If you bought a Bitcoin in early 2017, when one cost less than $900, you could have a profit of more than 1,200 percent now. But you almost certainly didn’t do that. Perhaps you dipped in a toe in November or December, as the price hit headline-grabbing records—$10,000, then $15,000, then higher. If you were very unlucky and bought at the peak of about $20,000 on Dec. 17, you’d have lost more than 40 percent of your money as of Jan. 16, when the price was $11,200. More than $2,000 of that decline came in about 24 hours, after South Korean Finance Minister Kim Dong-yeon indicated the country may crack down on cryptocurrency trading to discourage speculation. It’s not every asset that can feel like it’s in a bubble and a crash at the same time.
But based on no other valuation metric than what it cost a year ago, the price of Bitcoin is still dizzyingly high. For the many doubters who can’t believe things have come this far—and for Bitcoin owners who can see how much they might lose—the big question is what it would take to knock the price back further.
In past episodes, “Bitcoin and digital currencies have been incredibly resilient to bad news,” says Meltem Demirors, director of development at Digital Currency Group, which invests in Bitcoin and related technologies. Cryptocurrency exchanges such as Mt. Gox, Bitfinex, and BTC-e have been hacked over the years, with hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of Bitcoin stolen. China in September moved to shut down exchange trading of the cryptocurrency. None of these permanently stopped Bitcoin’s rise up the price charts, especially after it drew the attention of hedge fund traders and futures markets.
One doomsday scenario would be a successful hack of the blockchain. That’s the underlying technology that records and verifies every transaction, using exact copies of a database spread on computers all over the world. Those host computers, called miners, are rewarded with new Bitcoin for doing the work of verifying transactions. An attacker might be able to alter the blockchain’s history by marshaling more than half the computing power on the network. But that would be monumentally difficult; someone with the technology to do it could instead “opt into the game” and get paid to mine Bitcoin, says Tyler Winklevoss, co-founder of the Gemini digital asset exchange and one of the largest Bitcoin holders.
The likelier risks are far more pedestrian. The first is that while plenty of investors and speculators have piled into Bitcoin, it’s a difficult currency to use in the real world. The network is slow and expensive for small transactions. And who wants to spend $4 in Bitcoin for a coffee if next week that could be worth $8? “My big concern as a company is that digital currency doesn’t find its quote-unquote killer use cases, where people are saying, ‘Wow, we now have tens of millions of daily active users that are using it for payments,’ ” says Adam White, who runs GDAX, the exchange for institutional investors run by Coinbase. “That’s one of the largest existential threats to the company.”
There’s been a very public civil war among Bitcoin developers: One group favors changes to the network, the other doesn’t. “It’s got to have the developer community come together and figure out how to scale it properly and continuously,” says Sheri Kaiserman, a managing director at Wedbush Securities and an early Wall Street believer in Bitcoin’s potential. Meanwhile, Bitcoin faces competition from other digital currencies, from Bitcoin Cash to Litecoin to Ether, which have also seen big gains and wild swings.
You could spend weeks learning about the nuances of the various cryptocurrencies. But the main risk to Bitcoin is actually the easiest to understand. “The biggest factor in what’s driving the price up is potentially what will drive it down—a reversal of animal spirits,” says Adam Ludwin, chief executive officer of blockchain startup Chain. “There is essentially a belief this will continue to go up. If people believe it will continue to go down, that’s self-reinforcing.”
To explain that psychology, Ludwin invokes John Maynard Keynes. The economist likened investing to a newspaper contest where readers were asked to pick the picture of the person the majority of other people would find most attractive. To win, a reader would have to discard his own judgment and bet purely on a guess of what the average person would find beautiful. Or, maddeningly, even on what the other players would think the average player would like. Cryptocurrency in general is “really one of the most beautiful distillations of the Keynesian beauty contest that’s ever existed,” says Ludwin. All investments have some of this speculative element, but unlike, say, a stock, Bitcoin isn’t a claim on future earnings to which investors can hitch a valuation. To bet on Bitcoin is to believe simply that others will want it.
One read on the psychology of the Bitcoin boom is that it’s part of a broad bull market in all kinds of assets. Despite anxieties about politics, North Korea, and rising equity valuations, investors seem to be in a mood to embrace risk and are fearful of missing out on big gains. Or perhaps Bitcoin is the shadow side of that optimism: Many are drawn to cryptocurrency because they see it as a palliative to the system that came crashing down in 2008, and their belief in Bitcoin has been hard to shake. Market psychology is difficult to pin down—the one thing that’s reliable about it is its volatility.