2017 has been huge for Bitcoin. At the start of the year, the currency was trading for about $900 per coin. It bumped along, hitting $1,000 in February, before beginning its huge rally in late November that took it all the way up to $19,000, before crashing back down to $10,000. Following a rally in the last day or two, it’s back up to $15,000.
The big question now is what happens next. Bitcoin has done a lot of growing up in the last month, as professional investors have started taking a real interest in the currency. The first few months of 2018 are going to determine whether Bitcoin is a real investment, a viable currency, or a total bust.
Where Bitcoin prices go in the short term will largely depend on the regulatory environment. On the plus side for Bitcoin, it’s starting to be traded on traditional markets. Two big exchanges, the CME and CBOE are already offering Bitcoin trading to investors. The system is a little messy — what they’re really offering is futures prices, based on the Bitcoin price averaged from a few big exchanges — but the result is that investors can trade in Bitcoin on a secured, non-hackable, reputable exchange.
But at the same time, the main US regulator, the SEC, warned this month that there’s “substantially less investor protection than in our traditional securities markets, with correspondingly greater opportunities for fraud and manipulation.”
Investors are also at risk from exchanges collapsing, or being hacked: most hobby speculators store their Bitcoin in a wallet kept with one of the big cryptocurrency exchanges, which makes them accessible to hackers. Bitcoin exchanges have been plundered by hackers in the past, and with the increased value of Bitcoin, you’d imagine it’s just a matter of time until a hack happens.
An equal danger is one of the big market-creating exchanges flat-out crashing. Coinbase, the biggest exchange in the US, routinely fails and won’t allow selling when Bitcoin prices are falling, due to high traffic. That can lead to panic-selling, which has the potential to cause a minor downturn to turn into a full-blown crisis.
Then, there’s the problem of energy consumption and transaction fees. The energy used by Bitcoin has been skyrocketing along with the price, and the cost of making a transfer from one wallet to another has increased to around $5 right now. That, plus the volatility from price fluctuations, has caused a number of online retailers to stop accepting Bitcoin, which destroys its value as a currency.
So right now, Bitcoin is at a crossroads. The market has survived its first big scare and come out with a little confidence, which is a good sign that investors aren’t quite as skittish as you might’ve thought.
But at the same time, a lot of things are going to have to go right — or, more accurately, no big things can go wrong — for Bitcoin to keep growing for the next few months. If a big exchange gets hacked, major investors start to sell and cash in, the SEC starts regulating, or the price keeps see-sawing for some reason, it’s difficult to see Bitcoin’s wild ride keep going.