When will Grayscale stop selling?
Could Grayscale's unlocking contribute to the final capitulation the crypto industry needs?

The conversion culminates years of anticipation within cryptocurrency circles. With the long-awaited move also comes renewed attention on GBTC's underlying Bitcoin holdings and associated unlocking provisions.

As the trust's giant hoard of Bitcoin becomes increasingly liquid over 2023-2024, intensified selling pressure threatens to further weigh on still-fragile digital asset markets. However, once the deluge subsides, the absence of this overhang could ultimately prove constructive by removing a primary source of volatility.

Before assessing potential scenarios, let's first review GBTC's history and the key events laying the groundwork for this moment.

The Rise and Fall of the GBTC Premium

Grayscale Bitcoin Trust emerged in 2013 as a regulated investment vehicle providing exposure to Bitcoin without direct cryptocurrency ownership.

grayscale bitcoin small

The trust accrued substantial Bitcoin reserves over time, eventually amassing over 650,000 BTC worth over $20 billion at peak prices. GBTC trades publicly like a stock but was historically structured as a closed-end fund.

This configuration meant the number of outstanding shares rose whenever new investment poured in, but the trust's Bitcoin holdings didn't necessarily keep pace.

This supply / demand imbalance gave way to a "premium", with GBTC shares often trading significantly above the trust's Net Asset Value (NAV).

These premiums frequently exceeded 40%, incentivizing financial entities to accumulate GBTC shares at NAV while profiting from marked-to-market accounting gains on the premium itself.

However, GBTC's golden goose came home to roost when the premium evaporated in early 2021 and turned into a growing discount thereafter. The daisy chain of margin calls, mass liquidations and industry contagion are well documented events that do not require rehashing.

Of relevance presently is that the collapse crushed balance sheets across the crypto ecosystem, with the widening GBTC discount the sledgehammer triggering it all.

The distressed entities submerged into bankruptcy still retain GBTC shares now incrementally unlocking. The overarching threat comes from these participants rushing for the doors by selling their positions and creating cascading spot Bitcoin selling pressure.

Quantifying Current & Projected GBTC Outflows

On January 10th, 2023, GBTC officially converted to a spot ETF structure to stem its mounting discount relative to Net Asset Value. The metamorphosis also initiated a delivery mechanism that will allow certain shareholders to exit over time.

Per Grayscale's official FAQ, the conversion enabled trust participants to redeem holdings upon satisfying a designated six-month holding period. These unlocks will transpire in tranches on a quarterly basis over a 24-month horizon based on the original GBTC purchase date.

While quarterly flows appear gradual on surface, certain holders can elect to exit sooner based on individual circumstances. For example, the high-profile FTX bankruptcy estate immediately liquidated its entire 22 million GBTC share position (~20,000 Bitcoin) just days after the ETF conversion.

This unexpected deluge hints at the haphazard nature likely to unfold as distressed entities rush to meet creditor obligations. Other bankrupt parties still retain approximately 36 million shares that did not appear in FTX's quick liquidation.

In total, GBTC outflows have already reached an estimated 115,000 Bitcoin as of late January 2024. The trusts' total holdings have correspondingly declined from a peak of 650,000 BTC to under 500,000 presently.

Projecting future outflow volumes requires assessing the varied incentives across GBTC's fragmented ownership base:

  • Bankrupt Entities - The 15% of shares held by bankrupt companies and funds face immense pressure to sell from creditors. Their lump-sum selling avoids quarterly caps and brings sudden shocks to the market.
  • Retail - Retail traders and IRA accounts comprise half of ownership. These participants are sensitive to GBTC's high management fees and likely rotate holdings to other ETFs without necessarily creating net selling pressure.
  • Institutions - The remaining 35% includes crypto hedge funds and arbitrageurs. A subset of this group pursued GBTC premium strategies and may exit entirely. Others could rotate holdings into Bitcoin itself.

Given these dynamics, total projected outflows likely fall between 250,000 to 350,000 Bitcoin over two years. The net Bitcoin selling pressure reduces to an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 BTC after accounting for shares rotating into other funds or withdrawn to private storage.

While significant, this gradually unfolding wave feels more probable than the extremes consistently warned about.

Historical Precedent for GBTC Impacts

Although the swaths of unlocking shares feel unprecedented given their sheer magnitude, GBTC has navigated large liquidity events previously:

  • February 2021 - BlockFi and Three Arrows Capital unlocked shares, contributing to Bitcoin falling from $58,000 to below $45,000 over 10 days before recovering.
  • June 2022 - 3AC's wipeout triggered 30 days of capitulation from $30,000 to $17,500 as broad liquidations took hold before the next leg down later in 2022.

In both instances, GBTC selling pressure most likely proved the straw breaking the camel's back rather than the root catalyst. Bitcoin navigated downside volatility during the unlocking cycles as it corrected from overheated rallies.

The most recent $20,000 floor held up firmly against January 2024's enlarged $4.4 billion GBTC exodus even if the product itself severely lagged alternative ETFs. This relative resilience bodes well considering the circumstances, although history merely provides context rather than guarantees.

Framework for Analyzing Market Response

Attempting to chart potential Bitcoin price trajectories becomes an exercise in probabilities without a definitive answer. Far too many exogenous variables exist amidst a uniquely chaotic macro backdrop extending beyond GBTC activities alone.

However, reviewing options and behavioral outcomes often proves beneficial to becoming an informed market observer. As the waves of unlocking shares continue, analyzing each twist and turn avoiding fixation on absolute predictions may present advantages.

With GBTC outflows representing just one input into a complex equation, focusing analysis on critical support levels, momentum indicators, on-chain volume, open interest and sentiment gauges likely bears more relevance than binary timing calls.

If underlying market demand accelerates to absorb unlocked shares without significant disruption, the excessive fear surrounding GBTC unlocks may one day contribute to capitulation finally giving way to renewed optimism.

Life After GBTC

While the path ahead promises continued turbulence, envisioning the landscape without Grayscale's cloud permanently hanging overhead paints a decidedly optimistic picture.

The eventual removal of both GBTC's crippling premium and its forward-looking overhang allows spot Bitcoin markets to finally operate on their own organic merits rather than as a derivative byproduct of financial engineering exploits gone awry.

The rise of a mature ETF ecosystem steers investment into the digital asset arena through transparent channels rather than the toxicity of leverage fueling basis trades. The generational transition ushers hope that lessons learned from past froths and busts lead to sustainable growth built on firmer foundations the next cycle around.

And with the having's supply cut in half once more 20 months away, the medium-term bull case shines even with the travails of volatility likely persisting for some time yet.

In the end, the select institutions profiting from dataset arbitrage opportunities helped drive early Bitcoin adoption, but the training wheels provided by GBTC may have long exceeded their benefit to cryptocurrency markets.

If Grayscale's unwinding indeed contributes to the final capitulation the industry so desperately needs, then perhaps the short-term pain ultimately catalyzes Bitcoin's next, most exciting epoch bearing far less encumbrance from its past.