As the Los Angeles Rams beat the Cincinnati Bengals in the championship game of the National Football League last February, an unlikely set of players made a splash off the field, in living rooms across the United States.
On one of American television’s biggest nights, with 99 million viewers, the Super Bowl broadcast was punctuated by a series of cryptocurrency advertisements. Social media buzzed with talk of how digital tokens had come of age as they grabbed primetime slots previously dominated by mainstream giants like Coca-Cola and General Motors.
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One of the advertisements that night had comedian Larry David playing a Luddite dismissing humankind’s biggest inventions – from the wheel to Edison’s lightbulb to, the commercial suggests, the FTX cryptocurrency exchange. Told that the platform is a “safe and easy way to get into crypto”, David’s character says: “Ehhh, I don’t think so – and I’m never wrong about this stuff.”
That advertisement hasn’t aged well.
With multiple big crypto firms collapsing in recent months, the sector that promised an alternative to the traditional global financial model now faces existential questions. In May last year, the TerraUSD and Luna coins crashed, losing almost all of their value overnight and wiping out $45bn from the crypto market in a day. Singapore-based crypto hedge fund Three Arrows Capital abruptly shut down. Crypto lenders Voyager Digital and Celsius Network – which had both loaned money to Three Arrows Capital – soon filed for bankruptcy.
And in November, FTX – the popular crypto trading platform in the Super Bowl advertisement – imploded. Its founder Sam Bankman-Fried was arrested in the Bahamas in December and has been charged with fraud. Bitcoin, the world’s best-known cryptocurrency, is today worth only a third of what it was at its peak in October 2021.
The FTX commercial with David ends with the tagline, “Don’t be like Larry.” Today, many of the 420 million people estimated to have invested in crypto might well be wishing they had been more like Larry.
So is crypto about to go extinct?
The short answer: As a concept, cryptocurrencies will probably survive, experts told Al Jazeera. But the sector will likely face increased regulation and an extended period of uncertainty. Many firms and currencies will perish. To stay alive, companies will face one challenge above all else: winning back customer trust.
Crypto ‘ice age’
Cryptocurrency trading platforms have traditionally drawn in customers with the promise of quick returns on investment. The offer: Park money in so-called crypto wallets – which are meant to function in a manner similar to savings bank accounts – and earn high interest rates, sometimes in double digits. For those who are distrustful of traditional finance, the opportunity to carry out transactions without worrying about a regulator as an intermediary is an added attraction.
But this allure dimmed once the US Federal Reserve and other major central banks around the world sharply raised interest rates through 2022, making more traditional investment options more lucrative than before. The US rate, for instance, shot up by more than 4 percentage points over the course of 2022.
Once TerraUSD and Luna went into freefall, a combination of safer alternatives and reduced trust in crypto led to a crisis that, according to experts, is far from over.
“I think we’ll see a lot more bad news before things start looking better for the sector,” Tim Leung, director of the computational finance and risk management programme at the University of Washington in Seattle told Al Jazeera.
With many potential customers now sceptical, crypto platforms will likely witness low trading volumes for a while, Leung said. The crypto sector likes to pride itself on its independence, but it depends on financing from traditional markets. How much of that funding will continue in the current climate is unclear, Leung suggested. With reduced trading and less funding, many smaller firms might go belly up, he warned.
Crypto mining companies, which generate virtual money – or coins – using energy-guzzling supercomputers, will suffer too, Leung said. Reduced demand for coins because of low trading volumes and high energy prices will squeeze the viability of their business model. “I see this phase lasting through 2023,” he said. “It’s more likely to be a crypto ice age rather than a crypto winter.”
The downturn isn’t surprising, suggested experts.
“This is a start-up industry with hundreds of firms and lots of innovation,” said David Yermack, professor of finance at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He told Al Jazeera he expects a chaotic period for cryptocurrencies in the foreseeable future but thinks that “ultimately best practices will emerge through competition”.
Governments around the world have signalled plans to step in to shield customers from that chaos. But regulators and analysts appear divided on how best to intervene.
Old laws for new tech?
Gary Gensler, chairman of the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), argued in September that existing laws are adequate for the crypto sector. In his view, he said, most cryptocurrencies are similar to traditional securities – tradable financial assets like stocks or bonds.
Hilary Allen, professor of law at American University in Washington, DC, agrees with that approach. Cryptocurrencies and trading platforms, she said, must meet the standards of governance that the SEC demands from old-school securities – including registering with the regulator and demonstrating transparency over assets – or be shut down.
