Crypto Rout Deflates Some Web3 Startups Buoyed By Push Into Digital Tokens
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Crypto Rout Deflates Some Web3 Startups Buoyed By Push Into Digital Tokens

Users and investors are re-evaluating token-based companies amid the broader cryptocurrency downturn.

By BERBER JIN
Mon, Jul 11, 2022 2:43pmGrey Clock 4 min

The cryptocurrency rout has spread to startups that offer users digital tokens, pushing down digital asset prices and driving away hordes of users.

The startups—part of what has been called Web3—allowed users to play virtual games and collect digital assets, and the companies’ growth was hinged on interest from people eager to wade into blockchain-based assets. The broader cryptocurrency downturn this year is causing a downturn in users in many Web3 companies, and players and investors are re-evaluating the utility of token-based business models.

“Many crypto companies can only exist by engineering speculation,” said Adam Fisher, a Tel Aviv-based partner at VC firm Bessemer Venture Partners. “The utility of Web3 is not clear at all.”

Investors in 2021 poured more than $4.5 billion into blockchain-based gaming, digital media and commerce companies—popular sectors of Web3 investment—compared with $197 million in 2020, according to data from Crunchbase. The increase mirrored the rise of cryptocurrency investing in Silicon Valley: Last year, venture capitalists invested about $17.9 billion into blockchain-related startups, compared with $2.1 billion in 2020, according to Crunchbase.

Axie Infinity is an online game where users can make money by breeding virtual pets and earning other digital assets on the blockchain, which they can then sell for cash on crypto exchanges. Axie Infinity’s parent company, Vietnam-based Sky Mavis Ltd, along with digital-art creator Yuga Labs and fitness app StepN, offered services they said were part of a new iteration of the internet that distributed ownership and power to users in the form of digital tokens. Venture firms such as Andreessen Horowitz and Paradigm raised billions of dollars in new funds dedicated to crypto startups.

Andreessen Horowitz led a $152 million investment into Sky Mavis in October, valuing it at about $3 billion. General partner Arianna Simpson touted Axie Infinity as part of a “play-to-earn revolution,” saying the ability to own and sell in-game digital assets would drive loyalty to the platform. Daily platform users reached a high of 2.7 million in November, according to data from Sky Mavis.

As the crypto boom has crumpled amid inflationary fears and a broader market downturn, the prices of Axie’s in-game tokens crashed, and Axie users fled the platform. As of July 4, the site had 368,456 daily active users, down 86% from November, a drop that came after hackers stole more than $500 million worth of cryptocurrency from the game in March.

Sky Mavis co-founder Aleksander Larsen said the company is in the process of phasing out the older version of Axie Infinity, so future users will have the option of using digital tokens or playing without them.

Proponents of Web3 say the blockchain is a new way to shift economic power from dominant companies such as Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc. and institutions like central banks. Over the past few years, it has fueled the rise of sectors such as decentralized finance, where people are able to buy and sell cryptocurrencies validated automatically on the blockchain instead of relying on financial middlemen.

StepN is a fitness app that allows people to earn a token called Green Satoshi based on how much they walk or jog. Users, who earn the tokens after they buy a nonfungible token, or NFT, representing a pair of sneakers, flocked to the platform as the price of the Green Satoshi token increased in the first few months of the year.

In the past two months, the token price has crashed, and the number of monthly active users on the platform dropped more than 30% from May to June, according to data from Dune Analytics. A spokeswoman said the data excludes active users who don’t transfer their tokens for other cryptocurrencies and thus “does not represent the full picture for active users of StepN.” StepN, based in Adelaide, Australia, announced in January it raised $5 million from investors including Sequoia Capital India

Some Web3 companies’ difficulty in keeping users amid the plummeting prices of its tokens has validated some crypto sceptics’ beliefs that there aren’t many instances where consumers have a true use for blockchain-based services.

“What subset of things created in this cycle are going to work? A small subset,” said Haseeb Qureshi, a managing partner at crypto VC firm Dragonfly Capital. “That’s normal,” he said. The role of venture capital “is to try and find a lot of big ideas, and a few of them work and end up changing the world.”

