Future Tense

When You Should’ve Bought Bitcoin, and When It Became a Terrible Idea

A timeline of good, bad, and catastrophic investments.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 13: A Bitcoin ATM is seen at the Clark Street subway station on June 13, 2022 in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City. Bitcoin fell below $24,000 this morning to its lowest level since December 2020. The crypto market lost more than $200 billion since Friday, with the entire market falling below $1 trillion for the first time since February 2021, according to data from CoinMarketCap. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Blurp. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

These are tough times for cryptocurrencies. Their prices are hovering around their levels in the latter months of 2020, which now feels like a world ago. The trading platforms that invite the masses to buy and sell them are laying off workers in droves as their stock prices tank and, in some cases, they prevent customers from making withdrawals. Their stablecoins have turned out to be something less than stable. One case for crypto, that it is less susceptible to manipulation and corruption than the traditional finance system, looks less good when it turns out blockchain companies’ employees can do insider trading, too. All of this has brought about a hard-earned deluge of bad press for the crypto ecosystem.

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I will not guess what the future holds for crypto, though I am more sympathetic to the argument that it is a widening money pit than the one that it is the future of currency. One thing we do know—down to nearly the dollar—is how well someone’s crypto investments are doing right now if they got involved at various points and continued to hodl through this year’s turbulence. If you are the president of El Salvador or the mayor of New York, your crypto bet has not gone well. What if you are neither of those things and just decided to buy some Bitcoin at one moment or another in the last decade?

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Bitcoin is the most popular cryptocurrency, and $1,000 is a nice, easy round number. So here’s how a $1,000 Bitcoin investment made on various dates—using listed end-of-day prices, because Bitcoin doesn’t exactly “close” like a stock—would be doing now. This exercise takes the “current” Bitcoin price from 3:30 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday: $21,153.00. The price will change a bit between now and the time you finish scrolling through this article. Here is a price history chart going back to 2014, and here is another one that covers many of Bitcoin’s early years. Here is a page of bags, which I am afraid a lot of people are now holding. (These prices aren’t inflation-adjusted, though you’ll see that adjusting them for inflation would not change the general arc of the story to come.)

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If you invested on …

May 22, 2010: Well, Your $1,000 Would Be Worth a Lot of Money Now

We begin our timeline the year after Bitcoin’s founding. May 22, 2010, was the day someone paid 10,000 Bitcoins for two pizzas, thus providing the inspiration for Bitcoin Pizza Day. Because the pizzas retailed at about $41, the value of a Bitcoin in this exchange was $0.004. That valuation, which wasn’t real in any way beyond one person agreeing to pay it for some pizzas, would have given $1,000 of Bitcoin at the time a theoretical value of more than $5 billion today. Bitcoin was not as easy to trade in those days as it is now, in part because there was not a little stock ticker chart to tell you exactly what it was worth. The pizza buyer could have used one, as he now gets made fun of for having left hundreds of millions of dollars in actual current Bitcoin value on the pizza counter.

November 28, 2012: $1,705,887

Before they can be bought and sold, Bitcoins need to be mined. In November 2012, the Bitcoin reward for mining a block on the blockchain got cut in half, reducing the supply of new Bitcoins in circulation and eventually driving the price up. This is a roughly every-four-years mechanism of making Bitcoins more scarce and, it follows, more expensive. In the year after this first halving, the price went from $12 to more than $1,200. If you put $1,000 into Bitcoin on the day of the halving (at $12) and held onto it, you’d have a $1.7 million position in June 2022.

February 7, 2014: $29,379
February 25, 2014: $41,074

Mt. Gox was a Japan-based crypto exchange that handled most of the world’s Bitcoin transacting in the early 2010s. In late February of 2014, a hacker or hackers stole 700,000-some Bitcoins from the platform, and the price of one bitcoin went from around $800 to less than $600 (and briefly a lot lower than that). None of it was good for user confidence, although now it would look like a good example of buying the dip. In any case, a $1,000 investment in Bitcoin even before this price crash would still be yielding a hell of a return right now. Just not as good as an investment made at the end of that month.

