$100 Ether, revisited

Ethereum’s cryptocurrency, Ether, peaked at $1397.48 per coin on 14 January, 2018.

Eight months later, Ether is today at $190 per coin. Put differently, Ether has lost 87% of its value since January.

This is not something Ethereum’s promoters expected, nor is it the vision they sold, a year ago.

Buy the dream

A little over a year ago, my longtime acquaintance and philosophical opponent Vinay Gupta wrote a very well-shared piece titled “What does $100 Ether mean?” as the price of Ethereum’s cryptocurrency, Ether, blew through $100 (then $200, then $300… all the way to nearly $1,400). At the time, Vinay wrote:

Today, Ether hit $100 (update: it’s $300 now, five weeks later). I’m sure by the time you’re reading this it will be in The Guardian and the New York Times as a curiosity piece. Our market cap will approach thirty billion dollars. By all and any standards, this is a success beyond anything dreamt of when the project started, and the money raised will continue to finance technical innovation for years to come. While the impact and worth of a technology cannot be measured by money alone, on this occasion, celebration is appropriate. We have done well.

What followed was a paean to Ethereum as the future of the internet. The price of the coin, Vinay said, was the very embodiment of the hope Ethereum’s most fervent adopters; its entry into the annals of titans of world finance, like JP Morgan or Goldman Sachs, guaranteed:

I think Ether at $100 means that so many people believe in the world they think Ethereum will create, that it is becoming inevitable. I suspect that the full implementation of that vision will be a lot more humane and user-friendly than most of what people are thinking about right now…

…Regardless of how the technological details are worked out, I am more convinced than ever that the smart contract ecosystem is here to stay, because people want it, they need it, and it solves problems they face regularly. It may well be used by ordinary people 50 times a day without ever realizing they have touched it.

And how many “ordinary people” will Ethereum service? According to Vinay & co, “millions:”

It means that enough people are rallying around this vision of the future, and putting their money on the line for it, that the core development teams and entrepreneurs building that future will be funded more-or-less indefinitely. It means that there’s a massive wave of product innovation as people try to figure out how to get the millions of Ethereum users to spend their money on our products, and that evolutionary process builds further into the potential that the Ethereum system has to satisfy real human needs and desires.

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Ezekiel’s Wheels, Ethereum Edition

Sell the news

But, of course, there aren’t millions of users; there are perhaps 100,000 active addresses on the network each day, and roughly only 5,000 or so DApp users (I stress, these are maximum numbers, and the likely number of actual users is considerably lower than this). Absent some very major technical innovations which do not as yet exist, Ethereum breaks whenever a few hundred people try to use it at the same time. Ethereum very obviously lacks the capacity to address millions of users, unless those users do absolutely nothing with the cryptocurrency except hold onto it and hope that the value will rise.

I have been aware of these limitations from the start, which is why I have long been skeptical of the Ethereum team’s claims. I remember, back in 2014, attending the very early Ethereum meetups and being told that Ethereum would become a “world computer” capable of running the entire internet on this one, fully-decentralized platform. This is a contradiction in terms, mind you, as it seems awfully centralizing to be using a single instance of a blockchain database to decentralize all the things.

But the “world computer” made for fantastic advertising. Remember the marketing? Hospitals, automobiles, groceries, identity, local government, payments, cloud storage, encrypted messaging, airplanes, power stations Ethereum, Ethereum the World Computer, the one Ethereum that held its ICO back in 2014, that Ethereum whose coin we were all told to buy, was quite literally “the secure backbone for everything” and was going to do it all.

And you people believed it.

It was all bullshit, of course. Ethereum can barely handle the traffic it gets for a single Initial Coin Offering. But it was easier, and it apparently continues to be easier, for uncritical journalists and conferences looking to fill airtime to find some coin sellers wearing unicorn t-shirts to talk nonsense for 45 minutes than to learn who is actually building real applications with actual, working code, and ensure that those people get airtime instead.

https://twitter.com/mdudas/status/1038064657012084737

I never bought Vitalik’s vision. Loathed the Ethereum-as-cryptoccurency vision, actually. I always thought smart contracts should be free to develop and use, as Nick Szabo first described them in 1997, rather than pairing smart contracts with an investment scheme designed, seemingly, only to extract economic rent for the benefit of early adopters at every stage of the system’s future use.

Indeed: what is now known as the “permissioned” or “private” blockchain grew out of the realization that a single, stateful Ethereum instance shouldn’t scale, doesn’t scale, and never will scale, but stateless standards for blockchains and languages, like HTML, can scale (giving rise to a codebase that lives on today as the absolutely-free-to-use Hyperledger Burrow, the Hyperledger project’s Ethereum Virtual Machine).

