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.
Users and investors are re-evaluating token-based companies amid the broader cryptocurrency downturn.
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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Food prices continue to rise at a rapid pace, surprising central banks and pressuring debt-laden governments
LONDON—Fresh out of an energy crisis, Europeans are facing a food-price explosion that is changing diets and forcing consumers across the region to tighten their belts—literally.
This is happening even though inflation as a whole is falling thanks to lower energy prices, presenting a new policy challenge for governments that deployed billions in aid last year to keep businesses and households afloat through the worst energy crisis in decades.
New data on Wednesday showed inflation in the U.K. fell sharply in April as energy prices cooled, following a similar pattern around Europe and in the U.S. But food prices were 19.3% higher than a year earlier.
The continued surge in food prices has caught central bankers off guard and pressured governments that are still reeling from the cost of last year’s emergency support to come to the rescue. And it is pressuring household budgets that are also under strain from rising borrowing costs.
In France, households have cut their food purchases by more than 10% since the invasion of Ukraine, while their purchases of energy have fallen by 4.8%.
In Germany, sales of food fell 1.1% in March from the previous month, and were down 10.3% from a year earlier, the largest drop since records began in 1994. According to the Federal Information Centre for Agriculture, meat consumption was lower in 2022 than at any time since records began in 1989, although it said that might partly reflect a continuing shift toward more plant-based diets.
Food retailers’ profit margins have contracted because they can’t pass on the entire price increases from their suppliers to their customers. Markus Mosa, chief executive of the Edeka supermarket chain, told German media that the company had stopped ordering products from several large suppliers because of rocketing prices.
A survey by the U.K.’s statistics agency earlier this month found that almost three-fifths of the poorest 20% of households were cutting back on food purchases.
“This is an access problem,” said Ludovic Subran, chief economist at insurer Allianz, who previously worked at the United Nations World Food Program. “Total food production has not plummeted. This is an entitlement crisis.”
Food accounts for a much larger share of consumer spending than energy, so a smaller rise in prices has a greater impact on budgets. The U.K.’s Resolution Foundation estimates that by the summer, the cumulative rise in food bills since 2020 will have amounted to 28 billion pounds, equivalent to $34.76 billion, outstripping the rise in energy bills, estimated at £25 billion.
“The cost of living crisis isn’t ending, it is just entering a new phase,” Torsten Bell, the research group’s chief executive, wrote in a recent report.
Food isn’t the only driver of inflation. In the U.K., the core rate of inflation—which excludes food and energy—rose to 6.8% in April from 6.2% in March, its highest level since 1992. Core inflation was close to its record high in the eurozone during the same month.
Still, Bank of England Gov. Andrew Bailey told lawmakers Tuesday that food prices now constitute a “fourth shock” to inflation after the bottlenecks that jammed supply chains during the Covid-19 pandemic, the rise in energy prices that accompanied Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and surprisingly tight labor markets.
Europe’s governments spent heavily on supporting households as energy prices soared. Now they have less room to borrow given the surge in debt since the pandemic struck in 2020.
Some governments—including those of Italy, Spain and Portugal—have cut sales taxes on food products to ease the burden on consumers. Others are leaning on food retailers to keep their prices in check. In March, the French government negotiated an agreement with leading retailers to refrain from price rises if it is possible to do so.
Retailers have also come under scrutiny in Ireland and a number of other European countries. In the U.K., lawmakers have launched an investigation into the entire food supply chain “from farm to fork.”
“Yesterday I had the food producers into Downing Street, and we’ve also been talking to the supermarkets, to the farmers, looking at every element of the supply chain and what we can do to pass on some of the reduction in costs that are coming through to consumers as fast as possible,” U.K. Treasury Chief Jeremy Hunt said during The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit in London.
The government’s Competition and Markets Authority last week said it would take a closer look at retailers.
“Given ongoing concerns about high prices, we are stepping up our work in the grocery sector to help ensure competition is working well,” said Sarah Cardell, who heads the CMA.
Some economists expect that added scrutiny to yield concrete results, assuming retailers won’t want to tarnish their image and will lean on their suppliers to keep prices down.
“With supermarkets now more heavily under the political spotlight, we think it more likely that price momentum in the food basket slows,” said Sanjay Raja, an economist at Deutsche Bank.
It isn’t entirely clear why food prices have risen so fast for so long. In world commodity markets, which set the prices received by farmers, food prices have been falling since April 2022. But raw commodity costs are just one part of the final price. Consumers are also paying for processing, packaging, transport and distribution, and the size of the gap between the farm and the dining table is unusually wide.
The BOE’s Bailey thinks one reason for the bank having misjudged food prices is that food producers entered into longer-term but relatively expensive contracts with fertilizer, energy and other suppliers around the time of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in their eagerness to guarantee availability at a time of uncertainty.
But as the pressures being placed on retailers suggest, some policy makers suspect that an increase in profit margins may also have played a role. Speaking to lawmakers, Bailey was wary of placing any blame on food suppliers.
“It’s a story about rebuilding margins that were squeezed in the early part of last year,” he said.
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