically still proven to be a good store of value in the long term,” Nystrom says. “While Bitcoin and crypto at large tend to be a more risk-on asset than equities, that doesn’t mean both can’t be a hedge against inflation.”
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