Andreessen Horowitz Went All In on Crypto at the Worst Possible Time | Kanebridge News
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Andreessen Horowitz Went All In on Crypto at the Worst Possible Time

Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

By BERBER JIN
Thu, Oct 27, 2022 9:09amGrey Clock 5 min

As cryptocurrency prices soared last year, no investor bet more on the sector than Andreessen Horowitz.

The storied venture-capital firm had developed a reputation as Silicon Valley’s greatest crypto bull, thanks largely to a 50-year-old partner named Chris Dixon who was one of the earliest evangelists for how the blockchain technology powering cryptocurrencies could change business. His unit was one of the most-active crypto investors last year, and in May announced a $4.5 billion crypto fund, the largest ever for such investments.

The timing wasn’t good.

Prices for bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have plunged this year in the midst of a broad market downturn, erasing billions of dollars in paper gains for Andreessen’s funds. Consumer demand has vanished for some of the firm’s most-prized crypto startups, while others are facing increased scrutiny from regulators.

Andreessen’s flagship crypto fund shed around 40% of its value in the first half of this year, according to people familiar with the matter. That decline is much larger than the 10% to 20% drops recorded by other venture funds, which have largely avoided the risky practice of purchasing volatile cryptocurrencies, according to fund investors.

Despite the record cash pile, Andreessen has dramatically slowed the pace of its crypto investments this year.

Now Mr. Dixon has to convince nervous investors that Andreessen didn’t overplay its hand for the May fund, which other crypto venture capitalists said is too large for a sector headed into a so-called crypto winter.

“They’ve just pushed it so far with crypto that I’m not sure they can rebalance,” said Ben Narasin, a general partner at the VC firm Tenacity Venture Capital.

In an interview, Mr. Dixon said he remains faithful to the crypto-centric vision of the internet called Web3 that underpins Andreessen’s push into the sector—a view that blockchain versions for a range of services will return financial control and power to users in the form of cryptocurrencies they can earn and trade.

Mr. Dixon said that the sector is still in the early stages of acquiring users and that he isn’t sure when mass adoption of blockchain services will occur. Crypto “is about the political and governing structure of the internet,” he said. “We have a very long-term horizon.”

Mr. Dixon’s path from the periphery of Andreessen mirrors the firm’s transformation into a crypto powerhouse.

A coder from childhood who earned master’s degrees in both philosophy and business, he helped found and sell two startups—one in cybersecurity and the other in e-commerce—and co-founded the VC firm Founder Collective. He also nurtured interests in such emerging technologies as virtual reality and 3-D printing.

He joined Andreessen in 2012. The firm, founded three years earlier by Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz, was quickly becoming one of the biggest and most influential tech investors, driven by Mr. Andreessen’s famed mantra that “software is eating the world.”

When many major investors still dismissed bitcoin as little more than a haven for money launderers and speculators, Mr. Dixon championed its possibilities, penning blog posts—something of a gospel among young crypto entrepreneurs—that described how bitcoin would create a new, decentralised financial system. Within two years, Andreessen had invested almost $50 million into bitcoin-related projects, including the cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase.

Mr. Dixon’s zeal for the area increased with the 2015 launch of Ethereum, which used the same type of blockchain-based, distributed record-keeping to let developers build applications beyond payments. Mr. Dixon likened Ethereum’s arrival to the creation of the iPhone App Store and said it showed that the crypto-investing universe was larger than imagined. He told Messrs. Andreessen and Horowitz that he wanted to shift his focus away from traditional investing and start a dedicated crypto fund, said people familiar with the matter.

The $350 million crypto fund, launched in 2018, was the first of its kind created by a traditional venture firm. Andreessen remained a bull that year as bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies lost the majority of their value, and raised a second crypto fund in 2020 totalling $515 million.

Mr. Dixon and his team also increasingly touted their vision for Web3. They argued that blockchain’s creation of currency-like tokens for users could give them more control and financial benefit for blockchain-based versions of services such as ride-sharing and social media, undermining the power of dominant tech monopolies.

In addition to investing in crypto companies, Andreessen purchased the tokens they created, effectively betting separately on the company and its product. The unconventional strategy delivered windfalls during the crypto bull market but also made the deals riskier.

