Bitcoin’s Surge Lacks Extreme Leverage That Powered Past Rallies

Attendees arrive ahead of the Bitcoin 2021 conference in Miami. (Photographer: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg)

Bitcoin’s Surge Lacks Extreme Leverage That Powered Past Rallies

Bitcoin’s rebound from the depths of July is still missing one of its usual star players: Leverage.

Crypto traders have yet to meaningfully pile on leverage -- essentially, borrowed money that can amplify returns or losses -- as they have in past rallies. The spread between Bitcoin futures and its spot price has shriveled relative to February, when the cryptocurrency was in the midst of a rally that ultimately reached an all-time high, suggesting that demand for leveraged long positions remains muted.

To FRNT Financial’s Stephane Ouellette, that could suggest two things -- the first being that traders aren’t convinced Bitcoin’s return to more than $46,000 is a true breakout. But in Ouellette’s eyes, the more likely scenario is that the leveraged players are still to come, judging by the trajectory of past rallies -- and if they do, that would make the recent wave of $100,000 price forecasts more likely to materialize, he said.

“Typically we look at that as more of a strong-handed rally, which implies that the leverage portion of the rally comes later,” Ouellette, FRNT’s co-founder and chief executive officer, said on Bloomberg’s “QuickTake Stock” streaming program. “If that is the case, those $100,000 targets are very reasonable, I’d suggest. The last time we saw a move of this little leverage, we were pointing towards $20,000, and we didn’t really see the leverage come into the market in an aggressive way until we got to $40,000, which took us to $65,000.”

Bitcoin’s Surge Lacks Extreme Leverage That Powered Past Rallies

Up in five of the last seven sessions, Bitcoin has been steadily climbing higher, breaking above key levels that bulls said precipitate a further rally. That includes Friday, when the coin continued its uptrend, rising as much as 4.9% to $46,679. And it’s up roughly 50% since hitting a recent low that had taken it below $30,000 at one point this summer.

Bitcoin’s Surge Lacks Extreme Leverage That Powered Past Rallies

In the cryptosphere, using leverage to boost returns -- which leaves traders vulnerable to having their positions automatically sold if prices drop -- has been in the spotlight in recent months. Many said a May crash in prices, which led to service outages at some of the biggest exchanges, was exacerbated by leveraged positions getting wiped out. By some accounts, the selloff led to more than 775,000 traders having their accounts liquidated over a 24-hour period, equal to around $8.6 billion worth of crypto.

Since then, two of the biggest crypto exchanges -- Binance and FTX Trading -- reduced maximum leverage offered to traders. Last month, both capped it at 20 times, down from more than 100 for each. Though they’ve moved to rein in the most extreme use of the strategy, they are far from turning it off -- 20-times leverage still higher than what’s offered in standard U.S. stock-market accounts.

But right now, Bitcoin is defying a pile-up of negative headlines, including criticism over its toll on the environment and is advancing even as regulators around the world promise tougher scrutiny. China, for one, has taken a number of steps to clamp down on crypto mining, while U.S. policy makers are focusing on digital assets in a new way. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Gary Gensler recently called the space the “Wild West” and said he wouldn’t compromise on protecting investors in setting out a regulatory framework.

Hunter Horsley, chief executive officer at Bitwise Asset Management, for one, says these developments indicate greater regulatory clarity, something the crypto community has always longed for, and could help bring in new investors.

“Crypto is getting an incredible gift right now, which is it has begun the journey from nascent but not-highly-trusted into being a space that people believe has strong regulatory reins around it and that is permeating to all parts of the space,” he said in a phone interview. “That’s an amazing unlock and maybe the most important thing really that’s going on in crypto.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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