I want to begin this column by establishing that I have no concrete proof of my assertion, which is why I am not presenting it in a court of law, but a court of blog. When I say “banks,” it is a catchall term for Wall Street and the major investor class. A couple of hedge funds are about to release bitcoin futures ahead of NASDAQ opening them up next year, Goldman Sachs is reportedly dipping their toe into bitcoin futures, and it looks like we are about to see a flood of money into bitcoin from institutional investors. Given that we should operate from the default assumption that the global financial oligarchs will try to exploit any vulnerability they can find to make more profits, their mere presence in this space raises my suspicion.
But I have more concrete evidence than just a hunch that Wall Street is going to do what they are known to do. Let me walk you through my case.
Bitcoin is up over 50% in the last week. I don’t trust any market where everyone is making money, and so this is where my initial suspicion arises. Even for bitcoin, this is weird. Something’s going on.
Sure, hundreds of thousands of people are signing up for a mainstream exchange like Coinbase every single day right now, partially thanks to a self-fulfilling prophecy where extensive media coverage drives people to buy a commodity gaining hype each day—also known as a financial bubble. We are undoubtedly smack-dab in the middle of one, but this bitcoin jump began earlier this year, and a major bubble like this takes a lot longer than a few months to pop. An army of Everyday Joes and Janes throwing 50 bucks at bitcoin isn’t enough rocket fuel for this powerful of a rally, because there are far too many transactions flowing through the network for that to be the only explanation behind the increase in stress on the network.
If you have read my writing on bitcoin, you have undoubtedly seen me reference my friend who got me into all this. He is far more technically savvy than I am, and so I will cede the floor to someone who understands bitcoin mining infinitely better than I do. Per Justin Fox:
For this section all you need to know is the TL;DR of the way that bitcoin mining works. In order to obtain new bitcoins, you “mine” them by confirming pending transactions in the system. Without mining, no transactions get cleared. Bitcoin is coded to have a block generated roughly every 10 minutes. After every 2016 blocks (or about 14 days) the network automatically evaluates the total computer power (in terms of Hashes per second) and adjusts the difficulty in order to maintain a 10-minute block time. More computing power = higher difficulty. Less computing power = lower difficulty. This difficulty is then set for the next 2016 blocks.
Between 11/7/2017 and 11/11/2017, the mining power dropped 54.6% and bitcoin’s price fell by 22.9%. The difficulty adjustment occurred 11/10/2017. Mining is free money if you have access to affordable electricity. I’m running a Bitcoin miner (Antminer S9, marketed as the “World’s Most Efficient Miner”) and am profiting about $750 per month. This mining drop is the equivalent of 408,759 of the S9s being pulled off the grid. That’s equal to giving up $10 million a day in profit at today’s prices.
This week, the mining power shot up by 25% on Monday, leading into the 12/6 difficulty adjustment. By the time of this writing, the mining power has pulled back by 12%—or about 131,387 miners losing $3,280,000 a day in profit. It’s quite strange how the past two adjustments had the equivalent drop in mining power.
Bottom-line: it’s in people’s financial interests to keep mining—especially during periods of guaranteed volume like this—so it’s bizarre that so many miners are passing up an opportunity at free money as the network slows down and gets more congested. Historically, when this dynamic happens, that mining power is switched over to bitcoin cash, but that mining power has mostly remained steady. It seems like some people have just flat-out turned their miners off. Why?
The so-called “alt-coins” are down almost across the board as bitcoin has risen (these are the array of far cheaper coins being created in the wake of bitcoin’s progress). This ebb and flow between bitcoin and the alts is a consistent dynamic, so I could just be reading into a broader trend that was established prior to this rally, but it does provide some credence to my theory that much of this avalanche of bitcoin transactions isn’t Joe and Jane using it to buy other cryptocurrencies.
Bitcoin is always about the same price on every exchange, but yesterday we entered a different world.
One trader has some thoughts as to why this is happening.
CME Group—a $3 billion derivatives marketplace—is going to sell bitcoin futures starting December 18th. CBOE is launching theirs on Sunday at the start of Global Trading Hours. NASDAQ will be listing bitcoin futures next year, and other major investment banks will undoubtedly follow theirs and Goldman Sachs' lead. It seems far likelier that the transactions on the network are connected to these gigantic pools of money than portions of people's paychecks. If we accept that the volume on the network is due to bankers, then we must ask: why?
