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Investing in the Crypto Sphere: A Guide for Beginners in 2022

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The very fact that the crypto-sphere is hyped in today’s day and age shows that the world is increasingly going digital. Yet, the mainstream view is still predominantly associated with Bitcoin – the first and the most popular cryptocurrency. While it is benign to hold such a vantage point from a layman’s perspective, as an investor, it is an opinion that limits insight and practically drains the entire portfolio.

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As many investors are starting to allocate funds to this asset class, this article could guide you through the fundamental knowledge about the crypto-world. However, bear in mind that the market is decentralized and highly volatile. Therefore, while the basic tenets would apply irrespective of the timeframe, some valuations could drastically differ over a period. 

For real-time prices and market cap

What is a Blockchain? And what exactly is Decentralised Finance?

A majority of investors are still confused about the difference between blockchain technology and decentralized finance. Both terms are interrelated but differ in the scope of application in the real world. Blockchain technology is a system that acts as a digital ledger to facilitate transactions distributed across a diverse network of computers. It is basically a system of digitally encrypting and recording information duplicated over an expansive network: making it impossible to hack, alter, or corrupt data while being processed or stored. The technology is extensively used in logistics services, allowing users to keep real-time track of their packages around the globe. The most widely known implementation of blockchain technology is in Crypto Financial Services.

Colloquially referred to as ‘DeFi,’ the sector of Decentralised Finance spreads across a complex array of digital products: from cryptocurrencies to NFTs. DeFi involves a skeleton of blockchain technology to operate a colossal network of shared ledgers. With no centralized authority to verify transactions and manage supply, this area of finance uses complex algorithms to distribute the verification and storage process among users themselves. Due to the surfeit number of operants, rigging the system is rendered almost impossible. Thus, making DeFi one of the pioneering shifts in traditional financial services of modern time. 

Bitcoin is probably the best-known example of this vast field of decentralized finance and mass implementation of blockchain technology across countries.

What is Bitcoin? How does it differ from blockchain?

Arguably the most common misconception shared amid the new class of crypto-enthusiasts is that both blockchain and bitcoin are alike. As aforementioned, blockchain is the broader technology utilized by various industries. One such implementation in the finance industry (specifically the financial services industry) is Bitcoin: a digital token exchanged as a means of value over a system of shared ledgers called blocks. Created in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis by an anonymous entity – under the pseudonym ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’ -, the encrypted token acts as a pseudo-currency with a free-float valuation. Traded across a complex platform cohesively structured as a shared ledger system, the value of bitcoin is impossible (by default) to control and dictate. 

Participants verifying the transactions – frequently known as ‘Miners’ – use sophisticated computer programs to solve intricate hash functions to add blocks of transactions to the bitcoin blockchain. In exchange, they earn a lump sum of 6.25 BTC. This mechanism of Proof of Work (PoW) is proven to be impenetrable to external influence due to this distributed functionality and vast amounts of energy required to solve functions and add blocks of transaction data. However, it is susceptible to speculation that ultimately fuels the volatility feared by investors. Many elicit a question then: is it worth the risk?

Is it actually risky to invest in Bitcoin? How to avoid that risk?

A fact is inherent to the word investment itself: the more the uncertainty, the more the reward. This quality is not specific to bitcoin but every risky asset in general. Take traditional investors, for instance. These investors – having a risk appetite – invest in Junk bonds: to gain higher than average returns in exchange for the unpredictable nature of a potential default. What makes Bitcoin so unique, however, is its on/off vacillation in the mainstream debate: making a takeoff in value as likely as a dip. When it first began trading in 2009, price swings were limited as the adoption was gradual, and the information was sparse during the early days. However, in recent years, both the adoption and information have skyrocketed. The bitcoin market capitalization breached the $2 trillion mark last year: making it the first non-corporate entity to hold such prohibitive valuation. Governments have started adopting the coin as an official means of value exchange. And even renowned Investment Banks and hedge funds are offering services in digital tokens.

