Cryptocurrency crash is coming, warns Dogecoin creator

Product manager Jackson Palmer created Dogecoin as a joke to show the absurdity of staking fortunes on unstable ventures. Concerned by the potential for abuse in the cryptocurrency market, he is now one of the loudest voices urging investors to bewar
Product manager Jackson Palmer created Dogecoin as a joke to show the absurdity of staking fortunes on unstable ventures. Concerned by the potential for abuse in the cryptocurrency market, he is now one of the loudest voices urging investors to beware.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • Australian Jackson Palmer no longer thinks it's funny to imitate Doge, the Internet meme about a Shiba Inu dog whose awestruck expressions and garbled syntax ("Wow. So pizza. Much delicious.") made it a viral sensation several years ago.

But if he did, he might channel Doge to offer a few cautionary words to investors who are falling for cryptocurrency start-ups, which are Silicon Valley's latest moneymaking craze: "Very bubble. Much scam. So avoid."

Mr Palmer, the creator of Dogecoin, was an early fan of cryptocurrency, a form of encrypted digital money that is traded from person to person. He saw investors talking about bitcoin, the oldest and best-known cryptocurrency, and wanted to find a way to poke fun at the hype surrounding the emerging technology.

So, in 2013, he built his own cryptocurrency, a satirical mash-up that combined bitcoin with the Doge meme he had seen on social media.

He hoped to use Dogecoin to show the absurdity of wagering huge sums of money on unstable ventures. But investors did not get the joke and bought Dogecoin anyway, raising its market value to as high as US$400 million (S$538 million).

Along the way, the currency became a magnet for greed and attracted a group of scammers and hackers who defrauded investors, hyped fake products and left many of the currency's original backers empty-handed.

Today, Mr Palmer, 30, is one of the loudest voices warning that a similar fate might soon befall the entire cryptocurrency industry.

Product manager Jackson Palmer created Dogecoin as a joke to show the absurdity of staking fortunes on unstable ventures. Concerned by the potential for abuse in the cryptocurrency market, he is now one of the loudest voices urging investors to bewar
Product manager Jackson Palmer created Dogecoin as a joke to show the absurdity of staking fortunes on unstable ventures. Concerned by the potential for abuse in the cryptocurrency market, he is now one of the loudest voices urging investors to beware. PHOTO: NYTIMES

"What's happening to crypto now is what happened to Dogecoin," he said in a recent interview. "I'm worried that, this time, it's on a much grander scale."

Already, there are signs of trouble on the horizon. Last week, after the Chinese authorities announced a crackdown on virtual currencies, the value of bitcoin tumbled briefly by 30 per cent before recovering partially. The value of Dogecoin fell over 50 per cent the week before.

But there is still no greater mania among tech investors than cryptocurrency, which some see as an eventual replacement for traditional, government-issued money.

Even with the recent declines, the price of bitcoin has more than tripled this year. Another cryptocurrency, Ethereum, has gained more than 2,300 per cent.

Their success has spawned hundreds of other digital currencies, and given rise to an entire category of start-ups that take advantage of cryptocurrency's public ledger system, known as the blockchain.

Many cryptocurrency start-ups have raised money through an initial coin offering (ICO), a type of fund-raising campaign in which investors buy into a new venture using bitcoin or another cryptocurrency. They then receive virtual "tokens" instead of stock or voting rights in the company.

These tokens grant investors access to a product or service that will be built with the money raised in the ICO, such as cloud data storage or access to a new social network.

(If you're having trouble picturing it: Imagine that a friend is building a casino and asks you to invest. In exchange, you get chips that can be used at the casino's tables once it is finished. Now, imagine that the value of the chips is not fixed, and instead will fluctuate depending on the popularity of the casino, the number of other gamblers and the regulatory environment for casinos.)

Despite the obvious risks of such ventures, investor appetite has been ravenous. This year, 140 coin offerings have raised a total of US$2.1 billion from investors, according to Coinschedule, a website that tracks such activity.

ICOs are largely unregulated in the United States, although that could soon change. The Securities and Exchange Commission warned investors this year about the growing number of coin offerings, saying that "fraudsters often try to use the lure of new and emerging technologies to convince potential victims to invest their money in scams".

Unlike bitcoin, whose early adopters often used it to buy drugs, weapons or other illicit goods on the dark Web, Dogecoin attracted a crowd of earnest do-gooders at first.

As the price of bitcoin climbed, investors got interested in other cryptocurrencies. With no explanation, the price of Dogecoin doubled, then tripled. Two months after it was introduced, Mr Palmer's joke was worth US$50 million.

The success of Dogecoin attracted unsavoury characters. One scammer raised US$750,000 from Dogecoin supporters for a cryptocurrency start-up that never materialised. A hacker broke into Dogewallet, a website where users stored their coins, and stole thousands of dollars' worth of the currency.

Mr Palmer, a laid-back Australian who works as a product manager in San Francisco, was disturbed by the commercialisation of his joke currency. In 2015, he announced he was leaving Dogecoin behind.

He worries that the coming reckoning in the cryptocurrency market - and it is coming, he says confidently - will deter people from using the technology for more legitimate projects.

"The bigger this bubble goes, the bigger negative connotation it's going to have," he said. "It's going to be like the dot.com bust, but on a much more epic scale."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 18, 2017, with the headline 'Cryptocurrency crash is coming, warns Dogecoin creator'. Print Edition | Subscribe