Few asset classes have been more volatile over the past several years than cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin, trading above $20,000 at the time of this writing, exceeded $50,000 for two brief periods in 2021—and fell almost as low as $30,000 in between. Other high-profile cryptocurrencies, such as Ethereum and Dogecoin, have experienced similarly dramatic highs and lows.
But cryptocurrencies are also exceptionally volatile over much shorter periods of time. Day-to-day price fluctuations of cryptocurrencies eclipse those of traditional currencies, stocks, and precious metals, and do so consistently across assets and time periods. This phenomenon is not entirely driven by the longer-term ups and downs reported in headlines. Bitcoin, Ethereum, and other cryptocurrencies frequently exhibit daily price drops during bull markets and increases during bear markets far in excess of traditional assets. The interactive chart below provides one way to visualize this day-to-day volatility—the daily percentage increase or decrease in price in U.S. dollars from the previous day.
This interactive tool allows the reader to investigate the phenomenon of day-to-day volatility for different cryptocurrencies, traditional assets, and time periods. During the period 2018–2022, Bitcoin’s average daily change (measured as the absolute value of the percentage change from the previous day) was 2.87%, versus the Euro (0.34%), pound (0.43%), and yen (0.35%). Other major cryptocurrencies, such as Ethereum (3.76%), Ripple (4.04%), and Dogecoin (4.55%), exceed Bitcoin’s already-high fluctuations.
The table below presents this statistic for each asset or index tracked by the data tool.
Why is the day-to-day volatility of cryptocurrencies important?
Despite much public discussion about cryptocurrencies as speculative investments or world-changing technology, their success ultimately hinges on widespread adoption as currencies—including as a medium of exchange. Day-to-day volatility creates exchange rate risk over short periods of time. This creates problems for a currency’s usefulness as a medium of exchange if one or both parties to the transaction need to quickly move their money into a different currency. Either the buyer or seller, or both, must take this exchange rate risk, increasing the transaction cost and, ultimately, the price.
To date, the use of cryptocurrencies as a medium of exchange has taken off in only a small number of market niches, most notably dark net markets where mostly illicit goods are for sale. A 2018 article reported that Bitcoin’s high short-term volatility was adding to the cost and lowering the number of transactions on such platforms.
There are likely multiple causes for the unusually high volatility of cryptocurrencies. While more widespread adoption may be part of the solution, other likely causes are structural and follow directly from the way cryptocurrencies are designed. Large banks and other financial firms hold huge reserves of traditional currencies, and stocks have market makers, both serving to smooth out short-term volatility and make exchange markets more liquid. Bitcoin, on the other hand, eschews large central intermediaries by design.
Solutions lie in further entrepreneurial innovation, and that process is already well underway. Bitcoin’s Lightning Network is designed to facilitate faster transactions at a larger scale. Stablecoins, pegged in value to fiat currencies like the dollar or other assets, eliminate high day-to-day volatility by design. They can be used to keep money in the crypto ecosystem—protected from short-term fluctuations and, in theory, easier and faster than traditional fiat currencies--to exchange with Bitcoin or Ethereum. However, their relative novelty opens the door for long-tail risk as well as fraud.
These and other avenues carry some promise to address day-to-day volatility and make cryptocurrencies more viable for everyday use. But innovation must continue. The Lightning Network and Stablecoins both introduce the scope for large financial intermediaries and dependence on the fiat system that crypto pioneers sought precisely to avoid. Furthermore, the much larger number of people not yet sold on crypto may see these as further complications to already convoluted and risky alternatives to fiat.
The crypto community must turn away from voices such as Bitcoin maximalists that say the perfect solution is already in hand, and keep innovating and experimenting. Regulators could do great harm by making rules that ossify this still-developing technology or cut off as-yet unrealized solutions that only a market process of discovery can deliver.
We hope that the interactive tool provided here, which offers an intuitive way to visualize the phenomenon of day-to-day volatility in cryptocurrencies, will play a part in opening the conversation and potential for fresh ideas.
We selected the top 10 cryptocurrencies by market capitalization from CoinMarketCap in addition to FTX’s FTT token. The top 10 cryptocurrencies include seven traditional cryptocurrencies and three stablecoins. We did not include the latter, which track the day-to-day volatility of fiat currencies by design, in the interactive chart, but do report their average daily changes in the summary table. Daily price and exchange rate data are sourced from Yahoo Finance via the R library quantmod. The only modification to the original source data occurred for the Ruble to Dollar data (RUBUSD=X). On Jan. 1, 2016, the original value appears to be off by a factor of 100, this value is divided by 100. Additionally, on June 13, 2022, and July 18, 2022, the adjusted close is outside of the bounds of the high and low—and inconsistent with historical data on the close price from The Wall Street Journal. These two values were replaced with the open price from the following day.
Daily percent change values are calculated from the percent change from the previous trading day’s adjusted close price. Our comparison of daily changes across different types of currencies and assets presents a challenge because different assets trade according to different schedules. Stocks trade on exchanges with daily opening and closing times and close on weekends and certain holidays. Traditional foreign exchange markets stay open around the clock, Monday through Friday, but close on weekends, and this is further complicated by time zones and different holidays globally. Cryptocurrencies trade continually.
There is subjectivity inherent in addressing this issue. We chose to limit our analysis to the trading days of our traditional stock indices (S&P 500 & Russell 2000), which align with New York Stock Exchange trading days, and use reported adjusted close as the price. While this eliminates a small amount of data from the sample for cryptocurrencies, we conducted robustness checks and confirmed this does not drive our results about persistent differences in day-to-day percent changes.