The real cost of the digital cryptocurrency’s fall from grace
Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | Bitcoin hit its highest valuation a year ago, reaching above £15,000 on some exchanges. Since then, a unit of the cryptocurrency has dropped 80% and is valued at less than £3,000. According to Sky News of Britain, hundreds of businesses are being dragged down with Bitcoin’s value, and with them mortgages and even marriages.
The dreams of getting rich for some of those who spoke to Sky News were not especially virtuous or grounded in notions of productivity.
Many of the Bitcoin investors recognised their own opportunism and expected the bubble would burst, and the price would eventually plummet, but they expected to sell before this happened.
Others confessed to being blinded by the fear of missing out. Even if they enjoyed the casual chat about how the future of global exchange naturally lay with a decentralised currency, they just expected to get rich quick.
In general, this did not happen.
Analysing data from Companies House and OpenCorporates, Sky News has found that at least 340 companies related to cryptocurrencies or blockchain were dissolved or liquidated in 2018, compared to 139 in the previous year.
More than 200 of those companies were incorporated with Companies House during 2017, when the value of Bitcoin surged 1,500% through to its peak in December.
Hugh Halford-Thompson, an early cryptocurrency enthusiast and founder of several blockchain companies – who even sold Bitcoin to George Osborne when he was chancellor – told Sky News that the influx of inexperienced investors during this period had concerned him.
“We had a Bitcoin ATM that we set up in Shoreditch in a place called the Vape Lab, an e-cigarette cafe in the cool part of town.
“That was back in 2013, when the price first spiked to about £250 early in that year, and later that year spiked to £1,200.”
When the December spike came round, he went abroad and didn’t have access to his funds to sell them at the peak, which he describes as “a shame” – but even then there were other people looking to enter the market.
“There was a lot of people getting in, and I think for the first time I felt there were a large number of people who really didn’t understand what they were getting into as well.
“So every Uber driver I had either had invested or was thinking about it.
“I had people asking me genuinely which coin to put their children’s university funds into. That’s not good.
“I didn’t follow up with them, but I hope they didn’t,” Halford-Thompson added.
“For the first time a lot of normal people who didn’t understand investments (were getting involved, and they) made or lost money in fairly big ways.
“It’s a lot worse when it’s the general public.”
It seemed like a gold rush – until the price began to sink.
“There was a lot of people trying to work out how they can get in four days before the big crash,” Halford-Thompson said.
“I saw a lot of companies get involved when the hype was building. There are a lot of issues in that whole sector.
“What you’ve had since the crash is a clean-out of the companies that don’t really have much and probably shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”
Bitcoin shed half of its peak value by March 2018 and has continued to fall, a fall matched by an increase in the number of companies being dissolved.
By June, Bitcoin was less than a third of its peak value, and an average of one company was being dissolved every day.
Since then Bitcoin’s value has continued to sink to less than a fifth of its peak value, and 60% of the 340 companies dissolved in 2018 ceased operations between June and November.
For the first time, the number of newly-registered companies is growing more slowly than the number of dissolved businesses.
Speaking to small business owners and investors, one particular tragedy stood out as typical.
Married men accessed equity through their family homes, and often – whether because they felt they needed to act quickly to make the most money, or because they feared that their investment would be criticised by their spouses – did so without informing their families, only to see the value of their assets evaporate, followed by their homes.
One man told Sky News he lost his marriage and remortgaged his home after he defaulted on loans he had used to invest in cryptocurrencies. He said he wished he had never heard of Bitcoin.
He and many other investors and businesses declined to be identified in this article, explaining that they feared mockery from friends and relatives.
Over the course of 2017, enthusiasts began ploughing as much cash as they could into Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies because customers were becoming increasingly interested in them.
When the prices dropped and customers grew sparse, many businesses cut their losses and dissolved. Maybe they didn’t exit at the peak, but some came away from the wild ride with a bit of extra cash.
One small business owner told Sky News he wasn’t quite ready to dissolve his business. Despite his losses, he hoped his experience would be of benefit to potential customers – although he wasn’t prepared to identify himself or his business.
Last December, the interest in Bitcoin seemed divorced from any knowledge about the technology underpinning it – other than the name.
Shares in an unprofitable company called Long Island Iced Tea soared up to 289% when it renamed itself Long Blockchain – although that company was subsequently de-listed from the Nasdaq stock, and has now been issued with a subpoena by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Of the businesses which haven’t been dissolved, Sky News has found more than 50 which have changed their names to no-longer reference Bitcoin, blockchain, or cryptocurrencies.
The chief executive of one business said this was because opening a bank account with one of those words in the company name proved a nightmare – although Sky News identified hundreds of other businesses with similar titles.
Article by Carmen Aguilar Garcia, Rowland Manthorpe, and Alexander J Martin