When Elon Musk revealed three months ago that Tesla had bought $1.5bn worth of bitcoin, fans of the digital currency claimed the move would hasten its wider adoption as a tool of corporate finance.
On Wednesday, however, Musk withdrew his personal endorsement, swearing off accepting the cryptocurrency as payment for Tesla’s cars and undermining the company’s justification for using it as a destination to park its spare cash.
As usual, Musk’s comments provided immediate fuel for crypto traders as well as ammunition for the warring crypto tribes on Twitter. But it was harder to tell whether his announcement would have any effect on wider perceptions of the currency, or what role Musk’s views will play in the next phase of crypto adoption.
“He’s always saying things every two days and isn’t consistent,” said John Coffee, a professor at Columbia Law School. Tesla’s pretensions to pushing bitcoin into the mainstream of corporate use always sounded secondary to its interest in pure financial speculation, Coffee added. “I think his first investment was much more of a currency investment than anything else.”
Whatever lies behind Musk’s on-again, off-again love affair with bitcoin, his effect on market prices has been hard to ignore. The currency’s price jumped 15 per cent on the day that Tesla’s investment was revealed, and fell 6 per cent in the 24 hours after this week’s announcement.
The latest drop came just days after Musk jokingly denounced dogecoin — another cryptocurrency that he had heavily promoted — as “a hustle” on US television, sending its value down 15 per cent.
“Without question, he’s become the single most important factor in crypto,” said JP Thieriot, chief executive of crypto exchange Uphold. That influence extends beyond Musk’s ability to move prices and helps shape how people think about digital currencies, Thieriot suggested.
Even Musk, however, can’t force cryptocurrencies into mainstream commercial use. He said this week that Tesla had backed away from accepting payment in the currency because of the environmental effects of the energy-intensive “mining” that goes into validating transactions — a well-known issue he has ignored in the past.
Many crypto experts said that Musk’s change of heart appeared to reflect an acceptance that bitcoin was not suitable for payments. Other companies that had accepted bitcoin as a form of payment in the past, including Dell and Microsoft, also later dropped it.
“I don’t think a lot of people want to spend their bitcoin,” said Wilson Withiam, an analyst at crypto research group Messari. “If there was actual money behind it, would [Tesla] have actually done that?”
Musk’s change of heart extended beyond the issue of payments. He also swore his electric carmaker off becoming an active participant in the bitcoin market, saying that it “will not be selling any bitcoin”.
The commitment came two weeks after Tesla surprised Wall Street with a $101m profit from selling part of its holdings, raising worries that the company’s performance would increasingly be tied to crypto trading.
The pledge not to sell may have reassured some investors, but it also effectively undermined Tesla’s case for using the currency as part of its everyday corporate treasury operations.
Zach Kirkhorn, Tesla’s chief financial officer, told Wall Street two weeks ago that the liquidity of the bitcoin market justified Tesla holding the cryptocurrency, since it meant the company could buy and sell actively.
That flexibility was particularly important, he said, as Tesla faced greater cash demands to finance plants in Texas and Germany while also dealing with extreme financial stresses in its supply chain caused by the global semiconductor shortage.
“Being able to access our cash very quickly is super important to us right now,” Kirkhorn said. With one tweet that promised to lock in the company’s crypto investment, Musk has torpedoed that rationale.
Some bitcoin backers said that Musk had still helped prepare the way for the wider adoption of bitcoin by corporate treasurers by encouraging other companies to view it as a valid holding — even if there have been almost no examples of others announcing they were buying the currency.
His initial enthusiasm for bitcoin had generated interest — including among treasurers — that was likely to continue well beyond his recent turnround, said Rayne Steinberg, chief executive of digital asset management group Arca. “People were talking about it, it entered the zeitgeist.”
Some corporate treasury experts, however, said that Tesla’s flirtation with cryptocurrency holdings had done nothing to encourage wider adoption.
“It created conversation among treasurers, but I don’t think it changed anyone’s mind,” said Jerry Klein at Treasury Partners in New York. The overriding requirement for treasurers to preserve the value of their companies’ cash had completely ruled out cryptocurrencies, Klein added.
But if Musk’s dabbling in bitcoin failed to change the currency’s standing in the corporate world, his latest intervention has raised another prospect: that he could become a kingmaker for a future cryptocurrency to rival or even supersede bitcoin.
Using his celebrity to draw attention to bitcoin’s large energy consumption — and that many participants in the network are in China, relying on coal-fired power stations — could hasten the search for alternatives, according to supporters. Surveys of millennials and Gen Z, who are big buyers of cryptocurrencies, showed that they were also deeply concerned about climate change, said Thieriot at Uphold. “Eventually, those things have to converge,” he said.
Musk’s comments provoked an immediate scramble for attention among backers of cryptocurrencies that claim to have less adverse effects on the environment. Those included Bitcoin Zero — a carbon neutral version of bitcoin — and Cardano, one of several networks that use a so-called proof of stake mechanism to validate transactions, consuming less energy.
Most newer networks, however, have struggled to win attention and a share of crypto investment. Most of the displaced attention has focused on ether, the digital token used on the ethereum network. With a total value of $440bn, its tokens are worth almost half as much as bitcoin.
Ether is already used by some investors as a form of digital money, and its long-planned move to a proof of stake system could finally be completed within the next year, putting it in a strong position to win wider support, said Withiam, the analyst at Messari.
Musk did not immediately show his hand about which cryptocurrency will win his favour as he turns away from bitcoin, but he did hint. On Thursday, he tweeted: “Working with Doge devs to improve system transaction efficiency. Potentially promising.”
He said that Tesla wanted to use a token that consumes less than 1 per cent as much energy as bitcoin, a comment is bound to leave crypto investors guessing — and guarantee that all eyes stay fixed on his tweets for the next clue to his thinking.