Jamie Dimon is the CEO of JPMorgan, and he led the initial PR assault by bankers against bitcoin back in September. I wrote an open letter (I know, I know—but I'm a millennial, so I'm required to write one once before I die) in response to him comparing the bitcoin bubble to the famed tulip bubble of the 1600s (which is a moronic comparison, because you can plant nearly an infinite amount of tulips whenever you want, but the bitcoin mining system ensures that supply and demand are literally linked by code). But it wasn't him trashing bitcoin that got under my skin—just because I believe in this technology doesn't mean that I'm right. I felt the need to go after Jamie Dimon because he trashed bitcoin, it fell…and then JPMorgan bought the dip.
So when I assert that big bankers are manipulating the price of bitcoin to enrich themselves, it’s based off of similar events that have already occurred.
My father was a stockbroker and I graduated from college in 2009, so you could say that the 2008 financial crisis “radicalized” me (except this is America and I’m not a Muslim, so no one would ever say that about me). I read as much as I could to understand this mess that nearly wiped out the global economy as we know it, and every explanation had a similar tale hidden within it: a handful of chief executives plotted a trade, then incentivized some of those working beneath them to pursue trades contrary to their clients’ long-term interests, all in the name of inflating a bubble. When the bubble popped, those executives reaped the windfall while their employees and clients took the hit. With bitcoin, there is a very obvious trade like this to make.
There are a lot of reasons to love bitcoin, and I have written about it quite a bit here at Paste. However, it has a long way to go to true respectability. There is currently a backlog of over 200,000 unconfirmed transactions, and it would take about a week to get through all that. Visa can clear that figure in two minutes. Bitcoin is on the right track, but there is a lot of track remaining, which creates room for maneuvering.
Now here is where I leave empirical evidence and move to theory. Bitcoin isn’t ready for primetime yet, and my hunch is that its elevated price is based off of speculation more than anything else. Speculation is relative to perception, and perception can change—especially if one has an array of financial cable news networks to help steer public perception.
What I’m getting at is: the banks are using you and me as pawns, folks. They’re getting people like me to write Bitcoin for Beginners columns because interest in cryptocurrency is rising, and interest is good for business. I’m telling you to go to Coinbase to buy bitcoin, and you’re buying bitcoin, and the price of bitcoin is going up. So going back to these hedge funds and these futures contracts—one feature of betting on bitcoin futures is the ability to short sell the price. A short sell is very simple:
1. I borrow 1 bitcoin today with a promise to sell it back later.
2. I immediately sell that bitcoin for its current price of about $15,500.
3. Bitcoin falls to $10,000.
4. I cash in that promise, and buy 1 bitcoin to sell back, but this time, at a price of $10,000.
5. I profit $5,500 on my short sell.
And that’s my theory: the banks are artificially driving up interest and volume on the network in order to inflate the price as high as possible just prior to them being able to short the future price of bitcoin (not to mention the fact that there is about an 18% fee on placing shorts right now, and that figure is expected to rise—which means any short seller needs even more profit to cover the costs). This is an unregulated Wild West, so it’s not like they’re going to get caught messing around behind the scenes. Given that the banks still mess around behind the scenes when the rules are explicitly written for them, I’d expect Wall Street to try to find a hack in an unregulated system. In fact, I’d be kind of disappointed if they didn’t.
I’m not a financial advisor, nor a cryptocurrency expert. Just a guy who invested in cryptocurrency ten months ago and has been scrambling to understand something that has suddenly become very valuable. This seemingly endless rally got the attention of my BS detector, and this is my theory as to what is driving bitcoin’s meteoric rise. The counter to my theory is that this is all parabolic movement by bitcoin, and when you look at it through that lens, the math makes sense. At the very least, I think that there is sufficient hard evidence to warn people to be very cautious right now (not to mention that if South Korea follows through on their threat to ban cryptocurrency exchanges, it could lead to a crash). If you were planning on buying some bitcoin, maybe just hold off for a little bit, and see what the world looks like after these hedge funds dip their toe into the pond.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.