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Investors fear ‘crypto winter’ is coming

The entire crypto market has shed more than $1 trillion in value since bitcoin’s all-time high, as top tokens such as ether and solana followed the No. 1 digital currency sharply lower. 
A Bitcoin cryptocurrency symbol displayed at a cryptocurrency exchange shop in Pristina, Kosovo, on Jan. 17. Armend Nimani / AFP - Getty Images
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As cryptocurrency investors reel from the sharp sell-off in bitcoin and other digital currencies, some fear the worst is yet to come.

Bitcoin, the world’s largest virtual currency, briefly plunged below $33,000 Monday to its lowest level since July. It’s since recovered back above the $36,000 mark, but is still down almost 50 percent from a record high of nearly $69,000 in November.

Meanwhile, the entire crypto market has shed more than $1 trillion in value since bitcoin’s all-time high, as top tokens such as ether and solana followed the No. 1 digital currency to trade sharply lower. Ether has more than halved in value since reaching its peak in November, while solana has suffered an even steeper decline, falling 65 percent.

That’s got some crypto investors talking about the possibility of a “crypto winter,” a phrase referring to historic bear markets in the young digital currency market’s history. The most recent such occurrence happened in late 2017 and early 2018, when bitcoin crashed as much as 80 percent from all-time highs.

David Marcus, the former head of crypto at Facebook-parent Meta, appeared to admit a crypto winter has already arrived. In a tweet Monday, he said: “It’s during crypto winters that the best entrepreneurs build the better companies. This is the time again to focus on solving real problems vs. pumping tokens.”

Nadya Ivanova, chief operating officer at the BNP Paribas-affiliated tech research firm L’Atelier, said she’s not convinced a crypto winter has arrived yet — but the market is “now in a cooling off period.” That might not be so bad, she says.

“Over the last year — especially with all the hype in this market — a lot of developers seem to have been distracted by the easy gains from speculation in NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and other digital assets. A cooling off period might actually be an opportunity to start building the fundamentals of the market,” Ivanova told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe.”

Crypto’s rout has come in tandem with a slide in global stocks. Experts say that involvement from large institutional funds has meant digital assets are becoming more intertwined with traditional markets.

The S&P 500 has fallen 8 percent since the start of the year, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq index is down over 12 percent. And the correlation between bitcoin’s performance and that of the S&P 500 has been on the rise lately.

Traders fear potential interest rate hikes and aggressive monetary tightening from the Federal Reserve will drain liquidity from the market. The U.S. central bank is considering making such moves in response to surging inflation, and some analysts say it could result in the end of the era of ultra-cheap money and sky-high valuations — especially in high-growth sectors like tech, which benefits from lower rates since companies often borrow funds to invest in their business.

“I think it’s related to the rout and withdrawal from risky assets overall,” Ivanova said of bitcoin’s recent decline.

The moves lower in major digital coins has been a boon to stablecoins, or digital currencies that track the value of sovereign currencies like the U.S. dollar. USD Coin, the second-largest stablecoin, has added over $5 billion in market value since Sunday, according to data from CoinGecko.

Vijay Ayyar, vice president of corporate development and international at crypto exchange Luno, thinks the recent slump in crypto is more of a “correction” than a sustained downturn.

Bitcoin has typically seen “blow-off tops” before diving 80 percent or more, he said. This refers to a chart pattern which shows a steep increase in price and trading volume followed by a sharp fall in price.

“Corrections for BTC usually are in the 30-50 percent range, which is where we are currently, so still within normal correction territory,” Ayyar said.

Looking ahead, he says a key level to watch for bitcoin is $30,000. If it closes below that point in a week or more, “that would definitely indicate high likelihood of a bear market,” he said. A decline of around 80 percent from bitcoin’s recent peak would indicate a price of less than $15,000. Ayyar doesn’t think such a scenario is on the table.

Still, investors are worried about the prospect of further regulatory crackdowns on the crypto industry. Last week, Russia’s central bank proposed banning the use and mining of cryptocurrencies, mimicking a similar move from neighboring China. And the U.S. government is reportedly preparing to release a strategy to regulate crypto as early as next month.