Retail Investors Are Buying the Bitcoin Institutions Are Selling, Traders Say

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As institutions unload bitcoin (BTC) along with stocks as part of the coronavirus-driven global sell-off, cryptocurrency’s traditional base – retail investors – is doing most of the buying, market participants said.

And while pricing screens may still be flashing red, business is brisk at many trading platforms.

“We’ve already done more volume in March than all cumulative volume previously,” said River Financial CEO Alex Leishman, head of a bitcoin-centric brokerage in San Francisco that launched three months ago. “About 20 percent of all of our clients have signed up this month…We’re seeing record interest from first-time bitcoin buyers.”

River Financial is relatively small, with just under 10,000 active user accounts, but this volume surge appears to be rippling across markets. Gemini’s head of communications, Carolyn Vadino, confirmed the New York-based crypto exchange saw a surge in activity over the weekend.

“During this time of market uncertainty we continue to expect to see higher volumes than normal,” Vadino said.

Likewise, one over-the-counter (OTC) trader in Latin America, who provides liquidity to several of the world’s leading crypto exchanges, said his desk has seen “two to three times” the normal buy orders since the price dropped dramatically on Thursday. 

“You still have a lot of people who are long that are trying to get out,” said the trader, who did not want to be named. “It’s more related to hedge funds liquidating than anything else…there’s a lot of bitcoin-collateralized dollar loans out there to miners or people who are long crypto.”

Imbalance

Another U.S.-based OTC trader confirmed that companies with heavily leveraged loans played into the wave of institutional investors selling off. Yet retail traders are buying up bitcoin so aggressively that it’s throwing the whole market off, according to the anonymous trader in Latin America.

“I hope this doesn’t stay so long because it could be damaging. We all need some type of volume to survive,” he said.

In short, if more people are buying than selling, trading, or leveraging it will be tricky for liquidity providers like himself to profit from arbitrage. This would pressure exchanges to find new market makers, or force market makers themselves to try different strategies. No one quite knows how that would play out if it happens over several months. 

“It’s basically half the volume that was trading [when bitcoin was priced] at $9,000, even if it’s the same amount of bitcoin changing hands,” he said.

Volatility

Exchanges like BitMex were briefly overloaded during a period of dramatic volatility last week, experiencing an hour-long outage. According to the analytics firm Skew, BitMex and OKEx alone facilitated nearly $10 billion in bitcoin futures trades on Thursday, March 12.

However, OKEx Financial Markets Director Lennix Lai said it doesn’t make sense for any significant exchange to implement a “circuit breaker,” which automatically halts trading on their platform if rapidly falling prices cripple the system.

“If one major exchange has a circuit breaker while the others keep on trading, the sell-off pressure would simply transfer to another exchange,” Lai said. 

As such, smaller brokerages like Leishman’s are focused on preparing their back-end selling mechanisms for unprecedented traffic.

“You can’t choose when volatility hits and the orders start coming in,” Leishman said. “Almost all of our orders have been buy orders…We need to make sure the prices we are promising users don’t lose us money but are fair.”

On the other hand, at least traders at OTC desk Cumberland don’t appear to be concerned about long-term instability.

“In our role as a liquidity provider, we continue to see both buying and selling from our counterparties,” a Cumberland spokesperson said. “Including those who have been sitting on the sidelines for a while using this as an opportunity to re-engage in the market.”
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