Why you can’t cash out pt 1: Why Bitcoin’s “price” is largely fictional

Why you can’t cash out pt 1: Why Bitcoin’s “price” is largely fictional

  • Part 1: there is no single “price,” the market is horribly inefficient
  • Part 2: Know Your Customer/Anti-Money Laundering laws
  • Part 3: Bitcoin is not a Ponzi scheme! It just works like one

Public discussion and media coverage of Bitcoin makes certain assumptions:

  • Bitcoin has a price, that you could expect to buy or sell it around.
  • Bitcoin is like buying a share in a company, or a commodity like gold —  the market works the same way.
  • Bitcoin is liquid — it’s reasonably easy to convert your money to Bitcoin, and your Bitcoin to money in your bank account.

None of these are true.

How much is a bitcoin worth?

I’m looking at the CoinDesk Bitcoin Price Index. At this moment, it says $19699.46. Whoops, it’s $19691.76! Now it’s $19690.70! And so on.

This number is marketing for Bitcoin. It’s meant to give the impression that Bitcoin is a solid tradeable object with an orderly market structure, that you can meaningfully price it down to the cent, and that all this is fine and sensible. But this is an illusion.

The singular “price” of Bitcoin doesn’t exist — it’s a made-up number. It’s not a number you could expect to exchange a bitcoin for — it’s an average of the last sale price on a bunch of exchanges. (CoinDesk’s index uses Coinbase, Bitstamp, itBit and Bitfinex. Followers of crypto will have just exclaimed “what!” at that last one.)

If you look at the spread between exchanges — the different prices for one interchangeable bitcoin — you’ll see spreads of hundreds of dollars, and in volatile moments it can be in the thousands.

Quoting a number like “$19699.46” to seven significant figures when your data’s got a 5% spread would get your high school physics teacher slapping you upside the head. It’s entirely deceptive. It should say something like “$19,700 plus or minus $500 depending,” and that line graph should be a thick grey bar.

“Market cap” is even worse. It’s literally just whatever the last price was, multiplied by the number of tokens in existence. This is a bogus number that’s not actually applicable to anything — it’s not money that was put into the crypto, it’s not a realisable value like a company market cap, it doesn’t affect prices — it’s just an easily-calculated splashy-looking number that looks good in a headline. Trading is so thin in any crypto, even Bitcoin, that you could never realise a fraction of the number. It is literally just marketing.

Why is Bitcoin like this, though? Why isn’t the price a reasonably usable number?

Isolated islands, posing as a continent

(This section cribs from Paulo Santos‘ excellent article “Bitcoin Series Addendum — Market Structure”, which you should log into and read in full so he gets paid.)

In normal securities trading, if a share is listed on multiple exchanges, orders will often be applied via smart order routing — so that a given buy or sell order is in the context of all the order books for that stock. This avoids liquidity fragmentation — where the various exchanges’ order books are unnecessarily isolated from each other, making each a separate trading pool, thus more volatile and harder to trade in. This is easy because, unlike bitcoins on exchanges, the actual exchanges don’t need to hold the stock for a trade to happen.

This doesn’t work in Bitcoin — all trading is isolated on each individual exchange, and the bitcoins are actually there on the exchange. This is a recipe for huge volatility and wide discrepancies in price.

Furthermore, in normal securities trading, spreads in pricing between exchanges tend to quickly equalise through arbitrage — buying on one exchange to sell on another, at a profit. This pulls the price up on the first and down on the second.

The structure of the Bitcoin market is such that this doesn’t work very well. If you want to profit from spreads in the price of Bitcoin, you need to:

  1. Buy some Bitcoin on one exchange.
  2. Withdraw it from the exchange — let’s assume you send it directly to the second exchange’s Bitcoin deposit address — and confirm this transaction on the blockchain (at least 10 minutes’ delay), with at least a $25 transaction fee if you want it confirmed in the next block or two. Double that if you want to be sure.
  3. Sell it on the second exchange.

The delays — ten minutes to over an hour — and fees add enough friction to generate the spread between exchanges, even if you assume everyone’s using trading bots as quickly as possible.

