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BitMEX Crypto Trader Digest Aug 14, 2018
From the desk of Arthur Hayes
Co-founder & CEO, BitMEX

ETHUSD Perpetual Swap Two Week Update

One of our strengths at BitMEX is financial innovation. We created the XBTUSD perpetual swap, a truly unique product to any financial market. XBTUSD is now the most liquid crypto instrument globally by a factor of 10 and has been emulated by a half dozen crypto markets.

On the back of that success, BitMEX has created a way to replicate the same Bitcoin-margined perpetual swap but on Ether / USD via a quanto pricing model. This product is the ETHUSD perpetual swap. In just under two weeks, this product has become the most liquid Ether / USD (or USD equivalent) pair globally, and has proven to be a vital instrument in speculating or hedging on the ETH/USD price pair.

In the last 24 hours, BitMEX's ETHUSD swap has traded the equivalent of 800,000 ETH. The next most liquid ETH/USD and ETH/USDT markets, Bitfinex and Binance, traded just under 500,000 ETH each in the same period.

If you are still unsure on the pricing or trading of this instrument, please take a look back at our newsletter from last week where we run through multiple worked examples on hedging and speculating. To aid in your understanding, we have also created a downloadable spreadsheet to work through the math.

Ether, A Double Digit Shitcoin

 

It all started in Feb 2017 on a beach in southern Thailand. Thailand's king passed a few months prior, so the party atmosphere was subdued. Accompanied by a good friend of mine and one of the best shitcoin traders in the game, we headed down the beach in search of a party. 

One of his big shitcoin positions at the time was Pepe Cash. This was the precursor to Crypto Kitties. For those not in the know, PepeCash is "rare pepe" memes hashed onto a blockchain. The next killer app to be sure. Pepe Cash was on a mini run, and my boy constantly monitored the market. 

We didn’t find a poppin' party, but we did find special shakes. The bartender didn’t think we were sideways enough so he went in the back to get the real stuff. Over the next few hours we walked for miles, met interesting tourists and locals, and waxed philosophical about shitcoins. 

On our ride back to our hotel, I noticed something strange. Our Tuk Tuk driver was wearing a trucker hat with a Pepe the Frog logo on it. Not trusting my eyes, I nudged my friend to confirm what I saw. He concurred that our driver was sporting a Pepe hat. My friend immediately whipped out his phone to check the market. Perhaps they saw what we did. Pepe Cash was pumping and he bought some more. 

We both looked at each other and knew it was a sign that something special would happen in 2017. What actually happened was far beyond what we could have ever imagined.

The real profit in 2017 was made by Ether holders, shitcoin projects, and promoters. The seed capital for many of the venerated crypto hedge funds emanated from outsized returns on holdings of Ether and token projects. 

Jealous traditional VCs transformed portions of their funds into poorly designed hedge funds so that they too could punt shitcoins. Everyone piled info the same deals, all thinking they “got it”. That worked well all of 2017. 

Today, Ether slides towards $200. At best, many token projects are down 50% from 2017. At worst, they are slightly above than zero. 

This begs the questions:

  1. Did any funds actually realise any of their outstanding 2016 profits?
  2. Can VC-turned-hedge-fund-punters psychologically handle mark-to-market losses?
  3. How many token projects actually sold a large or hedged portion of the Ether they raised?

Big Door In, Small Door Out

One of the first things you learn as an Asia Pacific trader: how you exit a position is more important than how you enter. 

My first trading book was the Vietnam certificates book. Our desk issued USD denominated certificates on a basket of Vietnamese stocks. Calling the Vietnamese stock market "Mickey Mouse" would have been a compliment in 2009. 

You could only go one way per trading day on a particular stock. If you bought, you could only continue buying intraday, you could not sell. There was a 5% limit up and down each day; any stock in the news would hit either of those limits immediately in the morning auction. That meant you had to fax your orders into the broker and make sure you got in the queue as early as possible. Unfortunately, sometimes your broker front ran you because they knew you had size to trade in a particular stock.

