The air is getting thin in the bitcoin market as the crypto-currency has climbed nearly 52 percent in value over the last 10 days, currently trading around $204. The period has seen a tangled web of good, bad, and uncertain news, including the shuttering of its largest commerce channel, an endorsement by a global technology powerhouse, and unpredictability in the global macroeconomic environment.
So what’s behind the spike? And where might we expect the market to go from here?
It’s been just three weeks since the FBI seized the virtual black market Silk Road, subsequently blocking one of the largest and most notorious channels for bitcoin commerce. Early in its existence, Bitcoin was popular for its perceived anonymity. Not surprisingly, it was the favored currency of Silk Road which processed approximately 1.2 million transactions throughout its history, representing a total of 9.5 million bitcoins worth of commerce. At today’s value that would be $1.95 billion worth of commerce (although the value varied widely over this period). It also represents approximately 12 percent of the total 75 million bitcoin transactions that happened on Bitcoin’s public block chain over the same period.
Bitcoin plummeted as much as 23 percent in the days following the FBI raid, dropping from a high of $145 pre-seizure to a low of $113. By comparison, bitcoin plummeted 66 percent over a three day period two years earlier, when Senators merely urged the attorney general to look into shutting down Silk Road. It suffered its steepest decline, falling 75 percent in the three months following the US Department of Homeland Security’s cease and desist action against the top exchange, Mt. Gox. But this time around, the currency quickly recovered the lost value and traded around the $145 range for roughly another 10 days.
In the 10 days since, it’s taken off like a rocketship and has now traded steadily above $200 for the last two days, a first since its crash nearly six months ago.
There are a few theories to explain the recent surge in investor confidence – and make no mistake about it, this is a speculatory rise led by investors, not increased economic viability of the currency in the near term. The first theory is that anyone concerned by bitcoin’s close ties to the criminal underground is now breathing a sigh of relief with Silk Road out of the picture and the feds training a close eye on any copycats that spring up. Even more reassuring, the price of bitcoin experienced only a small decline around the FBI seizure and quickly recovered its value. With all the Silk Road-related bad news now out in the open, a major cloud of uncertainty has been removed from the market.
Equally powerful has been the decision by Chinese Internet giant Baidu (aka, “the Google of China”) to begin accepting bitcoin payments for select products and services – a move that brings it in step with WordPress, Reddit, and OkCupid, among other established online businesses. The Chinese government has also been campaigning in recent months to see the dollar removed from global reserve status, stoking the fire of possible instability in the value of the US currency. Baidu is not likely to represent a major channel of bitcoin commerce in the near term, but the tacit endorsement of the currency appears to be a major boon for investor confidence. A few weeks earlier, BTC China – the third most active bitcoin exchange by volume – became the first major bitcoin exchange to eliminate its trading commissions, at least temporarily.
The compound effect of these recent moves is that China has seen an increase in bitcoin activity and would appear to be contributing to the latest price gain. Uncertainty around bitcoin regulation in China may eventually dampen this enthusiasm, but in the near term, it shows no signs of abating.
Macroeconomic and political events have also impacted bitcoin prices. With the US debt ceiling looming, the federal government shut down on October 1 of this year, just one day before the Silk Road event, with bitcoin closing the day trading at approximately $141. During the 16 day shutdown, bitcoin prices rose more than 19 percent to a high of $168. When congress simply kicked the can down the road a few months by enacting a temporary spending agreement, the price of bitcoin jumped a full 16.6 percent the following day to a six month high of $196. This shouldn’t be surprising, as bitcoin has long been viewed as an attractive alternative to unstable currencies and economic uncertainty – it’s just that this has never seemed as necessary with respect to the US dollar.
If the above proves anything, it’s that bitcoin is maturing. It is still a niche, and largely illiquid alternative currency, but one that is picking up steam in a number important markets. It’s also showing the ability to withstand isolated disruptions within its broader infrastructure. However, the future is likely to hold plenty of uncertainty, as bitcoin markets respond to global macroeconomic conditions, a changing regulatory environment, and an evolving landscape of corporate supporters.
In the interim, it’s the speculators versus the laws of gravity. One of these forces is likely to win out, but when and by how much remains to be seen.