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As NY Fed Promises More Cash, What Will Christine Lagarde Do?

Bradley Keoun

Bitcoin (BTC) prices slid for a fifth straight day, but the decline paled in comparison with the steep sell-off seen in traditional financial markets. New warnings from authorities over the growing risks from the spreading coronavirus sent stocks reeling, leading to fresh promises of cash injections from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. 

The largest cryptocurrency by market value slid 0.5 percent to $7,846 as of 20:20 UTC (4:20 p.m. Eastern time). It was the lowest price in two months, and the decline trimmed bitcoin’s year-to-date gains to 9.5 percent. 

Yet, the price drop in bitcoin was nowhere near the severity seen in U.S. stocks on Wednesday, with the benchmark S&P 500 Index plunging nearly 5 percent. The sell-off on Wall Street was so broad that even gold, seen by many investors as a reliable safe haven in times of economic and market distress, slid 1 percent to $1,644 an ounce. 

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Governments and central banks around the world moved to provide new aid packages and monetary stimulus to blunt the economic impact of the contagion. The virus, and efforts to contain it, have led to widespread business disruptions and travel cancellations, while crimping supply chains for factories and sapping consumer confidence.

The New York Fed, the biggest among the Federal Reserve’s 12 regional branches, said in a statement Wednesday afternoon it would increase an overnight lending program for Wall Street bond dealers for the second time this week. The cap on the short-term loans, which the firms rely on to supplement cash when market liquidity is tight, will now increase to $175 billion, from the $150 billion set on Monday. Previously, the so-called “repo” loans were capped at $100 billion. 

And in a move that was would have been unthinkable until recently, the European Central Bank could slash its benchmark interest rate, according to analysts at JPMorgan Chase. The biggest U.S. bank predicted the ECB, led by President Christine Lagarde, could decide Thursday after a meeting in Frankfurt to also boost its “quantitative easing” asset-purchasing program to 40 billion euros ($22 billion) a month from the current pace of 20 billion euros.

“What you’re really seeing at a global level is this oscillation between risk-on and risk-off as you get this progressive disclosure of how bad is the actual virus, and also how bad is the response,” said Mike Alfred, co-founder and CEO of the cryptocurrency-focused data provider Digital Assets Data. “There’s going to be a lot more days like the last few days over the next few months.”

Merkel’s dire prediction

Related: Down 26%: Bitcoin Sees Worst Sell-Off in 7 Years as Coronavirus Spurs Flight to Safety

The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus to be a pandemic, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a news conference in Berlin that some 60 percent to 70 percent of the population could become infected in the country of 82 million citizens. 

Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a congressional hearing in Washington the coronavirus is at least 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu, even if the mortality rate ends up being lower than the World Health Organization’s current estimate of 3.4 percent, according to CNBC.

Central banks contemplate next steps

The Bank of England took the emergency step of slashing interest rates to support the economy, coordinated with a U.K. government announcement of a new 30 billion-pound ($39 billion) fiscal stimulus package. 

Bank of America said Wednesday in a report the Federal Reserve, led by Chair Jerome Powell, might move as soon as next week to announce monetary-stimulus measures similar to those used in the financial crisis over a decade ago. In a matter of months in 2008, from August to December, the Fed’s balance sheet doubled in size to more than $2 trillion, and it doubled again during the next few years to over $4 trillion. 

Bitcoin ‘not immune’

Digital Assets Data’s Alfred drew a contrast between breadth of official responses in traditional markets and the absence of any changes in the computer-based protocol governing the decentralized blockchain network that bitcoin runs on. The system was designed 11 years ago with hard and specific rules that stipulate the pace of issuance of new units of the cryptocurrency. 

Indeed, many bitcoin investors say the digital asset’s price is likely to rise this year in conjunction with an upcoming, once-every-four-years “halving,” where the number of new bitcoins issued per new data block “mined” – roughly every 10 minutes or so – will decline by half to 6.25 from 12.5. It’s such a widely anticipated event that members of the cryptocurrency community have even created Internet-based countdown clocks to chronicle the event, now just 60 days away. That puts it on or around May 11.   

“You would expect that to be a positive for bitcoin,” said Mark Warner, head of trading for London-based BCB Group, a financial firm focused on digital assets. 

Yet, in the current environment, there appears to be a rush by investors everywhere to avoid further losses, and bitcoin “is not immune,” Warner said. While he had expected recently that bitcoin’s price would find support around the $8,000 level, the market “blew through that.” He now sees potential support at $7,000, though he wouldn’t rule out a decline to $6,500. 

“Looking at what the coronavirus is doing, as well as what oil prices have done, there’s just chaos all over and people are derisking,” Warner said. 

Greg Cipolaro, co-founder of the cryptocurrency-focused Digital Asset Research, told CoinDesk he has started keeping his own spreadsheet to track newly reported coronavirus cases. He’s watching for the moment when the number of new cases reported over the past seven days starts to fall below the number reported for the prior week. 

“I think it’s topical,” Cipolaro wrote in an email. “My personal opinion is that markets won’t settle down until we slow the coronavirus growth rate, like China and Korean have done. Fears are running rampant, and exponential growth models are being forecasted out ad infinitum.”

Mati Greenspan, founder of the research firm Quantum Economics, which analyzes cryptocurrencies and foreign exchange, wrote in an email to clients that it’s not unreasonable to expect bitcoin to trade in synch with stocks for the foreseeable future.

“This might come later on, once we understand more about the economic impact and how long it might take to see some sort of recovery,” Greenspan said.  

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