Despite slipping by 40% from the record-high price of $69,000 in November, bitcoin is currently trading at a support threshold of $42,000 – still up by almost 500% since the end of 2019. So is it risky? Absolutely it is! Compared to other assets in the market, it is a riskier store of value: in contrast to the popular notion of crypto fanatics. However, when comparing risk-adjusted returns, bitcoin shows outperformance relative to other assets. For example, bitcoin’s risk-adjusted return since September 2020 has been more than twice the performance of the S&P 500 index. Over the same stretch, Treasury bonds have posted negative returns while commodities have fared far worse. The same trend holds true for multiple periods – whether the start of 2015 or the beginning of 2020 – where bitcoin has outright trounced the traditional investment streams. 

However, the astronomical returns flowed to investors who stomached the churn of massive decline preceding the surge in value. Whether it was the crash of 2017 – when bitcoin tumbled by 80%. Or the slump of 2021 – when China’s mining crackdown led billions of dollars in liquidity squeeze to push the market to a halt. 

In short, it is the scheme of time, temperament, and a thrill for greater risk that is keeping the bets alive. Therefore, for greater returns, a temporal loss should enjoin long positions instead of divestiture. 

So what is the optimum strategy to invest in the crypto-sphere? And when should it be implemented?

The year 2021 was the most unstable year for the crypto-world. The Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) saw a sharp increase in popularity while a slew of cryptocurrencies lost more than half of their valuation before a skyrise. However, 2022 is about to change the dynamic to a greater extent. As the US fed prepares over its hawkish tilt with talks over bond taper and rate hikes, the valuation of cryptocurrencies – particularly bitcoin – is expected to plunge in the following months. According to Crypto gurus, the cryptocurrencies would remain under pressure as the fed reduces its liquidity injections. Further, as regulations get tightened by the SEC, the popularity could take a hit as well. 

Thus, my advice is to wait out the year 2022 as bitcoin would probably end 2022 below the $20,000 mark. If, however, your investment is geared towards the broader world of cryptocurrencies in general, my advice would differ. My approach would be to include bitcoin but diversify your allocations. My advice would be to allocate weighted portions of your portfolio to similar tokens like Ethereum and Solana. While these tokens move in tandem with the price swings in bitcoin, their operation hasn’t reached such a meteoric level of scale in the investor community. Instead, their adoption has been limited compared to bitcoin. And therefore, they offer more upside in terms of growth without steep price swings. Ethereum, for instance, currently trades around $3,000 and generally deviates in a $500-$1000 window in the medium-run.

If you are looking for more ingrained diversification, I advise some allocation of funds in the metaverse: more closely tied to the revolutionary side of NFTs. Purchasable tokens like Sandbox (SAND) and Decentraland (MANA) would serve as a lucrative option in the portfolio. These NFTs are available on most crypto platforms and have offered steep returns over an extensive period of time. Moreover, alongside a motley of cryptocurrencies (weighted appropriately), these could also work as a hedge to bets in bitcoin because of high liquidity and profitability: making the portfolio optimum in terms of longer-term technical bets. 

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Ultimately, as an investor starting to invest in this strata of assets, you need to have a long-term approach, a stomach for risk over an extended period of time, and an astute eye for market regulations and announcements to derive appreciable gains. Remember, there is no magic or free lunch when investing. The offerings have innovated, the platforms got digitalized, but the basics are the same – patience and diversification.

The author is an active current affairs writer primarily analyzing the global affairs and their political, economic and social consequences. He also holds a Bachelor’s degree from Institute of Business Administration (IBA) Karachi, Pakistan.

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The Subtle Dominance of Stablecoins: A Ruse of Stability

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Digital tokens are nothing new in 2022 as the crypto market continues to fold into the traditional financial sphere. The debate over environmental hazards, regulatory policies, and technical complexities defined yesteryears. But none of these aspects succeeded in putting a damper on the popularity of the crypto market. Sure the price of bitcoin has been in a pitfall since early November. But it is has maintained its mark regardless of the skepticism. Countries continue to adopt bitcoin as a means of exchange while the crypto offerings expand; venture from derivatives market to the real estate sector. I admit, it is a rollercoaster of information; it is hard to sieve relevance from all the FUD out there. Yet, while the mainstream focus remains fixated on the flag-bearer offerings like bitcoin and ether – the two leading crypto tokens – a section of crypto continues to thrive and circumvent the hype to an extent. Stablecoins – digital tokens pegged to other assets – continue to pace adoption: almost matching the frontrunners of the crypto market.

