If the prolonged bear market that we’re in has shown us one thing, it’s that Bitcoin is still the king of crypto. The market’s continuous, slow bleed throughout the year has on several occasions brought the total market cap below $200 billion in September, and lately it’s been hovering around the same levels as November last year. And we’re not out of the woods yet. However, Bitcoin dominance — the demand for Bitcoin compared to other cryptocurrencies — is growing at a disproportionate rate to the total market cap.
In fact, Bitcoin dominance has passed 51 percent at the time of writing (down from 55 percent a couple of days ago).
Dominance was at its lowest during the bull run in January when most other cryptocurrencies, also known as altcoins, or just alts, were booming. However, up until the bull run started, dominance was growing, and we see the same thing happening. If we’re following trends, this could be an indication that another run is getting closer.
Bitcoin’s popularity usually rises during bearish times and there are a few explanations for this. It’s obviously the one high-profile currency everyone has heard about and is therefore a natural choice for crypto neophytes. Also worth noting is the high correlation between the price of Bitcoin and altcoins. They have always been strongly coupled. However, with its relatively low volatility compared to other cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin is considered a safe haven in bear markets. After all, it’s only retracted 75 percent from its all-time high, whereas the majority of altcoins are down 80-95 percent from their peaks.
This difference isn’t really surprising, as a coin’s price movements are primarily a function of liquidity. Bitcoin has higher volume and market cap than any other coin and its thicker order books mean smaller movements. This is why traders who employ proper risk management often move funds into Bitcoin when they believe the market is going down and then back into altcoins when arrows point upwards again. Alts rise higher and fall harder.
This also makes Bitcoin a good option for risk averse investors who are uncomfortable holding positions in altcoins but don’t want to exit the markets. Tether (USDT), a stablecoin pegged to the US dollar, obviously offers the strongest store of value proposition when all crypto prices are dropping, and offers an alternative to going fiat, but it’s been struggling to gain trust from the general crypto community due to ongoing controversy and speculation about whether it truly has the dollars in reserve to back its tokens.
Adding to this, Bitcoin is still the only universal on- and off-ramp to the crypto world. Whichever coin or token you want to buy, the first step is usually spending your fiat on some Bitcoin and then trading that for other assets — or, if you’re a more experienced gambler trader, you can long or short it with margin trading. It’s the same procedure the other way around as well: If you want to sell, you likely have to go through Bitcoin before cashing out to fiat.
And although the exchanges have been launching more trading pairs with Ethereum and USDT this year, most traders tend to stick with the Bitcoin pairs as they hold the most volume. Another point is that among most traders, the goal is always to accumulate more BTC, not USD, and the preferred denomination of prices is in Satoshis, or sats for short.
So, with Bitcoin involved in most of the market action, shouldn’t its dominance be even higher? We don’t have to go further back than to March 2017 to find it at 85 percent. Fast forward to June the same year. Everyone now wants in on Ether and the hottest ICOs, and the percentage drops to 40. Back to present-day, the around 2,000 altcoins currently listed on CoinMarketCap is not only a sign of greed among unnecessary ICOs but also of a protocol, dapp, and token race spun out of control. Enabling anyone to create a new cryptocurrency in an hour has heavily diluted Bitcoin’s market share.
More than 1,600 of the altcoins out there have a market cap between $10 million and zero. But they have no liquidity, no trading volumes. Look at Rubycoin or LEOcoin for example. They both rank relatively high on CoinMarketCap with market caps of about $10 million and $13 million, but their daily trading volumes are close to zero. There are hundreds of coins out there like these, taking dominance from Bitcoin just by existing, even though they are in reality dead.
This tells us there are basically too many alts in the market now for Bitcoin’s dominance to rise much further. I’m not saying all of these low volume coins deserve to die, though. Altcoins with good fundamentals are attractive targets for risk-hungry traders and investors scouring the smaller exchanges for the next potential 10, 100, or even 1000x project. These difficult-to-find coins, often referred to as “gems”, are definitely high-risk, high-reward plays for traders who know what to look for.
Some alts disappearing will, however, be good for the market as a whole, and I believe most of the projects listed only on smaller exchanges will. The majority on the likes of Binance, OKEx, and Huobi, will probably survive due to the retail demand there. When BTC inevitably makes its move and ends this bear market, new buyers will enter the market.
Despite new altcoins popping up every week, Bitcoin’s dominance is still increasing. While this does show its strength, a look at history tells us it could also be a sign that a new bull run is in the making. Currently we’re seeing seemingly random alt breakouts, with coins rising 10-20 percent in price over a few hours, only to drop back just as fast to the level they were before. Sudden price jumps and retraces like this aren’t usually organic but rather whales coming out to play, but they could also be a sign of impatience among investors afraid to miss out out on the next alt season.
There are some major events on the horizon for crypto, and the outcomes of these will largely decide which direction the market is going to take. Bitcoin exchange-traded fund proposals, Bakkt launching, major banks introducing crypto trading, and other risk-averse products that will make cryptos more liquid and trusted, are coming into the market. As we reach each of these milestones we’ll see some very bullish headlines, which alone could be enough to trigger the next bull run.
Look for Bitcoin dominance to rise first, then drop again as altcoins start going off one after the other. Still, regardless of upcoming news, we’ll continue to see huge corrections and gains, and until the infrastructure and ecosystem is ready for altcoins to decouple from Bitcoin, the king continues to lead the rallies.
Disclosure: I own some Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. This is not financial advice.
Trond Vidar Bjorøy is a consultant and advisor to the travel industry and blockchain startups. He became interested in blockchain due to its applications in the travel industry but now tracks ICOs and emerging blockchain projects across a variety of industries.