Bitcoin is on a bull run. The most popular and valuable digital token pushed past $8,000 this week before settling slightly under that level, marking its highest price point since last summer.
After spending most of the year hovering around $4,000, bitcoin's latest price surge is another high-water mark for a digital asset that has seen plenty of volatility. After a relatively rapid descent from its all-time high of nearly $20,000 at the beginning of 2018, crypto skeptics derided the currency as dead as it scraped along lows around the $3,000 mark.
That all changed this spring, as a fresh wave of buyers embraced cryptocurrency as an emerging asset that has attracted widespread attention from individuals, financial professionals, enterprises and central governments.
Rumors of its demise might have been greatly exaggerated, but that doesn't necessarily help answer investors' most pressing questions: Why is bitcoin on the rise once again and where is it going next?
Indeed, bitcoin is a famously volatile asset, and it can be difficult to pinpoint precisely what's pushing its value higher or lower. As Alon Korniel, a vice president at liquidity provider Algoz admitted: "I don't believe anyone can tell for sure what is the reason for the latest surge in BTC price, however, from a trading point of view it appears that we have been outside of the crypto winter for already a few months now."
No single factor alone is pushing bitcoin prices higher. Rather, the digital currency has many things working to its advantage right now. Here are three:
1. Growth Begets Growth
When bitcoin prices begin to trend higher, the effect tends to snowball, growing bigger as it rolls and rolling because it gets bigger. That was the finding of a 2018 study by Yale doctoral students who discovered that price hikes create a "momentum effect" and an "investor attention effect" that collectively push the currency higher.
According to the study's authors, "a one-standard-deviation increase in the Twitter post count for the word 'bitcoin' yields a 2.50% increase in the 1-week ahead bitcoin returns."
Alex Sovpel, Director of Research at crypto trading platform Monfex, explained that "historically, there's been a positive linear association between the number of confirmed transactions and unique addresses, and the price of bitcoin. The two indicators are 'confirming' each other, generating a positive signal for bitcoin traders."
In other words, when prices rise, it encourages more people to get involved, which subsequently makes the price rise further. The cumulative effect of more people paying attention definitely matters.
On the negative side, famed investor Warren Buffett categorically compared that "cumulative effect" on Wall Street to lemmings -- animals popularly known for their herd-like mentality.
2. Altcoins Are Underperforming
While bitcoin was the first digital currency to come to market, it's far from the only option today. In many ways, altcoins have siphoned off bitcoin investors and reduced its dominance.
Data compiled by CoinMarketCap shows that bitcoin dominated the market with almost 87% saturation at the start of 2017. By the beginning of 2018, that number hovered around 33%.
However, bitcoin's dominance is rising again, approaching 60% of cryptocurrency market share currently.
It's possible that, as bitcoin's price soared throughout 2017, investors were looking for new opportunities to get in on the ground floor of other tokens that could perform as well as bitcoin. Now that the market has deflated a bit, bitcoin is appealing once again as prices climb a "wall of worry," given that the memory of last year's steep price declines among all cryptocurrencies remains fresh.
3. Institutional Investors Are Enthusiastic
A recent study by PwC found that crypto hedge funds wildly underperformed in 2018, with the median fund returning -46% for the year. But they still significantly outperformed bitcoin by itself by nearly 30%.
Meanwhile, the funds are attracting significant investment. The report found that the median crypto hedge fund has grown to $4.3 million compared to $1.2 million at the beginning of 2018.
At the same time, financial institutions such asTD Ameritrade are bullish on investor interest in the digital currency. Steven Quirk, TD Ameritrade executive vice president, recently noted that: "We get calls, emails, 60,000 clients have traded something in this complex. As soon as you open the door, you're going to get a lot of people looking to participate in the market."
Sydney Ifergan, CMO at digital-asset exchange Decoin, argued that this growing interest is related to bitcoin's underlying value, saying, "people are starting to understand that bitcoin is not just a cryptocurrency. It is a real asset that will remain for a long time."
To be sure, none of these factors is pushing the price of bitcoin higher on their own, but they might be working in tandem to accelerate its rise. The past reminds us that future crypto prices can be difficult to gauge, something that is even truer now that continual growth is no longer a given.
However, a holistic look at the market helps explain bitcoin's recent rise, and they could help indicate where it is going in the future.
The author holds stock in investment holding company, Leucadia (Jeffries), and remains a partner in an emerging-technology fund. He holds no positions in cryptocurrencies nor in any companies that invest in them.