No, Elon Musk didn’t spark the Bitcoin sell-off

Volatility is back. After months of relative calm in the crypto markets—so much so that some were declaring Bitcoin to be downright boring—prices plunged on Thursday with the flagship currency falling nearly 10%, to about $25,000, before recovering slightly. Ethereum, XRP, and other big currencies likewise buckled.

The cause for the sudden tumult is hard to pinpoint, but, for now, it’s possible to say what didn’t cause Bitcoin to crash. Namely, contrary to a flurry of excited tweets and headlines, Elon Musk is not to blame.

The theory got traction yesterday after the Wall Street Journal published a scoop about the finances of Musk’s privately held rocket company, SpaceX. While the piece focused on the company’s revenues and research costs, it also included this line at the end: “The documents also show SpaceX wrote down the value of bitcoin it owns by a total of $373 million last year and in 2021 and has sold the cryptocurrency.”

The story coincided with the broad sell-off of Bitcoin, leading some to conclude that SpaceX was the catalyst. Even the normally reliable Bloomberg published a headline (since changed) that read “Bitcoin Plunge Spurs Liquidations as SpaceX’s Token Sale Weighs.”

There are a number of problems with this assessment beyond that basic one that correlation doesn’t always equate to causation. The biggest one lies with the quirky accounting rules surrounding crypto that requires companies to record losses (“impairments” in accounting speak) when token prices fall, but that don’t let them record gains if tokens rise. So if a firm holds one Bitcoin and the price drops from $30,000 to $25,000 on Monday but then climbs to $35,000 on Tuesday, it must show a $5,000 loss on its balance sheet.

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While the Journal‘s report says SpaceX sold cryptocurrency, we don’t know if the company sold all of it or if the sale occurred as one or multiple transactions. In any case, Bitcoin’s market cap is over $500 billion, so it’s unlikely that SpaceX selling all or part of its holdings would be enough to trigger a drop like the one we saw on Thursday.

So what did cause Bitcoin to plunge? There are a few likely explanations, most notably yesterday’s news that U.S. interest rates could keep climbing. While crypto price patterns can still be unpredictable, it’s become accepted in the last two years that investors regard Bitcoin as a “risk-on” asset to buy in bullish conditions—and that they will rapidly dump it in the face of macroeconomic headwinds. Right now, those headwinds also include the witch’s brew that is China’s economy at the moment as well as painful real estate conditions.

At the same time, as CoinDesk notes, the crypto market is prone to cascading sell-offs when prices shift and brokerages liquidate positions held on margin—which is what happened yesterday. The bottom line here is that, when crypto prices crash, it is almost never due to a single factor. As for what happens next, it’s hard to say—other than that, all of a sudden, crypto markets are no longer boring.

Jeff John R[email protected]@jeffjohnrobertsDECENTRALIZED NEWSThe SEC is reportedly set to approve several ETFs for Ethereum futures as soon as October. (Bloomberg)The judge presiding over SEC v. Ripple granted the agency permission to file an interlocutory appeal of her decision XRP is not a security. (Fortune)In a closely watched lawsuit over decentralized ETH-mixing service Tornado Cash, a judge rejected the crypto industry’s argument the DOJ failed to designate an entity to sue. (CoinDesk)Crypto hacks are down this year, but North Korean cybercriminals have nonetheless managed to steal $200 million, according to TRM Labs. (Fortune)Joseph Yam, a crypto critic and advocate for the yuan, is poised to become the next “czar” of Hong Kong’s financial markets. (Bloomberg)MEME O’ THE MOMENTBiggest bear market signal yet?This is the web version of Fortune Crypto, a daily newsletter. Sign up here to get it delivered free to your inbox.

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