Creating new rules for the crypto industry would be wrong, she said. “That would legitimise the idea that crypto, somehow, is unique, and can’t be expected to meet the same standards as mainstream financial assets,” Allen told Al Jazeera. “That’s a dangerous message to send.”
But many other experts disagree.
“There’s a fundamental difference between securities and currencies,” said Bruno Biais, a professor of finance at the HEC Paris business school. People invest in stocks or bonds based on the cash flow or assets of the company offering them, he said. They buy currency – whether a dollar, a euro or a crypto token – trusting that the coin or note will be accepted by others at a later date.
Trying to fit an existing regulatory framework on cryptocurrencies without adapting it to new technology won’t work, said Christian Catalini, founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Cryptoeconomics Lab.
It won’t guarantee consumer protection, Catalini told Al Jazeera. “Worse, it may kill the innovation potential of the space without any meaningful benefit to the public,” he said.
Where most analysts do agree is that regulations for the sector must focus on one kind of cryptocurrency in particular: so-called stablecoins.
Making ‘stablecoins’ stable
Unlike tokens like Bitcoin, whose price can fluctuate wildly, the value of stablecoins is pegged to a regular currency, like the US dollar or other traditional assets like gold. For instance, each Tether coin, the world’s most popular stablecoin – which often trades even more than Bitcoin – is worth $1. That value stability positions stablecoins as tokens that, while still earning well through crypto wallets, are supposedly safer than other cryptocurrencies.
“The very term, ‘stablecoin’, conjures the image of a reliable currency that gives customers a false sense of security,” Biais told Al Jazeera. “The problem? Unlike regular currencies and banks, stablecoins are basically completely unregulated.”
So while in theory, those who own $100 worth of stablecoins should be able to redeem that amount whenever they want – as would be the case with a banknote – there’s no guarantee they’ll actually get that money back, said Biais.
The Financial Stability Board (FSB), a global advisory body set up by the G20 after the 2008 financial crisis, has been urging major economies to adopt regulations to ensure that stablecoins demonstrate their ability to pay customers back. In its October 2022 report, the FSB warned that many existing stablecoins “are issued by unregistered and unlicensed entities and do not have credible mechanisms to support their promise of price stability”.
While US regulators appear undecided on the need for new rules, many other nations and regions are moving towards laws specifically designed to govern the crypto sector and, in particular, stablecoins. These rules could help ensure that “good actors thrive, and bad actors disappear from the crypto ecosystem”, said Catalini.
The European Union’s new regulation, known as Markets in Crypto-Assets (MiCA), will require all crypto firms to register with authorities. Stablecoins will need to guarantee assets to pay customers back at any time. MiCA comes into force in 2024.
Japan passed a law last June under which only banks and other strictly regulated financial institutions can offer stablecoins. And the British government has proposed that the Financial Conduct Authority, the country’s top financial services regulator, would have oversight over crypto firms.
Meanwhile, India’s finance minister has said that crypto regulations would be a priority of the country’s G20 presidency in 2023. A global framework to regulate crypto is indeed essential, said Leung of the University of Washington, since many firms in the sector have a footprint across geographies.
But for any of this to help revive the industry, crypto firms will first need to regain the confidence of customers, said experts.
Matter of trust
Many crypto enthusiasts will likely watch to see how big cases of fraud, such as the one involving FTX, play out, said Biais of HEC Paris. If they see justice, and if those who have lost money because of such scams get it back, that would help rebuild trust, he said.
Some experts, like Allen at American University, believe that crypto has little to meaningfully offer to the financial world in the future. “When you peel away the rhetoric, there really isn’t anything there that you can’t do using traditional finance instruments,” she said.
Others remain convinced that crypto, with its potential to enable peer-to-peer, decentralised financial exchanges, represents a transformational technology. “The technology is here to stay, even if a number of the initial projects in the crypto space are falling,” MIT’s Catalini said.
He described the moment as similar to the dot-com bubble that burst in the late 1990s when many early online firms went bust. Those – like Amazon – that survived or came up later are among “the internet giants of today”, he said.
Still, until the dust settles and reliable regulations come in, Leung at the University of Washington said it’s best to be cautious. “You don’t want to make decisions based on Super Bowl commercials,” he said. “This isn’t a game.”