Bitcoin is now down close to 70% from the $20,000 all time high. The bear market is here. What level is the bottom, and when?
My hunch tells me that similar to the 2015 bear market, the price at which the average miner turns off their ASICs will be the local bottom.
During the last bear market that range was $200 – $250. While the price languished, various high profile miners went under. KnC and Spondoolies were two casualties. Most surprisingly, in March of 2015 the difficulty actually dropped. That was 7 months before the price ticked up, but it illustrates the amount of pain that miners faced.
Now assuming there is no positive catalyst, like an SEC approved ETF to save us, at what price do we bottom? I believe the key consideration will be when miners begin to shut off their machines; and hence the question, what is the marginal cost of a Bitcoin?
A few days ago I chatted with one of the largest mining facility operators globally. He told me that the average electricity cost of Chinese miners all-in is 6 to 7 cents kWh. At that level, he estimated that at a price of roughly $5,000 is when miners would begin altering operations and look to move machines to cheaper areas. At $3,000 to $4,000, these miners would begin to shut off machines completely.
However, these rough anecdotes assume that miners using 7nm chips either do not work efficiently well, or will not be sold until 2019. Bitmain, Dragonmint, and GMO are all racing to build such miners. The firm that successfully brings a 7nm miner to market, will absolutely lower the marginal cost of the average mining farm, and decimate the older generation mining rigs.
Price leads the hashrate and the final confirmation of the breakeven level will be whether difficulty actually drops. That would require a sustained period of price weakness to shutter enough miners for the hashrate to fall.
As a public company, the scrutiny on operations is never ending. Say the wrong thing and you could be in court for years. Do you think Mark Zuckerberg likes being publicly lambasted by know-nothing congressmen and women? If Tesla didn’t need to raise so much money by selling equity in the public markets, I’m sure Elon would have kept it private.
Bitmain is crypto’s most valuable and most profitable company. If the figures publicised are taken as gospel, then they generated over US$2 billion of profit in 2017. Unlike many manufacturers, Bitmain’s clients pre-pay their orders. The only pre-sale outlay is their down payment for chips with their main foundry.
Bitmain has a cash cow business but now wants to IPO. The company does not need capital to fund or expand its business. They have plenty of free cash flow to direct towards R&D. They don’t need to acquire distribution channels by slashing prices since they hold the largest market share. The only conclusion is that they believe the medium-term profitability of mining will decline sharply.
While Bitmain attempts to sell the market on their AI chip growth strategy, the truth is they are a crypto company through and through. Crypto companies trade at massive price to earnings discounts against similar companies in comparable industries.
I speculate that the crypto exchanges that sold this year, Poloniex and Bitstamp, traded at 4x to 6x P/E. [The Bitstamp sale has not been confirmed, but various crypto news outlets reported that a sale likely happened in early 2018]. Public exchanges like ICE and the CME, trade 20x to 30x P/E. During a massive crypto bull market like in 4Q2017, the public markets might pay up, but not when Bitcoin is down 70%.
I further speculate that Bitmain is attempting to top-tick the market before mining profitability slides dramatically. Management takes the view that the price will likely continue down towards $5,000, and possibly below. At these prices sales of their flagship S9 miner will plummet. An IPO allows them to crystallise gains now, and become cash-rich during a bear market. With this war chest, they can acquire some of their less financially well-endowed competitors. When the market turns, they will be in pole position with no challengers in sight.
With enough K-street lobbyists, you can convince a US member of congress that the world is flat and the earth is the center of the universe. If the crypto lobby prevails on the SEC, and an ETF is approved, watch out for the mother of all short squeezes.