Let’s talk about crypto winter for a bit. There’s obviously a lot going on, a lot of big headlines, but not a lot of attention on the macroeconomic picture that’s an underlying cause of crypto winter.
First, let’s set some basic definitions since economics isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and talk about inflation.
Economics 101: where does inflation come from?
Fundamentally, inflation comes from increased prices. Sometimes it’s because it costs more to produce something. Maybe you make things out of wood and once you’ve cut down all the trees near you, it costs you more and more to get wood, so you have to raise prices to keep making a profit.
Sometimes it’s because of consumer competition. If people suddenly want more of a thing, and there’s a limited supply of the thing, people will pay more to get the thing. Every holiday season, there’s some toy every kid wants and prices for that toy go sky high, especially on eBay.
Next, let’s talk about money supply. What is money supply? The short answer is that money supply is the amount of money that exists. If you found every penny in existence issued by the a government, that’s part of the government’s money supply.
Where does money come from? This may be surprising to some. Money is invented. Created out of thin air. A government, any government, can simply say, “Okay, we’ve just printed some more money” and that money now exists.
You might say, “But doesn’t money need something to back it, like gold? Isn’t that why Fort Knox exists in the United States?” That was true once upon a time. The US dollar used to be valued based on the amount of gold and silver the US government owned, but that hasn’t been true since 1971. And that’s not true for most currencies in the world.
Here’s the unbelievable part. All the money that the government has printed? That’s only about 3% of the money in existence (in the USA).
What’s the other 97%? Credit – aka loans – represent the vast majority of the money supply. How can that be? Well, let’s walk through the admittedly complicated process to see how banks create money.
A central bank, like the ECB or the US Federal Reserve, creates money and lends it to the biggest financial institutions. Banks are required to only keep a small amount of the money they borrow in their reserves; a bank that borrows $1,000 is only required to keep, say, 10% of that on hand at any given time. The rest can be loaned out.
So say the Fed loans a commercial bank $1,000. In turn, that bank lends $900 and keeps $100 on hand. Let’s say that’s your local community bank.
Why would a smaller bank need to borrow from a bigger bank? Well, what happens when you buy a house, for example? You take out a mortgage, which is a loan from your bank. In turn, your bank needs to pay the seller of the home and it may not have that much money laying around from people who make deposits at the bank. So it borrows from a bigger bank to pay the seller of the home the amount of the sale.
Now, you owe your bank for the value of the home you bought, which you’ll repay over 30 years.
And your bank owes the bigger bank for the money it borrowed to pay off the seller of the home.
Here’s why this matters for money supply: every time money is loaned, it is “created”. A loan counts as the creation of money.
You may be saying, okay, but how does this create more money? The answer is in that fraction of money the bank is required to hold onto, that 10%. That’s the money a bank has to have ready in case you want to make a withdrawal. Banks can issue multiple loans against the money they have on hand; in the USA, that rule is 10%. In other words, a bank that has $1 can loan out $10, because the probability of every depositor wanting their $1 at the same time is low – and in the USA, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) guarantees that it will loan banks money to cover deposits if the bank doesn’t have enough money on hand.
A bank that loans out $10 for every $1 it actually has is creating money, creating 10x more money (in the form of loans) than actually exists.
So what does this have to do with crypto winter? At the start of the pandemic, confidence in the entire economy was so shaken that to reassure consumers, investors, and banks, governments opened the floodgates of free money.
In the US, the government did two things. First, the Federal Reserve Bank cut the federal funds rate to 0% – that’s the interest charged to banks to borrow money from the US government. Second, the US government itself handed out a boatload of money to businesses under programs like the Payroll Protection Plan, which allowed businesses to obtain grants and loans to keep people employed despite not working due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Many countries around the world followed similar actions. The European Central Bank, Bank of Japan, Bank of England, and many others cut their interest rates to almost nothing. In many nations, especially nations that invest heavily in their citizens, citizens were outright paid an entire monthly income to stay home and avoid going out in public for months.
In other words, central banks and governments made it free to borrow money by other banks, and handed out a lot of money to citizens and businesses. How much? In the USA, the government created US $4 trillion, taking the money supply from $15 trillion to $19 trillion in one year. In Europe, the ECB went from 12.5 trillion Euros to almost 14 trillion Euros in the same year. China increased the renminbi from 200 trillion RMB to 220 trillion RMB in the same year.
