Mike Novogratz found fame after becoming one of the first bold-faced Wall Street names to embrace the crypto revolution, and for a while, it looked like he had made the right call. Having gotten in before last year's frenzied rally drove bitcoin to $20,000 a coin, Novogratz' crypto calls briefly made him a billionaire - at least on paper.
But Novo's fortunes wavered after new year's as the crypto bubble burst (something he bizarrely anticipated in an interview but nevertheless failed to act upon) eventually leading Novogratz's pioneering "crypto merchant bank" Galaxy Digital to book a more than $130 million loss (and that doesn't even include bitcoin's recent break below $4,000).
And while we imagine these staggering losses weigh on the billionaire, Novo put on a happy face during an interview with Bloomberg published Tuesday where he explained why he still has faith in crypto (he recently called for a turnaround in Q1 as the fabled "institutional money" finally arrives) - though he conceded that he and his firm should have done a better job of managing their exposure.
Asked about what he should have done to protect against the down turn, Novo protested that his firm did "a great job" of not losing money as bitcoin erased the first 60% of its gains. However, we'd like to remind the former macro trader that "almost" only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
You told me three months before Bitcoin peaked that crypto was going to be the biggest bubble of our lifetime. Did you think it was going to be the worst bear market in modern history?
It’s a fair question. We thought it was a bear market. I went into it thinking in the long run crypto is going to be a real structural shift in the world and I can just hedge my portfolio. And to be fair, we did a really great job not losing money the first 60 percent down. What you forget is that a market like Bitcoin that’s down 84 percent has dropped 60 percent - and then another 60 percent. That’s where the pain happens. You start buying Ether again, because it’s only $400 after being at $1,300. But then it drops to $100, and you’ve lost 75 percent of your money. We haven’t done horribly in that context, but we’re still down.
But though Novo managed to anticipate the bear market, its depth and persistence took him by surprise, he admitted, saying he had expected bitcoin to hold at $6,200.
You should have made money on the way down?
One hundred percent, instead of lost money. I did think Bitcoin was going to hold at $6,200. It stayed there for four months. It felt like the selling was finished. But then Bitcoin Cash decided to fork again. [Bitcoin Cash had broken away, or "forked," from the original Bitcoin in August 2017 over a disagreement among crypto developers.] At the same time the SEC came out and sanctioned a few ICOs [initial coin offerings] and said, "Oh, by the way, your investors can sue for damages." That scared the heck out of a lot of people.
Still, Novo made sure to telegraph to the world that he's not like those crypto loonies on Reddit who treat bitcoin like a religion, adding that "when prices get stupid, I sell" (despite all evidence being to the contrary).
Many in the crypto community, on Reddit and elsewhere, treat it almost like a religion. Coming from Wall Street, how are you different?
While I believe in the underlying technology and believe in the crypto movement, when prices get stupid, I sell. A lot of my friends in crypto just couldn’t let go. They were saying, "This is going to change the world." Revolutions don’t happen overnight. I’d be walking down the street, and people would come up to me wanting to take selfies. That’s when I started to think, OK, this is weird. It’s got to be close to the top.
Moving on to other corners of the crypto market, Novo said he expects the ICO market to a make a comeback, albeit in a less sexy, more heavily regulated form.
For a while, ICOs were the hottest corner of crypto. They also were a hotbed of fraud. Will they ever come back?
The ICO market is pretty much dead right now. There was a lot of fraud, and there was a lot of hype, and people lost money. The SEC was behind the curve, so they slammed on the brakes. But the SEC doesn’t want to kill this innovation; we’ve spoken to them at length. I think you’ll see a market for security tokens - a real estate portfolio that gets tokenized, for example. These aren’t things that go from $1 to $1,000. They’re things that yield 14 percent, and they’ll be sold to qualified buyers. That sounds a heck of a lot less sexy, but you’re going to see that business grow.
Employing a popular metaphor used to characterize the crypto bust, Novo compared the dizzying apex of the crypto rally to a heroin rush. Now, investors are evaluating crypto with a more "sober" mindset. But Novo wouldn't rule out the possibility of another high.
Back when Bitcoin was on its way toward $20,000, there was a sense of inevitability about crypto. Is there still that sense?
That was a drug, and I don’t say that lightly. When you’re in the speculative mania, testosterone is boiling over and there’s a lot of greed. The audience is more sober now—the drug is gone. If anything we’re on the other side, at the stage where there’s the pessimism, and the fear, and the “Oh my God, it’s going to zero.” But it’s not going to zero. We’re at the methadone clinic.
Then again, considering that Novo has so much tied up in crypto (including a chunk of his personal fortune, not to mention his reputation), it would be prudent to keep this in mind when thinking about his analysis. After all, Novo and the other big-name Wall Street crypto bulls have everything to gain if crypto rebounds, but they don't have much left to lose if prices keep moving lower.