Two significant events dominated news channels over the last week. One was the confirmation, along with the pictures, of the existence of a supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A*, in the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way.
The second story was a similar black hole: a crypto black hole in the center of the cryptocurrency universe.
A massive fall in the price of Bitcoin below $30,000, down about 60% from its high of November of last year and the stablecoin Luna losing more than 98% of value, shook the foundations of the crypto investment universe.
This is not the first time that a bubble — fueled by the speculative desire of making quick money riding on often less understood technology — unraveled.
One of the first technology-led bubbles, the “railway mania” in Great Britain in the 1840s, was driven by over-optimistic speculation and fatal assumptions about technology-centric value creation. Those lessons have long been forgotten.
More recently, we have fading memories of the dot.com boom — and subsequent bust — that led to around 75% drop in NASDAQ in 2000 and wiped out over $1.7 trillion in value.
There might be some important cues with these past bubbles and the current crypto fluctuation.
People tend to make two assumptions about digital businesses including cryptocurrencies. The first assumption is that virtual assets have unlimited supply, and this is correct.
However, the second assumption, that these assets become unconditionally valuable, is incorrect. The missing link is the economic law that demand is driven by value creation, and prices of assets such as crypto assets can be sustained only by a tug-of-war between value-driven demand and scarce supplies.
Therein lies the rub: sustainable economic value of new technology is only possible when all the foundational pillars are built. Participants in the new business ecosystems, whether they are individuals or companies, can operate only when trust, safety, and value are all present. Just one or two is not enough.
To prevent the fall into the trap of “unlimited” supply of an asset, the creators of Bitcoin limited the supply to 21 million coins. However, any asset must have either intrinsic economic value or represent assets that have economic value. The cryptocurrency phenomenon is based on repudiating the connection between the price of the cryptocurrency with the value of the underlying asset, if any.
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The disconnect between price and value is a hallmark of all financial bubbles. The prices of new technology-based products and services are driven by greed, fear and (oftentimes) a lack of understanding of the real-world application layer. And the value of these products and services is driven only by the real-world applications.
Just like the crypto phenomenon, the dot-com bubble was driven by missing out the business layer of ecommerce.
For all things financial, the deep foundations of trust, safety, and real economic value are required. The price of Bitcoin (or any cryptocurrency for that matter) could go up to Pluto, but without an underlying economic value, it may very well go down to zero.
The dot-com businesses, mortgage-backed securities, and cryptocurrencies are all attempts to create economic value by creating new business models that resolve some of the existing frictions.
The speculators who drove the dot-com bubble provided much needed capital for risky innovation. After the dust from the dot-com crash settled, the companies that thrived from the dot-com revolution were the ones that provided real services and products. The speculators paved the way for the value-generators.
Today, the cryptocurrency universe is predominantly driven by speculators. They are, perhaps unknowingly, the angel investors in new crypto business models providing liquidity for crypto innovation. They are paving the way for new protocols (multi-signature, for example), new ecosystems (such as NFT marketplaces), new techniques (zero-knowledge proofs), and new payment networks.
The value-generators in the crypto markets are watching, experimenting, and doubling down to capture the value of blockchain-based technologies and business models. The recent shake down of the cryptocurrency markets is really a shake-up of the speculative risk-takers and a reckoning of the gamblers.
The value-generators are working behind the scenes and often away from the limelight, building products and services on top of security tokens, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and stable coins. Crypto speculators are the true angel investors taking huge risk to create the ‘internet of value transfer’ on top of the existing internet of information transfer.
The physicists assure us that Sagittarius A* is highly unlikely to swallow up the rest of our galaxy.
Let us remain hopeful that the pure speculation-fueled crypto black hole at the center of the cryptocurrency universe will not devour the universe of the economic value-generators of crypto.
Shivendu Shivendu is a University of South Florida Muma College of Business associate professor who teaches courses related to fintech, the economics of information systems, blockchain technology and IT strategy. Kiran Garimella is also an associate professor in USF’s business school, an academic scholar who also has many years’ corporate experience related to artificial intelligence, blockchain, and information systems.
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