If the stock market isn’t the economy — which it isn’t — then cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin really, really aren’t the economy. Still, crypto has become a pretty big asset class (and yielded huge capital gains to many buyers); by last fall the combined market value of cryptocurrencies had reached almost $3 trillion.
Since then, however, prices have crashed, wiping out around $1.3 trillion in market capitalization. As of Thursday morning, Bitcoin’s price was almost halfway down from its November peak. So who is being hurt by this crash, and what might it do to the economy?
Well, I’m seeing uncomfortable parallels with the subprime crisis of the 2000s. No, crypto doesn’t threaten the financial system — the numbers aren’t big enough to do that. But there’s growing evidence that the risks of crypto are falling disproportionately on people who don’t know what they are getting into and are poorly positioned to handle the downside.
What’s this crypto thing about? There are many ways to make digital payments, from Apple Pay and Google Pay to Venmo. Mainstream payment schemes, however, rely on a third party — usually your bank — to verify that you actually own the assets you’re transferring. Cryptocurrencies use complex coding to supposedly do away with the need for these third parties.
Skeptics wonder why this is necessary and argue that crypto ends up being an awkward, expensive way to do things you could have done more easily in other ways, which is why cryptocurrencies still have few legal applications 13 years after Bitcoin was introduced. The response, in my experience, tends to take the form of incomprehensible word salad.
Recent developments in El Salvador, which adopted Bitcoin as legal tender a few months ago, seem to bolster the skeptics: Residents attempting to use the currency find themselves facing huge transaction fees. Still, crypto has been effectively marketed: It manages both to seem futuristic and to appeal to old-style goldbug fears that the government will inflate away your savings, and huge past gains have drawn in investors worried about missing out. So crypto has become a large asset class even though nobody can clearly explain what legitimate purpose it’s for.
But now crypto has crashed. Maybe it will recover and soar to new heights, as it has in the past. For now, however, prices are way down. Who are the losers?
As I said, there are disturbing echoes of the subprime crash 15 years ago.
Crypto is unlikely to …….