Bitcoin's resilience amid major stress suggests its long-term success is not dependent on any centralized entity either pumping or dumping it.
The broader weakness in digital asset markets observed throughout 2022 serves as a reminder that bitcoin remains one of the primary reserve currencies of the crypto economy. This became evident several times during the year when overleveraged players throughout the market — CeFi fenders, hedge funds, and venture capital (VC) funds — became forced sellers of digital assets across the board.
Bitcoin's resilience amid that stress suggests its long-term success is not dependent on any centralized entity either pumping or dumping it. The network continued to process an average of 255k transactions per day in 2022 without downtime or centralized oversight, even under volatile conditions. In fact, it continues to gain traction and adoption regardless of what happens in the markets.
Further, from a macroeconomic perspective, the value proposition for bitcoin has only strengthened this year as sovereign currencies around the world have shown signs of stress and central banks continue to grapple with policy credibility. In fact, if we look at the risk- adjusted performance of bitcoin (based on
a rolling 90-day window), BTC/USD returns tended to mirror EUR/USD returns in 2021, producing gains when many G10 pairs sold off.
That is partly a reflection of the global liquidity injection during that time. But also in 2022, when all markets tended to be risk-off, BTC actually outperformed most G10 FX pairs to the downside except during the deleveraging events in May, June, and November. See chart 10.
Chart 10. Bitcoin vs euro and yen in terms of risk-adjusted performance (z-score) Based on a rolling 90d window. Sources: Bloomberg and Coinbase.
It is also important to zoom out and compare this ”bear market” to past bear markets for bitcoin. Chart 11 shows that the percentage of bitcoin holders currently underwater on their investments is nearing 50%, just below the historic cyclical highs reached in November 2011, January 2015, and February 2019 (together averaging around 53%). These represent major inflection points for BTC performance, preceding subsequent periods of price appreciation. It should be noted that because the metric tracks UTXO movements, the denominator of the ratio is likely understated given individuals may hold their bitcoin across multiple UTXO sets. Wallet transfers are thus indistinguishable from BTC safes/purchases, potentially overcounting the number of underwater positions. Stiff, we believe this metric provides important insights into current cycle positioning.
Also while the drop in BTC has been nearly commensurate with historical cycles, the state of play has shifted dramatically. In 2018, the Lightning Network was in its infancy and institutional adoption was relatively insignificant. Today, Lightning Network channel capacity is near all-time highs and preeminent industry leaders in finance and technology are participating in this space. Further, there are a number of important Lightning-enabled protocols being developed — including Taro and Fedimint — that have the potential to expand the utility of the Bitcoin network beyond a store of value.
Chart 12. BTC and ETH volumes on centralized exchanges by month Source: Coinbase.
Miners as marginal sellers
Despite the positive traction in terms of mindshare, bitcoin prices have oscillated in a tight range for several months, and ASlCs (bitcoin mining machines) are being sold at discounted prices. Bitcoin miners were not isolated from the leverage flush observed throughout 2022. Many miners had overextended their balance sheets throughout 2021, and when the market eventually turned, these leveraged players began to struggle, further perpetuating price declines as BTC reserves were liquidated.
As shown in Chart 13, some of the largest public bitcoin miners sold more bitcoin than they mined during 2022, depleting their reserves in the process. Other operators — such as Marathon Digital and Hut8 — didn't sell any bitcoin during 2022, aided by the relative health of their balance sheets. In aggregate, the 10 public bitcoin miners detailed here mined 40.7k BTC and sold 40.3k BTC year-to-date in 2022, with 34.2k BTC held in their reserves as of November 30.
For context, this cohort of public miners accounted for 23% of total global hashrate at the end of November.
Chart 13. Public bitcoin miner summary (January 1 to November 30, 2022) Core Scientific data as of October 31 Sources: Public disclosures and SEC filings.
In early December 2022, the bitcoin network experienced its largest downward difficulty adjustment since July 2021 (which at the time coincided with China's mining ban) of 7.3%.1* Challenging conditions such as higher input costs (elevated energy prices) and lower output value have resulted in a highly stressed economic environment for bitcoin miners for the past several quarters. We've observed a number of signals of stress across the industry including:
• Compute North filing for bankruptcy in September
• Argo Blockchain warning in October it may need to cease operations if they're unable to source new financing
• Core Scientific indicating they were potentially heading towards bankruptcy and halting all debt financing payments in October
• Iris Energy unplugging a meaningful portion of their mining fleet after defaulting on a loan against their hardware in November
Meanwhile, economic conditions for miners worsened throughout 1H22, but hashrate curiously kept climbing higher. Part of the explanation for this phenomenon is that many operators — particularly in the US — had overextended their balance sheets throughout 2021 in order to build out mining capacity as fast as possible to take advantage of rising prices. Due in part to supply chain constraints, the delivery of incremental hardware (often purchased on credit) was slower than expected.1^ By the time their machines arrived, mining conditions had become tougher, and many of these operators were forced to either amend/ extend their debt obligations or mine near breakeven Levels in hopes of a price rebound or competitors shutting down first.