Some well-funded crypto startups have introduced tokens before they have developed the products associated with those sales. The approach led to early revenue as users bought and started to trade the tokens, driving up their value.

One-year-old startup Yuga Labs and its partners, including gaming firm Animoca Brands, made more than $300 million in revenue by selling a collection of NFTs at the end of April representing unique plots of land in virtual world Otherside. Yuga Labs still hasn’t released Otherside to the public. Since the launch, the NFT’s floor price, or the cost of the cheapest NFT available for sale, has declined more than 70%, according to data from CoinGecko.

The declining price of the NFT for Otherside tracks a broader selloff in the market for NFTs, which were held out last year as a new way to own digital items but so far have been a way to buy luxury items popular within the crypto community. OpenSea, the world’s largest marketplace for such assets, saw $697 million in trading volume in June, down from $4.9 billion in trades in January, according to Dune Analytics.

“I believe that many of these NFTs are just temporary fads and are going to disappear,” said Marcos Veremis, a partner at Accolade Partners, which invests in crypto venture funds including Andreessen Horowitz. He thinks it will take time for NFTs to mature but remains optimistic.

“The current washout that’s happening is very healthy,” he said.



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Australia to outshine its peers in ‘surprisingly resilient’ global economy

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The IMF’s biannual World Economic Outlook report says the world has so far avoided stagflation and recession, with large pandemic savings enabling households to cope with higher rates and inflation, and strong immigration in advanced economies creating unusually tight labour markets.

IMF economic counsellor Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas said most indicators point to a soft landing for the global economy and the IMG now expects “less economic scarring from the pandemic. He noted that markets had reacted exuberantly in recent weeks to the prospect of central banks lowering interest rates soon.

However, the IMF says global growth will moderate over the next five years to its lowest level in decades. It projects 3.2 percent global growth in 2024 and 2025, the same pace as 2023, with still-high borrowing costs, the withdrawal of fiscal support and weak productivity growth weighing economic activity down.

Australia is expected to underperform other advanced economies, especially the United States, this year but will surge beyond them from 2025. The IMF predicts annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 1.5 percent in Australia in 2024, which is well below our long-term pre-pandemic average of 2.5 percent. The US is expected to book above-average growth of 2.7 percent in 2024 and the world’s advanced economies are tipped to average 1.7 percent growth.

Australian economic growth will then move above other advanced economies and maintain upward momentum through til 2029. The IMF predicts 2 percent GDP growth for Australia in 2025 and 2.3 percent in 2029. For the US, the IMF expects 1.9 percent growth in 2025 and 2.1 percent in 2029. For the advanced economies in aggregate, the IMF forecasts 1.8 percent growth in 2025 and 1.7 percent in 2029.

The IMF said higher interest rates had had less effect on the US economy compared to Australia because most US mortgages are on long-term fixed rates and household debt has been lower since the global financial crisis. In Australia, most loans are on variable rates and therefore immediately impacted by every rate rise, household debt is high, and housing supply is restricted.  

The exceptional recent performance of the United States is certainly impressive and a major driver of global growth, but it reflects strong demand factors as well, including a fiscal stance that is out of line with long-term fiscal sustainability,” said Mr Gourinchas.

An example of unusual fiscal policy is the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes US$369 billion in new spending to encourage green energy investment. This raises short-term risks to the disinflation process, as well as longer-term fiscal and financial stability risks for the global economy since it risks pushing up global funding costs, he said.

While things are going well now, Mr Gourinchas said risks to global economic progress remain.

On the downside, new price spikes stemming from geopolitical tensions, including those from the war in Ukraine and the conflict in Gaza and Israel, could, along with persistent core inflation where labour markets are still tight, raise interest rate expectations and reduce asset prices. A divergence in disinflation speeds among major economies could also cause currency movements that put financial sectors under pressure.

Mr Gourinchas said growth in China could falter, hurting trading partners, without a comprehensive response to its property sector downturn. “Domestic demand will remain lacklustre for some time unless strong measures and reforms address the root cause. Public debt dynamics are also of concern, especially if the property crisis morphs into a local public finance crisis.

He also noted that weak productivity growth remains a challenge for the whole world and “much hope rests on artificial intelligence delivering strong productivity gains in the medium term”.

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