Bitcoin has climbed 65% this year despite crypto woes. Experts explain why.

The digital currency benefited from a shift to well-known coins, experts said.

May 12, 2023, 5:11 AM

The cryptocurrency industry, in recent months, has suffered some blows: high-profile bankruptcies, the arrest of wunderkind Sam Bankman-Fried and a regulator lawsuit against top crypto exchange Binance.

Despite it all, the price of the largest cryptocurrency, bitcoin, has surged.

Bitcoin has climbed 65% this year, far surpassing the S&P 500, which has jumped 7%. Even the Nasdaq, a tech-heavy index, has delivered just a quarter of bitcoin's gains.

In fact, bitcoin has benefited from crises in the cryptocurrency arena, analysts said, since the unrest has pushed investors away from lesser-known coins and toward the sector's household name.

Plus, the price has gained a boost from wider economic forces like trouble in the financial system and slowing interest rate hikes, they said.

But the coming months pose uncertainty, experts added, as a looming recession could test the performance of an asset less than 15 years old.

The blockbuster performance of bitcoin in 2023 comes after the digital currency's price plummeted last year. In all, the price of bitcoin fell 65% last year, exceeding the losses suffered by the S&P 500, which dropped about 20%.

The price struggles for bitcoin, which extended throughout much of the cryptocurrency sector, coincided with an aggressive series of interest rate hikes that put downward pressure on many assets, including the major stock indexes.

"There had been a big bubble," James Butterfill, head of research at digital asset management firm CoinShares, told ABC News. "The bubble was pricked by the Fed."

The distress in cryptocurrency helped trigger a slew of failures. Last May, a major coin, Terra, collapsed along with its sister coin Luna. Meanwhile, several crypto lenders such as Block Fi, Celsius and Genesis filed for bankruptcy last year.

In dramatic fashion, crypto exchange FTX filed for bankruptcy in November after a collapse in a matter of days that was followed by the arrest of Bankman-Fried, the company's founder and former CEO. Bankman-Fried has pleaded not guilty to all 13 counts he faces, including fraud and conspiracy.

The unrest last year sent crypto investors toward well-known digital currencies, Callie Cox, an analyst at the investment company eToro who tracks cryptocurrencies, told ABC News.

"Bitcoin has been the beneficiary of a flight to quality within the crypto industry," Cox said. "This is the crypto name that my mom and your family probably know."

Butterfill, of CoinShares, echoed the point: "People are becoming a lot more discerning. There are 50,000 crypto coins out there and a lot of them are rubbish."

PHOTO: FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried leaves Manhattan federal court in New York, Feb. 16, 2023.
FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried leaves Manhattan federal court in New York, Feb. 16, 2023.
John Minchillo/AP, FILE

Ethereum, the world's second-largest cryptocurrency, has surged 52% this year, benefiting as well from the rush toward prominent coins, Butterfill said.

The rise in the price of bitcoin has coincided with favorable developments across the wider economy, since the Federal Reserve has slowed its interest rate hikes and unrest in the traditional banking sector has pushed some investors to seek a digital alternative, experts said.

Since March, three of the nation's 30-largest banks have collapsed. Shares of regional lender PacWest Bancorp plummeted on Thursday after the bank said it lost 9% of deposits last week, suggesting that financial instability persists.

"When the banking system faced threats, a lot of investors saw reason to doubt the financial system," said Cox, of eToro. "They went looking for alternatives."

There is little data available that depositors pulled money out of banks and placed it in bitcoin, Butterfill noted, adding that he had heard anecdotes of bank customers transferring funds to crypto.

If the Fed halts its rate hikes, as many investors expect, bitcoin could continue its rise over the latter part of the year, experts said. However, they cautioned that a potential recession could bring volatility.

"There might be nervousness about bitcoin as we move closer to a recession," Cox said, pointing out that interest rates would remain elevated even after a pause. "There are a lot of crosswinds for crypto right now."

Butterfill acknowledged uncertainty about the outlook of day-to-day performance for bitcoin, but remained optimistic about the remainder of 2023, even if it involves a recession.

"Economic data continues to deteriorate," Butterfill said. "In that environment, bitcoin would be volatile and perform quite well."

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