Bitcoin started 2020 at $7,200. It ended the year at nearly $30,000, up 296%. (For comparison, the Nasdaq rose 43% in 2020, the S&P 500 rose 16%, the Dow rose 7%.)
The surge continued full-steam into 2021: On Jan. 2, bitcoin broke through $30,000 for the first time, then broke $32,000 just hours later.
The 2020 bitcoin bonanza can be chalked up to a convergence of many positive factors, as well as a convergence of narratives.
In the past, a common criticism of bitcoin from skeptics was that it isn’t useful as a real currency—you can’t spend it in most places. In 2020, investors decided they don’t care about that, and don’t want to spend their bitcoin anyway. Institutional firms flooded in, viewing cryptocurrencies as a legitimate asset to hold in their portfolio.
At the very least, the consensus now appears to be: Bitcoin isn’t going away. It has existed for 10 years and will continue to exist.
The same cannot be said with absolute certainty about any of the other multitude of cryptocurrencies (“altcoins”), except perhaps ether (ETH), the token of the Ethereum network. (XRP, the token developed by Ripple Labs, has been in the top four cryptocurrencies by market cap for years, but is now under fire after the SEC sued Ripple Labs, alleging it conducted a $1.3 billion unregistered securities offering.)
If the late 2017 bitcoin price surge was driven by crypto newbies buying in without doing their homework, the 2020 ride has been driven by institutional buying. While newcomer retail investors are again buying bitcoin, many individual Wall Street names and consumer-facing payments companies have also warmed to crypto. This has all happened against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, with central banks pumping out stimulus money—a scenario that has served as a reminder of bitcoin’s scarcity and its appeal as “digital gold,” a hedge against inflation.
Institutional investors rush in
Wall Street firms pumped $5.75 billion into digital asset funds in 2020, up 660% from 2019, according to the Dec. 21 crypto inflows report from CoinShares Research.
The spike has pushed Grayscale Investments, the largest crypto asset fund, to $15.3 billion in assets.
In Q2 of this year, more than a dozen well-known Wall Street firms, including ARK Invest, disclosed to the SEC new investments in GBTC, Grayscale’s Bitcoin Investment Trust, a publicly traded fund pegged to the price of bitcoin, cited by JP Morgan strategists in November as a leading indicator of institutional sentiment.
“A failure by the Grayscale Bitcoin Trust to receive additional inflows over the coming weeks,” JPM strategists wrote, “would cast doubt to the idea that institutional investors such as family offices have embarked on a trend of embracing bitcoin as digital gold.” As we now see, GBTC did not fail to receive additional inflows in December.
So much bitcoin is now held by long-term institutional investors that blockchain research firm Glassnode estimates just 22% of existing bitcoin is in circulation for trading, which could be positive for the price in 2021 but could also increase volatility.
Wall Street titans change their tune
Along with the spike in institutional interest, individual Wall Street investors, known for their influence, have changed their public tune on bitcoin.
In May, hedge fund titan Paul Tudor Jones said he has nearly 2% of his portfolio in bitcoin. He ranked bitcoin No. 4 on his list of hedges against inflation, and called it a “great speculation.” This month, he expanded on his bullishness in an interview with Yahoo Finance, arguing that as cryptocurrencies proliferate, bitcoin will become even more differentiated as the “precious” coin: “the first crypto, first-mover in a world that’s so compressed. It has that historical integrity within digital currencies that it will always have… And again, because of its finite supply, that might be the precious crypto.”
In November, billionaire investor Stan Druckenmiller said he owns some bitcoin, telling CNBC he owns a lot more gold than bitcoin, but “if the gold bet works, the bitcoin bet will probably work better, because it’s thinner, more illiquid and has a lot more beta to it.” Bill Miller, the veteran investor and former CIO of Legg Mason, has added his name to the chorus, saying he expects all the big banks to hold cryptocurrency soon and that he has 30% of his own hedge fund portfolio in bitcoin.
