Bitcoin has had its fair share of bear markets in the past. Let’s briefly recap the most significant ones and see what we can learn from them.
The 2011-2012 Bear Market
The bitcoin price fell from $29 on June 8, 2011 to $2.10 on November 18, 2011, followed by months of sideways action:
The most painful bear market happened before most of us were even aware that something like bitcoin existed. More than ten years ago, the price of bitcoin reached almost $30 on the then-popular Mt. Gox exchange, only to be followed by a “stairway to hell” pattern that would take the price to $2.10 in a several months’ time.
Bitcoin dumped 93%! But consider this: buying bitcoin even at the all-time high (ATH) price of $30 would still have been a steal from today’s perspective. Who wouldn’t want to stack some bitcoin at $30 dollars, right? Of course few back then could anticipate that in ten years, bitcoin would sit around $50,000; that’s why after that initial drop, it took more than a year for the price to recover and climb to new heights. The perception of what bitcoin actually is evolved over the decade as it went from a geeky experiment to darknet currency to an inflation hedge, and potentially the basis of the future global monetary system.
When the price breached the previous ATH in early 2013, it never dipped below that price level again.
The 2014-2016 Bear Market
Bitcoin’s price later tumbled from $1,135 on December 4, 2013 to $175 on January 14, 2015, followed by months of sideways action:
At the turn of 2013/2014, two major things happened: the Silk Road marketplace was shut down (Ross Ulbricht is now serving a double life sentence without the possibility of parole), and the Mt. Gox exchange collapsed. These were the two most likely causes of the subsequent bear market. With two major bitcoin venues shut down and major losses sustained by their users, it seemed to some like bitcoin was dead and useless.
As bitcoin dropped 85% from the top to bottom, many “bitcoin obituaries” were written, usually with smug told-you-so undertones.
But those that were there during the 2011-2012 period learned their lesson: Bitcoin comes back - with vengeance! Builders kept on building, and some of the most pivotal tech was created during the second bear market: Trezor One, the world’s first hardware wallet, was released in early 2014, and the Lightning Network whitepaper was published in January 2016.
And when the price finally breached the previous ATH in early 2017, it never dipped below $1000 ever again.
The 2018-2020 Bear Market
One of the most famous “crashes” of Bitcoin’s career was a price fall from $19,640 on December 16, 2017 to $3,185 on December 15, 2018, followed, again, by months of sideways action:
The most recent bear market is sometimes dubbed “the crypto-winter,” mostly because the major shakeout and a drop to the low near $3,000 came in the winter of 2018/2019. This bear market was quite tough because of the fake rally of spring/summer 2019 when the price reached $12,000, only to drop back to $4,000 when the COVID-19 panic struck in full force in March 2020.
But again, bitcoin recovered with vengeance and may never return below its previous ATH of $20k again. Many indispensable ecosystem projects took off during this period - Trezor Model T and the Shamir Backup, BTCPay Server, most Lightning Network wallets and tooling, Jack Dorsey’s Spiral, Jack Mallers’ Strike, and many other tools and services we use today.
Can We Spot A Bear Coming For Us?
Per traditional definition, a bear market occurs when “prices fall 20% or more from recent highs, amid widespread pessimism and negative investor sentiment.” While the first part of this definition is easy to quantify — yes, bitcoin has dropped by that much from recent highs — the latter is very subjective.
A whole industry of on-chain metrics trying to determine the prevailing sentiment has been built over the years. But the problem with such metrics is that they themselves are built on subjective interpretations of what’s going on:
Some analysts try to predict the short and long term price action by pointing out a correlation between price rallies and the block reward halving cycle - a 4-year cycle which halves the rate at which the bitcoin supply increases. And it does seem convincing:
The problem with the halving-cycle hypothesis is that so far, we only have two full data points: the periods after the first and second halvings. We are currently in the third period and even if the price action followed a similar pattern this time around, this still doesn’t have to mean anything. Per the efficient market hypothesis, predictable and widely-known facts such as bitcoin halvings cannot affect the price in such a massive way - there are other unseen factors in place (such as fiat currencies failing as a reliable store of value). The human mind likes to find patterns in the noise, and the volatile, upward-trending chart like bitcoin’s is very seductive in this regard.
