Bitcoin's Meteoric Rise in Late 2017 Blamed on a Single Investor

Professors from the University of Texas and Ohio State analyzed 200 gigabytes of cryptocurrency transaction data.

Rewind to late 2017 and bitcoin, the popular cryptocurrency was skyrocketing, hitting an all-time high of $20,000. But shortly thereafter the price plummeted leaving extreme losses in its wake that it never recovered from. 

The reasons for the meteoric rise in late 2017: a single investor or otherwise known as a whale in trading parlance.

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Professors poured over 200 gigabytes of transaction data 

That's according to new research from the University of Texas professor John Griffin and Ohio State Unversity professor Amin Sham. The cryptocurrency experts contend a single whale was responsible for moving the price of Bitcoin to its all-time high, which it has never been able to achieve again. “Our results suggest instead of thousands of investors moving the price of Bitcoin, it’s just one large one," wrote the researchers. Their work was published in The Journal of Finance

To come to their conclusion, the professors engaged in a forensic analysis of bitcoin prices during late 2017, looking at more than 200 gigabytes of data that showed the transaction history for bitcoin and tether, a digital currency known as a stablecoin because it's tied to the U.S. dollar. 

The professors found a pattern between tethers traded for bitcoins and were able to tie it all to one investor who had an account at Bitfinex, the cryptocurrency exchange. The single investor was able to artificially boost demand for bitcoin via tethers. The scam happened as bitcoin was riding high, heading toward its all-time high of $20,000. Bitcoin trades for $9,197 as of 7 November. The professors weren't able to identify the single manipulator responsible for the bitcoin rise but they argued that Bitfinex knows who it is. 

Professors say there's a need for regulation, monitoring of digital currency

"Periods of rapid price appreciation are historically associated with innovation and growth but also with nefarious activities that lead to misallocation of capital," wrote the professors. "By mapping the blockchains of Bitcoin and Tether, we are able to establish that one large player on Bitfinex uses Tether to purchase large amounts of Bitcoin when prices are falling and following the printing of Tether. Such price supporting activities are successful, as Bitcoin prices rise following the periods of
intervention. Indeed, even 1% of the times with extreme exchange of Tether for Bitcoin have substantial aggregate price effects." 

The professors cautioned their findings suggest innovative technologies created to get around the traditional banking systems haven't removed the need for external surveillance, monitoring, and regulatory framework. "Our findings support the historical narrative that dubious activities are associated with bubbles and can contribute to further price distortions," they wrote.  

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