Bitcoin spike blamed on an April Fools' joke — but that's not why it rallied

Key Points
  • A series of wacky bitcoin theories surfaced Tuesday that some attributed to its rally to $5,000.
  • Rumors that trading algorithms picked up reports of bitcoin ETF being approved. But experts say that’s not the real catalyst. 
  • “It’s absurd to believe this market move is the result of confusion about the Bitcoin ETF filings,” says Hunter Horsely, who is in the process of applying for a bitcoin ETF. 
Bitcoin surged 20 percent overnight thanks to a 'mystery buyer'
Bitcoin surged 20 percent overnight thanks to a 'mystery buyer'

Bitcoin wasn't immune to April Fools' Day jokes.

One prank in particular got some credit for boosting the price of the world's largest cryptocurrency. After bitcoin broke above $5,000 on Tuesday, its highest level of the year, some blamed trading algorithms designed to buy or sell based on news. As some speculated, robots triggered a buying frenzy after an April Fools' Day article by Finance Magnates outlined an "emergency meeting" by regulators over the weekend to approve a bitcoin exchange-traded fund.

But multiple experts say the buzz was not responsible for bitcoin's recovery. Hunter Horsley, whose company Bitwise was mentioned in the April Fool's Day report, said there was no truth to the ETF rumor.

"It's absurd to believe this market move is the result of confusion about the Bitcoin ETF filings," said Horsley, CEO of Bitwise, which is in the process of applying for the first-ever bitcoin ETF. "Though ETFs and April Fools are topical, there are lots of reasons this is an unlikely explanation."

The most likely explanation, he said, is a Reuters report of a private buyer purchasing more than $100 million worth of bitcoin over a short period. Given the small daily trading volume of bitcoin, "that order would be enough to have an impact," he said.

"Crypto is famous for a long history of volatility like this. It's always hard to pin down the true impetus, and often the real source is not obvious," Horsely said.


Another rumor was that Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett — one of bitcoin's most vocal critics — was diversifying into the asset class. As founder and CEO of BKCM Brian Kelly put it, "there's no way" that's the reason.

A more realistic possibility is that bitcoin hit a key technical level, he said. Kelly pointed to a key $4,200 price level triggering a stop-loss trade. In bitcoin and other assets, traders will often set a certain level for when they automatically cover their short. It may also be a sign that fundamentals are improving and bitcoin is running out of sellers, according to Kelly.

"Everyone who panicked and sold is already out," Kelly told CNBC on Tuesday.


Arca Chief Investment Officer Jeff Dorman, a former trader for Lehman, Merrill and Citadel, said even if buying by trading algorithms kicked off the euphoria, that would have reversed quickly if investors were eager to sell. Instead, the rally boosted bitcoin to its highest level since November. This particular rally was caused by a "simple" imbalance of more buyers than sellers, he said.

"The large magnitudes of the moves in crypto make it more interesting of a story, but it's not that different than any other asset class," Dorman said. "Buyers outweighed sellers, and market makers felt the pressure so they took their markets higher, which triggered stop losses and liquidations, which added more buy pressure."

Bitcoin prices have seen a relatively calm 2019 after a year of volatility. The cryptocurrency fell roughly 75 percent last year after climbing to a high of almost $20,000 at the end of 2017. It has yet to recover to anywhere near that since and was trading near $4,766 as of 4 p.m. ET Tuesday.

But still, Dorman said some investors may be looking to get back in.

"The fact that every small dip has been bought immediately in the last few weeks shows that investors are not scared of sell-offs, they are hoping for them so they can buy more," he said. "This certainly raises the near-term floor, but this sentiment can change on a dime too."