Whenever clients talk about cryptocurrencies, our response has always been the same – the investments are unregulated and carry significant risk of total loss of the investment. Recent price action in cryptocurrencies, together with warnings issued by leading crypto exchange Coinbase, have only reinforced our view.
Cryptocurrencies have made headline news over recent days as a severe bout of turbulence has knocked the value of the largest coins available, including Bitcoin and Ethereum. The catalyst has been the collapse of the Terra Luna currency, which is supposedly pegged to the US Dollar as a so-called “stablecoin”. The Terra currency lost its peg to the Dollar last week, apparently due to issues in the algorithm that links the price of the digital currency to the US Dollar. The peg was not backed by currency or government bonds, but in other cryptocurrencies, and as the price began to fall, investors rushed to sell the coins, effectively creating a digital bank run. The price of Luna fell over 99% in the space of a week, effectively wiping out investors.
Following the collapse in Terra Luna, contagion has spread to other leading cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin fell below $30,000, to stand over 50% lower than the previous peak of $69,000 seen in November 2021. Ethereum, Ripple, and Cardano also suffered similar heavy falls.
Supporters of cryptocurrencies have often cited the decentralised nature of the currencies as offering protection against inflation and wider economic uncertainty. Given the underlying economic conditions we are experiencing, the recent price action is a clear indication that cryptocurrencies are, in fact, a poor hedge against rising prices.
Quite surprisingly, cryptocurrencies appear to be moving more in line with Equities markets, contrary to supporter’s claims that Bitcoin and others provide diversification away from more traditional investments. A study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in January of this year highlighted the much closer correlation between cryptocurrencies and the S&P500 index of US shares since 2020. What has become increasingly apparent is that the cryptocurrencies are just as susceptible to broader weakness in market sentiment as other assets, such as Equities, only accompanied with significantly higher levels of volatility.
In addition to the risks of falling prices and contagion from failing currencies, concerns over how safe investor’s crypto assets held on exchanges are, have added to the negative sentiment.
Coinbase, a leading US-based crypto exchange, announced a very poor set of financial results on Tuesday, which showed widening losses and a 19% drop in users over the last quarter. The most important part of the announcement, however, was the admission that should Coinbase declare bankruptcy, the assets held in custody on behalf of customers could become subject to bankruptcy proceedings. In other words, customer’s assets would not be segregated and the customers would become general unsecured creditors of the business.
Unlike UK regulated investments, where investors do have some protection offered under the Financial Services Compensation Scheme in the event that something goes wrong, cryptocurrencies are unregulated, potentially leaving investors without recourse if an investment fails.
As famous US investor Warren Buffett quoted “never invest in a business you cannot understand”. We feel this sage advice is true of cryptocurrencies generally. The premise of Bitcoin and its peers was to create new valid currencies, free from intervention from central banks and governments, that would be accepted more frequently as a currency over time. A limited number of organisations do accept Bitcoin as payment for goods and services, although the use of the currency is hardly becoming mainstream. Furthermore, the high levels of volatility seen in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies would make their use for transactions almost impossible.
There has been growing calls for the cryptocurrency market to be regulated over recent years, and the recent volatility is likely to increase the volume of calls for more intervention in this market. Some may see this as a positive move, potentially increasing the mainstream appeal of the investment. However, others see increased regulation as a negative, and totally at odds to the premise of decentralised currencies, which could stifle innovation.
Cryptocurrencies have also long been associated with criminal activity, such as scams, malware and ransomware attacks and money laundering, and regulation would aim to reduce the amount of illegal activity that takes place. Another key consideration is the amount of energy expended in mining tokens, with any move towards regulation likely to focus on the industry’s environmental impact.
The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) produced the clearest assessment of the risks associated in January 2021 when stating “the FCA is aware that some firms are offering investments in cryptoassets, or lending or investments linked to cryptoassets, that promise high returns. If consumers invest in these types of product, they should be prepared to lose all their money.”
Despite warnings such as this, the cryptocurrency market has continued to gain in popularity over recent years; however the gyrations seen over the last week may well serve as a timely reminder of the inherent risks of these unregulated investments.
If you would like to discuss the above with one of our experienced financial planners, please get in touch here.
The value of investments and the income they produce can fall as well as rise. You may get back less than you invested. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance. Investing in stocks and shares should be regarded as a long term investment and should fit in with your overall attitude to risk and your financial circumstances.