By Paul Vigna
At the beginning of 2018, the question was whether bitcoin could live up to the hype of 2017’s manic rally. At the end of 2018, the answer seems to be an emphatic “no.” After rising nearly 1,400% in 2017, bitcoin reversed hard in 2018, falling about 70% and erasing some $160 billion worth of value. The selloff exposed the budding cryptocurrency market’s shaky footing.
Despite the entry of some established Wall Street players, scammers abound and few tangible uses for bitcoin and its underlying blockchain technology have emerged.
“A lot of people got punched in the face when bitcoin fell under $6,000,” said Chris Burniske, author of “Cryptoassets” and a partner at venture-capital firm Placeholder. “It was sobering.”
Where does the digital currency market go now that many speculators have been wiped out?. In 2017, the development of cryptocurrency technology took a back seat to getting rich. But crypto’s next era “has to be about how we can turn this technology into products for people to use,” said Andy Bromberg, the founder of Coinlist, a platform for startups raising capital via token offerings.
Jalak Jobanputra, the founder and managing partner of venture-capital firm Future\Perfect Ventures, said 2019 will bring a renewed focus on the companies and startups experimenting with the technology.
She is interested in both products and services that will appeal to users, and platforms like Ethereum, which hope to challenge Apple Inc.’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems. It is that kind of expansion, she said, that will determine the fair price for bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.
“There are no shortcuts to heads-down building tech,” she said. “That takes time.” For all the hype, bitcoin and the hundreds of other digital currencies that have popped up over the years are still largely usable only by developers. While almost anyone can go online and find tools to build an app for iOS or Android, building a similar app for the Ethereum platform involves developing an entire suite of tools to connect the app to the platform itself.
“Building consumer products is really hard,” Mr. Bromberg said. “The developer tool kit isn’t there.” The crypto true believers who stuck around through the slump also hope that 2019 brings an influx of institutional investors to the market.
That effort could get a boost when Intercontinental Exchange Inc. — the parent of the New York Stock Exchange — launches its crypto-focused exchange, Bakkt, which will allow customers to buy, sell, store, and spend digital currencies. If Bakkt can prove as safe and secure as NYSE, it could alleviate the concerns of institutional investors. Yet on Monday, ICE again delayed the service’s launch as it awaits approval from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, further clouding the outlook for 2019.
It will take a lot of new liquidity to offset what’s been lost. The selloff cost the crypto market $700 billion in 2018, dwarfing the $15.7 billion raised by so-called initial coin offerings and the $2.6 billion venture-capital firms invested in crypto startups. Institutional investors will be wary of owning too much of the much smaller but still risky market. “Crypto has a hard time realizing how small and nascent it is,” said Mr. Burniske. “We got deluded in how quickly we thought it would happen.”