After dizzying gyrations, what’s bitcoin really worth?

LONDON (AFP) – After the latest wild ride took the poster child of cryptocurrencies above USD40,000 before a stomach-churning plunge, the million dollar question won’t go away: how much is bitcoin actually worth?

The virtual currency barrelled to new highs to rise more than 400 per cent over the past year, before promptly sliding some 20 per cent and then settling around USD36,000.

When it started life in 2009 as open-source software, bitcoin was essentially worth zero – though within a year it had reached the heady heights of eight cents.

At today’s market rates, bloated by a surge in institutional demand, the digital unit’s market capitalisation is worth some USD670 billion with myriad other crypto coins such as ethereum lifting the sector nominally close to the trillion mark.

Although that’s small potatoes compared to the USD68 trillion or so swilling around world stock markets, it is nonetheless the sort of financial territory staked out by Wall Street tech royalty such as Google, Apple or Tesla.

A woman buys Bitcoin at Bitcoin Change in Tel Aviv, Israel. PHOTO: XINHUA

One tech site, AssetDash.com, notes that bitcoin is currently worth around as much as Facebook and a little more than Chinese e-retail giant Alibaba.

Although deep-pocketed investors have recently become enthusiasts, crypto was in its early days the preserve of geeky amateur investors. It is the latter who have mainly suffered as an estimated four million of the roughly 19 million bitcoin units currently in circulation have been lost.

“Lost” does not mean the coins have fallen down the back of the sofa or through a hole in a trouser pocket: they have been electronically zapped from the record, often because their owner has forgotten a password to coins hoarded on a USB stick.

One United States (US) developer mislaid his password after storing 7,002 bitcoins on one such flash drive, forcing him to wave goodbye, on paper (or rather, the trading screen), to around USD280 million.

This week, Welshman James Howells desperately offered his local authority a quarter of his fortune to dig up a landfill site where he believes a hard drive he accidentally tossed away – and which has since soared in value to around USD270 million – is buried. The council refused, citing the cost and logistical restrictions.

According to analysts at JP Morgan, bitcoin may be highly volatile but could go as high as USD146,000 per unit, putting it in competition with gold as an asset class in terms of private sector investment.