Frenzied Crypto Traders In South Korea See Coins As Their "Last Chance Of Escape"

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by Tyler Durden
Saturday, Jun 05, 2021 - 12:00 AM

South Korea has become ground zero for speculative crypto traders looking to try and build wealth by hoisting their life savings into bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

This means wild successes when the price bitcoin and other coins moves higher, but also devastating mood swings when cryptos crash. 

"I can't think of anything... It's completely unbearable," one young woman told Nikkei after investing her life savings of about $900 into virtual currency "as a way to build a nest egg in a country where saving for the future".

She had been riding high in April when cryptos were making new highs, but has since experienced a 40% drawdown. She told Nikkei: "I'll have to hold until the price goes up again. I'm not sure how many years that will take, though."

She's a microcosm of a country which accounts for 10% of all trades in crypto. The massive volume sometimes means that cryptos can trade with premiums of up to 20% in South Korea. Trading is focused mostly on altcoins, with only about 10% of the virtual trade going to bitcoin.

And the traders are mostly people in their 20s and 30s. 2.5 million new accounts were opened in the country during the first quarter of 2021. 33% of those were people in their 20s and 31% were people in their 30s. 

53% of university students polled in a new survey this week "expressed a positive opinion about investing into cryptocurrency" while 24% said they have pulled the trigger.

The biggest appeal was listed at 33% of participants drawn to the "high rate of return". But even more of a stand out is the 15% who referred to crypto as the "last chance of escape" from their current social status.

The "last chance of escape" is indicative of many South Korean traders who believe that the "conventional path to happiness their parents took -- getting married, buying a home and having kids" no longer is attainable. Instead, they look to cryptos to try and "reverse their fortunes". 

And those who speak out against cryptos are ridiculed. Eun Sung-soo, chairman of the Financial Services Commission said last month that cryptos "are not securities bound by the Capital Market Acts, but are instead virtual assets with no known substance." 

Eun said: "The government has no duty to protect them. If they are walking down the wrong path, adults must warn them that they are making a mistake."

That touched off a "firestorm of criticism from young people." Some called for Eun's resignation, posting things online like: 

"You have people in their 40s and 50s speculating on housing upon which our citizens livelihood depends, yet it is inappropriate for people in their 20s and 30s to invest in coins? There's a whole lot we can learn from The Grown-Ups."

South Korea is implementing new rules for crypto come later this year, requiring crypto platforms to partner with banks to ensure legitimacy. Bithumb, Upbit, Coinone and Korbit have already struck banking deals, while most other banks are hesitant to strike deals. 

Even more worrisome is the fact that many crypto trades are being financed with debt. The country's central bank noted that household debt grew 8% at the end of 2020 from a year earlier - however, debt by those between 20-39 was up 17%.

Kim So-young, professor of economics at Seoul National University, concluded: "The level of borrowing by young people is not that great, so a series of personal bankruptcies by that contingent will only have a minor effect on the financial system. However, young people who are about to enter the labor market are going bankrupt and being left unable to plan for the future, which will result in a loss for the economy as a whole."