This year’s Super Bowl was more than an American football game. It became a chapter in financial history as the cryptocurrency industry splashed out millions of dollars on star-studded television advertisements that played on fears of missing out on the next big thing in investing.
“Fortune favours the brave,” said a commercial for Crypto.com, an exchange based in Singapore, which featured basketball’s LeBron James counselling a computer-generated version of himself as a teenager that “if you want to make history, you got to call your own shots”.
Two months later, discretion is proving to be the better part of valour in the markets for bitcoin and other leading cryptocurrencies. Trading has turned sluggish in the weeks following the Super Bowl ad blitz as fundamental factors — ranging from rising interest rates to the war in Ukraine — have diminished the animal spirits of investors.
“We did not see a massive influx of retail investors into crypto after the Super Bowl ads,” said Noelle Acheson, head of market insights at Genesis Trading, a New York-based digital asset broker that claims to have handled $116.5bn in spot crypto trades last year. “Volumes are low because of a huge amount of uncertainty in the markets.”
Measuring cryptocurrency activity precisely is difficult because of the large number of trading venues around the world that are subject to little or no regulatory oversight and produce data of uncertain reliability. Analysts like Acheson base their observations on the trading numbers reported by bigger, better-known exchanges that are considered more trustworthy.
Such measures point to a clear decline in trading activity in recent months. The Block Legitimate Index, for example, shows spot crypto volumes have remained below $1tn every month this year after topping that figure in nine of the 12 months of 2021. In March, the month after the Super Bowl, the index showed $739bn in activity, compared with $2.2tn in May of last year.
Prices have declined along with trading volumes. Bitcoin fell from nearly $69,000 in November to just over $33,000 in January. Since then, it has bounced around between about $36,000 and $47,000 on most days.
To the crypto cognoscenti, the recent market action suggests that larger investors, rather than retail punters, are taking the lead. Digital assets are increasingly used to spice up the portfolios of bigger players, they say, taking a place beside other “risk assets”. When these investors turn cautious, they trim their crypto holdings, taking advantage of the round-the-clock trading in digital assets to make their exits.
“Because bitcoin has been seen by many of the large macro investors as a risk asset — it’s high volatility, a feature not a bug — then it is treated like a risk asset,” Acheson said. “When these large funds need to de-risk, bitcoin is a very liquid, high-volatility asset that trades 24/7/365, so it is relatively easy to offload.”
Chris Zuehlke, a partner at DRW, a Chicago trading firm, and global head of the company’s cryptocurrency arm, Cumberland, said he sees two investor groups battling it out in the crypto market this year. One sells in times of turmoil, as it would with other investments in promising technologies. The other buys the dip, taking the view held by the original promoters of cryptocurrencies that they could serve as protection against the vagaries of fiat currencies and the governments that oversee them.
“Some fraction of the world sees it as a risk asset and trades it similar to some of the high-growth tech stocks,” he said. “Some other fraction of the world sees it as a risk-off, or a risk-hedge asset, a store of value. That push and that pull between those two camps, I think, is what defined that range we have been sitting in the past couple of months.”
Another manifestation of the increasingly important role large investors are playing in the crypto market is the growth of complicated derivatives trading strategies. In March, Cumberland announced that it was trading bespoke over-the-counter options “in a number of coins”. Zuehlke said that “while vanilla options are interesting to people, they are very quickly moving into more complex structures.”
It is an intriguing fate for a pop cultural phenomenon. Even as cryptocurrencies are becoming the stuff of Super Bowl adverts — like cars, beer or Hollywood blockbusters — the trade in these digital assets is becoming more difficult for the average person to understand.
Additional reporting by Adam Samson and Joshua Oliver in London