Bitcoin hit a new all-time-high on Nov. 30 above $19,800, but has swung wildly in the days since and has yet to touch $20,000, a round number seen as a significant resistance level.
The oldest and largest cryptocurrency by market cap is up 170% in 2020, outpacing the gains of the S&P 500 (14%) and Nasdaq (38%).
The 2020 surge has been driven by institutional investing, as Wall Street firms warm to bitcoin. No one has benefited from the trend more than Grayscale Investments, the largest crypto asset firm, which now says it has $12 billion in assets under management. (Grayscale is owned by Barry Silbert’s Digital Currency Group, the largest crypto venture capital fund.)
In the second quarter of this year, more than a dozen well-known Wall Street firms disclosed with the SEC new investments in Grayscale’s Bitcoin Investment Trust (GBTC), a publicly traded fund pegged to the price of bitcoin. The fund was cited this week in a JP Morgan note as a leading indicator of institutional interest in bitcoin: “A failure by the Grayscale Bitcoin Trust to receive additional inflows over the coming weeks would cast doubt to the idea that institutional investors such as family offices have embarked on a trend of embracing bitcoin as digital gold replacing traditional gold as a long-term investment.” GBTC is up 190% in 2020, slightly higher than bitcoin.
Bitcoin is still hardly used for payments
But the spike in institutional interest doesn’t say much about enthusiasm from retail investors. The huge run-up at the end of 2017 was driven by regular people buying in, motivated by media stories about the frenzy. Three years later, the use cases for bitcoin haven’t much changed. Consumers are not making purchases with bitcoin. Its biggest flag-wavers still say its best use case is as digital gold, a store of value and hedge against macro market uncertainty.
PayPal may change that. The consumer-facing payments company announced on Oct. 21 that it will soon allow buying of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies through PayPal and Venmo, as well as paying with bitcoin.
But it doesn’t matter whether that leads people to pay with bitcoin, says Grayscale managing director Michael Sonnenshein.
“We’re excited that Paypal’s opening up yet another corridor for accessibility, whether you’re a merchant or you’re a user of their service,” Sonnenshein told Yahoo Finance. “But ultimately, one of the narratives that used to be quite prevalent, which is not anymore, is that somehow bitcoin failed because we’re not using it in everyday commerce or to buy a cup of coffee. In the developed world, investors are allocating to bitcoin and other digital assets as an investment, and they know that the near-term use cases around these assets are not for everyday commerce.”
That’s the argument that all crypto investors make: bitcoin’s best purpose, for now, is as digital gold, not practical currency, and that’s just fine. Nevermind that in the original bitcoin white paper, posted on Oct. 31, 2008, the author (or authors) using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto called bitcoin “a peer-to-peer electronic cash system.”
Sonnenshein says he’s seen Grayscale clients buying more bitcoin amid the COVID-19 pandemic, since government stimulus and easing efforts have highlighted “the fact that bitcoin is a verifiably scarce asset. It’s limited in quantity. And they think about that in the context of all the quantitative easing and perpetual money printing that’s taking place in the fiat currency world, and why their portfolios warrant an asset that has verifiable scarcity.”
Bitcoin investing in 2020 ‘more of a two-sided market’
This rally is different than last time, Sonnenshein argues, because “we are in a very different market than we were in 2017.” The cryptocurrency investing ecosystem has matured with derivatives, options, and borrowing, making it “way more of a two-sided market.”
Grayscale is also seeing a rotation out of gold into bitcoin, though billionaire investor Stan Druckenmiller, who made waves when he said this month on CNBC that he owns bitcoin, also cautioned that he owns a lot more gold than bitcoin.
“If the gold bet works, the bitcoin bet will probably work better,” Druckenmiller added, “because it’s thinner, more illiquid and has a lot more beta to it.”
Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance and closely covers bitcoin and blockchain. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.
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