Rumors and accusations of price manipulation around bitcoin are nothing new. Despite the original cryptocurrency’s lofty goal of a truly democratized and decentralized currency, there are factors that make this ambition more of a dream than a reality. From concentrated control in the hands of a few mining pools to the lack of liquidity that traders experience at the slightest hint of trouble, impacting the currency’s value is easier than it seems.
Recently, the crypto community was put on edge after a veiled attempt at fomenting volatility in bitcoin prices came to light. A suspicious email appearing to originate from PayPal Holdings Inc.’s (PYPL) servers warned users to cease their crypto trading activities and raised serious red flags. The event led to renewed accusations by some in the cryptocurrency sphere of intentional fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) campaigns meant to manipulate the market and affect prices. While the origin of the email is murky at best, the situation is filled with odd circumstances, which raises questions about exactly what might have occurred.
The First Domino – A Suspicious Email
Recently, PayPal users received a strange email purportedly from the company itself warning them to cease buying and selling cryptocurrencies or risk being banned from the service for violating company policy. The notification started a furor in the bitcoin community as the company’s actions could potentially destabilize the market. PayPal’s purported influence on the market, combined with other corporate actions (such as Google and Facebook banning cryptocurrency advertisements) has the potential to create a serious price crisis and collapse bitcoin’s market capitalization once more.
However, there are holes that become immediately apparent in this version of the story. For one, although PayPal is undoubtedly an influential player, its decision might cause prices to fall somewhat, but not entirely crash. Moreover, the company is working on its own cryptocurrency solution, so tanking the market is not in their best interest. Finally, PayPal’s relevancy to the crypto market in general could also be overstated.
The email was later revealed to be a fake by several individuals, who discovered that the email address domain didn’t belong to the company. Things became even murkier when some users discovered the domain belongs to IBM, which has been known to create phishing attempts involving PayPal. Even if the email had been real, the question about its impact remains.
“The recent PayPal email doesn’t look like a traditional phishing scam we’re used to. Some believe the email is a well calculated joint marketing attempt by PayPal and IBM to discourage people from entering the cryptocurrency world. But why? Cryptocurrencies and smart contracts are poised to disrupt the traditional banking and payment gateway systems. New innovative and more specialized payment gateways will no longer need to go through services like PayPal. This has the potential to derail their growth and affect their bottom line. But given PayPal has recently filed for a number of patents on cryptocurrency transaction systems, this may be highly unlikely. Whatever the case may be, something is happening and the facts have yet to be uncovered,” said Alexander Kokhanovsky, CEO and founder of DreamTeam, an infrastructure platform & payment gateway for eSports and gaming.
To many observers, PayPal’s ability to directly affect bitcoin prices is limited at best, and even if they were to have started the situation, it would not have mattered on a broader scale. Other crises have shown to have a limited impact on prices and sentiment. Google’s ad ban and even China and South Korea’s regulatory overtures were met with price increases over a short period, as opposed to the crashes predicted.
Can Bitcoin Be Manipulated?
The short answer is yes, but it’s not a black-and-white situation. Bitcoin can be and has been manipulated in the past, and studies suggest it’s not impossible. Indeed, there are suspicions that the 700% spike in prices that the coin experienced in 2013 were the result of a single trader. More recently, a study found that only 1,000 users control nearly 40% of available bitcoin, giving them a disproportionate ability to drive the market, even without coordinating their activities. However, it’s difficult to determine what causes price fluctuations in any specific moment, and if it’s the result of outright manipulation or natural market forces.
However, there are known factors that do play a direct role in price momentum, and some which could use this to manipulate valuations. For one, the introduction of leveraged trading and futures to the market encourages riskier behavior that can add to volatility. While the ability to short sell is viewed in many academic circles as an essential element of the price discovery process, it can also be abused for speculative purposes. By magnifying the scale of positions, margin calls can create added volatility as well, instead of contributing to greater overall stability.
Others point to institutional traders whose lack of transparency leads to tricky situations. For one, they are not obligated to disclose their transactions with crypto futures or the coins themselves—an ability that allows them to essentially govern the movement of markets. Similarly, mining pools that control large portions of circulating coins have an outsized voice in deciding bitcoin’s future, and are a result of miners who have banded together in pursuit of their own interests.
There are even those who would manipulate bitcoin’s price, even if it isn’t intentional, from a public podium. The trustee for Mt. Gox, the once popular and now defunct exchange, officially has control over the 160,000 bitcoins still in the company’s possession. He sold several thousand over the last few months to pay off the exchange’s creditors, and many attribute these sales to the persistent price declines from January onward.
Ironing Out Bitcoin’s Future
For all its transparency, bitcoin is still influenced by mysterious entities who aren’t willing to identify themselves. Enthusiasts can attempt to track the movement of coins between wallets, but the truth is that there are now many powerful, experienced stakeholders in bitcoin that recognize a ripe opportunity in the young market. However, the oft-repeated mantra “Hodl!” still applies. One must remember that if bitcoin is brought to rock bottom, the social momentum it’s enjoyed suffers catastrophic diminishing returns. Influencers have a reason to keep price on an upward trajectory because bitcoin only survives with a constant supply of new blood. In other words, the blip that the recent PayPal email represents on bitcoin’s radar is too miniscule to register.