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Wall Street ruined bitcoin, but if you want to buy it, here's how

by Noah Kulwin
Dec 10 2017, 7:23am

This story has been corrected.

At the beginning of 2017, a single bitcoin cost about $973 and the popular bitcoin “wallet” app CoinBase didn’t even chart among the top iPhone apps. Now one bitcoin costs over $16,000, and CoinBase is the second-most popular free app on iOS.

It’s an asset price spike the likes of which the world has seldom seen, outpacing notorious stock market booms like the Roaring Twenties. But why is it spiking now? And how could this possibly last? VICE News has some answers to your questions about the matter.

Why is the price of bitcoin skyrocketing?

While there’s no single answer to this, a lot of it has to do with increased activity — money transfers and investments — coming from Asia over the past few months, as well as traditional finance players.

“The size of the movement is indicative of institutional money investing in bitcoin rather than retail investors,” according to Peter Van Valkenburgh, research director of Coin Center, a Washington-based cryptocurrency think tank.

READ: This is how much one bitcoin is worth right now

“Institutional money” refers to bigger fish like Wall Street banks, hedge funds, family investing firms, and people who invest for a living — in other words, the real money, as opposed to you and me. And there’s a case that these people should be looking at bitcoin.

“Bitcoin is an uncorrelated asset, meaning that historically the price of bitcoin has not moved in tandem with the stock market, which is good for a balanced portfolio,” said Van Valkenburgh.

So does this mean Wall Street will start betting on bitcoin?

Though Wall Street executives have pooh-poohed bitcoin in the past (while praising and investing in the underlying “blockchain” technology), it appears they’re starting to express real interest in bitcoin itself as an investment property.

Take JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, for example. Dimon said in October that people who buy bitcoin are “stupid” and that the whole thing is a “fraud.” Less than a month later, JPMorgan reportedly began looking into bitcoin investments, and an analyst at the bank (whose research division is ostensibly separate from its investing side) said this week that the bitcoin price spike “has the potential to elevate cryptocurrencies to an emerging asset class.”

Wow, it sounds like they’re pretty excited.

Yes and no. Though they may want to invest in it themselves or they see a lot of upside in bitcoin, they’re still hesitant. On Sunday, the first bitcoin futures market — where big banks and their clients will be able to trade on bitcoin — is set to open, but the Wall Street Journal reports that major futures market players like JPMorgan and Citibank aren’t sure yet whether they’ll dive in.

The Futures Industry Association, which represents all the big banks and other futures traders, condemned the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (the relevant regulatory body) for approving bitcoin futures way too quickly — and that responsible investors should hold off. Still, other analysts argue that people who really want to trade bitcoin — and there are a lot of them — will find a way to do it regardless.

Well, what are the risks?

Even bitcoin and cryptocurrency boosters acknowledge that a 160 percent value spike in less than a year suggests that something freaky could happen.

“Given the rapid rise of bitcoin, it’s not hard to imagine an equally rapid fall,” said Van Valkenburgh, who believes the best point of comparison is the late 1990s dot-com bubble. “Unlike other bubbles in history, there’s a real underlying technology that will change the way the world works. But prices are now probably not concomitant with actual value of the system.”

It’s possible that bitcoin prices come crashing down to earth. This could be sparked by a few big investors taking gigantic “short” positions, betting against the value of bitcoin, and “manipulating the market position.” Deutsche Bank said in a report that a 2018 bitcoin “crash” could deal serious damage to global markets, as investors get freaked out by the cryptocurrency’s notoriously volatile price swings.

So, should I buy bitcoin?

If you want to checkout bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies like ethereum, you should download Coinbase. But be careful about tracking how much you’re trading, because you’re going to owe it to the tax man in a few months.

And note that while bitcoin wallets and other services now appear to be stable and regulated, it was just a few years ago that the bitcoin trading clearinghouse Mt. Gox lost its customers billions of dollars worth of bitcoin. And in the event of a run on bitcoin — just like a stock market run — it could be hard to unload bitcoin that has rapidly deteriorating value.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Ethereum is more widely traded than bitcoin. Ethereum processes more transactions than bitcoin, because of apps and services that use Ethereum technology, but is not as widely traded.