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Bitcoin profit measures suggest we’re in a prolonged bear market

Since the total number of Bitcoins that can be created is finite, it is inherently deflationary, meaning it has a positive expected return, like gold. Photo: iStockPremium
Since the total number of Bitcoins that can be created is finite, it is inherently deflationary, meaning it has a positive expected return, like gold. Photo: iStock

Bitcoin has dipped as low as $33,000 from almost $69,000 in less than three months amid a broader selloff in risk assets on growing conviction the Federal Reserve will ratchet back its ultra-accommodative policy settings

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A hefty debate is underway in the crypto space about whether Bitcoin is mired in a drawn-out bear market.

Proponents of the notoriously volatile token say a bounce could be around the corner after it shed half its value from an all-time high in November. But a few industry metrics suggest a crypto winter is already here, according to market-intelligence firm Glassnode.

“A prolonged bear market is in play," analysts at the firm wrote in a new report. “With the bulls now firmly on the back-foot, such a heavy drawdown is likely to change investor perceptions and sentiment at a macro scale."

Glassnode cites a few indicators to back up its assertion. 

First, something called the net unrealized profit/loss (or NUPL) metric, which shows the overall market profitability as a proportion of market capitalization. Standing at 0.325, it suggests nearly a third of Bitcoin’s market value is held as an unrealized profit, and typically such low profitability is seen in the early-to-mid phase of a bear market.

Second is a measure known as the MVRV ratio, which is calculated as market cap divided by realized cap. It’s a useful tool for identifying periods of high and poor investor profitability, according to Glassnode. Going by its current reading, “the bulls either need to step up in a big way, else the probabilities favor the bears," the note says.

And third, an on-chain tool named the realized-to-liveliness ratio (or RTLR) -- something of a hodler-fair-value model -- which shows the market is below the RTLR price of $39,200 but above the realized price of $24,200, a development also typically observed during early-to-mid stages of bear markets. 

Noelle Acheson, head of market insights at Genesis Global Trading, said it’s hard to use any one indicator to definitively call a bear market. NUPL measures may be going down but “it’s too soon to tell if that means we are heading into a bear market," she said. Likewise, MVRV is signaling market weakness, but it’s difficult to use that as an argument for proving we’re in the midst of a prolonged downturn, she said.

But if we are, it doesn’t look good for short-term holders, currently in possession of approximately 18.3% of the coin supply, excluding tokens held by exchanges. As of this week, almost all of their supply is underwater, which could put further pressure on prices.

“This yet again creates a psychological barrier whereby the coins that are already the most likely to be spent and sold, are now also holding an unrealized loss, which further increases the chances of a sale," Glassnode analysts wrote.

Memories of the last crypto winter -- a term that refers to a sharp slump -- are renewing fears a repeat is currently playing out. Back then, Bitcoin’s price plunged by more than 80% to as low as $3,100 in 2018, and it took more than a year for it to reach another high in December 2020.

More recently, Bitcoin has dipped as low as $33,000 from almost $69,000 in less than three months amid a broader selloff in risk assets on growing conviction the Federal Reserve will ratchet back its ultra-accommodative policy settings.

The plunge has hit all corners of the crypto ecosystem, from Bitcoin and memecoins to publicly-listed crypto exchanges, with more than $1 trillion in market value erased from the market.

But for context on how severe past downdrafts have been, consider this: The current Bitcoin selloff is “downright modest" when compared to the 90% drops in value from earlier in its history, according to Bespoke Investment Group. A 90% peak-trough drop in the coin’s price would take it down to around $7,000.

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