There are two things that every new crypto investor learns. First: pay attention to market cap. Sure, Ripple may be only worth fifty cents—but with a $20 billion market cap, there’s not that much room to grow.
The second big lesson, which many traders have not fully learned, is not to go by Market Cap. It’s a simplistic and easily-manipulated measure of value. “Mint a trillion tokens and sell one for a penny,” makes you a billionaire on paper, but it won’t pay your bills.
Add that to the fact that most cryptocurrencies are very thinly traded, and that the marketplace is full of wash trades and instamines. No wonder we end up with Syscoins worth 96 BTC and Ripple “worth” slightly less than SpaceX.
Stocks or Money
Here’s the definition of market capitalization, courtesy of Investopedia:
Market capitalization refers to the total dollar market value of a company’s outstanding shares. Commonly referred to as “market cap,” it is calculated by multiplying a company’s shares outstanding by the current market price of one share. The investment community uses this figure to determine a company’s size, as opposed to using sales or total asset figures.
This is one of the peculiarities of crypto-investing: most traders treat cryptos as stocks, rather than money.
The analogy to company shares works—at best—with ICO tokens. Currencies gain value from being traded and spent. But it’s a comparatively tenuous measure for a currency. When’s the last time you heard someone talk about the Market Capitalization of the Yen?
Several studies have suggested that Market Cap statistics may be manipulated, inflated, or just mismeasured. Last March, a study of exchange order books by Sylvain Ribes found about $3 billion of fabricated trading volume; OkEx was the worst offender “with up to 93% of its volume being nonexistent.”
The study was offered plaudits by Binance’s Zhao Changpeng as “a good in-depth analysis,” presumably before the daily 1000 ETH giveaway.
It’s not always wrongdoing. Last year Ripple “lost” $20BN in market cap, in a crash that turned out to be CMC changing its algorithm.
Make Crypto Currency Again
There have been some efforts to straighten the figures. Luckily there are alternatives to CMC. Sites, like Cryptocompare, Coincap.io and Coingecko use different metrics, as well as market cap, to rate the health and strength of cryptocurrencies. One trader created a script titled “Honest CoinMarketcap,” attempting to discount the effects of crypto-crypto trades. Although the exchange listings are not kept up to date, the script is still running.
Another approach might be to start treating cryptos as currencies rather than stocks, focusing on p2p transactions rather than speculation. If you want to measure real-world spending, it might be best to ignore the poker chips.
At the time of writing, CoinMarketCap reports that Bitcoin had a 24hr volume of $4.7 bn, a sum arrived at by adding up activity on major exchanges. In the same time period, users sent $6.2 bn of transactions on the Bitcoin blockchain, excluding mining rewards.
There probably aren’t many real-world currencies for which speculation accounts for 43% of economic activity, but compared to other cryptos, Bitcoin looks pretty good: twice as much Ethereum was spent in exchanges as was actually exchanged on the blockchain, and for Ethereum Classic it was fifteen times as much.
But it’s also harder to wash trade the blockchain, and provides a back-of-the-excel-sheet way of calculating how much use these currencies get. Until some clever statistician devises a better metric—or calculates the total GDP of the cryptocurrency economy— it seems wise to keep track of how money is spent, as well as bet.
The author is invested in Bitcoin, Ethereum, and other currencies mentioned in this article.