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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Crypto newbies are changing the investment landscape for digital coins

Dubbed by longtime crypto-investors as "the noobs", they are ordinary investors hoping to cash in

Illustration by Alex Belman
Illustration by Alex Belman

After researching digital currencies for work last year, personal finance writer J.R. Duren hopped on his own crypto-rollercoaster.

Mr Duren bought $5 worth of litecoin in November, and eventually purchased $400 more, mostly with his credit card. In just a few months, he experienced a rally, a crash and a recovery, with the adrenaline highs and lows that come along with it.

"At first, I was freaking out," Mr Duren says about watching his portfolio plunge 40 per cent at one point. "The precipitous drop came as a shock."

The 39-year-old Floridian is part of the new class of crypto-investors who do not necessarily think bitcoin will replace the US dollar, or that blockchain will revolutionise modern finance or that dentists should have their own currency.

Dubbed by longtime crypto-investors as "the noobs" - online lingo for "newbies" - they are ordinary investors hopping onto the latest trend, often with little understanding of how cryptocurrencies work or why they exist.

"There has been a big shift in the type of investors we have seen in crypto over the past year," says Angela Walch, a fellow at the UCL Centre for Blockchain Technologies. "It's shifted from a small group of techies to average Joes. I overhear conversations about cryptocurrencies everywhere, in coffee shops and airports."

Ms Walch and other experts cited parallels to the late 1990s, when retail investors jumped into stocks like Pets.com, a short-lived online seller of pet supplies, only to watch their wealth evaporate when the dot-com bubble burst.

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Bitcoin is the best-known virtual currency but there are now more than 1,500 to choose from, according to market data website CoinMarketCap, ranging from popular coins like ether and ripple to obscure coins like dentacoin, the one intended for dentists.

Exactly how many noobs bought into the craze last year is unclear because each transaction is pseudonymous, meaning it is linked to a unique digital address, and few exchanges collect or share detailed information about their users.

A variety of consumer-friendly websites have made investing much easier, and online forums are now filled with posts from ordinary retail investors who were rarely spotted on the cryptocurrency pages of social news hub, Reddit, before.

Reuters interviewed eight people who recently made their first foray into digital currency investing. Many were motivated by a fear of missing out on profits during what seemed like a never-ending rally last year.

One Bitcoin was worth almost $20,000 in December, up around 1,900 per cent from the start of 2017. As of Monday morning it was worth about $10,200 after having fallen as much as 70 per cent from its peak. Other coins made even bigger gains and experienced equally dizzying drops over that time frame.

"There was that two-month period last year where all the virtual currencies kept going up and up and I had a couple of friends that had invested and they had made five-figure returns," says Michael Brown, a research analyst in New Jersey, who said he bought around $1,000 worth of ether in December.

"I got swept by the media frenzy," he says. "You never hear stories of people losing money."

In the weeks after Mr Brown invested, his holdings soared as much as 75 per cent and tumbled as much as 59 per cent.

Investors who got into bitcoin before its 2013 crash like to refer to themselves as "OGs," short for "original gangsters." They shrug off the recent downturn, arguing that cryptocurrencies will be worth much more in the future.

"As crashes go, this is one of the biggest," says Xavier Levenfiche, who first invested in cryptocurrencies in 2011. "But, in the grand scheme of things, it's a hiccup on the road to greatness."

Spooked by the sudden fall but not willing to book a loss, many investors are embracing a mantra known as "HODL." The term stems from a misspelled post on an online forum during the cryptocurrency crash in 2013, when a user wrote he was "hodling" his Bitcoin, instead of "holding."

Mike Gnitecki, for instance, bought one Bitcoin at around $18,000 in December and is sitting on an investment portfolio which is 43 per cent less in value today, waiting for a recovery.

"I view it as having been a fun side investment similar to a gamble," says Mr Gnitecki, a paramedic from Texas in the US.

Mr Duren, the personal finance writer, is also holding onto his litecoin for now, though he regrets having spent $33 on credit card and exchange fees for a $405 investment.

Some retail investors who went big into cryptocurrencies for the first time during the rally last year remain positive.

Didi Taihuttu announced in October that he and his family had sold everything they owned - including their business, home, cars and toys - to move to a "digital nomad" camp in Thailand.

In an interview, Mr Taihuttu says he has no regrets. The crypto-day-trader's portfolio is in the black, and he predicts one Bitcoin will be worth between $30,000 and $50,000 by year-end.

His backup plan is to write a book and perhaps make a movie about his family's experience.

"We are not in it to become bitcoin millionaires," Mr Taihuttu says.