Further, many mining operators in the US arranged prepayment deals with power providers (often for reduced rates), meaning those operators would be willing to mine uneconomically for the duration of those prepaid energy contracts. However, these strategies can only sustain operations for so long and we are beginning to see signs of meaningful capitulation.
Absent a near-term increase in the price of bitcoin, further declines in hashrate (and in turn difficulty), and/or declines in energy prices, it's possible that more operators will be forced to shut down in the coming months — particularly in fight of stressed crypto market conditions. As a result, we would expect the mining industry to consolidate even further in the year ahead as more weft-capitalized players acquire hardware and capacity at attractive prices. That said, whether hashrate will continue to decline and result in subsequent downward difficulty adjustments remains to be seen.
Outside of the US, it has been reported that Russia has been aggressively building out mining capacity to Leverage stranded and cheap energy in the region.1’ Additionally, mining in China has recovered despite the 2021 ban, and while many operators in the region may have access to cheap energy sources, there also may be operators that have decided that it's worth the premium to mine unprofitabfy due to stringent capital controls in the country.These potential sources of incremental hashrate may counteract the impact of distressed miners in the US shutting down.
State of the Lightning Network
The Lightning Network is alayer-2 protocol built on top of bitcoin that can theoretically scale to millions of instant transactions per second that cost fractions of pennies to send.
Much of the future adoption of the Bitcoin network, particularly in developing countries, may be driven by the asset's utility as a medium of exchange. In order for this vision to become a reality, the growth and development of Bitcoin's more scalable second layer infrastructure will be critical.
The current public node capacity of the Lightning Network — as measured by the amount of BTC locked in public Lightning channels — is at all time highs. It is worth noting that an estimated 30% of channels are private, meaning the true value of the network is likely understated by available metrics. Despite being at all-time highs, however, public node capacity in USD terms totals Less than $100M, which pales in comparison to the total value locked on a network like Ethereum ( US$24B as of end-November).
Further, while certain projects — such as Taro — are actively developing methods to issue stablecoins or other non-bitcoin assets via the Lightning Network, dollar-pegged stablecoins on other blockchains are currently far more widely used as a medium of exchange. Additionally, in order for bitcoin itself to gain market share within the medium-of-exchange use case, it will likely need to grow into a larger, more mature, and less volatile asset. That said, the growth trajectory of the network is encouraging and there is a robust ecosystem of developers and startups building on this L2.
Mt. Gox disbursements
As we Look ahead to 2023, it is worth monitoring bitcoin-related events with potential market impact. One such event is the pending disbursement of bitcoin and other funds from the Mt. Gox rehabilitation plan. Over 11 years since its initial security vulnerability (and over eight years since filing for bankruptcy), the now defunct and much maligned bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox is preparing to potentially distribute funds to its creditors in 2023. The Latest notification as of October 2022 (from the committee in charge of the rehabilitation plan) stipulated that the revised deadline for repayment registration is January 10, 2023, with disbursements assumed to begin thereafter.
For context, the Rehabilitation Trustee approved a plan in 4Q21 to distribute 141,686 bitcoin ( $2.4B at December 2022 prices) to the creditors whose BTC was lost by the exchange. Market participants continue to speculate about the potential price impact of this large swath of bitcoin supply hitting the market in 2023. However, we believe the situation is more complex than that.
1.First, some hedge funds and private equity firms began acquiring claims from creditors at discounted prices starting in mid 2019. The Block reported in March 2021 that Fortress was spending $100M to buy BTC from creditors at up to 80% of what they're owed. Thus, many of the most motivated sellers may have already disposed of their claims to these funds. Those firms who purchased such claims may be more likely to hold these eventual repayments and/or hedge their exposure, as opposed to immediately selling their interest, given their historically constructive view of the industry. Fortress, in particular, was one of the first tradFi entities to enter the space when they purchased $20M of BTC in 2013 and later partnered with Pantera Capital to launch the Pantera Bitcoin Partners Fund in 2014.
2.Second, creditors who opted not to take an earlier payout and instead await resolution from the rehabilitation plan were relatively early to bitcoin (pre-2014). Those that continued to accumulate bitcoin across other venues between 2014 and today would likely have other methods of managing their investment exposure outside of immediately selling their rehabilitation payment.
3.Third, the notification from Mt. Gox issued in July 2022 stipulated that any movement of creditors' funds would be restricted “until all or part of the repayments made as initial repayments is completed.”*0 That statement suggests that once repayments actually commence, it's Likely that not aLf repayments will be distributed at once. Without more concrete details from the rehabilitation committee, it's difficult to say whether the potential supply of bitcoin hitting the market would be sold in pieces over the course of several months or all at once after all repayments are completed.