Ether has spiked this week to a nine-month high, ahead of a major network upgrade that some crypto enthusiasts say will make the digital currency a more profitable long-term investment.
The world’s second-biggest cryptocurrency is up about 6% over the past three days, surpassing $1,900, while bitcoin is roughly flat over that stretch.
Beginning next Wednesday, an upgrade to the blockchain, dubbed “Shapella,” will allow owners of ether to withdraw their assets. Up to this point, investors would have to use centralized exchanges like Coinbase or decentralized finance (DeFi) protocols like Lido, to essentially exchange their locked-up ether for a token of equivalent value.
The recent rally has followed a similar pattern to past bouts of enthusiasm surrounding network upgrades. In September, ethereum ran up ahead of a historic transition to a more energy-efficient way of securing the network, called proof-of-stake.
Ethereum previously had a vast network of miners all over the planet running highly specialized computers that crunched math equations in order to validate transactions. After the so-called “Merge” upgrade in September, ethereum migrated to a proof-of-stake system, swapping out miners for validators. Instead of running large banks of computers, validators leverage their existing cache of ether as a means to verify transactions and mint new tokens.
“Ether itself becomes a productive asset,” said Danny Ryan, a researcher at the Ethereum Foundation, regarding the September upgrade. “It’s not something you might just speculate on, but it’s something that can earn returns.”
In the post-merge era, ether has taken on some characteristics of a traditional financial asset, paying interest to holders.
“It’s probably the lowest-risk return inside of the ethereum ecosystem,” said Ryan, adding that yield in other corners of DeFi involve smart contracts and other types of counter-party risk.
So far this year, ether has underperformed bitcoin, but recent gains have helped to close the gap. Ether is up nearly 59% this year, versus bitcoin’s gain of 70% in 2023.
Currently, over 18 million ether tokens worth about $32.5 billion are staked, meaning that 15% of ether’s total supply are considered locked assets.
While the coming upgrade will unlock much of that value, giving holders more control over their assets, there’s some concern that the release of so many tokens will have a flooding effect of sorts on the market. Even with capped withdrawals, some $2.4 billion worth of ether could hit the open market, K33 Research said in a note on Tuesday.
“A plunge is likely to happen shortly after the completion of the upgrade, as a huge amount of ETH will be unlocked, and many people will also be selling their ETH,” said Ilya Volkov, who runs a blockchain-based fintech platform. Volkov said he’s bullish over the long term.
The ratio between the open interest of ether put and call options reached its highest level since May on Tuesday, according to data presented by crypto data analytics and news firm The Block. That could signal a buildup of bearish bets leading up to the network upgrade.
According to research from Bernstein, of the 18 million ether tokens locked on the blockchain, almost 70% are staked through protocols like Lido, creating a measure of liquidity for investors.
“Liquidity for 70% of staked ETH is not new, they could do it anyways,” Bernstein wrote. The firm described the remaining 30% of holders as “original believers,” who are unlikely exit their positions at this price.
Having the ability to deposit and withdraw tokens might encourage more investors to stake ether, and some analysts said they expect a significant influx of capital onto the network once it proves that money that’s been staked can be taken out with relative ease.