It’s hard to do justice to the symbolism and significance of the Reddit-Robinhood-GameStop drama of this past week.
That’s not to say it hasn’t been overblown in some quarters. I’ve heard it compared to the Capitol riots – no, that was sedition, this is rebellion, very different. I’ve seen calls for the regulators to step in and shut down retail trading platforms, even though it's not clear a crime has been committed. And I’ve read takes painting the leaders of this charge as "misfits." That condescension itself is part of the problem.
The protagonists are not misfits – they are retail investors flexing their collective muscle, the very same muscle the “establishment” encouraged them to develop.
Retail investors were encouraged to invest their savings in the stock market. They were offered mobile apps that made it easy. They were bombarded with advice and ideas from mainstream media. They were given money to spend. And low yields pushed them up the risk curve.
While the attention has been focused on a handful of stocks that have seen astronomical gains on the back of retail enthusiasm, the origin and the result (whatever that ends up being) have a lot to do with the crypto markets.
We’re not trying to steal anyone’s thunder. The WallStreetBets channel that galvanized the troops and led the charge did not welcome crypto traders or even chatter. Their drivers are not decentralization or fair access – rather, they seem motivated by glee at their newfound power, and anger.
The anger runs deep. The 139% short position against GameStop signaled heavy hedge fund involvement – but this was a trigger, not a cause. This rebellion feels like an expression of pent-up frustration at the skewed rules of capital markets that entrench the power of the “elite,” combined with residual resentment over the 2008 bailouts, the lack of market transparency and a long list of generational grievances.
A similar “old” vs. “new” mindset drives the crypto markets.
Many of us were drawn to bitcoin out of concern for the impact on individual prosperity from defensive decisions taken by entrenched interests. Others were attracted to the concept of decentralized finance as an antidote to the potential damage done by consolidated power. And there’s the strong vote for financial sovereignty and commercial freedom.
All of us watched how traditional finance initially rejected the notion that a programmable token could ever have value or that code could produce yield. The success of crypto markets has forced much of the “old guard” to gradually recognize that things are changing. The events of this week will no doubt drive home that message.
What’s more, the very same platforms that sold themselves on the democratization of finance ended up restricting users’ access to certain trades this week, with the market in full swing. Can you think of a more public spotlight on the vulnerabilities inherent in the current market infrastructure? Google Trends shows that searches for “defi” (short for decentralized finance) are growing.
There is a risk the new Biden administration in the U.S. will use the retail investor rebellion as an excuse to over-regulate. Yet, popular sentiment seems to be with the rebels, as legislators are no doubt aware. (I don’t recall ever seeing Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz agree with N.Y. Democrat Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez before.)
What’s more, the nomination of Gary Gensler, who is both knowledgeable and generally supportive of crypto markets, to the post of chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission could hint at the beginning of structural reform in favor of more “democratic” access.
It could also move the needle on investor understanding of some of the underlying qualities of blockchain-based assets and their markets. True, access to these markets has some hurdles, such as jurisdiction and familiarity with technology. But investor choice and user experience has never been better, and, with some large market infrastructure players intending to go public this year, will continue to improve.
Back to basics
It’s not just market structure that is likely to be re-examined as a result of this week’s events. Market understanding needs a rethink, too. This also has a lot to do with crypto assets.
I lost count this week of the number of mainstream commentators who sputtered about “fundamentals,” and how the price shouldn’t move so much when GameStop’s (GME) situation hasn’t changed. They’re wrong – whether the stock is currently overvalued or not (I have no opinion on that), the company’s situation and fundamentals have changed.
One, there’s the massive publicity. Two, aside from the potential future revenue from selling games, there is probably a merchandising opportunity through branded mugs and pitchforks. Three, there’s a groundswell of support for the share price – only this is not traditionally considered worthy of consideration in asset evaluation. It should be.
Investopedia defines business fundamentals as “information such as profitability, revenue, assets, liabilities, and growth potential.” I would add to that list “public support.” Critics of this idea will say that sentiment is ephemeral, impractical to estimate and therefore impossible to value, while traditional fundamentals are tangible and can be discounted.
These days, though, even the tangible ones are mere estimates, which – as we have seen – can vary wildly and be rendered useless by unforeseen events. We have also seen how sentiment moves markets, and not just on a short-term basis. No analyst can reasonably ignore its power, and insisting that portfolio decisions “stick to the basics” is assuming that things will go back to the way they were 50 years ago when investors parked their money in safe securities and forgot about them until retirement.