The acceptance of stablecoins has surged in recent years. These tokens are designed for stability and are usually pegged to stable assets – like the US dollar – to maintain value over time. Stablecoins are a sharp contrast to volatile offerings like bitcoin. Over the past few years, a motley of cryptocurrencies have morphed into mainstream markets: Dogecoin, Shiba Inu, and Solana (SOL) – to name a few. However, the inherent volatility has remained a notable drawback across the range. Perversely, stablecoins maintain their value by underpinning over a stack of safer assets – usually based in traditional financial markets. Today, dozens of stablecoins are in circulation with a combined market valuation of $154 billion. While some stablecoins peg to fiat units – like USD Coin (USDC) pegged to the US dollar – it is not a thumb rule. Many tokens get pegged to commodities, gold reserves, and bonds. The basic premise underscores a diverse mix of liquid assets reserved to offer digital coins circulated across blockchain networks. Some issuers even peg stablecoins to cryptocurrencies – conflating the safer and riskier crypto markets.

The outright utility of stablecoins is obvious: trade via crypto exchanges without risking a downturn in value. Moreover, stablecoins can bypass the traditional payments infrastructure while avoiding volatility in pricing. Thus, these offerings can (at least in theory) speed up cross-border transactions, eliminate transaction costs associated with traditional banks, and allow traders to divert transactions in the crypto world without the fear of volatility. All the utilities mirror the benefits of a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC); without the centralized system and regulatory oversight.

Stablecoins pegged to crypto-assets like bitcoin or ether are interestingly not volatile in the short run. To avoid compromising stability, the issuers maintain a collection of crypto assets that outweigh the circulation of their tokens. Think about a central bank holding reserves of gold to back its fiat notes in the money supply. Since last year, stablecoins have impressively edged out popular cryptocurrencies in cumulative value. Tether (USDT) – the most popular stablecoin – is now behind just bitcoin and ether with a market cap of $78.5 billion. More than 69 billion Tethers are currently in circulation: at least 48 billion issued in 2021. The USDC recently crossed the $44 billion market cap to claim the fifth spot in crypto rankings while replacing Solana. It is also noteworthy that even the sharp selloff in cryptocurrencies since November has done little to dent the appetite for stablecoins. According to data from CoinGecko, BitPay Inc – one of the largest crypto payments platforms – reported a downfall in payments via popular cryptocurrencies. The use of bitcoin dropped to 65% payments from 92% in 2020. However, the stablecoins accounted for 13% of the total payments processed – barely trailing 15% ether purchases.

The main element supporting such exponential acceptance is stability over volatility. While bitcoin and ether – alongside similar crypto tokens – are popular speculative assets, the store of value is a precarious aspect: considering the steep price swings in recent months. Conversely, stablecoins are relatively stabler in value; easier to use in cross-border payments such as remittances and freelance incentives. Investors predominantly want to hold onto the popular cryptocurrencies to gamble a price hike instead of spending. According to data from Glassnode Studio, there has been a steady transfer of bitcoins from short-term to long-term accounts – ‘Hodlers’ as referred to in the crypto lingo. These “staunch bitcoin believers” maintain a strong base of hodlers who are unlikely to sell their holdings – even during a selloff.

Thus, despite leverage liquidations since early November, bitcoin prices have been relatively range-bound. The crypto industry is shaping into a bifurcated market – mainstream cryptocurrencies (like bitcoin and ether) for speculative investments and stablecoins (like USDC and USDT) for means of transaction and general decentralized payments. As crypto companies and exchanges continue to expand, transactions are growing – popularising stablecoins in the process. Albeit variance in value avoided, is the risk entirely off the table. The regulators surely don’t think so!

