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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

How Low Can You Go, Bitcoin?

Wow... I know a lot of people like to point at charts, talk about the cycle of investor emotions, etc. but I generally don't follow those too much. If a technology is good, it will (or at least should) eventually rise to the top, short of a catastrophic failure of marketing. Bitcoin is such a technology in my book, so I don't think it will ever fail and go to zero. The time for that was back in late 2011, and most people were saying, "See, BTC is over -- it was a con from the start. Let's move on." Those that sold at $20+ were patting themselves on the back and those that didn't were feeling sad. Except, there were others accumulating coins at a rapid pace, and just three years later if they're still holding they've reaped nearly 100X returns.

But that's all history now. What's going on today with the BTC price? I was surprised to see us go much below $300, and I figured $250 would be the likely bottom. Now we're sub-$200 again, and some are predicting an even bigger fall yet to come. I'm still skeptical, because for a huge panic to occur you would need the biggest supporters of BTC to start dumping. If they didn't dump at $500+, why would they dump now? We're still heading down, however, and until the trend changes those who like to draw lines on charts and talk about SMAs will continue to make guesses on the eventual bottom, and some of the guesses are bound to be correct.

I wrote in the post two days ago that halted their cloud mining, and that was when the price was still at $265. At sub-$200 prices things are even worse. Consider this: ZeusMiner just sent out a newsletter about their latest "no limit bid" on the new Antminer S5. This is supposed to be one of the newest and most efficient SHA256 ASICs around, capable of 1155GH/s with a power draw of 550W -- so basically just over a 2:1 ratio. But how much would you pay for such a miner in today's market?

At the current price and difficulty, you would net about $30 per month (depending on the cost of your power). Think about that: it could take well over a year (500 days) to pay for an ASIC that only costs $500 for 1.15 TH/s. Ouch. The interesting thing is that the prices of ASICs have dropped a lot with the drop in BTC pricing, so really the manufacturers were making a killing and they've had to cut into their profit margins because obviously no one would want to pay $1000 for a miner that could take years to -- or potentially never -- reach ROI.

Of course I don't expect BTC prices to continue down indefinitely. The very reason we have the term "bottom" is because at some point the institutional day traders and investors expect it to rebound. The SNP500 is often cited as a great example of the cycle of investor emotions. Twice it reached ~1500 before dropping to half that value, but now it's at an all-time high of ~2000. Bitcoin could very well mimic that sort of behavior, just on a vastly accelerated time scale.

And here's the thing to remember: Bitcoin is not a stock, bond, or even a commodity (though it bears the closest resemblance at times to the latter). When you try to predict BTC price movements based on tools used for stocks, you will encounter problems. And even when you apply the best technical analysis possible, you are still guessing. I always love seeing TA posts on BTC, as they end up presenting three possibilities: up, down, or stay the same. Rarely do they actually state unequivocally the direction they expect BTC to move, but a week later when there's a big change, rest assured they had that possibility covered the week before: "We were right! BTC went way down!"

Fundamentally, then, nothing has changed. BTC is the same technology today as it was last week, last month, and (mostly -- a few updates have undoubtedly occurred) last year. If it was a killer idea five years ago, it remains a killer idea, and nothing has yet been able to usurp BTC as the top cryptocurrency. The market cap is now down to $2.5 billion, sure, but that will change. The same people profiting from the drop in prices will eventually read their tea leaves and decide it's time to be bullish, and we'll see the inevitable reversal.

When will that happen? No idea, but I can't see any way BTC prices get much lower short of another major hack. $150 is a likely bottom, and double digits seems ludicrous to even consider. In a few years, I still plan to be holding onto the BTC I have, and by then I expect to be back into four digits. In the meantime, enjoy the roller coaster ride.

Monday, January 12, 2015 "Suspends" Cloud Mining

It's been an interesting day to be sure, with PayBase announcing ways to improve their price and profitability long-term on the one hand while cloud mining services have been going belly up at a rapid pace. With the falling Bitcoin prices and continued high difficulty, it was inevitable that one of the biggest cloud mining services,, would run into problems. Today in a blog post, states that they are "temporarily" suspending their mining services. I put "temporarily" in quotes because there are really only a few scenarios that will lead to resuming mining:
  1. The price of Bitcoin climbs to the point where it's profitable again.
  2. The difficulty of Bitcoin falls to the point where it's profitable to mine again.
  3. gets more efficient hardware that makes it viable to mine even at the current price/difficulty ratio.
I actually noticed the problems with over the past month, when I saw that my BTC balance would sometimes drop, and the past week in particular has been bad. Now, I have long since pulled out of, so I only had 0.5GH left on the service, but over the past week my balance dropped about 5% (maybe more?) due to maintenance fees. Even worse, selling all hashing power still seems to have only partially stopped the hemorrhaging, as referrals can still result in fees. Nice, isn't it?

The real question is whether the maintenance fees are even reasonable, or if they're just high in order to secure a profit for I've looked at quite a few cloud mining options over the past couple of months, and without fail those focused on Bitcoin mining have looked like they would never come close to ROI. Even the best ASICs are looking rather questionable right now, as the initial cost is too high to justify.

My prediction this round is that we're due for the first real drop in difficulty in a long time for BTC. We finally reached the point where all that hashing power was using too much electricity to sustain, and with falling BTC prices suddenly everyone is in the red. Note that we did see a few small drops in December (-0.73% and then -1.37%), but these were followed by a 3% and 8% jump in difficulty on the next two cycles -- and that last one coupled with a falling price really pushed things over the edge. People who own their own ASICs can keep running them, effectively paying extra in fiat power bills to avoid the trouble of buying BTC directly, but for cloud mining this is a complete loss: you pay maintenance in BTC and you receive rewards in BTC, so effectively it's like paying 1 BTC per day to get 0.9 BTC back (whatever the exact amount is). There's no reason to continue, period.

This is also part of the bigger problem with Bitcoin: ever increasing hashing power is only possible with ever increasing price. If the latter falls, the former must eventually follow. Assuming things get bad enough, we could actually see difficulty and network hashing power drop so far that a 51% attack would be possible, though I think that's unlikely as anyone with any sort of interest in Bitcoin doesn't want that to happen. Not surprisingly, this flaw is what has driven so many alt-coins -- including Paycoin -- to adopt a Proof of Stake distribution mechanism, as there the total power requirements are relatively minuscule in comparison to Proof of Work.

Long block confirmation times and large amounts of "wasted" power are two real issues in Bitcoin. Could we actually see the cryptocurrency collapse? Well, I doubt it, but nothing is certain. If BTC does end up failing, something else will end up taking over, and more likely than not that something will not use a Proof of Work hashing algorithm. Far more likely is that we're at the point where difficulty is going to become a lot more stable. I don't think Bitcoin prices are likely to drop too much further, but if they do you can rest assured that some big ASIC farms will pull the plug while they wait for the next difficulty adjustment to see if it's worth mining again.

Worst-case, we could actually see a huge number of ASICs shut off in the near future, causing a large drop in difficulty that might take a month or more to happen. Then we'll see a huge jump in hashing power for the next cycle thanks to the difficulty drop, and suddenly all the problems alt-coins have experienced with too-long difficulty adjustment cycles will rear their ugly head in a big way with Bitcoin. There are probably enough "believers" that will keep mining come what may that Bitcoin won't have quite the roller coaster that we've seen with alt-coins, but this could definitely open the door for other cryptocurrencies to gain ground on what was once an unassailable position. It could prove to be a very interesting quarter or two....