2021 has been an especially volatile time for cryptocurrency. Led by Bitcoin, the whole sector has seen spikes in prices, with tremendous volatility along the way. Investors have also seen increased development of decentralized finance (DeFi) technology applications, and cryptocurrency ecosystems that allow people to trade and lend their tokens without the support of a traditional financial institution.
With all this activity and volatility, some have wondered what it will mean for the cryptocurrency ecosystem. Will Bitcoin continue to lead this sector? Will other coins rise up to take the top spot in the field? Insiders have already coined a phrase for the possibility of Bitcoin stalling out and other cryptocurrency products and token rising in value. It’s known as “altcoin season.”
Altcoins: What Are They?
Basically, altcoins are cryptocurrencies that aren’t Bitcoin or Ethereum. In fact, Bitcoin is so dominant in the field that even Ethereum is sometimes referred to as an altcoin.
Bitcoin is oldest and largest cryptocurrency, with a total market cap of $885 billion as of December 17, 2021. Ethereum is similar: a long track record, a variety of projects and systems built on top of it, substantial trading volume, and a high overall value of about $459 billion as of December 17, 2021.
Altcoins are just about everything else. Sometimes they’re tokens built on top of Ethereum for DeFi projects, sometimes they’re offered in an “initial coin offering” for use with a specific product, sometimes they’re spun up by developers because they think there’s something wrong or missing in the current crypto ecosystem. This could be variants or forks of mainstream coins (like Litecoin (LTC) or Bitcoin Cash), or a whole new type of coin with a specific usage (stablecoins like Tether or USDC), or tokens for use in a specific ecosystem, like XRP for use in Ripple.
When Does “Altcoin Season” Happen?
Altcoin season happens when there’s steady outperformance of tokens and coins that aren’t Bitcoin.
There’s no promise or guarantee that every runup in Bitcoin will turn into a downturn later or that altcoins will start outperforming the original crypto. In fact, it’s not uncommon for all cryptos to rise together, as excitement about the sector grows and new money goes into all sorts of coins looking for profits.
There are a number of theories for why altcoin season could potentially happen. One popular one is that Bitcoin investors could pocket their gains if Bitcoin values rose, maybe by selling some of it, and then move those gains into other cryptocurrencies.
They might do this for one of two reasons:
1. To realize gains. This might happen if the value of Bitcoin owned by an investor has gone up relative to the dollar or other fiat currencies or cryptocurrencies, and they want to spend some of those gains on things that can’t be bought with crypto itself.
2. Expectations of future growth change. After a large runup of Bitcoin, an investor’s projected future growth or value of an asset might change compared to the price of investing. So, with inflated Bitcoin values, it’s possible that altcoins could be a better investment going forward. And if enough investors and traders make that decision, they will be.
How Do You Know If It’s Altcoin Season?
You can’t determine altcoin season just by looking at the price of altcoins or Bitcoin or any other cryptocurrency in isolation.
Looking at their “market cap”, or the total value of all the circulating tokens, can be a better indicator of what’s going on with investor valuation of cryptocurrencies. This is because price isn’t just determined by investor interest or disinterest, but also by the number of outstanding coins.
How Are Altcoins Doing Relative to Bitcoin?
To tell if we are in altcoin season, we have to look at two things. The first is Bitcoin’s “dominance” vis a vis the rest of the crypto market as well as the performance of altcoins relative to Bitcoin.
At the time of writing in December 2021, according to CoinMarketCap, Bitcoin’s dominance is 41% of the total market. Near the beginning of this year, it stood at 70%. Bitcoin’s highest dominance was 96% in late 2013, Bitcoin’s lowest dominance was early 2018, when it stood at around 33%. Its lowest this year is around 40%, which it hit in May of this year.
Bitcoin has fallen in value by almost 40%, potentially giving a chance for altcoins to gain value in comparison. But we can also compare Bitcoin’s market value to that of altcoins. Despite the price increase of some altcoins, Bitcoin is still dominant.
• Bitcoin’s market value has grown from $176 billion to $885 billion.
• XRP, the cryptocurrency associated with Ripple, has had its market cap grow from $9 billion to just under $38 billion.
• Litecoin, a Bitcoin alternative founded in 2011 and thus one of the oldest altcoins, has grown from around $3 billion to $10 billion.
• Ethereum (ETH), the least alt of the altcoins, the most well established of all non-Bitcoin tokens, has grown from $29 billion to $459 billion.
Whether altcoin season is happening at all — and if so, whether it will continue — still remains to be seen.
Altcoin season describes a time period when altcoins steadily outperform Bitcoin. There are a few ways to try to determine altcoin season, but it remains impossible to predict. Basically, you’ll know it when you’re in it.
Photo credit: iStock/Prostock-Studio
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