The surge in usage of stablecoins has pestered lawmakers for months. According to regulators, growing acceptance is problematic – since large amounts of dollar-equivalent coins get regularly exchanged without any supervision of the US banking system. It opens a route to illicit financial transactions, fraud, and money laundering. Jerome Powell – Chairman of the Federal Reserve – recently addressed the US Congress, stating: “They [stablecoins] are like money (market) funds; they are like bank deposits growing incredibly fast but without appropriate regulation.” The front-running issue stems from the concerns around the 1-to-1 parity of stablecoins. In theory, issuers of stablecoins maintain reserves of safe assets to back their coin circulation. But in reality, however, these reserves are diverse in nature – sometimes riskier than initially implied. Tether, for instance, maintains its asset reserves in US dollars, T-bills, and corporate bonds. However, a Bloomberg investigation into Tether revealed that billions of dollars in reserves also include short-term loans to Chinese companies – activities money market funds avoid due to federal regulations. Tether further accumulates a part of its asset reserves via loans to crypto companies, backed by bitcoin as collateral. While Tether vows that majority of its commercial paper has high grades from reputed credit-ratings firms, most of these supposed “low-risk loans” were never marketed to customers when launching the USDT. Thus, a sharp fall in bitcoin prices (like the 45% drop in April 2021) or bankruptcy of a few such Chinese companies could risk a default on loans; a subsequent squeeze in liquidity and a market-wide panic could trigger a bank run. These risks got underlined when regulators asked for jurisdiction over the highly decentralized market of stablecoins – and the broader crypto industry.

Today, the growing market of lending stablecoins further complicates matters. In periods of high market volatility, investors use stablecoins as leverage to speculate on other assets – like bitcoin. Lenders could easily earn returns ranging from 10% to 19% from loans as participants collateralize their holdings to speculate. This borrow and lending market inadvertently links the speculative markets to the safest crypto offerings. For instance, lenders could easily condense their reserves to 95% (even 90%) worth circulation during bouts of bullish sentiments in the crypto market. Without any regulatory supervision, issuers like Tether could dilute their reserve holdings without any penalty: all while the market assumes a 100% backing. Now imagine if Tether – with $69 billion in assets – suddenly faces an abnormal uptick in withdrawals – customers willing to exchange for US dollar. Lack of reserves could quickly spark a liquidity crunch. Even an intimation of panic could push the markets into a financial collapse. Such an occurrence would transcend borders since stablecoins have heavily expanded into cross-border payments. Thus, a financial crisis could overwhelm the global economy – because markets dealing in billions of dollars in transactions are without regulatory guidance.

Hence, while stablecoins are stable relative to their notorious counterparts in the speculative crypto markets, the sharp criticism of regulators is justified. The lawmakers are pushing regulators – including the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department, the SEC, and the CFTC – to police these stablecoin issuers in a manner synonymous to banks and money market funds. Alongside tight scrutiny and constant supervision, robust capital requirements are also debatable. Federal investigations are already underway to disclose the liquidity positions of Tether despite a slew of assurances. Ultimately, lawmakers – even regulators – perceive these stablecoins as offerings posing a systematic risk to broader financial stability. Such regulatory steps could gradually dilute these intrinsic shortcomings associated with stablecoins. However, the decentralized nature of these coins would be difficult to justify amid a raft of legislative rules.

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The First Crypto Mortgage: Bitcoin Continues to Rapidly Expand Across the US Markets

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It seems like yesterday that the Bitcoin Futures got approval by a US regulator. The subsequent bitcoin ETFs were the talk of the town in 2021 – and they didn’t disappoint (at least initially). While the move to the derivatives market got equally hailed as dreaded, the ongoing diversification in the crypto industry amid a price stagnation appeals as a natural course for the market. Another touted shift was the expansion in the real estate market, though the starting point appeared dismal. For instance, United Wholesale Mortgage – the second-largest US mortgage lender – announced a move to crypto payments last August. However, despite a resounding response from customers, the company just scrapped the idea shortly afterward. The regulatory uncertainty alongside market volatility – the two main culprits. Regardless, the tide is moving in favor again as the first bitcoin mortgage offering was announced on Tuesday: confirming that while the regulators are lagging in drafting a framework, there is no lag in this crypto revolution.

