There are two very real reasons Ethereum is taking off

Ethereum is up more than 50% in the past week. In 2021, the world’s second largest cryptocurrency has risen more than 360%. And since the stock market bottomed late last March, Ethereum is up an astonishing 2,200%.

During the 2017 crypto boom, Ethereum shot up to more than $1,400. After falling more than 90% during the eventual bust, it just surpassed that level in January of this year. Now it’s worth more than $3,200 as of this writing.

Bitcoin is performing well this year but it’s up “only” 100%. So why is ETH up so much more than Satoshi’s invention of late?

You can never drill these types of price moves down to a singular reason, so let’s look at what Ethereum is and does to get a better sense of the euphoria in this digital asset.

Back in the 2017 crypto bubble there were no use cases beyond using it as a store of value on the security of the blockchain. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a store of value as the main selling point for something like Bitcoin. Bitcoin has the potential to become the digital version of gold, which has itself been a store of value for thousands of years. And gold has an estimated market value of around $10 trillion.

Ethereum is more than a store of value. The bull market in 2017 was all about the possibilities of this technology, but there were no applications or real world uses for cryptocurrencies.

The crypto run this time has two features the 2017 version didn’t—institutional adoption and actual applications. According to the Financial Times, [hotlink]Coinbase[/hotlink] now has more than $122 billion in institutional capital on its platform, up from just $45 billion at the end of 2020. For most of its existence, crypto has been driven by individual and retail adoption. That is changing.

But it’s the use cases that are likely driving Ethereum higher. Ethereum is a blockchain just like Bitcoin but it differs in that it is programmable. This means developers can write code, create rules, and make applications on the platform. These “smart contracts” can be used to validate agreements securely.

You can think of the applications that can be built on Ethereum much like the apps that can be developed on Apple’s App Store or Google’s Android system. The biggest difference is there are no giant tech behemoths behind the scenes controlling Ethereum’s network. This is what attracted so many people to crypto in the first place: It’s decentralized in terms of who controls it. The general idea is you can create rules for proof of ownership and avoid scams or hacks because of the security of the blockchain.

And you need Ethereum to buy things on Ethereum’s network. According to the Wall Street Journal, more than 7 million new accounts that hold Ethereum balances were created in the first four months of 2021, bringing the total up to more than 55 million. And transactions totaled $1.5 trillion in the first quarter, more than the previous seven quarters combined.

There is a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes in decentralized finance (DeFi) that could prove to be transformational in the years ahead, but the use case most non-crypto people would be familiar with are non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

Smart contracts are simply code that is stored on the blockchain. Now blockchains themselves are essentially worthless, but NFTs provide a unique ID for a piece of digital art that can have its own rules for transferring ownership. So you could write into a smart contract for a digital piece of art being sold as an NFT that the original artist earns a certain percentage of any future sales of his or her creation. This is a huge leap forward for creators.

The most famous example of a digital artist taking advantage of this technology is Beeple, who sold an NFT of his work for $69 million. In concert with the National Basketball Association, Dapper Labs created NBA Top Shot, which essentially allows fans and collectors to buy and sell short highlights of NBA players that are stored on the blockchain. Some of the most sought-after moments have traded hands for six figures on the platform. The Kings of Leon even released their new album as an NFT, selling tokens that will give fans perks including specialty albums or front-row concert seats.

The hope is these smart contracts could displace or work alongside many of the tasks and services we use that are bogged down with paperwork and outdated practices. You could see a world where the sale of art, concert tickets, music rights, or title insurance, and money transfers or other financial transactions are performed using smart contracts.

The hope in the crypto community is Ethereum can become the platform that powers many of these future use cases now that there are real-world examples that actually work.

From a purely financial asset perspective, none of this helps us determine what the fair price is for Ethereum itself. The soaring price is likely taking into account the future potential of this technology. There is also an element of momentum, speculation, and the fear of missing out at play here.

It’s impossible to know what the “fair” value of Ethereum is or could be. Crypto is like a commodity in that there are no cash flows, profits, dividends, or income streams to use for valuation purposes. It’s all supply and demand.

Right now, the demand for Ethereum remains strong. Assuming the use cases continue to grow, that demand could remain for a while.

Ben Carlson is the director of institutional asset management at Ritholtz Wealth Management. He may own securities or assets discussed in this piece.

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