LONDON: After the final figurehead of cryptocurrencies topped $ 40,000 before the upset stomach set in, the million dollar question won’t go away: How much is Bitcoin actually worth?
The virtual currency hit new highs last year, rising more than 400 percent before promptly dropping 20 percent and then leveling off around $ 36,000. When Bitcoin launched as open source software in 2009, it was essentially worth zero – even though it had hit heady heights of eight cents within a year.
At today’s market prices, inflated by a surge in institutional demand, the digital entity’s market capitalization is around $ 670 billion, with countless other crypto coins like Ethereum nominally pushing the sector close to the trillion mark.
Although this is small potatoes compared to the roughly 68 trillion US dollars that are generated in the world’s stock markets, it is nonetheless a financial area that is marked out by technical kings of Wall Street such as Google, Apple or Tesla.
One tech site, AssetDash.com, notes that Bitcoin is currently worth about as much as Facebook and a little more than Chinese e-retail giant Alibaba. Though pocket-sized investors have become enthusiasts lately, crypto was reserved for geek amateur investors in its early days.
The latter have suffered mainly because an estimated four million of the roughly 19 million Bitcoin units currently in circulation have been lost. “Lost” does not mean that the coins fell on the back of the sofa or through a hole in a trouser pocket: they were electronically removed from the record, often because their owner forgot a password for coins hoarded on a USB stick.
A US developer misplaced his password after storing 7,002 bitcoins on such a flash drive, forcing him to say goodbye to around $ 280 million on paper (or rather on the trading screen). This week, Welshman James Howells desperately offered a quarter of his fortune to his community to dig up a landfill where he believes a hard drive he accidentally thrown away – and its value has since risen to around $ 270 million – is buried. The council declined, citing the cost and logistical constraints. According to analysts at JP Morgan, while bitcoin is highly volatile, it could be as high as $ 146,000 per share, putting it in competition with gold as an asset class in terms of private sector investments.
This volatility, as well as the unregulated and decentralized nature of the bitcoin beast, are major reasons many seasoned financial watchers are afraid – as is the risk of “losing” their supply. “Most of the lost bitcoins were acquired in the early days,” said Philip Gradwell, an economist at Chainalysis.
Gradwell said that today, roughly one in five bitcoins in circulation today hasn’t moved from their location in five years – days when the unit wasn’t worth much more than $ 100. “A million or two of these belong to Satoshi himself,” Gradwell added, referring to the coin’s creator, whose identity remains unknown.
He added that the majority of investors aren’t everyday traders, but rather people who are on the rise over the long term – and he estimates that the spectacular price boom of the past few weeks only affected around five million units.
Patrick Heusser, trading director at Swiss trader Crypto Broker, said that tracking the trading volume of a wide variety of cryptocurrencies, not just bitcoin, would give a better idea of how the market is performing.
“Ethereum has a lot of activity in the chain, but almost nothing is going on on the Litecoin side,” said Heusser. The former is currently valued at around $ 138 billion and the latter is valued at $ 10 billion.
Heusser suggested that the spikes were largely a bitcoin slipstream effect and warned against drawing parallels with gold. “To be honest, I don’t think it’s a very powerful or insightful metric within the crypto market,” Heusser concluded.
After years of experience in the traditional forex markets, he judged that it was still early days for the crypto equivalent. “We’re still a little fish,” he said.