Milo – a real estate fintech company – announced the launch of the world’s first crypto mortgage: enabling borrowers to leverage their bitcoin holdings to buy real estate in the United States. It is the first time that a brand new asset class (if you can even call it) is intermingling with arguably the most established investment avenues in the US. Josip Rupera – CEO of Milo – stated that customers could obtain bitcoin-backed loans by using their bitcoin holdings as collateral for purchasing a property. Traditionally, the clients had to sell their crypto stack for a down payment. In contrast, Milo now allows US citizens and foreigners to qualify for a US-based mortgage based on their BTC holdings. The company attested that the crypto mortgage would be available early this year: owing to “a large waitlist” for the offering – underscoring the appetite for a crypto-backed mortgage in investors.

Milo (a licensed lender since 2018) also specializes in crypto loans and other traditional mortgage assets. While the specifics are unclear, Rupera clued to a similar mechanism as a crypto loan to be exacted over the crypto mortgages. As per his statement: “Milo’s clients will be able to pledge their bitcoin to purchase property and finally qualify for a low-interest rate 30-year crypto mortgage.” The company clarified earlier that ‘no dollar down payments’ would be required to finance the mortgage: making the procedure faster and efficient. However, an obvious question pops up again: what about the sharp movements in the price of bitcoin acting as collateral?

A mortgage is based on the collateral. Once the bitcoin slips in value, so would the collateral. This problem sounds eerily familiar! The financial crisis in 2008 stemmed from the real estate market as the bursting housing bubble plummeted the home prices vis-à-vis the value of the collateral for the mortgages that subsequently went under. However, the financial market has since come a long way – and so have the mechanisms in place. Similar to other crypto loans, the crypto-mortgage would be launched with a margin-call component. For instance, a purchase of property worth $1 million would require the borrower to pledge – through a third-party custodian – at least $1 million worth of bitcoin. Milo would then underwrite the customer, evaluate the property, validate other aspects of creditworthiness, and ultimately facilitate a successful transaction. If, however, the crypto drops in value, the borrower would be subject to the deficit amount. Milo would allow the borrower to pay in fiat currency or pledge more crypto to adjust the margin account to its minimum maintenance margin i.e. $1 million. The mortgage rate adjustments would follow the same process. Today, the margin-call component is common in traditional mortgages, and Milo currently serves crypto loans – based on a similar transaction mechanism – to applicants from at least 63 countries around the globe. However, the evaluation procedure is still not explicitly defined, making the process tricky – given foreign applicants with no US-based credit history could also apply. Thus, the offering still requires clarification from a regulatory vantage point.

Nonetheless, this bold step marks a much-awaited move of crypto to the mortgage market – an ironic conflation of the riskiest and the safest (arguably) asset classes. According to Rupera, the idea of a crypto mortgage was in work since last year. The goal was to allow crypto holders to bypass the complex hassle with traditional banks and lenders, which barely consider crypto as an asset class. Instead, the company aimed to offer an alternative route to buy real estate without the opportunity cost of selling bitcoin that may eventually skydive in value. This “groundbreaking” offering – as one bitcoin hodler termed it – not only secures the bitcoin holders from losing their holdings but also protects them from inadvertent consequences like taxes on capital gains and complicated paperwork. Ultimately, the risk is inherent; that doesn’t seem to deter the broader market. Instead, innovators are expanding into diverse markets to spread the risk of volatility. Whether those markets dilute the crypto risk or the risk seeps into those markets – only time will tell. In the meantime, Milo estimates that the crypto mortgage market could be worth tens of billions of dollars soon. To put things into a wider perspective, the investors would be able to hold their bitcoin stacks (‘diamond hands’ as they call it) while paying off their mortgages. What better way to have your pie and eat it too!

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Metaverse Leading the Gaming Revolution: Are NFTs Truly the Future of the Industry?