So each exchange operates as an island. The “price” number doesn’t apply on any of the island exchanges.

What’s life like on one of the islands?

What “unregulated” means in practice

When you buy normal securities or commodities, you assume that the trading environment is regulated sensibly, and that the exchanges keep to the rules set by law and, fundamentally, won’t mess you around.

You can’t assume this at all in crypto trading. This is what “unregulated” means.

The important thing about securities regulations is that every single one is there because someone ripped a lot of people off that way. They ensure market integrity. So even investors who understand high risk — and what it means when we say that cryptos are ridiculously volatile and not backed by anything — may not be fully aware of the degree to which the trading environment itself is part of the threat model in cryptos.

(One glaring example was the 2016 collapse of iGot in Australia, which hit a lot of small-time retail investors: “I just assumed that since they’re in Australia there would be some sort of safety net or regulation or something like that — bare minimum — where he could be accountable for his actions.”)

There are various shenanigans that are banned on real securities exchanges for good reason, but are standard in crypto:

  • wash trades — where you trade with yourself, to pump the price up or down, or just create the illusion of trading volume. You could literally do this in the Bitfinex trading engine quite recently.
  • spoofing — where you place a large order to create the illusion of market optimism or pessimism, and cancel as soon as the price gets anywhere near it. This is endemic on Bitfinex and Coinbase/GDAX.
  • painting the tape — like wash trading, but with two or more participants. Mark Karpelès admitted in court that he had been using the “Willybot” to pump up the Bitcoin price on the Mt. Gox exchange during the 2013 Bitcoin bubble.
  • front-running — where an exchange operator takes advantage of a buy or sell order before other customers can. Yobit had problems with the authorities in Russia, Ukraine and Indonesia (translation) for this.
  • insiders with access to the database trading on their own exchange — Bitfinex officers trade on the exchange themselves. They state that they avoid conflicts of interest, but there is no oversight or transparency on this.

The US Commodities and Futures Trading Commission has listed many of these as specific problems that are notably worse in the Bitcoin marketplace than in other markets:

Beyond their practical and speculative functions, the emergence of these nascent markets has also been negatively marked by a variety of retail customer harm that warrants the Commission’s attention, including, among other things, flash crashes and other market disruptions,52 delayed settlements,53 alleged spoofing,54 hacks,55 alleged internal theft,56 alleged manipulation,57 smart contract coding vulnerabilities,58 bucket shop arrangements and other conflicts of interest.59 These types of activities perpetrated by bad actors can inhibit market-enhancing innovation, undermine market integrity, and stunt further market development.

Because inside the exchanges is the Wild West, the interface between exchanges and the world of regular finance is stringently regulated. This causes tremendous problems for getting actual money out of exchanges, as we’ll see in part 2. And does questionable things to send the price up …


Next time: why it’s hard to get actual money from the exchanges into your bank account. A little bit KYC/AML, a little bit oddly-advantageous incompetence, a little bit dubious practices.


Update: Not letting through any more comments about how you cashed out so it must be OK!! That’s nice, but you know lots of the new retail investors are having trouble, and that’s a problem worth talking about. (Except the guy below who claimed he cashed out of Bitfinex two months ago, that’s not a statement you get to make without a great deal of supporting information.)



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64 thoughts on “Why you can’t cash out pt 1: Why Bitcoin’s “price” is largely fictional”

    • My intended audience is the general public who’ve heard about bitcoin and think they might like to get into that. The series title is a GREAT BIG WARNING to them!

      So if you see any points that need clarification, I’ll happily post-edit!

        • Tell the many, many perfectly normal non-criminals I talk to who have ever-lengthening delays and no response from customer service getting their money into their bank account from Coinbase, for example.

          A lot of people are cashing out fine, but there are serious systemic problems, that should be fairly obvious with a bit of thought. I’d best be getting on with part 2 then …

      • No, the series title so far is pure clickbait. Yes the price is more accurately represented by a band rather than a number. Yes, transaction fees are high. Yes, arbitrage, (by definition – risk free profits!) is hard. I absolutely agree that “market cap” is a useless metric. But “you can’t cash out” is complete nonsense. There is absolutely no reason you can’t cash out, unless you are a top 0.1% holder and for some reason want to sell it all at a short notice.

