- Digital assets again produced positive returns in December, led by the Smart Contract Platforms Crypto Sector. Grayscale Research believes the Fed’s discussion of possible rate cuts helped support valuations in both crypto and traditional markets last month.
- Ethereum’s ETH token gained but significantly trailed Solana. We believe competition among Smart Contract Platforms should be a focus for crypto investors in 2024.
- Many have speculated that the SEC could approve a spot Bitcoin ETF this month. This would be an important milestone, but Grayscale Research would argue that Bitcoin’s fundamentals will ultimately prove more important for its price.
Bitcoin gained 13% in December, punctuating a year of strong returns, but the largest crypto asset was in fact outpaced by other market segments last month. Although the broadening crypto recovery has many drivers, valuation gains over the last month can be partly attributed to Federal Reserve monetary policy, and specifically signs that policymakers have finished raising interest rates and are now discussing the timing of cutting interest rates.
US inflation has been trending lower for more than a year, but Fed officials now appear ready to consider when this could warrant easier monetary policy. In the projections offered at its December 12-13 meeting, the median Federal Reserve official expected three quarter point rate cuts in 2023, more than some economists had previously anticipated. The Fed’s apparent readiness to consider rate cuts resulted in a sharp decline in US bond yields as market expectations for interest rates shifted lower (Exhibit 1). It also stimulated a rally in many financial assets, including higher-risk market segments like CCC-rated corporate bonds and emerging market debt.
Exhibit 1: Interest rates declined on Fed “pivot”
Like gold, Bitcoin is an alternative money system that competes with the US Dollar. Therefore, changes in fundamentals that worsen the competitiveness of the US Dollar—including lower real interest rates—can be positive for Bitcoin. Guidance at the Fed’s December meeting about possible rate cuts resulted in lower real interest rates and a weakened Dollar, and likely supported Bitcoin’s valuation, in our view.
Exhibit 2: Lower real interest rates likely a tailwind for Bitcoin
Although Bitcoin delivered solid returns last month, it significantly lagged certain other digital assets. For example, the FTSE Grayscale Smart Contract Platforms Index was up nearly 42% in December, led by Ethereum competitors (“Alt L1s”) Solana, Avalanche, and Cardano (Exhibit 3). Ethereum’s Ether (ETH) token underperformed Bitcoin (BTC) in 2023 but regained some ground in December: the ETH/BTC price ratio ended the month slightly higher and well-above its mid-month low point. Ethereum is pursuing a “modular” development approach, in which an ecosystem of Layer 2 blockchains will build upon the Layer 1 chain to allow activity to scale. Grayscale Research expects Ethereum’s scaling strategy to be a major focus for crypto markets in 2024 (for more details see Ether “Underperforms” with 80% Gain in 2023).
Exhibit 3: Smart Contract Platform Crypto Sector outperformed in December
Solana’s SOL token gained 72% in December and ended the year 916% higher. Although SOL is still down roughly 59% from its all-time high, this year’s gain represents a remarkable turnaround following a challenging 2022. In addition to price appreciation, the blockchain has seen a notable uptick in on-chain activity, including rising stablecoin transfer volume and active addresses exceeding both Bitcoin and Ethereum for the first time. In contrast to Ethereum, Solana is pursuing a “monolithic” development approach centered around advanced hardware, and generally offers a compelling user experience, in our view. At the same time, much of the recent on-chain activity represents speculative trading (e.g. “meme coins”), and it remains to be seen whether the chain can encourage sustained user growth.
Bitcoin faces a similar debate around the rise of ordinals, a type of digital collectible on the oldest and largest public blockchain. We see Bitcoin’s core use case as a “store of value” asset and digital alternative to gold, but its applications can possibly expand over time due to adoption trends and/or technological developments. In December, the Bitcoin blockchain saw a record number of transactions, largely due to trading of ordinals and related assets (Exhibit 4). The rise in ordinals trading should be considered a positive for Bitcoin’s valuation, in our view, because it expands the blockchain’s addressable markets.
Exhibit 4: Ordinals drive record Bitcoin transaction volumes
If the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) approves trading of spot Bitcoin ETFs, this may broaden the number of investors with regulated access to digital asset investment products, and potentially result in new net demand for Bitcoin. In light of a relatively “tight” supply backdrop, as well as the halving of Bitcoin issuance scheduled for April 2024, new net inflows into the asset should have positive implications for Bitcoin’s valuation, in our view.
However, sustained demand for Bitcoin from end investors will ultimately be more important for its price than these shorter-term supply/demand technicals. Although Bitcoin has other potential applications, the token is primarily held as a “store of value” asset and digital alternative to gold. Therefore, its price will be influenced by the factors that drive demand for gold-like investments, including changes in real interest rates and/or geopolitical tail risks. Bitcoin and many other digital assets produced strong returns in 2023, but crypto remains a volatile asset class, and investors should be mindful of both the macro and micro factors that can drive crypto valuations.
 Source: Bloomberg as of December 31, 2023.
 For example, from the transcript of Chair Powell’s press conference on December 13, 2023: “the other question, the question of when will it become appropriate to begin dialing back the amount of policy restraint in place, that, that begins to come into view and is clearly a discussion—topic of discussion out in the world and also a discussion for us at our meeting today.”
 In a survey conducted by Bloomberg prior to the meeting, about one quarter of economists expected fewer than three rate cuts in 2024, despite comparable projections for economic growth. Source: Bloomberg News, December 10, 2023.
 Source: Bloomberg, as of December 29, 2023.
 The ETH/BTC price ratio was 0.0545 as of December 29, 2023.
 Source: Bloomberg as of December 31, 2023.
 Source: Artemis, data as of 12/28/2023
 According to Glassnode data, inscriptions (including text) accounted for around 25% of Bitcoin fees paid in December 2023.
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