Practical concerns about Ethereum’s capabilities were not, last year, foremost in everyone’s minds. Making money, however, was. As Ether blew past $300/coin in September of last year, I had lunch with a private equity bod one afternoon in New Haven.

Echoing similar noises that could be heard about the housing market in 2006, the investor told me that “nobody in cryptocurrency could imagine the price of this stuff going down.” “Is that so,” I thought.

I wrote my most popular blog post ever, the Bear Case for Crypto, later that night. I recommended that people run away from Ether as quickly as they could. At the time Ether was $385/coin.

Ether is now at $190 and falling fast, with no end in sight.

Takeaway points

I write this blog post only to put down a marker for historical purposes. My thesis in “the Bear Case for Crypto,” for those of you who do not care to read it in full, was simple:

First, cryptocurrencies are being wildly over-sold by their promoters. Technical promises – such as Zerohedge which name-checked Microsoft in an Ethereum Enterprise Alliance puff piece while repeating the garbage claim that Ethereum can process a million transaction per second (it can’t) –  bore no relation whatsoever to reality. Most code-free ICOs are in the same boat: as Matt Levine put it, people selling things in crypto are “like if the Wright brothers sold air miles to finance inventing the aeroplane.”

Second, on account of this expectation/reality mismatch, the 2017 bubble was unsustainable and anyone who advised you otherwise was a charlatan or a fool, or possibly both.

Third, it was, as of last September, very likely that a crash and regulatory intervention would create a self-reinforcing feedback loop which would bring about it a catastrophic crash in the value of cryptocurrencies. I referred to this event as the “zombie marmot apocalypse.”

Re: 1, res ipsa loquitur. That’s Latin for “I am dropping my microphone.”

Re: 2, see above.

Re: 3, it is of course difficult to gauge why investors are dumping their coins, as I have not yet learned telepathy. However, if we’re selling the news, last week Shapeshift’s announcement that it was implementing basic KYC procedures (pursuant, in all likelihood, to a request from the Department of the Treasury) resulted in a 20% sell-off in Bitcoin.

Which means there is indeed a relationship between regulatory action in the U.S. and the price of Bitcoin, such that we may expect an end to regulatory forbearance to exert downward pressure on Bitcoin’s price and indeed the price of all coins in the ecosystem.

I will therefore update my prediction from a year ago. If

  • a civil case and criminal charges are brought against a major ICO promoter and/or cryptocurrency exchange operator for perpetuating coin investment schemes in contravention of some provision of the Securities Acts other than obvious fraud (any day, now, SEC & DOJ, you’ve had four years);
  • a major exchange is shut down for AML violations or charges of market abuse/manipulation; and/or
  • Tether, the central bank of Bitcoin, implodes due either to the allegations of noncompliance or allegations of non-possession of funds turning out to be true,

you should expect drops in the value of the crypto-economy roughly on par with, if not greater than, the plunge in value we saw when ShapeShift announced its KYC policy last week.

Mission accomplished

Thus ends roughly a year of blog posts I have written about ICO Mania, which – seeing as the conventional wisdom, i.e. the Economist, has now adopted the view I have espoused consistently since 2014 (and the Economist quoted me in the process as well!) – also means that I have accomplished everything I set out to do when I started this series last August. Chiefly, I have done my part to convince the world – before the world even wanted to be convinced – that most ICOs were a pile of hot garbage.

Going forward, I am planning to redirect the majority of my writing and research efforts into other less critical, and more productive, areas of the blockchain and cryptocurrency space, like building systems that automate securities lifecycle management or figuring out thorny legal questions for clients who are developing new and interesting peer-to-peer network applications.

I may, of course, chime in from time to time on this project or that one, but will be de-emphasizing the criticism from here on out.

So, what does $100 Ether mean?

Or rather, what will $100 Ether mean, when that price level is inevitably reached once again in the next few weeks?

What Stephen said.

As a parting note, to close this series, I would encourage everyone reading this post to remember the following:

Remember the future you were sold in 2017. Remember who sold it to you. Remember the fairweather folks who were made rich by these offerings, or worked for ICO mills, but now feign disapproval as the wind blows against them. Remember how those the coin bubble enriched the most cavalierly dismiss criticism of their products’ nonperformance, now that the tide has gone out.

Remember the small cadre of skeptical voices that tried to warn you about all of this so that you did not get burned, as you have undoubtedly been burned very, very badly.

Remember to apply that same skepticism to every investment decision you make from here on out.

2 thoughts on “$100 Ether, revisited”

  1. Yikes….

    ETH has the properties of:
    1. No Claim on Real-World Cash Flows
    2. No Claim on Assets in the Event of Liquidation
    3. No Voting Rights

    No surprise here!

    Liked by 1 person

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