  • The notion that one can’t cash out is patently false. I’ve cash out lots of money in bitcoin. Why should anybody believe what you’re writing when the title of your article is a blatant lie?

    This is just click bait.

      • I cashed out 6k (my principal investment), 2 weeks after I bought in. In that time I made 5k. That 5k is now risk free money I am trying to build (successfully).

        No hick-ups whatsoever. I set my stop limit order and sold off. No delays, no weird fees, no unexpected prices. Using GDAX in the U.S. and Wellsfargo.

    • You’ve cashed out an insignificant amount over a period of time. If everybody wanted to cash out, or even a sufficiently large percentage, the price would go down instantly, and that would be the end.

        • Mostly that most of the people getting into it now did in order to get out of it. It should be obvious that this is the point, and whatabouting about “any other asset class” is playing thick. Also, that the trading in any crypto, even bitcoin, is way thin.

  • This is very insightful. As someone with no competency in this area though I have no way to truly validate one way or another, so would really appreciate if you could share a theoretical “opposing” argument too. Thanks!

    • Listen to any bitcoin advocate, they’re not rare. Everything is great! Up uP UP!! This is not a bubble, it’s a new paradigm!!! etc.

      • I am a Bitcoin advocate and I agree. I keep telling everyone that Bitcoin will fall. And raise. And fall. And exchanges will defraud them and fail them. Multiple times, as it has in the past. I also keep saying that Bitcoin cannot fail, regardless if there is an investment bubble right now.

        Bitcoin is a disruptive technology in its infancy, the fact that people can invest in it for potentially great profit or great loss is coincidental. Unlike for example in the case of a public company, progress will happen regardless of exchange rates, since bitcoin can’t go “bankrupt”. Just saying that because many people will automatically assume that if there’s a bubble and it bursts it means something fails.

        You are right to warn everyone however and I do the same. Worth pointing out that some of these points can be alleviated by using something like Bisq bisq.network

        • Bitcoin may not be able to go bankrupt, but exchanges/wallets can. As soon as so many people want to cash out into another currency (e.g. USD, EURO) you’ll quickly find that you can no longer take your money out of your Bitcoin wallet.
          But I’m sure the author will cover this in the next installment.

          • Anything can happen with third parties (exchanges and third party wallets), and that’s why people should keep any amount of Bitcoins that they are not willing to risk in their own wallet. Not being able to literally cash out is unrealistic, because there is a significant amount of people that will be willing to buy at some price, through various channels (could be a centralised exchange, a peer to peer exchange or even face to face, using escrows).

            My point is that none of what can happen with a centralised exchange (fraud, failure, whatever) can cause Bitcoin itself to fail. I just want to separate the mindless investing madness from what Bitcoin actually is about. Every time a third bitcoin-related service fails a bubble bursts and exchange rates takes a dive there is a new circle of obituary articles, as if somehow Bitcoin’s purpose is that people profit by exchanging it and it somehow failed.

    • spot on! anyone who has any hesitations or question is a heretic and non-believer.
      never mind that “proof of work” as a cryptographic backing principle is a foolish recipe for wasting a lot of electricity, contributing to global warming, among other issues. The particular blockchain implementation used by BTC has a host of other issues as well. I don’t think it’s a particularly well designed crypto currency and we will see better implementations along the way.

  • I can’t speak to the troubles Americans are having cashing out, but Canadians can do so quite easily at QuadrigaCX. No ID required, just an email 2FA. I used Interac eTransfer and the money was to me in about 12 hours. That said, I don’t know how easy/fast this would be during a rush for the exits should it come to that.

    • $25 was the average transaction fee at the time of posting. If you want your arbitrage to happen as fast as possible – which is pretty much the point – then you’ll need to pay more to make sure it gets into a block sooner rather than later. We’re well into the “fee market.”