As of the end of last year, the first crypto fund had multiplied its initial investment by 10.6 times after fees, making it the best-performing fund on paper in Andreessen’s history, according to documents viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Andreessen returned over $4 billion of shares to its investors in the two months after Coinbase went public through a direct listing in April 2021, public filings show, making it one of the most-lucrative bets ever made in venture-capital history. Andreessen’s third venture fund, which backed Coinbase in 2013, saw a paper gain of 9.7 times after fees as of Dec. 31, trailing only the first crypto fund in terms of performance at the time, the documents showed.

Buoyed by the returns, Andreessen went on a fundraising blitz. It set out to raise $1 billion for its third crypto fund and ultimately raised $2.2 billion in June 2021.

Mr. Dixon said the crypto team’s strategy was to use its cash pile to write large checks into startups promising to reinvent everything from digital art to online gaming using the blockchain. The aggressive approach often precluded it from coleading rounds with other investors and made the firm a significant shareholder.

Andreessen backed 56 U.S.-based crypto deals last year and was the second-largest crypto funder in terms of investment volume after Coinbase Ventures, according to PitchBook Data Inc. Some early investments seemed to take off. The valuation of OpenSea, a nonfungible token marketplace, soared by over 100 times to $13 billion in January 2022, ten months after Andreessen led an early funding round.

In its push to dominate the sector, Andreessen discarded established investment norms. In November, its investors tried—and failed—to invest in Magic Eden, an NFT marketplace, even though the firm already backed OpenSea, said people familiar with the matter. Venture capitalists have long avoided backing potential rivals because it damages their reputation with founders who dislike the practice. Mr. Dixon said the fund doesn’t back companies that directly compete with its existing portfolio.

Within months, the market turned.

Demand for many Andreessen-backed companies vaporised as users dumped their crypto holdings. OpenSea’s monthly trading volume has plummeted since its December funding round in the midst of a broader collapse in the market for NFTs, while Coinbase’s monthly active users declined 20% in the second quarter from last year’s fourth-quarter peak of 11.2 million. Both companies have cut around one-fifth of their staff this year.

Andreessen is also contending with harsher regulatory scrutiny of crypto startups and the funds that backed them, which is threatening to put an end to the era of loose oversight that enabled the creation of thousands of cryptocurrencies.

The firm is making adjustments. It announced nine crypto startup deals in the third quarter, down from a high of 26 crypto deals in the fourth quarter of last year, according to PitchBook. The firm also marked down the value of its second and third crypto funds this year, though the declines aren’t as severe as what the first crypto fund endured, people familiar with the matter said.

Meanwhile, the firm’s crypto investments are plunging. Solana, an upstart cryptocurrency that the firm bought in June 2021, has shed over 80% of its value since the beginning of the year. In the first six months of this year, Andreessen lost $2.9 billion of its remaining stake in Coinbase as the crypto exchange’s stock price cratered by more than 80%.

Mr. Dixon said the market’s downturn is an opportunity for the fund to continue backing crypto entrepreneurs, similar to what it did in previous down markets.

“What I look at is not prices. I look at the entrepreneur and developer activity,” Mr. Dixon said. “That’s the core metric.”

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Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

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How Crypto’s Collapse May Have Done the Economy a Favour

Crypto’s lack of connections with traditional finance means its problems haven’t spilled over to the economy

By GREG IP
Fri, Nov 25, 2022 4 min

This year’s crypto collapse has all the hallmarks of a classic banking crisis: runs, fire sales, contagion.

What it doesn’t have are banks.

Check out the bankruptcy filings of crypto platforms Voyager Digital Holdings Inc., Celsius Network LLC and FTX Trading Ltd. and hedge fund Three Arrows Capital, and you won’t find any banks listed among their largest creditors.

While bankruptcy filings aren’t entirely clear, they describe many of the largest creditors as customers or other crypto-related companies. Crypto companies, in other words, operate in a closed loop, deeply interconnected within that loop but with few apparent connections of significance to traditional finance. This explains how an asset class once worth roughly $3 trillion could lose 72% of its value, and prominent intermediaries could go bust, with no discernible spillovers to the financial system.

“Crypto space…is largely circular,” Yale University economist Gary Gorton and University of Michigan law professor Jeffery Zhang write in a forthcoming paper. “Once crypto banks obtain deposits from investors, these firms borrow, lend, and trade with themselves. They do not interact with firms connected to the real economy.”