June 17, 2016: $28,245
July 9, 2016: $32,495

The summer of 2016 had a couple of notable events. One was another giant theft, which resulted in more than $50 million in lost digital money, this time Ether (rather than Bitcoin). Another was the second Bitcoin halving, which again cut the supply of new Bitcoins coming into the world. In these months, different people found ample reasons to be scared of cryptocurrency—it’s not great to lose $50 million in one swoop—and to feel scarcity driving them toward buying it anyway. Anyway, if you bought that summer, you still have made a killing.

September 1, 2017: $4,324

Maybe the longest standing philosophical argument in the Bitcoin world is the one about block size. On one side are true believers (like the pseudonymous Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto) who believe Bitcoin is the world’s next great currency and should be used for everyday transactions. On the other side are enthusiasts who see Bitcoin as an investment vehicle and store of value. In 2017, the group that favors lots of everyday transactions formed Bitcoin Cash, a spinoff cryptocurrency that comes from blockchain blocks with larger sizes, to accommodate and validate more transactions in less time. The introduction of Bitcoin Cash did not slow regular Bitcoin down. In fact, the price of traditional Bitcoin shot up in 2017 before a hard fall in 2018. Around here would’ve been a good time to get in.

May 11, 2020: $2,459

Right after the start of the pandemic, another halving again pared the introduction of new Bitcoins into the market. One year later, BTC’s price had gone from $8,601 to $56,704.57. The halving probably helped, although it did not do much right away. A big contributor was a pandemic that kept a lot of people inside with disposable income, which they poured into stocks and more speculative pursuits like crypto and presidential election betting. Those gains haven’t been erased, but we’re getting closer.

November 6, 2020: $1,359

The speculative spirit kept up through the 2020 election and pandemic seasons. On Nov. 6, as the presidential votes were still being counted, the price of one Bitcoin was up to $15,565.88, en route to the much higher highs it would reach in the spring and then fall of 2021.

January 28, 2021: $632

If you were sitting at home in January of 2021 and watching stocks like GameStop and AMC shoot to the moon for no immediately clear reason other than that people on the internet decided they liked them and started a big buying rush to screw short sellers, you may have felt the urge to try some other unconventional investments. The most famous crypto story of these few days involved dogecoin, which went up rapidly before plummeting in short order. Should the diamond-handed spirit of these pivotal days have led you to spend $1,000 on Bitcoin, you would have lost 38 percent of that stake.

April 14, 2021: $335

Coinbase’s public listing in the spring of 2021 was hailed as a critical moment for crypto’s integration into the traditional financial world. It wasn’t just that Coinbase was a big, famous crypto platform, but that the way it makes its money (scaled fees on crypto transactions) put the company’s bottom line in a rather direct relationship with the prices of cryptocurrencies themselves. The company’s stock debuted at $381 and went up that day before closing lower. This week, you could buy a share of Coinbase for about $57. Bitcoin’s fall since the Coinbase market launch, from more than $63,000, is mild by comparison.

October 19, 2021: $329 

A further melding of crypto to the old-school business world came with the launch of the first crypto exchange-traded funds in October 2021. Nowadays the company that launched the first such fund is offering customers a way to bet against crypto, which might be a more attractive idea for now.

November 16, 2021: $352

It was announced on this day that the Los Angeles arena that houses the Lakers, Kings, Grammys, and various other big-ticket events would no longer be the Staples Center. It would now be Crypto.com Arena, part of a gold rush of sports advertising deals that will not end with the recent downturn.

February 13, 2022: $501

If you are a big football person, the Super Bowl between the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals was most memorable for Aaron Donald’s dominance of the Bengals’ offensive line and the passing game heroics of Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp. If you are a less big football person, it was most memorable for either the halftime show or a handful of splashy crypto commercials—including one in which a floating QR code directed people to start a Coinbase account and get some free Bitcoin, and another in which Larry David did alarmingly funny shilling for FTX. These ads and others prompted many, many people to indeed download crypto exchange apps and, one would figure, get to investing.

Anyway, a Bitcoin was worth $42,197 on the night of the Super Bowl. In some sense, a 50 percent loss in four months is not good. In a different sense, for some of Bitcoin’s peers, it has been worse.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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