Bitcoin is soaring as investors panic about coronavirus

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WASHINGTON — Bitcoin is once again having a moment.

The cryptocurrency has soared as fears about the coronavirus outbreak send shock waves throughout global stock markets.

The price of one bitcoin is now hovering around $9,300. Bitcoin is up nearly 10% this week and has gained 30% since the end of 2019. It’s the best start to the year for bitcoin since 2012.

Worries about the rapid spread of the coronavirus is one factor boosting bitcoin, an asset that often has gone up when investors are nervous. But it isn’t the only factor helping to push bitcoin higher.

“The recent bitcoin rally can be attributed to ongoing economic uncertainties,” said Shaun Djie, chief operating officer of digital token company Digix in comments e-mailed to CNN Business.

Djie cited lingering worries about US-China trade relations, Brexit concerns and political tension between Japan and South Korea as factors that have boosted bitcoin prices. But the coronavirus is clearly the biggest catalyst as of late.

“The rise in bitcoin price correlates to the ongoing outbreak,” Djie said.

In that sense, bitcoin’s latest spike is similar to gold’s stellar run this year. The yellow metal has also surged this month and is now trading at a seven-year high.

“Is this peak bullishness for the stock market? Gold and bitcoin are up as investors don’t seem convinced about last year’s stock rally,” said Marija Veitmane, senior multi-asset strategist with State Street in an interview with CNN Business.

Veitmane added that bitcoin, as well as gold, is benefiting from the fact that interest rates are low (or in some cases, negative) following cuts by the Federal Reserve and many other central banks last year.

That has led to a decline in the US dollar versus other currencies over the past few months.

Weaker dollar is good for bitcoin

Bitcoin, gold and other cryptocurrencies and precious metals have historically done well when investors bet that the value of big government-backed currencies will fall.

“There is a new consensus building about dollar weakness,” Veitmane said. “Bitcoin and gold may continue to do well as safe-haven investments.”

Djie agreed. “Gold and bitcoin have become prominent alternatives for retail investors looking to safeguard their wealth.”

Investors considering bitcoin as a long-term investment should probably think of bitcoin much like gold. It could be a small part of a portfolio but not something investors should go overboard with, especially given the volatility of the cryptocurrency.

After all, bitcoin prices are still more than 50% below the all-time high of nearly $20,000 that they hit in December 2017 — even though they’ve nearly tripled from a recent low of about $3,200 in December 2018.

Big Tech and Wall Street embracing crypto

Bitcoin investing has become more mainstream thanks to cryptocurrency initiatives by big tech companies like Square and Facebook.

“The backing from Square and Facebook are definitely very significant to the overall crypto industry as it validates distributed technologies and the overall digital assets and cryptocurrency space,” Djie said. “The embrace of crypto by these companies can allow mainstream users to enjoy the versatility and agility of the technology.”

The rise of futures trading for bitcoin on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange may also help validate bitcoin with larger mutual funds, hedge funds and pensions.

“Among the biggest contributors to the rally, as I see it, is the hope that 2020 could finally see institutional investors move into the digital field en masse, prompted by growing client demand and more attractive ways to get exposure than direct ownership of coins,” said Frank Holmes, CEO and chief investment officer of U.S. Global Investors, in a recent blog post.

But Holmes conceded that the Securities and Exchange Commission could provide the biggest boost for bitcoin if it ever approves a crypto-backed exchange-traded fund. The SEC has rejected numerous proposals so far.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that a bitcoin ETF is highly anticipated,” Holmes wrote.

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