Blockchain company Ripple has been making headlines after its cryptocurrency, XRP, saw a 15x value gain in just three weeks following almost five years of no growth. Ripple cofounder Chris Larsen even briefly passed Mark Zuckerberg in net worth earlier this week, according to Forbes.
Ripple’s claim to fame is its ability to transact cross-border payments in 10 to 15 seconds compared to the three days it takes on Swift, the 44-year-old global financial messaging cooperative used by over 11,000 institutions in 200 countries today. But it’s not a belief in the value of the Ripple platform that seems to be driving the recent clamor for its coins. Instead, the sudden interest in XRP seems to be driven largely by fear — fear among regular people worldwide that they could miss out on the large payoffs cryptocurrency investments seem to be promising.
It’s the timing of XRP’s trading surge that supports this idea. The currency, introduced in 2013, has rarely exceeded one cent in value since then. But it took a sudden uptick in the summer about the same time Bitcoin began to surge, climbing to about 35 cents before dropping again into the twenties and teens. Then it began to surge again around December 13 after banks in Japan and Korea announced plans to test the technology. Two days later, on December 15, Fortune reported that financial services powerhouse Bloomberg had made XRP one of just four cryptocurrencies it provides pricing data for on its terminal service (the others are heavyweights Bitcoin, Ether, and Litecoin), lending new legitimacy to the currency. XRP has since climbed about 1,500 percent to a high of about $3.84 this week.
Interestingly, Bloomberg’s listing of XRP appears to be more a result of happenstance than careful foresight into the market. Bloomberg tapped Luxembourg-based Bitstamp — one of the oldest, most respected global cryptocurrency exchanges — for its newly added data feed. And Bitstamp just happens to list XRP among its very short list of currencies as the result of active lobbying Ripple did in 2013/2014 to get on the exchange, Ripple VP Asheesh Birla told VentureBeat.
Ripple’s investors may not understand the coin
If investors are hoping Ripple returns will mirror those Bitcoin has delivered, they may be misunderstanding the currency. XRP lacks the level of scarcity Bitcoin has. Only 21 million Bitcoin will ever exist, while Ripple’s cap is 100 billion coins.
And while Ripple may look like a good investment bet since it has numerous agreements in place with banks around the world, only one of those banks is actually using XRP coins at the moment, Birla told VentureBeat. Ripple is pushing hard to get its clients to adopt the currency, but it’s unclear how many will. CoinDesk, whose parent company Digital Currency Group has an ownership stake in Ripple, noted in a story yesterday that, rather than being interested in Ripple’s RippleNet transaction service that uses XRP, “the vast majority of Ripple’s banking clients are using the company’s xCurrent product — a glorified messaging platform.”
Meanwhile, Swift, the inter-bank network that Ripple is trying to disrupt, has made serious moves towards deploying a blockchain-based service too, which could do serious damage to RippleNet’s outlook.
XRP is attractive because it’s available and cheap
In trying to build in liquidity for its RippleNet service, Ripple has made sure XRP is available in exchanges around the world. The currency is currently tradeable in about 50 exchanges worldwide, the company says on its website. And that could be another key factor behind its surprising rise: While hundreds of cryptocurrencies now exist, only a few of them are actually available to trade on public exchanges. And if you look just at the most trusted exchanges, the selection of currencies open to the average investor shrinks even further.
XRP happened to be the cheapest asset available on several key exchanges when Bitcoin and Ethereum started to surge in the summer. And as novice crypto investors flocked to exchanges in mid December (in such large numbers that some exchanges, such as Bittrex, have had to close their doors to new users), they were faced with a $17,000 price tag for Bitcoin, a $500 price tag for Ethereum, and a $240 tag for Litecoin, while XRP appeared to be bargain-priced at around 25 cents.
This wave of interest “is obviously completely misguided as different cryptocurrencies have different token supplies and what matters in market cap,” Charlie Morris, CIO of crypto asset management firm NextBlock, told VentureBeat. “But I’m not sure that newer investors really understand what they are doing.”
Even now that XRP has hit the $3 range, it remains the cheapest asset on almost all of the major exchanges. Only Hong Kong-based Binance offers a “cheaper” asset, TRON, currently priced at about 28 cents, and on that exchange, TRON is, in fact, far out-trading XRP, with a volume of $3.94 billion of the cryptocurrency traded on Thursday compared to $805 million in XRP.
Big in Korea
The exchange handling the highest volume of XRP trading is Korea’s Bithumb, which has processed 26 percent of all XRP trades in the past 30 days. Interestingly, Bithumb investors were big on XRP back in the summer but are now trading at lower volumes. Investors at other exchanges — such as Korea’s Coinone and Hong Kong’s Bitfinex and Binance — seemed to catch on only in December and appear to be the ones fueling the current high prices.
So who exactly is being drawn to these “bargain” currencies? “It’s literally housewives, college students, and grandmas all investing within these various currencies” in Korea, Bernard Moon, who runs the Korea-based SparkLabs accelerator, told VentureBeat.
One Korea-based cryptocurrency expert who asked not to be named told us, “Ripple has invested a lot of money in marketing and directly lobbying to the crypto exchanges in Korea. Presently, many Korean investors are looking for cryptocurrencies of which they can own whole units since Bitcoin is seen as too expensive. Also, they tend to buy a variety of cryptocurrencies, increasing their investments when a particular coin rises and selling when it drops. Therefore, if any coin rises, its Korean following increases dramatically and then it will also fall if the price drops. The only cryptocurrency that has a significant loyal following is Ethereum — the average Korean investor in Ripple does not know the specifics of Ripple.”
And Simon Kim, cofounder of Hashed, a leading cryptocurrency fund in South Korea, told us, “Ripple was a popular coin in Korea for a long time. Many uneducated investors were convinced that the price of Ripple is likely to rise much more in the future simply because it was cheap. In December, Ripple promoted well its partnership news with many financial companies to the Korean community. Also, there was a prospect that Ripple, a more centralized coin, would be relatively safe from government regulation. Lastly, Ripple has long been built on the belief that ‘it is time to climb now’ because prices have not risen for a long time. In this situation, Ripple seems to have attracted much attention. As you can see, Korea is a very hyper connected country and cannot stop anyone once it is accelerating.”
Ripple sees price rise as justified
Ripple’s Birla said it makes sense that XRP would be trading most heavily on the Asian exchanges. “Digital assets in South Korea are pretty hot in general. And a lot of our first movers have been in Asia,” he said.
Birla added that the company isn’t concerned about the massive speculation in the currency. “It’s better than four years ago when no one cared about us,” he said. “And whether you’re investing in Bitcoin, Ethereum, or XRP, you’re betting there will be a use case for that currency. There are hundreds of use cases being built on Ripple beyond cross-border payments.”
Those hundreds of use cases, Birla said, are numerous applications that third-party developers are apparently building on top of the Ripple blockchain. VentureBeat has asked for specific examples of apps being built on the platform but hasn’t received an answer yet from the company. [Update: Ripple has followed up with a single example: wallet app GateHub.]
Ripple is based in San Francisco. According to Pitchbook, the company’s most recent institutional funding was a $55 million series B raise in September 2017 led by SBI Holdings that put the company’s pre-money valuation at $355 million. Standard Chartered, Accenture Ventures, Hard Yaka SCB Digital Ventures, NKM Capital, Santander Innoventures, CME Ventures, Abstract Ventures, Kaplan Group Investments, Seagate Venture Fund, ThirdStream Partners, and Venture51 also participated in the round.