Interview

CoinGecko’s Bobby Ong on BTC: ‘Anything That Gets Measured Gets Manipulated’

CoinGecko's COO speaks on the future of Bitcoin and cryptocurrency market data.

 

Whether driven by enterprise, manipulation, geopolitical turmoil, or the spread of a pandemic, the winds of change have swiftly swept across every corner of the globe; Bitcoin has been no exception.

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Over the past year, Bitcoin’s image and presence in the world has changed: as the cryptocurrency space has continued to mature, there is more reliable data than ever before; market manipulation–while it hasn’t disappeared–has loosened its grip on crypto; no matter what side of the argument you were on, the Bitcoin-as-a-safe-haven narrative has been flipped on its head.

Now that Bitcoin is back over $10,000, the world is on its toes–will BTC manage to stay above the $10,000 mark? Perhaps. However, the crypto world is only as strong as its weakest links.

Historically, gathering accurate trading data has been a bit of a pain point within the industry. With market manipulation and wash trading rampant in the space, thousands of traders have fallen victim to the traps laid by false representations of the truth.

Recently, Finance Magnates spoke to Bobby Ong, co-founder and chief operating officer at cryptocurrency data aggregator CoinGecko, about the future of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, as well as how his company is working to find and report the truth in the cryptocurrency world.

The following is an excerpt of an interview that was conducted on June 2nd, 2020. It has been edited for clarity and length. To hear Finance Magnates’ full conversation with Bobby Ong, visit us on Soundcloud or Youtube.

 

Bitcoin’s movement over $10,000 is “probably a combination” of myriad factors

“I’ve heard multiple different reasons why Bitcoin may have gone up,” Bobby said. “One of the crazier things that I’ve heard is ‘oh, there’s riots in America, so buy Bitcoin,’” which seems to suggest that possible political instability in the states could weaken the dollar and raise the value of BTC.

However, “it doesn’t make much sense to me,” Bobby said.

On the other hand, “some say that [the price] shows a correlation with the S&P500 stock price going up…some people are saying that on a technical indicator level, Bitcoin had a very high monthly close at the end of May, which is a bullish signal, and [therefore], Bitcoin is going up.”

“But I think it’s probably a combination of all [these factors],” he continued, adding that the recent halving could also be a contributing factor. “There’s probably no one real reason why things are going up.”

Still, “[…] personally, I think that we will dip back down–we will test another low. How low it will be–I think there are a few support levels up to $4,000-$6,000; I can’t tell exactly.”

“Then, we’ll probably shake out a lot of people one last time, and then we’ll prime ourselves for a real boom in 2021. That’s my personal take, but I’ve been in the space long enough to know that it’s very hard to make predictions. I could say anything, but the market has its own mind.”

Part of the reason for Bitcoin’s rise over the past year could be the fact that the cryptocurrency space is maturing in a number of different ways, including the fact that market manipulation–while it is still a problem in the cryptocurrency space–is more widely discussed; it can be argued that there is much more awareness of market manipulation (and how to avoid falling into the traps that such manipulation can lay) than in the past.

”A lot of [crypto] exchanges have a very strong incentive to manipulate their data.”

Much of this has to do with Bitwise Asset Management’s presentation to the SEC early in 2019: in an attempt to get the SEC to allow Bitwise to create a Bitcoin ETF, the company effectively presented an exposé of widespread wash trading in the cryptocurrency industry.

Bobby said that before Bitwise Asset Management made its legendary presentation before the SEC last year on market manipulation, wash trading in the Bitcoin space was sort of an open secret.

“I think that before they released the report, a lot of people in the industry sort of already [knew about it]; it was something that we observed at CoinGecko as well.”

For example, most of the exchanges that report the highest Bitcoin trading volumes “are some of these weird, small-name exchanges, mostly originating from China,” Bobby explained.

However, it was clear from the beginning that these exchanges were reporting “clearly manipulated data.”

“They are putting out fake trading data to inflate their volume, because they want it to appear that they have larger liquidity,” he continued. Eventually, “we came to the conclusion–especially for non-regulated exchanges–that any metric that can be tracked will be manipulated.”

“Trading volume is tracked as an important metric in evaluating exchanges, so a lot of exchanges have a very strong incentive to manipulate their data,” Bobby explained.

”Trading volumes are no longer a good way of determining an exchange’s real liquidity.”