I believe the long-term bitcoin price chart tells us something much more interesting than the alleged halving cycle. This is what we see when we look at the same chart from a different perspective:
Instead of two halving cycles, we get six historic ATHs and find that the price doesn’t seem to dip below the previous ATH once it has been breached for the second time. If this holds true in the future, it would mean that price wouldn’t go below $20k if we were to enter a bear market now, and it wouldn’t go below $69,000 if we breached that price level for a second time. The explanation for this price action may be psychological: those yet undecided about bitcoin usually take the first steps once bitcoin is confirmed “not dead,” i.e., when it breaches the previous ATH, resulting in regular old fear of missing out (FOMO). Admittedly, this observation isn’t bulletproof, as the price briefly dipped below the $230 ATH set in April 2013, and is currently below the twice-breached ATH of $50,000 from 2021. I take this optimistic model as a personal rule of thumb so I can stack decisively if we were to dip close to $20,000 levels. That said, I do not wait for such magical opportunities that may never come, and I therefore stack sats regularly, no matter the price.
Overall, I don’t think anyone can spot a bear market forming. Bitcoin is traded 24/7 all around the world, both on centralized exchanges as well as peer-to-peer. The market is continuously influenced by both local and global effects, such as the collapse of the Lebanese pound or COVID-19-related restrictions. The best you can do is pick your favorite rule-of-thumb metric and stick to some basic rules.
Rules For Navigating A Bear Market
“Hey Joseph, what is this - just a bunch of historical charts and some barely working rules of thumb?” I know, I know. But this is the unvarnished truth: nobody has a crystal ball, and technical analysis doesn’t work better than a coin flip — this applies even if you paid big bucks for it.
Sometimes it’s better to acknowledge the chaotic nature of the market and prepare instead of predicting. Having a couple of bear markets under my belt, these are my personal rules for surviving the next crypto winter, whenever it comes:
Do not trade. First-time traders usually aim for “buy low, sell high.” But somehow, they end up doing the opposite, because their emotions get in the way. Trading is a very stressful zero-sum game, where most people lose their money: a recent Business Insider article pointed out that between 70-97% of day traders end up losing their money! Only experienced traders (who learned their lessons the hard way) and exchanges end up in profit.
Do not use leverage. There are two types of leveraged traders: those who have experienced the soul-crushing liquidation notice, and the naive who think they have everything under control. Trading bitcoin with leverage is an easy way to end up in a poorhouse or an asylum.
Do not leave your coins on exchanges. During a tumultuous time such as a raging bear market, exchanges can end up insolvent. This has happened many times in the past, with Mt. Gox, Quadriga, and Cryptopia being only the largest ones. “Not your keys, not your coins” always - always - applies.
Do not try to pick “solid crypto projects.” Go to Coinmarketcap.com’s historical data snapshots and check out the pre-bear market rankings. Then see how many of those coins have stayed in the top 20 until now. Not many, right? The problem with betting on altcoins is there are just too many of them, and more and more projects are created on a daily basis with little more than sleek marketing going for them. Bitcoin is global stateless money, and is becoming perceived as such by more and more investors, political leaders, and ordinary people around the world. Bitcoin is the solid crypto project with massive potential you are looking for!
Zoom out. Both in terms of price charts and fundamentals, it pays to take a step back and consider things from a broader perspective. Bitcoin has been doing its thing for 13 years and no matter how bad it sometimes looked, it always recovered. Bitcoin is antifragile — volatility, attacks, schisms, and attempts to ban or regulate it make Bitcoin stronger in the end. But in order to reap the full benefits, you have to have the conviction to hold (or even stack more) in the hard times as well as the good times. That’s why you need to…
Study. Seminal works such as Vijay Boyapati’s “The Bullish Case For Bitcoin,” Saifedean Ammous’ “The Bitcoin Standard,” or Parker Lewis’ “Gradually, Then Suddenly” were mostly written during the 2018-2020 bear market. And they remain great reads in fair and stormy weather alike. Studying these works will help you see past the short-term slump and help you make the right decision for your future.
And finally, don’t obsess over ATHs - look at the yearly lows for a change:
It’s All About The Sats
When you let go of the fiat mindset and instead tune in to the prospect of hyperbitcoinization, bear markets actually become enjoyable: you get to stack more sats at a relaxed pace, buzzword-fueled mania dies down, and fundamental tech gets built without the pressure to release early.
Bear markets offer a life-changing opportunity for many. Bitcoin is potentially one of the biggest breakthroughs in human history, and having the ability to acquire a sufficient amount of bitcoin at low price levels can mean an escape from poverty and the 9-5 grind for millions.
There’s nothing unexpected or scary about bear markets. They’re part of the process of bitcoin becoming a global neutral monetary standard. So next time the bear strikes, be prepared and welcome it with open arms.
This is a guest post by Josef Tětek. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC, Inc. or Bitcoin Magazine.