Bitcoin’s fans were forced to digest an unpleasant number Monday. In Wall Street parlance it was a “3-handle” as the signature cryptocurrency briefly hit a price starting with a three: $39,800. Though it bounced back over $40,000 shortly after, that’s a giant comedown from the crypto’s high of almost $67,000 just two months ago. Late last year, Cathie Wood of Ark Invest was calling for a surge to $500,000 within five years, and MicroStrategy CEO Michael Saylor saw an eventual “6-handle,” for a rocket ride to $6 million. Instead their champ is not flying but fizzling. Today’s drop marked a 41% slide from the Nov. 9 peak, meaning Bitcoin would need to climb 68% to rescale the pre-Thanksgiving summit.
Fans cite that despite the present slump, Bitcoin has richly rewarded long-term investors. But how would you have fared buying coins at the last peak in late 2017? Shockingly, you’d have done a lot better in a Nasdaq 100 index fund. On Dec. 19, 2017, Bitcoin closed at a then-record $19,042, capping a stupendous, 20-fold rise from $946 at the close of 2016. At just under $40,000 on Jan. 10, it had delivered a total return of 109% over four years and nearly two months. By 11 a.m. at $40,900, its performance had rebounded to 114%. Sounds pretty good. Unless you consider its supercharged rival: Over that same span, the Nasdaq 100 made shareholders 144.5% richer, beating Bitcoin by 26%.
To clinch gains that trailed the Nasdaq over that period, Bitcoin investors weathered a far rougher ride than folks who bet on the tech-heavy index. The Nasdaq’s largest drop was 16% from January to early March of 2020. Bitcoin cratered 80% from that December 2017 mark of $19,000-plus to under $4,000 in the spring of 2019. It dropped over 40% twice this year alone, once between April and March, and again during its free fall starting the second week of November.
Bitcoin enthusiasts might claim it’s unfair to cherry-pick the brief 2017 peak as a starting point. But that high point followed a frenzy sparked by celebrity endorsements and an explosion in popularity among everyday investors. We’re witnessing the same themes repeating today, only on steroids. The jump to a new apex of $70,000 looked like another craze driven by still more kudos from famous names, and by the millennials and Gen Xers rushing to join the bandwagon. When Bitcoin reaches an extremely high price these days, versus the past, it tends to suffer huge declines. This time, the recent drop is so steep that as an investor, you’d have gone from waxing the Nasdaq to underperforming the tech-heavy index by a wide margin. And you’d have suffered a much smoother journey tied to the Nasdaq.
Bitcoin’s slide coincides with a shift in investor sentiment away from high-risk growth stocks. That’s a problem for its future. Bitcoin is highly leveraged to the equity markets, and especially to the most speculative parts of the market. When investors are willing to ignore the traditional metrics, as they did until recently by embracing the tech high-fliers, they tend to throw caution to the winds by flocking to Bitcoin as well. When they turn cautious, Bitcoin suffers.
Right now, they’re turning cautious big-time. That’s bad news for an investment that has no underlying fundamentals such as earnings or industrial uses that would give its value a floor. Bitcoin’s advocates variously claim it will become a widely used global currency, a haven for corporate cash, an inflation hedge, or a challenger to gold as a store of value. But Bitcoin’s wild fluctuations show that investors’ confidence it will achieve those things ebbs and flows unpredictably. It’s highly possible that Bitcoin will accomplish none of them. As Carol Alexander, a professor of finance at University of Sussex Business School in the U.K., warned in a recent interview: “If I were an investor, I would think about coming out of Bitcoin soon since its price will probably crash next year.” Alexander sees the crypto hitting $10,000 in 2022. She charges that Bitcoin has “no fundamental value” and is more a “toy” than an investment. With Bitcoin, it’s all about belief and buzz, not basics. Kids get sick of their favorite toys. The same fate could await a shiny object called Bitcoin.
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