  • You don’t actually need to transfer the coins from one exchange to another to achieve arbitrage if you have a stash on both exchanges. You can then just move coins between exchanges at a slower rate to keep a rough “balance” between the two.

    Also, if the two exchanges had a LTC-BTC market you could swap to move the coins between exchanges, but obviously at some “brokerage” cost that would adjust the equation of what useful arbitrage margin is.

  • The whole time reading this article I’m like make sense. It only makes sense if you’re applying something very relative to the stock market. This is something we never seen before. People keep placing stock market rules and past bubbles to this. Cryptocurrency was invented by a powerful technology and technology is only getting better. If this does get huge and you never bought into Cryptocurrency well you might be hugely broke and your old belief system kept you from what could of been the easiest way to become a millionaire in your life. Cryptocurrency to me is not even about being a currency. It’s more about security in the future and technology is moving at such a rapid pace. New Cryptocurrency known as alt coins (crypto other than bitcoin) are appearing everyday. It’s very easy to fall behind and soon will be a fine line between well versed in computer science and not well versed on computer science. The trajectory of technology is that one day you might have to learn one new thing then three the next the two more the next day and before you know it your behind. That’s the pace technology will move. This whole article is garbage it’s like I was reading stock market business tips or something. The backing to all Cryptocurrency is the hella powerful technology what currency has that as a backing?

      • If you believe in blockchain technology why would you ever cash out to a failing fiat currency? Ideally you’d move it to a crypto more suited for day to day transactions.

        • I think a lot of holders are going to go down with their paper wealth, yes.

          I didn’t get into arbitrage via another crypto, but I’ll probably mention that when I get to Bitfinex. the US Dollar exchange you can’t get US Dollars out of reliably.

    • “well versed in computer science” lol… religious nuttery abounds.
      Please describe how “computer science” necessitates a particular approach to a crypto-currency and demonstrate how the BTC blockchain is the inevitable product of pure comp-sci research LOL

      “fall behind” meaning late to your ponzi party? aka the next round of victims?

      I will merely grant that public ledgers like blockchains can have interesting applications. I think BTC was extremely poorly designed and “proof of work” is a recipe for planetary suicide. Feel free to discuss actual technical details if you disagree.

    • > Cryptocurrency was invented by a powerful technology and technology is only getting better.
      > security in the future and technology is moving at such a rapid pace
      > The backing to all Cryptocurrency is the hella powerful technology

      You seem to put a lot of faith into a technology you seemingly know next to nothing about. This kind of blind faith in “powerful technology” is like saying “we put a man on the moon, surely we can put a man on the sun”. No, the bitcoin blockchain isn’t a Panacea, and nothing is.

      > It’s very easy to fall behind and soon will be a fine line between well versed in computer science and not well versed on computer science.

      I’ll just say this: at the moment, the majority of the population only uses computers for facebook and instagram. Also at this moment, a large portion of software developers are overly proud hipsters who barley understand one programming language and can write web apps. That future is pretty far, and the reality is much more complicated than you presented.

      > This whole article is garbage it’s like I was reading stock market business tips or something.

      Not only did you not understand the article, the moment you sensed it has something to do with “stock market business” you ran away and complained it’s bullshit, probably because that’s everything you know about stock markets.

      As far as I can tell, you’re someone who doesn’t understand the technology but thinks it will solve all problems, and also doesn’t understand economy or the stock market but still wants to get involved with trading.

      I’m sorry to tell you, but it’s exactly this kind of people who drive the price of bitcoin up artificially, and you’ll be the ones to suffer when it crashes because you’ll still hope, even while everything is crumbling, that this great technology will survive, make a comeback, and will make you rich.

    • Dude, technologists don’t refer to a system that can’t even process 4 transactions per second as “great technology”. We refer to that as “pathetic” as in a Z-80 with floppy disks could do better than that.

