Bitcoin Hype Will Clash With the Rolex Recession

“BUY BTC.” The logo stamped on this week’s leaked version of the Grand Theft Auto VI trailer, depicting a faux glamorous world of speedboats, supercars and “shoot-em-ups,” was well timed. Bitcoin’s price has almost tripled this year to around $42,000, where it was before the 2022 Terra debacle. Frothy six- to seven-figure price targets are back. With Coinbase Global Inc.’s boss touting Bitcoin as “key” to the West’s future and El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele demanding his critics apologize, you’d think an actual use case had been found.

Except — it hasn’t. And at the risk of sounding like the Simpsons’ “Old Man Yells At Cloud,” there are plenty of reasons to be cautious about this umpteenth upward swing on the crypto rollercoaster ride at a time of economic slowdown and possible recession.

Easy Money

The bull case preached by the laser-eyed and Luna-tattooed crowd is, as before, driven by sentiment and speculation rather than utility. Bitcoin may be a glorified pet rock in terms of money-ness, but people like to hoard it and trade it as a risky hybrid of gold and NASDAQ startup in the hope of outsized gains. The optimistic view is that any news will be good news as bad actors like Sam Bankman-Fried or Changpeng Zhao get flushed out, mass-market spot ETFs get closer, and potential interest-rate cuts lift risk appetite. With a rising price providing a positive feedback loop, who wouldn’t want to take a punt?

Yet looking back at Bitcoin’s history, what seems to have really propelled its price to records in recent years has been unprecedented monetary easing by central banks and an increase in money supply to new highs, neither of which look likely to happen again soon. A paper by S&P analysts published in May found a positive correlation of 0.75 — not quite causation, but suggesting more than coincidence — between money supply growth and crypto assets since 2017, with virtual money “performing well” in times of expansionary monetary policy. As a hedge against economic shocks, the record was less clear — let’s not forget Bitcoin fell 50% when COVID-19 first hit in March 2020 — and as a hedge against inflation, the results were inconclusive and not as good as gold.

As Good As Gold