My boss encouraged me to take a view on the market. Given the structure of the market, if I took a position, I was stuck with it for a while. And when I wished to exit, I would have to sell into strength or buy weakness to get out of a long or short position respectively.

When I became an ETF market maker, I routinely traded other "Mickey Mouse" markets like India, Indonesia, and China just to name a few. These markets were and still are marked by snap decisions (often overnight) by regulators which adversely affect traders who aren't politically connected. I became obsessed with how to get out of any position: a trait which serves me well in the crypto markets.

My first boss taught me that everything was my fault as the trader. Obviously there are many things outside of your control, but if you approach your profession with that mentality you attempt to quantify and mitigate all of the risks within your control.

The point of my sermon is that most VC investors do not approach their investments with this mentality. Due to the illiquidity of their investments, they can mark to fantasy, show amazing returns on paper, and get paid. The only secondary market validation of their investments is the next round of fundraising, which can easily always go up if you get your boys to go in along with you. You pump my bags, I’ll pump yours.

VC investors loved ICOs in the bull market because they could point to an objective and liquid secondary market valuation. They used these eye-popping returns to raise bigger shitcoin funds in 2017, and early 2018. However, objectivity and transparency is undesirable when your shitcoin portfolio is down by a minimum of 50%. Depending on the vintage of the fund, it might be up, however, most money was raised and invested in 2H2017 to 2H2018. That means the suckers who invested recently are most likely down.

The VC investor who has never suffered the vagaries of the market is as green as the noob who thinks he or she can go from 1 to 100 Bitcoin in a few trading days. They don’t have the mental strength to cut positions to limit further losses, or backup the truck and buy opportune dips even though they are down. More importantly, LPs can now see an objective last price for a particular token, and can’t be hoodwinked. They will attempt to be a Monday morning quarterback, and that only adds to the VC investors’ anxiety. At a certain point, they go "fuck it", and dump everything they can.

It is this moment, that Ether goes from a 3-digit to a 2-digit shitcoin.

Concentration Risk

Before the SAFT and other private token placement monstrosities, the majority of money was raised from retail token punters. Now that projects are scared of federal pound-me-in-the-ass prison, they mostly only accept accredited investors. 

Accredited investors always had a way into new technology projects due to their wealth and access. This pool of investors is also highly concentrated. The number of funds that can spray $1 to $5 million into every vapourware project that agrees with their sector thesis is limited. However, these gatekeepers control a vast ocean of institutional money. Softbank’s Vision Fund is $100 billion.

So instead of a more dispersed pool of investors, the number of token holders of projects raising serious money decreased dramatically starting in mid-2017. The liquidation preferences went from dispersed along a price curve, to very concentrated. 

VCs all compete with each other for the same pools of capital. These pools of capital all employ professionals from the same schools, and who passed the same financial certification tests. Therefore they will buy together and sell together. The biggest risk in the money management game is career risk. Better to lose money with everyone else, than lose money alone. The latter will cost you your job. And there ain’t no other profession that pays as well as financial services relative to the skills needed to be a practitioner. I remember one of my besties trying to argue he had skills because he could calculate the NAV of an ETF using the sumproduct() function on his excel sheet. #Delusional.

The herd of token VC punters will all decide to sell at the same time. If you don’t sell, and the market continues falling, you lose your job. So everyone sells simultaneously but who can eat all that shit? Retail cannot because the deals would never have gotten so large without institutional money. So we gap lower, first on tokens, then on the mothership Ether. 

I don’t know what that tipping point will be, but in hindsight, it will be obvious when the capitulation occurs. There are those who believe that a sustainable token economy can exist. But they won’t be buying at these levels. Sub-$100 takes us back to Spring 2017 levels. At those depressed prices, the carrion is ripe for ingestion. 

$5,000 Bitcoin, A Local Bottom


Bitcoin is now down close to 70% from the $20,000 all time high. The bear market is here. What level is the bottom, and when?

My hunch tells me that similar to the 2015 bear market, the price at which the average miner turns off their ASICs will be the local bottom. 

During the last bear market that range was $200 - $250. While the price languished, various high profile miners went under. KnC and Spondoolies were two casualties. Most surprisingly, in March of 2015 the difficulty actually dropped. That was 7 months before the price ticked up, but it illustrates the amount of pain that miners faced.