However, “it’s come to the stage where trading volumes are no longer a good way of determining an exchange’s real liquidity, real volume, real depth; we decided that we have to do something different, and that we have to use other alternative metrics in determining the real volumes of these exchanges.”

Therefore, Bobby explained that last year, CoinGecko began giving each of the exchanges it lists a “trust score” based on a blended algorithm that combines a number of different factors.

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One of these factors has to do with examining the bid-ask spread for each of the exchange’s trading pairs. “We saw certain exchanges having a 50% to 80% bid-ask spread–it’s quite ridiculous, because you make one bid, you make one buy order, you make one sell order, and you pretty much lose 60% or 80% of your coins, because the spread is just huge.”

“And in between this 50% bid-ask spread, there were a hundred million dollars of trades happening between the spread; it was clearly wash trading. I saw it in front of my eyes, and I was shocked.”

Getting to the bottom of fake trading volume

CoinGecko’s algorithm also examines order book depth: “we take the mid-price of the trade, and then we take a two percent lower range and a two percent upper range, and then we sum up all of the orders within that two percent range and see all how many orders you can sell within that two percent range.”

So, for example, if there are $50,000 in order-book depth, what we found was that some exchanges–even though they claim to have $100 million of daily trading volume, they only have $1000 in their [2%-range] order book, which is not good, because if you want to sell $10,000 of a particular coin, you [would] have a large amount of slippage.

“This really shows that there is no liquidity on [those] exchanges,” Bobby said.

Web traffic analysis can show that “something is off”

Another factor that the algorithm takes into account is web traffic analysis.

When CoinGecko began examining web traffic on exchanges in 2019, “what we saw was that if you think that an exchange that records a high amount of real trading volume, they would most likely have a lot of people accessing their website; for example, Binance.com, Coinbase.com, Bitfinex.com, and so on.”

“Of course, this makes the assumption that all exchanges have the same amount of retail and API users, and makes the assumption that exchanges have the same amount of web versus app users; but assuming those are equal (which is a very rough approximation, it’s not perfect), what we saw is that some of the exchanges that claimed do to hundreds of thousands of millions in daily trading volume–they didn’t have any web traffic.”

Instead, “they only received maybe 10,000 or 15,000 monthly page views.”

“This doesn’t make any sense, because if you claim to have the same amount of trading volume as Binance or Coinbase, then you probably have the same amount of traffic–or at the very least 50% or 70% of their web traffic.”

However, “having a 95% discrepancy in web traffic? That clearly shows that something is off.”

“Anything that gets measured gets manipulated.”

CoinGecko’s algorithm examines these metrics, as well as others, and produces a score for each exchange: “we give a ranking from one to ten for each of these exchanges, and then for each trading pair, we give a green, yellow, or red traffic light to determine [if the volumes are legitimate.]”

Have these “trust scores” been effective in deterring users from suspect exchanges? “Seems to be working well so far,” Bobby said. “If you go to CoinGecko, you’ll probably see the list of exchanges [topped by] Binance, Coinbase, Bitfinex, Kraken–these are the exchanges that you should expect to see.”

Still, some of the small, scheming exchanges are working to game the system, although many have learned that they can’t just flub the numbers anymore: “I’ve been telling them, look: if you want to get a better ranking on CoinGecko, it’s easy–just stop faking things and just do the right thing and grow [your user base].”

Still, “anything that gets measured gets manipulated,” Bobby repeated.

“These guys just have a cheating mindset, and they want to find a way to cheat: they try to cheat all of these different metrics. It’s kind of a cat-and-mouse game.”

For example, when CoinGecko started tracking site traffic, “we started noticing some exchanges buying fake traffic.”

As a result, “we had to start putting in some metrics to start looking at traffic quality, for example,” instead of page views alone.

“It gets harder and harder, but you have to do what has to be done” Bobby said. “It’s kind of like an SEO game where everyone is trying to manipulate their way to ranking #1 on Google–it’s the same thing with all these exchanges. They just want to find a way to be #1 on aggregator sites.”

Still, “one thing’s for sure–consumers are aware of this issue; they’re more discerning. I think it’s harder for consumers to take whatever is displayed on sites like CoinGecko at face value; they will do more research and learn and find out if there’s real trading volume.”

The following is an excerpt of an interview that was conducted on June 2nd, 2020. It has been edited for clarity and length. To hear Finance Magnates’ full conversation with Bobby Ong, visit us on Soundcloud or Youtube.

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