Cryptocurrency mining computer-maker Canaan Inc. may have picked the worst time for its initial public stock offering, which valued the company at $1.3 billion.

The stock price has declined in all but four of the first 17 trading sessions since the Hangzhou-based company’s Nov. 21 sale of $90 million of U.S. shares. It’s down 35 percent since the start of last week.

Canaan’s performance is being closely monitored in the cryptocurrency industry. It was the first big maker of data-mining computers to sell shares publicly and its valuation serves many investors as a sector bellwether. The shares have tumbled even as the price of bitcoin, the largest cryptocurrency, has been mostly stable over the past month, currently around $6,500.

Its stock price drop is taking place “as bitcoin miners face a challenging environment,” wrote research firm TradeBlock in a report last week. CoinDesk reached out to Canaan’s management but no response was received as of press time.

Industry executives say the big makers of bitcoin-mining computers, colloquially known as “rigs,” are in a sales slump. That’s a surprising development since many observers predicted a frenzy of upgrades ahead of bitcoin’s once-every-four-years mining-reward halving, expected in May. When that happens, the reward for successfully mining a new block of data will get cut in half. It’s widely expected that prior-generation mining rigs will become unprofitable for operators who don’t have access to unusually cheap electricity. 

Bitmain, the dominant industry player, recently announced a series of sales incentives to move backlogged or stale inventory, including promising limited price guarantees to buyers willing to commit to bulk purchases and in some cases renting out second-tier mining rigs under profit-sharing agreements.  

Hashing out information on their own

It doesn’t help that investors are flying blind: According to the data provider FactSet, the stock has attracted no analyst coverage from Wall Street brokerage firms, forcing traders to generate their own models of the company’s profitability based on publicly available crypto-industry metrics like hashrate – a gauge of the amount of computer-processing power working to confirm new data blocks on the bitcoin network.

Over the past week, the bitcoin network’s hashrate has averaged about 90 quintillion operations, or exahashes, per second. Just a couple months ago, it hit an all-time-high around 100 exahashes per second, after averaging about 40 exahashes per second at the start of the year. 

Matt D’Souza, co-founder and CEO of Blockware Solutions, which brokers mining-rig purchases, says that the surge in bitcoin’s hashrate during the first eight months of the year was a sign that operators were upgrading to faster, more efficient machines – leading to an increase in the network’s collective computing power. 

The upgrades continued for several months even after bitcoin’s price peaked around $13,000 in late June.   

But now, D’Souza says, miners are becoming somewhat more reluctant to invest in new machines until they see signs that bitcoin prices might start rising. That’s evident from the recent stall-out in the hashrate’s growth.

“They need to be assured that they’re in an environment for long-term profitability,” D’Souza said. “That’s why some of these guys have stopped buying.”

Price cuts

Bitmain managed to build a dominant market share in the crypto industry, partly thanks to the runaway popularity of its S9 Antminers. But those are now at risk of becoming obsolete, and in recent months Bitmain has cut prices steeply on some of its top-selling models, D’Souza said.  

Mike Maloney, chief financial officer at Coinmint LLC, a private cryptocurrency mining firm, says that the ultimate prize for these manufacturers is winning the loyalty of a growing cadre of large-scale miners who can shop for rigs in bulk and negotiate contracts for cheap electricity. 

“This is a trend that we’re going to be seeing in bitcoin mining,” Maloney said in a phone interview. “Bitmain is taking the lead.”

Canaan has scheduled the release of its next-generation rig, the AvalonMiner 11 series, for early next year. But that machine is expected to be less power-efficient than the Bitmain S17+ model, which is already out, said D’Souza. 

According to Bitmain’s website, its top-priced S17+ model, which ships in seven days for $1,930, can produce 73 terahashes (trillion operations) per second, at a power efficiency of 40 joules per terahash. 

Canaan’s top-priced model, according to its website, is the “February batch” of the AvalonMiner A1166-68T machine for $1,978, providing 68 terahashes per second at an efficiency of 47 joules per terahash. In this case, a higher efficiency rating is worse, because it indicates more power usage and thus a higher operating cost.  

“They’re in a tough position,” D’Souza said of Canaan. “They need cash and that’s because they need to upgrade their hardware and stay competitive with Bitmain.” 

The risks were disclosed

Canaan is led and controlled by its CEO and chairman, Nangeng Zhang, who was 36 at the time of the IPO, according to an offering prospectus filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Nicknamed “Pumpkin,” he received a master’s degree in software engineering from Beihang University in 2010, and from September 2010 through October 2013 he was pursuing a Ph.D. degree at the Chinese university.

As early as 2013, Zhang and his team were pioneers in the use of an advanced type of microchip known as application-specific integrated circuits, or ASICS, to mine for cryptocurrencies, according to the prospectus. 

The offering was structured so that Zhang would own 15 percent of the total shares outstanding but retains about 73 percent of voting rights through his sole ownership of 356.6 million of the company’s class B shares, according to the filing. The IPO valued his stake on paper at more than $213 million, but the share-price slump has already cut that figure by about $96 million.  

Even as Canaan prepared for the November IPO, its revenue this year was declining, and its costs were expanding: The company’s revenue during the first nine months of 2019 was just $134.2 million, down from $378.5 million during all of 2018; operating costs rose to $57.5 million during the first nine months of this year, from $52.5 million for all of last year. 

The investment bank Credit Suisse, initially hired by Canaan to lead the U.S. IPO, dropped off of the underwriting team just weeks before the share sale, regulatory filings show. According to a Nov. 20 prospectus, Citigroup led the remaining team of seven underwriting firms, which also included the cryptocurrency-focused financial firm Galaxy Digital. 

According to the filings, the deal was also downsized in the final weeks before the sale from an initial maximum target of $400 million. 

Canaan disclosed in the prospectus that it planned to use the proceeds from the stock offering for research and development related to new computer chips and to expand its artificial-intelligence and blockchain business globally, “making strategic investments and establishing overseas offices.” 

To its credit, the company also disclosed the risks when the market turns anemic. “Excess inventories, inventory markdowns, brand-image deterioration and margin squeeze caused by declining economic returns for miners or pricing competition for our bitcoin-mining machines could all have a material and adverse impact on our business, financial condition and results of operations,” according to the prospectus. 

Analyzing bitcoin-mining computer stocks remains a murky practice. Just like manufacturers of oil rigs and mining bulldozers, they face the ups and downs of commodity cycles. Or rather, cryptocurrency cycles. 

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