Now assuming there is no positive catalyst, like an SEC approved ETF to save us, at what price do we bottom? I believe the key consideration will be when miners begin to shut off their machines; and hence the question, what is the marginal cost of a Bitcoin?

A few days ago I chatted with one of the largest mining facility operators globally. He told me that the average electricity cost of Chinese miners all-in is 6 to 7 cents kWh. At that level, he estimated that at a price of roughly $5,000 is when miners would begin altering operations and look to move machines to cheaper areas. At $3,000 to $4,000, these miners would begin to shut off machines completely.

However, these rough anecdotes assume that miners using 7nm chips either do not work efficiently well, or will not be sold until 2019. Bitmain, Dragonmint, and GMO are all racing to build such miners. The firm that successfully brings a 7nm miner to market, will absolutely lower the marginal cost of the average mining farm, and decimate the older generation mining rigs.

Price leads the hashrate and the final confirmation of the breakeven level will be whether difficulty actually drops. That would require a sustained period of price weakness to shutter enough miners for the hashrate to fall.

When in Doubt, IPO

Everyone is talking about the Bitmain IPO. Running a public company once you get past the initial ego boost is sub-optimal. One of the main reasons why companies IPO is for long-term investors, employees, and management to cash out at a high multiple. Companies also IPO to raise large amounts of capital to fund expansion efforts.

As a public company, the scrutiny on operations is never ending. Say the wrong thing and you could be in court for years. Do you think Mark Zuckerberg likes being publicly lambasted by know-nothing congressmen and women? If Tesla didn’t need to raise so much money by selling equity in the public markets, I’m sure Elon would have kept it private.

Bitmain is crypto’s most valuable and most profitable company. If the figures publicised are taken as gospel, then they generated over US$2 billion of profit in 2017. Unlike many manufacturers, Bitmain’s clients pre-pay their orders. The only pre-sale outlay is their down payment for chips with their main foundry.

Bitmain has a cash cow business but now wants to IPO. The company does not need capital to fund or expand its business. They have plenty of free cash flow to direct towards R&D. They don’t need to acquire distribution channels by slashing prices since they hold the largest market share. The only conclusion is that they believe the medium-term profitability of mining will decline sharply.

While Bitmain attempts to sell the market on their AI chip growth strategy, the truth is they are a crypto company through and through. Crypto companies trade at massive price to earnings discounts against similar companies in comparable industries. 

I speculate that the crypto exchanges that sold this year, Poloniex and Bitstamp, traded at 4x to 6x P/E. [The Bitstamp sale has not been confirmed, but various crypto news outlets reported that a sale likely happened in early 2018]. Public exchanges like ICE and the CME, trade 20x to 30x P/E. During a massive crypto bull market like in 4Q2017, the public markets might pay up, but not when Bitcoin is down 70%.

I further speculate that Bitmain is attempting to top-tick the market before mining profitability slides dramatically. Management takes the view that the price will likely continue down towards $5,000, and possibly below. At these prices sales of their flagship S9 miner will plummet. An IPO allows them to crystallise gains now, and become cash-rich during a bear market. With this war chest, they can acquire some of their less financially well-endowed competitors. When the market turns, they will be in pole position with no challengers in sight.

Upside Risks - SEC Approved ETF

In late September, the SEC will rule on a number of ETF applications. Will they cave to popular pressure? Crypto, even while down 70%, is way more exciting than any other asset class. The exchanges, asset managers, and white-shoe investment banks all want in. The only inhibiting factor is regulators.

With enough K-street lobbyists, you can convince a US member of congress that the world is flat and the earth is the center of the universe. If the crypto lobby prevails on the SEC, and an ETF is approved, watch out for the mother of all short squeezes. 

Risk Disclaimer

BitMEX is not a licensed financial advisor. The information presented in this newsletter is an opinion, and is not purported to be fact. Bitcoin is a volatile instrument and can move quickly in any direction. BitMEX is not responsible for any trading loss incurred by following this advice.