As a new asset class with historically low correlation to traditional financial products, many see Cryptocurrencies as a useful hedging tool against global downturns. However, the structure of Crypto volatility and correlation relative to market capitalization may prove somewhat detrimental to this use-case.
A story of Volatility
As within equity markets, we see a small decrease in volatility as the market cap of coins increase (albeit with a relatively low correlation). This can be likened to blue-chip stocks vs mid-caps, with the former providing greater stability due to their established dominance in their respective sectors.
Although market cap is a slightly misleading metric when applied to Cryptocurrencies, it at least implies a higher value to a coin - thus requiring more money to shift its direction dramatically. That being said, volatility has been higher across the board over the last couple of years as Crypto shifted from the accumulation phase post 2013 into the major bull run. Finally pushing to record high as we moved into the final phase of the bull run and subsequent bear market as we entered 2018.
This structure of volatility allows Crypto portfolios and indexes to be constructed similarly to those of equities: high-cap only selection for reduced risk and volatility; mid-caps for higher risk and reward; or a more diversified index to try to capture a middle ground.
The Trend of Correlation
Here we see nearly zero correlation between the market capitalization of a coin and its average correlation to Bitcoin (the historical leader of the Cryptocurrency space).
While this disproves the theory of high cap Cryptos holding a closer correlation to Bitcoin, it highlights the extremely high levels of correlation present throughout the market. This, as mentioned in previous posts, is likely due to the highly speculative and sentiment driven nature of the market, along with its relative immaturity compared to more traditional traded assets.
Interestingly, there isn’t much difference between the mean of correlation and the mean of absolute (positive only) correlation, meaning that we rarely see any negative correlation between ALT/USD pairs and BTC/USD.
Cryptocurrency as an Asset Class for hedging
Crypto holds the useful property of historically low correlation to other asset classes, such as equity and commodities, suggesting it to be a good hedge against external global factors. However, there are two main issues to this plan: Cryptocurrency has never weathered a global financial crisis; and the internal correlation within the Crypto space.
Since Bitcoin, and the rest of the Cryptocurrency market, has been experiencing its own market cycles due to its rapid growth over the past few years, any fluctuations due to correlation with equity markets has been almost unnoticeable - leading many to speculate that Cryptocurrency would continue this trend and make a good hedging tool against global downturns.
This observation happens to come on the back of a decade of huge growth in both US and global equity markets. Investors have been increasingly complacent in their gains over the past few years, and are happy to take greater and greater risks, betting money on more speculative assets such as Cryptocurrencies. However, such high yield assets are always the first to tumble at the onset of a recession, as investors scramble claw back their risk as their other positions drop.
Always "Different This Time"
Many will claim that its somehow “different this time” - it always is until the inevitable pullback. This was true of the dot-com bubble and I wouldn’t be surprised if the same fate will hold true for Cryptocurrency during a global dip. Not to say that Cryptocurrencies won’t be successful long term - the internet didn’t exactly disappear after 2000. But it should be approached with the same caution as any other high risk investment.
As alluded to in the first half of the article, the levels of volatility and correlation in Cryptocurrency make it difficult to create a well diversified portfolio - no matter what you pick you’re still at the mercy of Bitcoin and can incur the same volatility spikes and drawdowns.
While it may be possible to hedge a portfolio by shorting Bitcoin itself and creating synthetic ALT/BTC pairs, this won’t be able to eliminate the sensitivity of low-mid cap coins to shifts in market sentiment, so would have to be more actively managed.
All-in-all, Cryptocurrencies provide an interesting new opportunity for traders and investors alike - with high risk but much higher reward possibilities. They will not be a miracle financial product, nor a get rich quick scheme - but they can provide something truly new and different for those who have the time to understand and appreciate them.
By Matthew Tweed