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Some call it the new tech boom, while others are wary of long-term implications. Regardless, the metaverse is quickly shaping into a phenomenon straight out of a science fiction novel. A virtual world that allows you to create customizable avatars, design and stake ownership of digital assets, or simply conduct business in a fantastical space. There is hardly any limit to the extent of its utility. Metaverse is getting touted as a revolution in how we perceive the internet; call it Web 3.0, if you may. However, while the tech giants are all set to reap billions off this fledgling concept, not all stakeholders are on board. The Gaming Industry appears to be leading the defiance as the mainstream appeal of the metaverse dangles in uncertainty – much like the broader crypto market.

According to a research firm, the metaverse marketspace – including games, gadgets, and online services – cumulated over $49 billion in 2020. Further, it is growing at a rapid pace of 40% annually. Clearly, this ‘evolution of the internet’ has attracted the magnates from various walks of the tech industry. Notably, the Gaming Industry is leaning towards the metaverse to offer users a distinctive virtual experience. The concept, however, is not new – just a little unorthodox. For decades, gamers have experienced platforms that serve as virtual reality hosting customizable avatars. Users have interacted in the digital setting, traded collectibles, and even developed arsenals of simulated treasures in the gaming world. Today, this innovative step is a leap towards Blockchain – a decentralized mechanism to interact and trade in a virtual setting. Understandably, the value of items fixed in a traditional format could now vary in a blockchain.

Ubisoft – a French video game publisher – recently announced its foray into Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) – digital assets designed to track the proof of authenticity and ownership – through its blockchain platform called ‘Quartz’. An experimental additional to their popular game “Ghost Recon Breakpoint,” the platform offers players collectible virtual items – like helmets, clothing items, accessories – in the form of NFTs. According to a spokesperson of Ubisoft, this move allows users to collect and trade digital assets on the Blockchain. A similar venture was announced by GSC, a Ukrainian game developer, allowing crypto-based assets to customize in-game characters. While these moves are a transformative step towards the ultimate incorporation of blockchain technology, they have met widespread resistance from the gaming community. The anger stems from a widely shared belief that the gaming companies are now moving to NFTs to ‘squeeze profits’ from their games instead of improving the gameplay. “It is so obviously being done for profit, instead of just creating a beautiful game,” said an enraged gamer protesting on Reddit. Companies like Square Enix and a dozen more are planning a similar move towards NFTs in near-term. However, the industry is unarguably divided.

Major players in the tech industry are leading the road to the metaverse. A spotlight event is the attention-grabbing decision to rebrand Facebook as ‘Meta’. While market leaders like Apple and Google are honing their own devices to jump the bandwagon, not all players are on board. Notable entities have taken a decisive front against metaverse – especially in the gaming industry. For instance, Phil Spencer – Microsoft Xbox Chief – termed the efforts to bring NFTs to the gaming world as “exploitative”. For many executives, the issue is not just the ‘grab-cash’ model of this new transition. Instead, the fear of regulation weighs heavily against the metaverse to expand into mainstream reality. While micro-transactions have an implicit cap on the value exchange between the users, a move to NFTs opens the door to a broader platform for commerce and – inadvertently at least – speculation. Thus, regulatory forces would soon catch up with this tech boom: changing the gaming industry into a regulated exchange-like platform in the long term. “Rushing into offering NFTs without fully evaluating it could lead to serious damage,” said George Jijiashvili, principal analyst at Omdia.

Gaming studios like Ubisoft and GSC are relentlessly getting pushed to abandon their aspirations of a crypto revolution in the gaming industry. While for these studios, NFTs are a “premium (yet optional) addition” to allow gamers to earn by selling unique digital assets, the users are convinced that it’s nothing but a Ponzi scheme. Nonetheless, it is patent that even the industry is in two minds. And despite a conceptual revolution, NFTs are still in an embryonic stage: presumably inflated – via speculation – beyond their actual value. Hence, while a move towards metaverse might be the ultimate future of the tech industry – like the internet in the 90s -, the backlash is currently forcing the companies to backtrack for now. And bidding profitability against innovation – I think the choice is clear!

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