Is it 2013 or 2017?
For bitcoin's investors, traders and enthusiasts, an answer to this question might be harder to give today than you might imagine.
Bitcoin prices surged above the $1,100 mark this week (near all-time highs) only to sink back down to earth amid higher volatility and foreboding – if not unclear – news out of China. Taken together, the developments evoke memories of 2013, when the price of bitcoin surged to similar levels, bringing the digital currency to international attention.
At the same time, the ecosystem is fundamentally different today than it was in 2013-2014, both in terms of the exchange ecosystem (where the majority of trades are happening) and the amount of public interest in the digital currency itself (and its underlying blockchain technology).
So, how do the two bull-runs stack up side-by-side?
We explore some similarities and differences below using data from the CoinDesk Bitcoin Price Index and data provider Bitcoinity, as well as comments from industry participants.
1. 2013's rally was short-lived
First, let's start with the price.
The graph below shows the price as it progressed from 6th September to 6th January in 2013, a four-month period during which the price shot past the $1,100 mark to its highest price ever.
Now, let's take a look at the past three months.
Seems a bit different, right? Or maybe not? Now that we've laid the scenes for the respective rallies, let's compare the two.
The most glaring difference developing between the two rallies lies in how quickly they came together. Prices climbed quickly during the 2013 rally, soaring more than $600 in a two-week period.
By contrast, the recent rally developed more slowly over time. This state of affairs changed over time, particularly as December drew to a close, and prices inched closer to $1,000.
The data suggests that the 2013 rally was far more volatile in its buildup, whereas in the aftermath of the peak, there are more similarities in terms of volatility.
In total, the price of bitcoin was above $1,000 for just 10 days in 2013, and only one day in 2014, according to BPI data. In 2013, prices quickly returned to the $600-$700 level, a low that, at press time, hadn't yet been reached in 2017.
On the other hand, both have similarities.
Both rallies were buoyed by bullish sentiment among stake-holders, with those trading or watching the markets expressing a strong belief that markets would keep on rising – "to the moon", so to speak.
2. Volume is now higher
Price data, however instructive, is only part of the picture, though.
To look at another side – and gain a window into some of the ecosystem differences between now and then – one should take a closer peek at volume data between the respective rallies.
For that, we'll turn to data provider Bitcoinity, which publishes information on global bitcoin trading markets.
Let's cast a wide net and look at the volume picture over a five-year period, predating the 2013 run.
Some obvious differences emerge.
For starters, trading in 2013 was largely contained to the now-defunct bitcoin exchange Mt Gox – in its heyday, as much as 90% of the world's non-OTC bitcoin trading traffic passed through the market.
This stands in sharp contrast to today's picture, in which bitcoin has several China-based exchanges that play host to a majority of trading, with other markets, like Bitstamp, Bitfinex and Coinbase serving sizeable portions of the market as well.
What's more, trading volumes – denominated in BTC – was much lower back then, the data suggests.
A key difference emerges: traders are simply exchanging more bitcoins, which could be a result of an increase in algorithmic trading, a rise in the number of traders or other factors that aren't immediately apparent when looking at the data. Bitcoinity's data on the amount of trades-per-minute bears out this theory to some extent.
It's in this volume picture that the differences between the two rallies can be seen more clearly.
Trading has taken place across a broader number of exchanges in a more developed exchange ecosystem. Further, during the first rally, trading was largely contained to what has since been established as a fraudulent exchange that was at the time insolvent.
Bram Ceelen, co-founder of cryptocurrency brokerage Anycoin Direct, told CoinDesk that he believes this is an important difference, noting how he believes what was a market bolstered by manipulation in 2013 is now more mature.
"Bitcoin is on the radar of a lot more wealthy investors and other people as in 2013. At that time it was complete madness and greed (plus maybe the effects of Willy bot) that drove up the price," he told CoinDesk.
Mt Gox CEO Mark Karpeles would later be arrested under suspicion of fraud and embezzlement.
3. Markets are more leveraged
Another notable development is the rise of leveraged trading.
In 2013, most major exchanges only offered buying and selling options (and was the case with Mt Gox), sometimes even this simple service wasn't always reliable or dependable.
Now, however, a number of major bitcoin exchanges allow traders to take out 5x, 10x or even 20x leverage on bitcoin traders.
These large positions now make the market volatile as traders can consolidate large positions around certain price points.
Such was the case earlier this week when sell orders in the $900-range were liquidated, causing the price to drop precipitously in just an hour.
Yet, despite the huge losses suffered here, Petar Zivkovski, COO of Whaleclub, argued that there were more fundamental underpinnings behind the most recent rally – and decline.
"In 2013, the rise was powered by speculation and the ensuing selloff was the result of early adopters cashing in around the $1,000 psychological level," Zivkovski explained. "It was both an unhealthy rise and selloff."
He told CoinDesk:
"This year's rise was powered by much more fundamental and strong catalysts: the halving in July, capital controls by governments around the world, the yuan devaluation, economic and political uncertainty and turmoil (Brexit, Trump), war on cash (India), etc. This made bitcoin very attractive as a non-governmental, decentralized means of holding and transferring value."
4. The ecosystem is more mature
Others pointed to less tangible details.
Marco Streng, CEO of hosted mining firm Genesis Mining, posited that it was the 2013 rally itself that set the stage for the recent price run – and that growth in the broader bitcoin and blockchain industry was part and parcel to that development.
Since that time, more than $1bn has been invested in bitcoin companies, with many providing services that enable its blockchain to be more useful as a payment network, remittance channel or vehicle for speculation.
He told CoinDesk:
"A lot has happened in the time between the all-time high in 2013 and now. The industry has grown a lot and become stronger, through innovation, and endurance."
Charles Boivard contributed reporting.
Images via Bitcoinity, BPI, Shutterstock