The power unleashed this week may remind some of us oldies of 1999, when market fever crested before crashing. But back then we didn’t have the power of social media, a generation stuck indoors and helicopter money from the federal government. We also weren’t looking at an unprecedented level of social dislocation, loss of trust in institutions and belief in the strength of community. Today's markets may turn south at any moment, and when they do it is likely to be ugly. But in contrast to the turn of the century, retail participation is unlikely to fade – this cultural shift is about more than making money.
The newfound power of retail investors has showed that sentiment not only trumps earnings forecasts, it can impact them. The very same investors piling into the stock are the same demographic that GameStop’s future business will target. The collective power showed that market mood is a fundamental characteristic of markets, now more than ever. Some of the price jumps this week may have been driven by hedge funds that understand this and were placing buy orders accordingly.
While volatility is likely to eventually quiet down and business analysis should always have a significant role in investment decisions, we can no longer say that sentiment isn’t a fundamental component of an asset’s price outlook.
This is especially relevant with crypto assets. Critics have often accused bitcoin of having no “fundamental value,” by which they mean no cash flow, balance sheet or potential earnings growth. True, it doesn’t have these things, but it does have widespread belief in its utility, monetary policy and eventual adoption by an even broader community. That faith should be considered a fundamental characteristic, as it is now obvious it drives price appreciation.
Bitcoin is not the only clear example of that. This week saw the price of dogecoin (DOGE) at one stage surge tenfold (up 500% at time of writing), briefly pushing the cryptocurrency into the list of top 10 crypto assets by market capitalization. DOGE doesn’t do anything special. It has a cute dog as its logo. Its founder disavowed the project ages ago. Some people have hyped it as a joke which then became part of its narrative – in other words, its unpretentious lack of fundamentals has become part of its value. We may deride people who put savings into a purely sentiment-driven asset – but that sentiment has kept DOGE alive for over six years now, and has attracted a smattering of high-profile followers.
As an analyst trained in “old-school” valuations and portfolio allocation techniques, I understand the reluctance to let go of comfortable heuristics – personally, I miss discounted cash flows, so nice and clean. But as market components and participants change, so must market analysis. Does anyone even remember when last “value stocks” were in favor?
Crypto markets have for some time been pushing the boundaries of what “value” means. The new generation of investors is showing us that old rules need re-examining.
They are also permanently blurring the boundaries between institutional “smart money” and retail “dumb money.” What’s more, they are showing that reform can be initiated by those that previously have had little influence on how profits are made.
This is the crypto market origin and ethos in a nutshell: new rules for a new type of investor. The crypto asset market was born in the retail world and cultivated from the ground up. It attracts investors looking for an alternative to the traditional system. It has given birth to new metrics and valuation paradigms.
All of us who work in this industry have watched this week’s power shift with the feeling that what we’ve been expecting is finally starting to happen: A new type of investor is insisting on new rules and a new language, and mainstream markets are starting to take note. This new type of investor – be they angry at elites and unequal rules, fascinated by the emergence of a new type of asset, or both – will force a rewrite of some long-established rules of investment, and in so doing, push the philosophy behind the term “value” towards a more flexible definition for our changing times.
Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, published a document laying out his thoughts on bitcoin. This is remarkable, given that not long ago he publicly expressed skepticism that it would succeed.
- "I believe Bitcoin is one hell of an invention."
- "There aren’t many alternative gold-like assets at this time of rising need for them."
- "It seems to me that Bitcoin has succeeded in crossing the line from being a highly speculative idea that could well not be around in short order to probably being around and probably having some value in the future."
- "The new paradigm that we are living in, with many government bonds no longer offering the same return or diversification characteristics and currencies facing greater risk of depreciation, could propel development of alternative storeholds of wealth faster than might otherwise have been the case."
- "So far, Bitcoin’s ability to offer some diversification benefit seems more theoretical than realized."
Elon Musk now has “bitcoin” and its logo in his Twitter bio and flagged this with the tweet: “In retrospect, it was inevitable.”
Scott Minerd, chief investment officer of Guggenheim Partners, told Bloomberg television this week he does not believe bitcoin’s institutional investor base is “big enough” or “deep enough” to justify its current valuation.
