Bitcoin price hit 2023 high, so why are retail traders waiting on the sidelines?

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The total market capitalization of the cryptocurrency market surged past $1.55 trillion on Dec. 5, driven by remarkable weekly gains of 14.5% for Bitcoin (BTC) and 11% for Ether (ETH). Notably, this milestone, marking the highest level in 19 months, propelled Bitcoin to become the world’s ninth-largest tradable asset, surpassing Meta’s $814 billion capitalization.

Despite the recent bullish momentum, analysts have observed that retail demand remains relatively stagnant. Some attribute this to the ripple effects of an inflationary environment and decreased interest in credit, given that interest rates continue to hover above 5.25%. While analyst Rajat Soni’s post may have dramatized the situation, the underlying, in essence, holds true.

Numerous U.S. economic indicators have surged to record highs, encompassing wages, salaries and household net worth. However, Ed Yardeni, an analyst, suggests that the “Santa Claus rally” might have already occurred earlier this year, with the S&P 500 gaining 8.9% in November.

This rise reflected diminishing inflationary pressures and robust employment data. Yet, investors remain cautious, with approximately $6 trillion in “dry powder” parked in money market funds, waiting on the sidelines.

Did retail traders miss Bitcoin and Ether’s recent gains?

With no dependable indicator to track retail participation in cryptocurrencies, a comprehensive data set is necessary for making conclusions, beyond relying solely on Google Trends and crypto-related app download rankings. To determine if retail traders have missed out on the rally, it’s essential that the indicators align across various sources.

The premium of USD Tether (USDT) in China serves as a valuable gauge of retail demand in the crypto market. This premium quantifies the difference between peer-to-peer USDT trades based in Yuan and the value of the U.S. dollar. Excessive buying activity typically exerts upward pressure on the premium, while bearish markets often witness an influx of USDT into the market, resulting in a 3% or greater discount.

USDT peer-to-peer vs. USD/CNY. Source: OKX

On Dec. 5, the USDT premium relative to the yuan reached 1%, a modest improvement from the previous weeks. However, it remains within the neutral range and hasn’t breached the 2% threshold for over half a year. Whether retail flow gravitates toward Bitcoin or altcoins, Chinese-based investors primarily need to convert cash into digital assets.

Turning the attention to Google Trends, searches for “buy bitcoin” and “buy crypto” reveal a stable pattern over the past three weeks. While there’s no definitive answer to what piques the interest of new retail traders, these queries typically revolve around how and where to purchase cryptocurrencies.

Search trends index, weekly. Source: Google Trends

Notably, the current 90-day index stands at approximately 50%, showing no signs of recent improvement. This data seems counterintuitive, given that Bitcoin has surged by 53% in the past 50 days, while the S&P 500 has risen by 4.5% during the same period. Importantly, when viewed over a longer time frame, the current search levels remain a staggering 90% below their all-time high in 2021.

Related: Why is Bitcoin price up today?

Finally, it’s crucial to delve into derivatives markets, specifically perpetual futures, which are the preferred instrument for retail traders. Also known as inverse swaps, these contracts feature an embedded rate that accrues every eight hours. A positive funding rate suggests a greater demand for leverage by longs (buyers), whereas a negative rate indicates that shorts (sellers) are seeking additional leverage.

Perpetual futures weekly funding rate. Source: Coinglass

Notice that the weekly funding rate for most coins fluctuates between 0.2% and 0.4% per week, signaling a slightly higher demand for leverage among longs. However, during bullish periods, this metric can easily surpass 4.3%, which is not presently the case for any of the top seven coins in terms of futures open interest.

Currently, the influx of retail participants in this cycle remains elusive, particularly in terms of new entrants displaying excessive optimism. While some analysts point to the trend of the Coinbase app, it’s essential to consider that Binance is currently under scrutiny from regulators, with its founder Changzeng Zhao facing potential legal issues. Consequently, existing retail traders may have migrated from offshore exchanges to Coinbase, rather than heralding a new wave of crypto enthusiasts.