  • While it is a noble undertaking to warn the public about the dangers of crypto-currencies I think less of a bashing style would do even greater good. A few points to ponder:
    1. Large price differences from one second to the next / between crypto exchanges: Same could be said about the “Neuer Markt” (during dot com boom). It was completely normal for a stock to be up 8% one day and down 5% the next. Germany had 8 different floor exchanges plus one electronic one and for lesser traded stocks you could easily have prices differing by more than the 2.5% mentioned in Bitcoin. While this is not great, one has to acknowledge the nascent character of crypto-currencies.
    2. Order spoofing, front running, insider trading etc ALL exist in US capital markets despite regulation. Again, not great, but I would give it a bit time to sort out.
    3. Backed by nothing: true, but so is the dollar (and all other fiat currencies in the world). Statements like these make the reader wonder if you understood the concept of money and the interesting proposition crypto-currencies with limited maximum issuance offer.
    4. Large fees for withdrawal: agree, not nice. But again, try to take home a stock certificate that you own. In most cases not possible (since none are printed) or you might face exorbitantly high fees.
    Could go on but must catch a train.
    Best, R.

  • You’re an idiot. I’ve cashed out over a million from buttfinex a couple of months ago in less than ten days.

    But facts don’t seem to matter do they.

  • Stop saying crypto when you mean cryptocurrencies, please. There is much more than just crypto to cryptocurrencies and vice versa.

    • I feel your pain, but that ship has sailed: “crypto” is actual finance jargon for these things now (cryptocurrencies, ICO tokens, etc – “crypto assets” in general), unfortunate as it is.

  • “Market cap is even worse. It’s literally just whatever the last price was, multiplied by the number of tokens in existence. This is a bogus number that’s not actually”

    You just described the entire securities market and then held cryptocurrency to a higher nonexistant standard to justify your problems with it. Interesting to say the least

    You didnt describe the title of the article in this part of the series, at best you described slippage which exists in all markets. I wish for smart order routing in mature crypto exchanges to appear, and you could just as easily discuss the improvements of liquidity. There are several trade desks that faciliate big over the counter trades to let you buy or sell crypto at the index price with less than 1% slippage. This is the same as the stock or commodities markets if you want to move large volume.

    But so far anyone with a counterpoint is paraded around as “proof” that blockchain users are religious fanatics. An odd way to alienate everyone.

    I enjoy the comprehensive nature of this analysis, Hope this helps spur a more objective discussion

  • You do realize there are bulk traders out there right? Not just exchanges.

    And of course you want regulation because that leads to your best friend, regulatory capture.

    In the separation of state and money, those who relied on the state to get their money are going to despise the separation the most. Keep Shillin Gerard

  • this article is full of BS

    i cash out of crypto everyday and send money everyday to do arbitrage.

    On the best exchanges, deposits or withdrawals take only 1 day , and i do it for 5 or 6 digit figures.

    the part regarding washtrades, frontrunning, market manipulation is true though.

  • Your description of how one would arbitrage is just wrong. What you would actually do is maintain USD and BTC balances on multiple exchanges. Then, if the prices are different, you can immediately execute trades on both exchanges at the same time. If necessary, you rebalance your accounts every once in a while (eg daily).

    Perhaps price differences between the exchanges are determined by the difficulty of USD withdrawals? (In theory, the harder it is to get USD out of the exchange, the higher the BTC/USD price would be).

    • Pretty sure a pile are arbitraging in the manner I describe, though often using an altcoin as the intermediary (I kept it simple above). But certainly, your method too – in fact, it appears that the exchanges have a pile of orders on each other’s books, e.g. when trading halts on one exchange and half the order book on another exchange disappears.

      However it’s done, the point is that (a) we can assume as absolutely much arbitrage as is feasible is happening as fast as possible (b) we still have hundreds-of-dollars spreads between exchanges, therefore (c) the Bitcoin market is horrendously inefficient.

  • I see a lot keyboard warrior of bitcoin attacking many articles about bitcoin fraud. i feel it is a part of a organized people. I personally believe that the time will tell if it is a fraud. We just have to wait

    • I think if you can’t see the degree to which bitcoin is a magnet for fraud, you’re being wilfully blind to it. The book discusses this at length.

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