NEW ORLEANS - "I'm in a cryptocurrency chat group at work," software engineer Adam Hickey of San Diego, California told VOA.
Over the last few days, Hickey said, members of the group have been writing things like, "Bloodbath" and, "Are we still good?"
"It shook me, honestly," he admitted. "I just had to stop looking at my balance. At one point, months ago, my investment in crypto had tripled. Now I'm down 40%."
Hickey is far from alone. Serious and casual investors across the United States have seen the value of their investments in the publicly available digital asset known as cryptocurrency shrink dramatically in recent months, with steep plunges recorded in just the last week.
The value of bitcoin, the most popular form of cryptocurrency, has dropped more than 70% since its peak in November of last year, erasing more than 18 months of growth and causing many investors to wonder if this is the bottom, or if the worst is still to come.
"I have to remind myself that when I got into bitcoin in 2017, it was more of something I just kind of hoped would be the next Amazon.com," Hickey said. Like many others, Hickey dreamed cryptocurrency could be a way to get rich in the long-term, or at least would be a part of his retirement savings.
"I've always seen it as a long-term investment. Still, this is the most nervous I've been about it," he said. "You hear people on social media saying this is all a Ponzi scheme. Now I'm having thoughts like maybe those warnings are right - that the people pushing bitcoin so hard are the ones who bought it at the earliest low prices. Of course they want people to buy and drive the value back up. It's good for them, but is it good for me?"
Those skeptical of cryptocurrency point to its lack of regulatory oversight from government as a major reason for concern, making it susceptible to scams and wild price fluctuations.
"I've always seen it as a highly speculative investment," said Marigny deMauriac, a certified financial planner in New Orleans, Louisiana. "This isn't something any individual should have the majority of their wealth in unless they're looking to take a significant amount of unnecessary risk."
"I tell my clients to stay clear of investing any significant portion of their wealth in cryptocurrency, or any other highly speculative investment type," deMaruiac told VOA. Many of the most ardent cryptocurrency supporters, however, invest precisely because it isn't tied to governments as traditional currencies are. Digital currency's demonstrated capacity for meteoric rises is a big part of its appeal.
Steve Ryan, a self-employed poker player living in Las Vegas, Nevada, began investing in digital currency nearly a decade ago. "I've been in it for so long, I understand this stuff much better than your average person who only read about it on the internet a year or two ago," he said.
Ryan invested on the advice of entrepreneurial friends; back when a single bitcoin sold for only a couple of hundred dollars as opposed to the tens of thousands they sell for today.
"Most of my money is in crypto, and I wish I had kept more in there rather than selling some of it," he told VOA. "Even after this downturn, I'd be a multimillionaire had I kept it all in."
U.S. inflation at 40-year highs has caused the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates, sending jitters throughout financial markets. At the same time, some Americans have lost their appetite for riskier investments.
Many have sold their cryptocurrency holdings and reinvested in safer, more stable assets. At the end of last week, the value of one share of bitcoin dropped below $18,000 from a high late last year of more than $64,000. The total crypto market value dropped from a peak of $3.2 trillion to below $1 trillion.
"I'm definitely worried today," Ryan said on Saturday as bitcoin reached its lowest point since December 2020.
Still, Ryan maintained he still believes in bitcoin.
"I'm worried because we've got a war going on in Europe, huge amounts of inflation, we're trying to recover from the impacts of a pandemic, and governments might try to regulate bitcoin," he said. "But I'm not worried about bitcoin itself - I think it's as solid as ever. That's how cycles work and this could prove to be one of the best times in history to get into crypto."
Casual cryptocurrency investors may not be so sure, but many seem willing to hold on to what they have in the hopes of a rebound. "Of course, when it rose to over $60,000, I had big dreams that I could earn enough money to go on a big trip or to make a down payment on a property," said Joe Frisard, a semi-retired resident of Atlanta, Georgia.
The downturn has lowered Frisard's ambitions, he acknowledged, but he still planned on hanging on to the cryptocurrency he hadn't already sold when it was closer to its peak. "I've lost a good bit of money in the stock market, too," he said, "but I'm not looking to dump my stocks. They're a long-term investment and I see bitcoin in a similar way."
Weathering the storm
Gordon Henderson, a retired collegiate marching band director from Los Angeles, California, is also not panicking.
"I'm much more concerned about my stocks in my retirement fund than in my relatively small crypto holdings," he said. Henderson remembers his father, at age 69 in 1987, converting his retirement fund to cash before a recession temporarily decimated the stock market.
"He was pretty proud of his timing," Henderson recalled, "but in reality, he would have ended up with eight times more money if he had weathered the storm and kept his money in the stock market for another two decades. That's how I look at cryptocurrency. I'll hang onto it and maybe it will pay for college for my kids. If not, I was prepared for the loss."
Colin Ash, an urban planner in New Orleans, Louisiana, has owned bitcoin for years, but said he thinks of it as "a fun gamble."
"Of course, I wish I would have timed it perfectly and sold it all at the peak," he said, "but it's not realistic to think you can ever do that with any kind of investment. I think of it as something separate from the rest of my money. If something comes of it in the long run, then great. If not, at least I already sold some and paid off some debt."
For Hickey in San Diego, as well as many other investors, the key is to not invest more than you can afford to lose, particularly with an asset as speculative as cryptocurrency.
"Under the current circumstances, with everything falling so far down, I've decided to halt my weekly recurring purchase of bitcoin," he said. "I think I'm done investing for now."
He paused for a moment, and then said, "Now, that's kind of hard, because if you want to make money you should buy low and sell high. Bitcoin prices are low, so I'll probably be back in before you know it."