Bitcoin is up an eye-popping 245% in 2019 so far.
And based on many business news headlines of the past week, you’d think bitcoin’s surge is all thanks to Facebook (FB).
But bitcoin was already up nearly 200% before June 18, when Facebook announced its plans to launch a cryptocurrency called Libra next year and a digital wallet called Calibra. And the Facebook news initially sent bitcoin lower for the first few days, before it recovered.
Libra: Good or bad for bitcoin?
The initial thinking in some circles after Facebook’s announcement was that Libra, which has big-name backers like Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, Stripe, Spotify, Uber, and Lyft on board as “founding members,” will be bad for bitcoin, especially since the Libra Association says it aims for Libra to “put the term ‘currency’ back in cryptocurrency” by being a coin for everyday use.
Libra Association’s head of policy Dante Disparte even took a clear shot at bitcoin, telling Yahoo Finance that Libra coin, “is designed to be a unit of purchase and a unit of daily transactions, as opposed to a speculative asset—which is, candidly, where many cryptocurrencies have stood.” One of the biggest mainstream criticisms of bitcoin has been that it’s merely become a speculative investment, not for regular use as an actual currency.
But as the dust has settled from Facebook’s and Libra’s simultaneous June 18 announcements, more people in the cryptocurrency space are reasoning that the embrace of blockchain technology by Facebook and its other mainstream partners is an inherent endorsement of bitcoin. It is the “rising tide lifts all boats” argument. (Of course, the bitcoin community was quick to question whether Libra is truly decentralized, since Facebook executives are behind it, and whether Libra’s planned blockchain is a true “permissionless” ledger.)
In other words: Facebook’s crypto push is likely at least partially helping push other cryptocurrencies higher. But it’s far from the main driver.
So what’s the real reason bitcoin is moving higher in 2019?
It’s about institutional momentum
CME Group, which launched bitcoin futures trading back in December 2017, tweeted on June 18 about the “growing signs of institutional interest.” CME says it saw a new all-time high of bitcoin futures contracts on June 17.
CME Bitcoin futures (BTC) shows growing signs of institutional interest. BTC open interest rose by a record 643 contracts in a single day, establishing a new all-time high of 5,311 contracts on June 17 (26,555 equivalent bitcoin; ~$250M notional). https://t.co/I6A3jD6Iq3 pic.twitter.com/ljz6EbvK79— CMEGroup (@CMEGroup) June 18, 2019
Grayscale Investments has also seen big gains for its publicly traded bitcoin fund Grayscale Bitcoin Trust (GBTC), up 330% this year. In May, the firm launched a “Drop Gold” television ad campaign to push bitcoin as an investment class.
There is a lot of positive institutional crypto news in the water recently. JPMorgan launched its own internal cryptocurrency, JPM Coin. The CFTC this week approved LedgerX to offer bitcoin derivatives contracts, and to settle them in actual bitcoin.
And a report this month from Bitwise, highlighted by JPMorgan analysts, determined that institutional interest in the bitcoin futures market “has been significantly understated.” This has prompted the thinking that unlike the price hike at the end of 2017, which was driven by retail buying, “This time is different.”
That’s how Genesis Trading CEO Michael Moro frames it too. “This is a very different market today than it was in 2017,” he says. “2019 has less distractions. It's also a different space because the CME bitcoin futures product wasn’t available until December 2017.” Genesis says its trading volumes are two to three times higher than they were 12 months ago.
Lightning Labs, which offers a scaling alternative to the bitcoin blockchain and has been gaining momentum recently thanks to support from Square and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, released its first mobile app on Wednesday and saw an immediate flood of downloads.
And then there are the geopolitical factors. Many believe that President Trump’s endless trade war and tariff tit-for-tat with China (and threats of tariffs on other countries) has buoyed bitcoin, which is seen as a safe haven asset like gold. And earlier this month, European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi suggested the need for more ECB monetary stimulus, prompting criticism from Trump—that also was seen as a boon to bitcoin.
All of these factors have likely had a far bigger impact on the bitcoin price over the past few months than Facebook.
Daniel Roberts covers bitcoin and blockchain at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.