Morgan Stanley
  • Thoughts on the Market Podcast
  • May 24, 2022

What is Causing the Crypto Downturn?

With Sheena Shah, Lead Cryptocurrency Analyst


Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Sheena Shah, Lead Cryptocurrency Strategist for Morgan Stanley Research. Along with my colleagues bringing you a variety of perspectives, today I will be talking about the crypto bear market. It's Tuesday, May 24th, at 2 p.m. in London.

Bitcoin is down 55% from its November 2021 high, and currently trades at around $30,000. Over that same period, crypto market capitalization has lost over $1 trillion. All the while, Bitcoin's correlation with the equity markets has risen to new highs. So what is going on? Who is selling and what should we watch out for next?

In 2018, retail investors were dominant in crypto markets, participating in 80% of trading volumes on Coinbase, the large crypto exchange. Today, the story couldn't be more different, with only 1/4 of trading volumes on Coinbase being with retail investors. Institutions, and more specifically crypto institutions, appear to have taken over, many of which are simply trading with each other. We think retail investors are more likely to buy and hold, but institutional investors are willing to both buy and sell crypto, if it means they can make a return. And because institutional investors are sensitive to the availability of capital and therefore interest rates, they trade crypto somewhat in sympathy with the way equities are traded. This shift in the type of market participant is key to understanding why crypto markets are selling off at the same time as the equity markets are experiencing a downturn.

Cryptocurrency prices rose rapidly in 2020 and 2021, attracting a new set of investors. Bitcoin rose 10x from March 2020 to its first peak in April 2021. Ether, the second largest crypto, rose even more, over 40x in a similar period. The stimulus provided by central banks and governments throughout the pandemic was the key driver of the crypto bull market. As the Federal Reserve indicated late last year that it plans to raise interest rates and reduce the size of its balance sheet, crypto markets began to weaken.

The downturn is now starting to have a broader impact on the crypto ecosystem. In mid-May a stablecoin called Terra Dollar, or UST, lost its peg to the U.S. dollar, which meant it was no longer trading at $1 USD and instead trades closer to $0 USD. UST lost its peg as it was backed by cryptocurrencies, which themselves were losing value, and because market makers no longer trusted the ability of the stablecoin to retain its dollar peg. There was a negative spillover into Bitcoin and other cryptos, with the largest stablecoin called Tether briefly losing its dollar peg intraday. Tether is the other side of half of all bitcoin traded on exchanges, so its stability is extremely important for the broader crypto market. The dollar asset reserves that backed Tether will continue to be scrutinized and questioned by market participants. Stablecoins are used to create leverage in decentralized finance crypto systems, and that leverage is now falling as crypto traders, that may have bought Bitcoin or other cryptos, have faced margin calls.

In general, the elevated prices were traded on speculation, with limited real user demand. NFT and digital land prices are next areas to watch. Of course, many are looking for signs of a market turnaround. The retail investors may have been outnumbered by institutions, but they haven't gone away. The downturn may continue if central banks persist in their policy of tightening, but the strong hands of these retail investors have historically served as a support to falling prices.

Thank you for listening. If you enjoy thoughts on the market, share this and other episodes with a friend or colleague today.


So far this year cryptocurrencies have been on a swift downturn, increasingly in line with equity market moves. What's behind this correlation? And what should investors watch out for next?

NOTE:Digital assets, sometimes known as cryptocurrency, are a digital representation of a value that function as a medium of exchange, a unit of account, or a store of value, but generally do not have legal tender status. Digital assets have no intrinsic value and there is no investment underlying digital assets. The value of digital assets is derived by market forces of supply and demand, and is therefore more volatile than traditional currencies’ value. Investing in digital assets is risky, and transacting in digital assets carries various risks, including but not limited to fraud, theft, market volatility, market manipulation, and cybersecurity failures—such as the risk of hacking, theft, programming bugs, and accidental loss. Additionally, there is no guarantee that any entity that currently accepts digital assets as payment will do so in the future. The volatility and unpredictability of the price of digital assets may lead to significant and immediate losses. It may not be possible to liquidate a digital assets position in a timely manner at a reasonable price.

Regulation of digital assets continues to develop globally and, as such, federal, state, or foreign governments may restrict the use and exchange of any or all digital assets, further contributing to their volatility. Digital assets stored online are not insured and do not have the same protections or safeguards of bank deposits in the US or other jurisdictions. Digital assets can be exchanged for US dollars or other currencies, but are not generally backed nor supported by any government or central bank.

Before purchasing, investors should note that risks applicable to one digital asset may not be the same risks applicable to other forms of digital assets. Markets and exchanges for digital assets are not currently regulated in the same manner and do not provide the customer protections available in equities, fixed income, options, futures, commodities or foreign exchange markets.

Morgan Stanley and its affiliates do business that may relate to some of the digital assets or other related products discussed in Morgan Stanley Research. These could include market making, providing liquidity, fund management, commercial banking, extension of credit, investment services and investment banking.


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