How Crypto Became the New Subprime
If the stock market isn’t the economy — which it isn’t — then cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin really, really aren’t the economy. Still, crypto has become a pretty big asset class (and yielded huge capital gains to many buyers); by last fall the combined market value of cryptocurrencies had reached almost $3 trillion.
Since then, however, prices have crashed, wiping out around $1.3 trillion in market capitalization. As of Thursday morning, Bitcoin’s price was almost halfway down from its November peak. So who is being hurt by this crash, and what might it do to the economy?
Well, I’m seeing uncomfortable parallels with the subprime crisis of the 2000s. No, crypto doesn’t threaten the financial system — the numbers aren’t big enough to do that. But there’s growing evidence that the risks of crypto are falling disproportionately on people who don’t know what they are getting into and are poorly positioned to handle the downside.
What’s this crypto thing about? There are many ways to make digital payments, from Apple Pay and Google Pay to Venmo. Mainstream payment schemes, however, rely on a third party — usually your bank — to verify that you actually own the assets you’re transferring. Cryptocurrencies use complex coding to supposedly do away with the need for these third parties.
Skeptics wonder why this is necessary and argue that crypto ends up being an awkward, expensive way to do things you could have done more easily in other ways, which is why cryptocurrencies still have few legal applications 13 years after Bitcoin was introduced. The response, in my experience, tends to take the form of incomprehensible word salad.
Recent developments in El Salvador, which adopted Bitcoin as legal tender a few months ago, seem to bolster the skeptics: Residents attempting to use the currency find themselves facing huge transaction fees. Still, crypto has been effectively marketed: It manages both to seem futuristic and to appeal to old-style goldbug fears that the government will inflate away your savings, and huge past gains have drawn in investors worried about missing out. So crypto has become a large asset class even though nobody can clearly explain what legitimate purpose it’s for.
But now crypto has crashed. Maybe it will recover and soar to new heights, as it has in the past. For now, however, prices are way down. Who are the losers?
As I said, there are disturbing echoes of the subprime crash 15 years ago.
Crypto is unlikely to cause an overall economic crisis. It’s a big world out there, and even $1.3 trillion in losses is only about six percent of U.S. gross domestic product, a hit that’s an order of magnitude smaller than the effects of falling home prices when the housing bubble burst. And activities like Bitcoin mining, while environmentally destructive, are economically trivial compared with home-building, whose plunge played a large role in causing the Great Recession.
Still, some people are being hurt. Who are they?
Investors in crypto seem to be different from investors in other risky assets, like stocks, who consist disproportionately of affluent, college-educated whites. According to a survey by the research organization NORC, 44 percent of crypto investors are nonwhite, and 55 percent don’t have a college degree. This matches up with anecdotal evidence that crypto investing has become remarkably popular among minority groups and the working class.
NORC says that this is great, that “cryptocurrencies are opening up investing opportunities for more diverse investors.” But I remember the days when subprime mortgage lending was similarly celebrated — when it was hailed as a way to open up the benefits of homeownership to previously excluded groups.
It turned out, however, that many borrowers didn’t understand what they were getting into. Ned Gramlich, a Federal Reserve official who famously warned in vain about the growing financial dangers, asked, “Why are the most risky loan products sold to the least sophisticated borrowers?” He then declared, “The question answers itself.” Homeownership dropped sharply once the bubble burst.
And cryptocurrencies, with their huge price fluctuations seemingly unrelated to fundamentals, are about as risky as an asset class can get.
Now, maybe those of us who still can’t see what cryptocurrencies are good for other than money laundering and tax evasion are just missing the picture. Maybe the rising valuation (although not use) of Bitcoin and its rivals represents something more than a bubble, in which people buy an asset simply because other people have made money off that asset in the past. And it’s OK for investors to bet against the skeptics.
But these investors should be people who are both well equipped to make that judgment and financially secure enough to bear the losses if it turns out that the skeptics are right.
Unfortunately, that’s not what is happening. And if you ask me, regulators have made the same mistake they made on subprime: They failed to protect the public against financial products nobody understood, and many vulnerable families may end up paying the price.
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