It’s impossible to simply add 10-25% more money to your economy without there being long-ranging and deep economic impacts, substantial inflation. Consumers bought stuff while staying home, increasing demand substantially. They paid off debts and bought stuff because their traditional forms of service-based expenditures, such as dining out, concerts, and travel were substantially curtailed.
At the same time, supplies dwindled because of worker shortages, lockdowns, and illness – conditions which persist today. As you recall from the beginning of this piece, increased demand and decreased supply means prices inevitably go up as people are willing to pay more for purchases.
On top of that, all the effectively free money in the banking system got loaned out and businesses themselves were able to claim vast amounts of money for paying employees.
Where did all that money go? Recall that interest rates were effectively zero for nearly all banking operations. That meant banks could lend money at extremely low rates, but savers and investors – people who want to make money by investing it – needed a place to spend it where they’d earn something on their money. Putting your money in a bank did literally nothing with interest rates effectively zero, and the same was true for investments like US government bonds.
Enter cryptocurrencies. While Wall Street markets were in turmoil, cryptocurrencies became an attractive investment tool for people with a sudden amount of extra money on hand, and money poured into the cryptocurrency space. It’s absolutely no surprise that nearly every cryptocurrency in existence flourished in 2020 as investment-minded people needed something to do with their money. Real estate wasn’t selling much, travel was curtailed, and Wall Street was suffering from lockdowns.
It was crypto summer. Money flowed like cheap beer at a frat party and people invested in literally any marginally viable project.
So What Happened?
Well, this is where macroeconomics comes back to bite. Every central bank has a mandate to control inflation, to keep prices stable with modest amounts of inflation. When money is cheap to lend or is just handed out like candy, people spend more. People spending more means prices go up because supply is limited. So what can central banks do to tame inflation?
They can make money more expensive to create. They can, in some cases, just outright delete money out of existence. And with inflation spiking, central banks all over the world have been making money more expensive to create. That in turn reduces lending and reduces demand for lending by consumers. From our lesson on how lending creates money, the same way that banks create money by enabling lending, they destroy money by reducing lending.
On the flip side, higher interest rates mean more traditional financial instruments like bonds pay more, incentivizing savers to put more money away in interest-bearing tools. Prime Rate, for example, is higher in 2022 than it’s been since the early 2000s.
At the same time, the Great Resignation and the Great Reshuffling have made labor costs for businesses increase steeply as workers are able to command higher pay. Higher pay also increases the cost of products and services, which means buyers have to pay more.
Combine that with prices for everything being higher because of massive system shocks like the illegal invasion of Ukraine by Russia, and what do investors and consumers do? They pull money out of other places to use for consumption or investing in interest-bearing financial instruments. And where do they get that money from? Well, all those investments in crypto, for one. The stock market, for another.
What’s happening is a macroeconomic storm of gigantic proportions. Supply is dwindling from worker shortages and raw material shortages. Demand is still very high, especially because demand for complex products like cars and computers is still unfulfilled; the wait time for a new vehicle in many places is measured in months. Prices are high all over the planet (so forget blaming any one politician, no matter what country you’re from). And lending is expensive again. Money will flow out of other assets like crypto and back into the regular economy for consumption.
So what’s the outlook for crypto? Not good, not for a while. The macroeconomic picture is much more than a “dip”. It’s a structural realignment of markets as all the excess money created over the last two years drains away and central banks try to impose price stability around the world with the tools they have on hand. It’s likely to be years before crypto prices return to where they were at the peak of the easiest money ever to be had by investors.
Will they return? Perhaps at some point. Climate change means that crises will become more frequent and more severe over time, necessitating more rapid actions by governments and central banks to deal with them, but climate change also means prices will continue to be pressured by those natural disasters, continually eroding the value of money.
Next Steps for the Economy and Crypto
What should your crypto strategy be? Treat it like any other investment. Don’t invest money you can’t afford to lose, and diversify your investments across many different asset classes, including cryptocurrencies. Look carefully at the supply and value chains of your business, your career, and your investments and try to spot vulnerabilities to macro events and trends like climate change, then invest accordingly.
Disclosure and disclaimer: I am not a financial advisor. This article does not constitute investment advice and you should seek out a qualified financial professional before making investments or changing your financial strategy. I hold approximately US$200 in cryptocurrencies in total, including the $TILT coin, my own long-ignored creator coin, and $DESO. Neither I, nor my company TrustInsights.ai provides services around cryptocurrency.
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