Could Bitcoin’s ‘Whales’ Manipulate the Market?

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Bitcoin has captured the public imagination this year — or at least, as its price skyrocketed, tapped into public greed. But bitcoin was built by a tight-knit community of technology buffs and entrepreneurs, and a relatively small number of them own an outsized share of the cryptocurrency. As smaller investors enter the market, some are asking whether those “whales” are in a position to take advantage of the newcomers.

According to Bloomberg, as few as 1,000 people may own around 40% of all existing bitcoin. With the market pushing higher and higher, there’s the natural risk that some of them will choose to cash out — in fact, bitcoin has dropped a little over 15% in the last two days, suggesting many already have.

But Bloomberg posits a more worrying scenario, in which the whales could actually coordinate among themselves to move the market. There’s no evidence of that sort of active conspiracy, and these days enough of bitcoin’s early adopters actively hate each other, indicating that the pool of potential collaborators is smaller than it might seem.

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But the deeper worry is that it’s not clear such behavior would even be illegal if it occurred. Regulators have only tentatively begun to treat some cryptocurrencies as securities subject to oversight.

And cryptocurrency collusion absolutely does take place, though primarily in the manipulation of smaller cryptocurrencies, which, according to Bloomberg, have even more concentrated ownership than bitcoin. “Pump and dumps” of those smaller “altcoins” are often coordinated through obscure chat forums linked to cryptocurrency exchanges, sometimes called “trollboxes.”

In the end, a bitcoin market dominated by a handful of big players isn’t much different than most other markets, as satire site The Onion has highlighted. More to the point, many big bitcoin holders are highly ideologically motivated, and many others believe bitcoin’s rise has barely begun. Both of those facts reduce the risk that a few big players could make a coordinated run for the exits.