In an interview with Yahoo Finance, ARK Investment Management CEO Cathie Wood revealed that recent conversations with large companies leads her to believe that more will follow Square’s (SQ) lead and allocate a portion of their treasury to bitcoin. She also said at this week’s ETF Big Ideas Event that she doubts a bitcoin exchange-traded fund will be approved until the asset’s market cap hits $2 trillion.
Bank of Singapore, a private banking arm of OCBC Bank (the second-largest bank in Southest Asia by total assets), said in a research note that cryptocurrencies have the potential to partially replace gold as a store of value if they can overcome the hurdles high volatility, reputational risk and lack of regulatory acceptance.
According to sources, some of the largest university endowment funds in the U.S., including Harvard, Yale, Brown and the University of Michigan, have been quietly buying cryptocurrency since 2019. TAKEAWAY: This is notable, given endowments’ traditionally conservative investor profile. The allocations are most likely relatively small, but even so, the AUM of college endowments is in the hundreds of billions of dollars – small can go a long way. It will also be worth keeping an eye on endowment activism – some universities, especially Harvard, have come under criticism for their investment in fossil fuel companies. Bitcoin’s (misconstrued) reputation as bad for the climate might attract their attention.
According to Genesis Capital’s latest quarterly report, its total volume of active loans outstanding increased by over 80% in Q4, to $3.8 billion. Loan originations increased by 46% to $7.6 billion, the average loan size doubled from $2 million to $4 million, and the average loan size for first-time lenders increased from $0.6 million to $3.2 million. TAKEAWAY: These growth figures highlight the growing awareness amongst institutional investors of the yields possible in crypto lending, and as long as yields remain low in traditional markets, growth should continue to be strong. This supports healthy liquidity in crypto markets, which in turn should help strengthen market infrastructure and could gradually mitigate asset volatility. (Note: Genesis Capital is owned by DCG, also parent of CoinDesk.)
On business intelligence company MicroStrategy’s (MSTR) latest earnings call, CEO Michael Saylor pledged to keep pouring the business intelligence company’s excess cash into bitcoin, telling investors his team will also “explore various approaches” for additional buys. TAKEAWAY: They really are working on becoming a bitcoin ETF.
Cryptocurrency mining company Marathon Patent Group (MARA) bought $150 million in bitcoin during the crypto asset’s recent price rout. TAKEAWAY: Here we have a bitcoin mining company buying BTC on the open market in order to become even more of a “pure play” for the asset. And yet a bitcoin ETF is still deemed too risky.
The city of Miami on Wednesday uploaded a copy of the Bitcoin white paper to its website, joining a growing chorus of governments and companies now hosting bitcoin’s original blueprint. TAKEAWAY: A U.S. municipal government website is hosting the Bitcoin white paper. Let that sink in.
Over the past few months Grayscale Investments (owned by DCG, also parent of CoinDesk) has filed to register over 10 new trusts based on smaller cap crypto assets such as aave, chainlink, polkadot and others. TAKEAWAY: Grayscale currently manages a suite of market-leading trusts, including GBTC (bitcoin) and ETHE (ethereum), as well as some smaller ones based on horizen, litecoin, stellar and others. While Grayscale is not necessarily signaling intention to act on these new filings, they do hint at a growing breadth of choice for institutional investors in the months ahead.
Canadian investment firm Ninepoint Partners’ bitcoin fund (BITC.U and BITC.UN) started trading this week, having completed a C$230 million (US$180 million) initial public offering on the Toronto Stock Exchange. TAKEAWAY: The considerable amount raised not only makes this Canada’s largest new crypto fund and the second in two months (the CI Galaxy Bitcoin Fund started trading on the TSX after a $72 million public raise in December), it also points to significant and growing demand from Canadian investors.
India’s parliament is considering a government-backed bill that would ban “private” cryptocurrencies and provide a framework for creating an official Reserve Bank of India digital currency. TAKEAWAY: The potential impact of the proposed bill is as yet unclear – for instance, what does it mean by “private” cryptocurrency? Bitcoin and others are public cryptocurrencies. Nevertheless, this would set a worrying precedent. It would also be an interesting case study on how effective government bans of crypto assets are.
If you’re looking for some bird's-eye perspective on monthly market performance, my colleague Shuai Hao put together this table of returns. If you squint, you can see that summer months are traditionally weaker, and the end of the year is usually stronger. Furthermore, we can see that volatility has declined a bit (fewer dark colors of either shade).
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