A few years from now, things might have been different, given the intensifying pressure on regulators and bankers to embrace crypto. The crypto meltdown may have prevented that—and a much wider crisis.

Crypto has long been marketed as an unregulated, anonymous, frictionless, more accessible alternative to traditional banks and currencies. Yet its mushrooming ecosystem looks a lot like the banking system, accepting deposits and making loans. Messrs. Gorton and Zhang write, “Crypto lending platforms recreated banking all over again… if an entity engages in borrowing and lending, it is economically equivalent to a bank even if it’s not labeled as one.”

And just like the banking system, crypto is leveraged and interconnected, and thus vulnerable to debilitating runs and contagion. This year’s crisis began in May when TerraUSD, a purported stablecoin—i.e., a cryptocurrency that aimed to sustain a constant value against the dollar—collapsed as investors lost faith in its backing asset, a token called Luna. Rumours that Celsius had lost money on Terra and Luna led to a run on its deposits and in July Celsius filed for bankruptcy protection.

Three Arrows, a crypto hedge fund that had invested in Luna, had to liquidate. Losses on a loan to Three Arrows and contagion from Celsius forced Voyager into bankruptcy protection.

Meanwhile FTX’s trading affiliate Alameda Research and Voyager had lent to each other, and Alameda and Celsius also had exposure to each other. But it was the linkages between FTX and Alameda that were the two companies’ undoing. Like many platforms, FTX issued its own cryptocurrency, FTT. After this was revealed to be Alameda’s main asset, Binance, another major platform, said it would dump its own FTT holdings, setting off the run that triggered FTX’s collapse.

Genesis Global Capital, another crypto lender, had exposure to both Three Arrows and Alameda. It has suspended withdrawals and sought outside cash in the wake of FTX’s demise. BlockFi, another crypto lender with exposure to FTX and Alameda, is preparing a bankruptcy filing, the Journal has reported.

The density of connections between these players is nicely illustrated with a sprawling diagram in an October report by the Financial Stability Oversight Council, which brings together federal financial regulators.

To historians, this litany of contagion and collapse is reminiscent of the free banking era from 1837 to 1863 when banks issued their own bank notes, fraud proliferated, and runs, suspensions of withdrawals, and panics occurred regularly. Yet while those crises routinely walloped business activity, crypto’s has largely passed the economy by.

Some investors, from unsophisticated individuals to big venture-capital and pension funds, have sustained losses, some life-changing. But these are qualitatively different from the sorts of losses that threaten the solvency of major lending institutions and the broader financial system’s stability.

To be sure, some loan or investment losses by banks can’t be ruled out. Banks also supply crypto companies with custodial and payment services and hold their cash, such as to back stablecoins. Some small banks that cater to crypto companies have been buffeted by large outflows of deposits.

Traditional finance had little incentive to build connections to crypto because, unlike government bonds or mortgages or commercial loans or even derivatives, crypto played no role in the real economy. It’s largely been shunned as a means of payment except where untraceability is paramount, such as money laundering and ransomware. Much-hyped crypto innovations such as stablecoins and DeFi, a sort of automated exchange, mostly facilitate speculation in crypto rather than useful economic activity.

Crypto’s grubby reputation repelled mainstream financiers like Warren Buffett and JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Jamie Dimon, and made regulators deeply skittish about bank involvement. In time this was bound to change, not because crypto was becoming useful but because it was generating so much profit for speculators and their supporting ecosystem.

Several banks have made private-equity investments in crypto companies and many including J.P. Morgan are investing in blockchain, the distributed ledger technology underlying cryptocurrencies. A flood of crypto lobbying money was prodding Congress to create a regulatory framework under which crypto, having failed as an alternative to the dollar, could become a riskier, less regulated alternative to equities.

Now, stained by bankruptcy and scandal, cryptocurrency will have to wait longer—perhaps forever—to be fully embraced by traditional banking. An end to banking crises required the replacement of private currencies with a single national dollar, the creation of the Federal Reserve as lender of last resort, deposit insurance and comprehensive regulation.

It isn’t clear, though, that the same recipe should be applied to crypto: Effective regulation would eliminate much of the efficiency and anonymity that explain its appeal. And while the U.S. economy clearly needed a stable banking system and currency, it will do just fine without crypto.

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