Bitcoin Tracker: Blowing Bubbles

This is not a drill.

Bitcoin’s market cap is currently well over $20 billion as value rose well over $200 in the past two weeks. At the time of writing, bitcoin was worth $1,270.86, up 3.32 percent from Wednesday’s “close.” As bitcoin rose, TechCrunch noted that the value of 1 BTC had actually surpassed the value of an ounce of gold — the go-to alternative asset.

The big news this week in cryptocurrency is, of course, bitcoin hitting new record highs amid the possibility that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) could approve a bitcoin exchange–traded fund. A bitcoin-based ETF may work tone down some of bitcoin’s more unpredictable tendencies (or work to exacerbate it — more on that later), though bitcoin would still be a riskier investment overall.

The prospect of a bitcoin ETF has investors betting big on digital currency; SEC approval could be a major milestone in the journey toward bitcoin legitimacy.

“If approved, this would certainly give a dramatic condoning of bitcoin by the authorities and powers that be,” digital currency analytics firm Cryptocompare CEO Charles Hayter told Reuters. “Perhaps key would be the institutional money which would flow into bitcoin. This would bring a certain amount of stability eventually, but it could see short-term exuberance by retail traders.”

The SEC has until Mar. 11 to decide the fate of the Winklevoss twins’ Bitcoin Trust, one of three proposed ETFs that could track the value of bitcoin. Some $300 million could flood the bitcoin ETF during its first week, Spencer Bogart, head of research at venture capital investor Blockchain Capital, was quoted as saying in an interview.

The irony here, of course, is that notions of cryptocurrency began as a means to decentralize value stores to sidestep institutional intervention and manipulation. How bitcoin will fare if and when introduced to the Market with a capital M is anybody’s guess for now.

Some are worried, for instance, about security risks surrounding a bitcoin-based ETF given the cryptocurrency’s rocky history. In February 2014, Mt. Gox shuttered its business after a mysterious “glitch” caused some $500 million worth of bitcoin to go missing. Most of those bitcoins have never been recovered.

Others simply don’t think bitcoin fits the ETF mold.

Ben Johnson, director of global ETF and passive strategies research at Morningstar Inc., was quoted as saying in an interview,“Bitcoin is not a stock, it’s not a bond, it’s not a hard asset like precious metal, it’s not a commodity future. It’s a technology that’s very much in its infancy, and it’s not something that in my mind lends itself to being packaged as an ETF.”

Of course, there are a few alternative scenarios, ones that investors are likely trying to keep out of their minds for the time being. The first is that the SEC denies a bitcoin ETF outright. If that were to be the case, many expect the price of bitcoin to drop some $200 to pre-ETF-optimism values — around $1,000.

But even if the SEC gives the go-ahead, some bitcoin experts worry that the resulting bull run on the popular cryptocurrency could lead to a similar bubble scenario like the one seen back in 2013.

Bitcoin entrepreneur Vinny Lingham, for one, recently warned in a blog post that additional quick rises in bitcoin’s value will likely create another boom/bust cycle in the bitcoin ecosystem. A bubble that won’t hesitate to burst, if given the chance by, say, having the price peak over $3,000 too quickly.

This could potentially happen soon after approval, especially since an initial SEC yea-say would set a precedent for green-lighting the remaining bitcoin-based ETFs.

“Bitcoin is both scarce and valuable, which will lead to the price continuing to increase over time,” Lingham wrote. “But if that happens too quickly, we will enter another boom/bust cycle …. If it [bitcoin’s value] goes into the $3,000+ territory due to mania/short squeezes/media hype/FOMO and other triggers, then alarm bells will go off for me and we’ll start approaching bubble territory.”

Another bitcoin story, this time out of Denmark, has flown somewhat under the radar during all the ETF hype. But it indicates that the seedier, pseudo-untraceable days of bitcoin as a means to commit crimes may soon come to a close.

All bitcoin transactions by design are recorded in a permanent public ledger accessible to anyone. While transaction are openly traceable and wallet addresses are public, they are not directly tied to any personally identifying information, which has led to the adoption of the cryptocurrency by crime syndicates and hackers.

But Denmark’s cybercrime police unit recently claimed to have successfully prosecuted drug traffickers based on bitcoin transaction information sourced by a specialized software developed by the Danish National Cyber Crime Center.

Police chief Kim Aarenstrup was quoted by Berlingske as saying, “The potential of this is groundbreaking. The investigation can now proceed from where it used to stop before …. We are in dialogue with a number of other nations right now to develop additional methods and teach them how we do it here.”