What delivered the best return of 2017’s first half? Bitcoin and Ethereum

Say what you will about the cryprocurrency market in the first half of the year, but give it this: it wasn’t boring.
In contrast to the U.S. equity market, where a popular measure of volatility has been hovering near a multidecade low since May, there was nothing but volatility in the realm of digital currencies, underscored by jaw-dropping gains on the year and a gut-wrenching drop this month.
Digital currencies hit a number of key milestones in 2017, including breaking into the 12-digit club, as the combined market value of all cryptocurrencies—led especially by bitcoin and ethereum—surpassed $100 billion for the first time ever, and currently stands near $104 billion.
Cryptocurrencies have become so prominent that major semiconductor stocks have started to move based on how readily their chips are used by “miners,” who use high-powered computers in a race to solve complex puzzles. Those who solve these problems are rewarded with the digital gold of bitcoin and other digital currencies.
The volatile ride cryptocurrencies in garnering increased attention from mainstream companies and average Joes and Janes, belies the setbacks it has faced on the regulatory front. Notably, the Securities and Exchange Commission in March rejected what would have been the first bitcoin exchange-traded fund, as well as the reputation hits from recent high-profile cyberattacks where bitcoin ransoms were demanded.
Still, the overall trend in crypto in 2017, as it was last year, was shockingly positive. The price of single bitcoin BTCUSD, -0.99% currently sits at $2,565.47, up 165% thus far this year, though down 15% from a record high above $3,000 hit earlier this month.
Gains for ethereum has been even more pronounced. Not only has bitcoin’s chief rival surged past it in terms of daily trading volume, according to CoinDesk data, but it is also up nearly 3,500% on the year, having rallied from $8.40 at the end of 2016 to a shade under $300 presently. And that surge includes ethereum’s current bear market, as it is down more than 20% from a record hit earlier this month.
The size and scope of the rallies in digital currencies easily eclipses the year-to-date move of more traditional assets like stocks. For example, the S&P 500 index SPX, +0.88% despite enjoying its own run-up, has gained a much milder 9% year to date, the Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, +0.68% is up 8.6%, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index COMP, +1.43% is up a touch more than 15% in 2017.
Among the best performing commodities, palladium PAN7, -1.77% is up more than 25% on the year. None of those rallies approach the year-to-date surges in popular cryptocurrencies.
Perhaps for that reason, questions about whether these digital currencies are in a bubble have emerged—a debate that will undoubtedly continue to rage in the second half of the year. That is particularly if they show further stabilization and add to their string of records.
Whatever, the future holds for bitcoin, it appears that with its $42 billion valuation—enough that it has become bigger than such iconic brands as Delta Air Lines DAL, +1.89% and Deere & Co. DE, +1.71% —one can no longer argue that bitcoin is simply a niche asset, even if bitcoin and its rivals are risky and untested.
And while one proposed metric for bitcoin valuation suggests the digital currency is within historical realms, Morgan Stanley recently argued that government regulation was needed for bitcoin to continue its dalliance into the record books.