Even Ray Dalio of Bridgewater, who had said earlier this year that he sees major problems with cryptocurrencies, including the potential for governments to “outlaw” them, said in a Reddit AMA this month that bitcoin “could serve as a diversifier to gold” and that investors ought to “have some of these type of assets.”
Of course, many prominent bears remain bears. The economist Nouriel Roubini, who has the nickname “Dr. Doom,” reiterated this month on Yahoo Finance that he believes bitcoin is “not a currency… not a stable store of value… not even an asset,” and predicted that the “hyperbolic bubble is going to go bust.”
PayPal, Square, Visa, JPMorgan, Fidelity & more
On Oct. 21, PayPal announced it will soon allow bitcoin buying inside its PayPal and Venmo digital wallets (as well as paying with bitcoin, though most people are not likely to want to spend their crypto as the price rises). The news sent PayPal shares soaring along with the bitcoin price, hailed as a major milestone: a consumer-facing payments company signaling its faith in bitcoin.
Square has been all in on bitcoin (particularly fueled by bitcoin maximalist CEO Jack Dorsey) since 2018, when it added bitcoin buying and trading to its Cash App. This year, Square took the even stronger step of buying $50 million worth of bitcoin to hold on its balance sheet. (Cloud company MicroStrategy bought more than $1 billion of bitcoin this year.) Square’s bitcoin revenue was up 618% in Q3 to $1.63 billion, and its Q3 bitcoin profit was up 1,500% to $32 million. Square shares rose 246% in 2020, and bitcoin was part of it, though not the whole story.
But it isn’t just PayPal and Square.
Visa (V), over the past year, has approved a slew of Visa-branded bitcoin rewards credit and debit cards, and will add support for Circle’s USDC stablecoin (a cryptocurrency pegged to the value of the U.S. dollar) to its customer network. Visa tells Yahoo Finance it is «actively working with over 25 digital currency companies on a variety of bitcoin-related products and services, cards being just one area.”
JPMorgan Chase (JPM) has similarly warmed up to cryptocurrency (despite the public comments of CEO Jamie Dimon), first by launching an internal JPM token last year, then this year by allowing customer transfers to and from U.S. crypto exchanges Coinbase and Gemini. Fidelity, which started mining bitcoin in 2016, this past summer launched its first bitcoin investment fund for institutional clients; Fidelity Investments CEO Abby Johnson told Barron’s that Fidelity’s bitcoin ventures have been “incredibly successful.”
All of these examples represent an obvious shift in sentiment from just one year ago, which is why many in the crypto space insist this time is different than the 2017 price run.
The COVID-19 pandemic, and government reaction to it, handed bitcoin its dream scenario. When the Fed has to step in, crypto flag-wavers point to digital gold, free from government interference and quantitative easing. (Bitcoin’s supply will be capped at 21 million coins, with about 18.5 million coins created so far; mining creates new coins on the road to 21 million, but the reward for mining gets halved every four years as a means to slow creation.)
“There’s so many uncertainties in this pandemic, but one thing that seems almost assured is when you print trillions of dollars more paper money, it’s going to drive up bitcoin and other cyptocurrencies,” Dan Morehead, CEO of crypto investment firm Pantera Capital, said in August. “Gold’s going to go up, bitcoin’s going to go up. It is a hedge to paper currency being debased.”
In November, as the pandemic dragged on, more investors sought hedges, and as Chainlink cofounder Sergey Nazarov said, “That seeking of safety leads them to look at alternatives. The modern global financial system is not very well set up to help people combat inflation, whereas there are alternatives, such as bitcoin, that are. Impending inflation is something that is more and more on people’s minds, and inflation as a mechanism to devalue assets leads people to seek safety.”
The next question for crypto markets in 2021 will be what a President Biden administration means for crypto policy (maybe nothing), and whether bitcoin will in fact be a “safe” investment.
Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance and has covered bitcoin since 2011. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.