In today's market, when the Bitcoin price dips, the rest of the cryptocurrencies tend to follow suit. Photo: iStock
The lowest yuan/dollar daily reference rate in more than a decade seems to have sent traders flocking to Bitcoin. Photo: iStock

As Wednesday’s US market rout spilled into Asia on Thursday, all major crypto-currencies were also hit by a widespread investor sell-off.

Wall Street fell sharply on Wednesday, with the Dow and S&P 500 posting their biggest one-day drops since February and the Nasdaq notching its largest single-day sell-off since June 2016. And, as Asian markets began to close on Thursday, with all experiencing falls – and Chinese stock markets particularity hit, after plunging to their lowest levels in four years – Bitcoin experienced a sudden drop in value with 5% falling off its price almost instantly.

Other leading crypto-currencies soon followed, with Ripple’s XRP and Ethereum both tanking by more than 11% and, after more than a year of relatively low volatility, CoinDesk reported that $13 billion had been wiped from global crypto markets in a matter of minutes.

Bloomberg’s Galaxy Crypto Index reported losses of more than 11%, making Thursday a third straight day of decline for the digital asset index. But minor recoveries were seen in early London trading, with Bitcoin rising from an overnight low of $6,125 to move up to $6,200 – resulting in an overall 24-hour loss of just under 5%.

That meant global crypto markets have now lost more than $600 billion in value since their peak at the start of the year.

Bitcoin has been seen as something of a “safe haven asset” that can buck mainstream market trends but some analysts argue that, as traditional financial institutions enter the crypto-currency space, there is now greater alignment between crypto prices and global stock market movements, which has caused the sector to mirror this week’s mainstream sell-off.

However, this line of argument ignores the persistent accusations of criminality and market manipulation that still plague the sector, in particular the short and sudden price swings allegedly caused by automated trading “bots” that cause “domino effect” price movements and also the role of a few hundred so-called “whale” traders who hold so much crypto-currency between them that they are able to run what is in effect an industry-wide price-fixing cartel.

The IMF, which is holding its annual summit in Bali this week, used its World Economic Outlook report this year to raise concern over these roller-coaster fluctuations in the value of crypto-currencies and warn that the digital asset industry could contribute to a weakened global financial system.

“Cybersecurity breaches and cyber attacks on critical financial infrastructure represent an additional source of risk,” said the report, “because they could undermine cross-border payment systems and disrupt the flow of goods and services.”

The IMF report also said that “large challenges loom for the global economy to prevent a second Great Depression” and pointed to escalating trade tensions between Beijing and Washington, mounting weakness in emerging markets and rising private and public debt.

“We are not seeing broader financial contagion — so far — but we also know that conditions can change rapidly,” said IMF managing director and chairwoman Christine Lagarde in a speech in the USA last week. “If the current trade disputes were to escalate further, they could deliver a shock to a broader range of emerging and developing economies.”