The price of the digital currency bitcoin is up 15% in the past 24 hours, and you might reasonably think it has something to do with the massive global economic event that took place on Thursday. And you’d be right.
But that isn’t the whole story.
Headlines are shouting that bitcoin is up because of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, which has sent its own currency, the pound, plummeting to a 31-year low. Yes, Brexit may be helping bitcoin, but as with every bitcoin spike, there are many other factors at play.
“I’d say Brexit is just one sub-item of one of those factors,” says Gil Luria, a Wedbush Securities analyst who has a pretty good track record on the bitcoin price. In July 2015, when the price was around $250, he projected it would reach $400 in one year. In October, he revised the projection to $600. The coin is currently trading at $650.
So, what are the factors that cause occasional bitcoin spikes?
The first, and typically biggest, is China. It’s the biggest country for bitcoin trading activity and speculation (if not for bitcoin startup headquarters) and bitcoin is increasingly the vehicle of choice for capital exits from the yuan. The yuan is sinking as well at the moment, approaching a six-year low at the time of writing, and it is possible some tech-savvy Chinese investors are turning to bitcoin.
Second, The Great Bitcoin Halving approaches. Huh? Here’s a quick-and-dirty summary: All bitcoin transactions are recorded on the bitcoin blockchain, a public, decentralized, permissionless ledger. The transactions are recorded in bundles, called “blocks,” by “miners” who receive a small award in bitcoin for mining. Beginning in July, the reward that miners receive per block is being cut in half, for the second time in bitcoin’s history. The result of the halving will reduce the creation of new bitcoins from 9% down to about 4% per year, and while the effect of this on the price is up for debate, many believe the anticipation of the change is bringing up the price. "People are excited" about the halving, Luria says.
Third, general uncertainty and fear help bitcoin. Brexit is just the latest example of this. Bitcoin rose when the Greek debt crisis came to a head. It typically rises whenever a major country’s economy roils. That’s because bitcoin is an “uncorrelated asset” much like gold. “Bonds, stocks, home prices always go in the same direction,” Luria says. “But bitcoin is a place to hide in times of uncertainty. I’d rather have the volatility of bitcoin with the knowledge that my currency is going to get depreciated by 30% in the next few months. Bitcoin has its own drivers, its own value, and it’s not going to go up and down because of the actions of central banks.”
It's important to note that bitcoin has already been on an absolute tear this summer.
One month ago, the price was in the $400 range. Last week, it nearly hit $800. It’s up 57% in the past three months and 170% in the past year. It has been on a ride that briefly reversed earlier this week, when the price began falling again. Now it's been buoyed back up on the Brexit news. But it is possible, perhaps likely, that the price would have risen again this week, or next, even without the news from England.
Nonetheless, bitcoin people are excited.
"The pound has crashed; the Euro is in trouble, the dollar turbulent. Maybe it’s time the world looks at a more global solution," said Mihir Magudia of digital currency LEOcoin, in an e-mailed comment. Barry Silbert, whose Digital Currency Group has invested in a lion’s share of the hottest bitcoin startups, tweeted a bit of a grand statement on Thursday night about the price hike.
This is bitcoin's coming out party as a global safe haven investment. Amazing— Barry Silbert (@barrysilbert) June 24, 2016
Before anyone goes ditching all their fiat currency for bitcoin, it’s worth keeping some perspective: the market cap of all the bitcoin in the world is only around $10 billion. That’s half an Under Armour.
The best piece of wisdom to remember whenever anyone analyzes the price of bitcoin is that no one really knows anything. It’s a volatile commodity, with fluctuations influenced by a whole host of factors and elusive sentiment.
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering technology and sports business. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.