Chances are good that we'll be discussing the performance of cryptocurrencies in 2017 for a very long time. The more than 3,300% increase in market cap that virtual currencies logged last year might very well be the single greatest year we'll ever witness for an asset class.
Bitcoin, the world's most valuable cryptocurrency, and the one most likely to be accepted by merchants worldwide, is often attributed with leading these gains -- and over the long run, that's true. However, the second half of 2017 was really all about other cryptocurrencies emerging from bitcoin's shadow. Among them was what I refer to as bitcoin's chief rival, Litecoin.
Litecoin makes a name for itself
In 2017, Litecoin's token, the LTC, galloped higher by more than 5,200%, or about four times as much as bitcoin itself last year. It had a veritable laundry list of catalysts that got investors excited about its prospects of signing up merchants and giving bitcoin a run for its money (pun fully intended).
For example, Litecoin founder Charlie Lee left his job at Alphabet subsidiary Google to work full time on promoting Litecoin as of June 2017. Having Lee's presence full time was viewed as a positive since it was expected that he'd work to keep Litecoin on track and expedite a mass adoption of the virtual coin.
Additionally, Litecoin holds a number of competitive advantages over bitcoin that suggested it could really ramp up adoption and process transactions quickly. For instance, bitcoin processes a block of transactions about once every 10 minutes. Considering that around six miners validate a transaction on bitcoin's network before it's proven true and added to the blockchain, a bitcoin transaction can take over an hour to settle. While that's still considerably quicker than the current banking system for cross-border transactions, it's relatively slow compared to other cryptocurrencies.
Comparably, Litecoin's blocks process in a quarter of the time, about 2 1/2 minutes, which leads to quicker validation and settlement, and the presumption that it can scale its network a lot quicker than bitcoin. Furthermore, Litecoin's transaction fees are, on average, considerably lower than that of bitcoin.
In all aspects, Litecoin looked like a budding medium of exchange that could one day surpass bitcoin when the curtain dropped on 2017. Then, things changed.
Litecoin's embarrassing gaffe
In mid-February, with cryptocurrencies reeling from their first major decline in years, Litecoin caught fire. Though a number of catalysts helped buoy the LTC token, the biggest of them all was the announcement that LitePay, a payment platform specifically designed to support Litecoin (although it was developed independently of Litecoin), would be going live by Feb. 26, 2018.
Litecoin had requested to join BitPay but was denied. So the development of LitePay was expected to be groundbreaking. It would have allowed users on mobile devices and desktop computers -- and perhaps even with linked debit cards -- to purchase goods and services with Litecoin tokens, which could then be transferred into fiat currencies, such as the U.S. dollar, British pound, or Japanese yen. A flat 1% was expected to be charged per transaction, with the ultimate goal of speeding up adoption of the LTC token as a medium of exchange. And, best of all, transactions would settle nearly instantaneously, reducing the concerns retailers would have about crypto volatility eating into their margins.
Unfortunately, LitePay turned out to be nothing more than a mirage, and now Charlie Lee, who'd promoted the project as a means to increase the mass adoption of Litecoin, has egg all over his face.
On March 5, a week after LitePay was supposed to have gone live, its developers noted in an email that it was still "checking all perspective merchants" and was holding off on card registrations "due to the negative perception and drastic actions card issuers have toward cryptocurrency companies," as reported by CNBC.
But less than two weeks later, on March 16, LitePay CEO Kenneth Asare informed Litecoin, which was an investor in the LitePay project, that it was ceasing all operations and planning to sell the company. In literally one month's time, Litecoin went from hyping its own payment platform to breaking the news to investors that the LitePay project was essentially dead.
Litecoin founder Lee wrote in a tweet: "Like everyone else, we got too excited about something that was too good to be true and we optimistically overlooked many of the warning signs. I am sorry for having hyped up this company and vow to do better due diligence in the future."
What you see isn't always what you get
Cryptocurrency investors may have to get used to disappointments like this roller coaster ride with Litecoin. You see, the crypto market is unregulated, meaning it can be something of a Wild West when it comes to promotion, product development, and partnership announcements.
For example, there was mass confusion surrounding IOTA late last year after it announced the beta launch of its Data Marketplace -- a blockchain-based network designed to allow businesses to share or sell unused data -- in November. Around three dozen brand-name companies acted as participants for the Marketplace, providing critical feedback for IOTA. However, somewhere in IOTA's announcement it was assumed these companies were partners, which pumped up the MIOTA token (IOTA's coin). IOTA had to clear things up a few weeks later, which pushed the MIOTA token lower and took the wind out of IOTA's sails.
Even Litecoin has had more than one instance where things didn't go as planned, beyond the LitePay gaffe noted above. In February, Lee denied that a separate group of developers was forking Litecoin into a new cryptocurrency known as Litecoin Cash; yet the Litecoin Cash fork did actually happen (albeit it's crashed more than 95% since the hard fork).
The point being that surprises are becoming more of a norm than an exception in the crypto marketplace, and it's not something the Securities and Exchange Commission can do a lot about until regulations are beefed up. While regulation is often viewed as the enemy of virtual currencies, an increase in oversight should help lay a foundation and build trust with investors.
The question is: How long do we have to wait before the U.S. government increases oversight on cryptocurrencies so these gaffes become a thing of the past? Until we have an answer, investing in virtual currencies will remain an incredibly risky venture.