Crypto bros eager to buy homes lifted prices as the wealth effect from tokens spilled over to some housing markets, study says

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It’s an oft-told anecdote littering social media: Those who invested early in cryptocurrencies have enjoyed life-changing wealth. 

How much that extra cash gives them confidence to spend more — a phenomenon economists call the wealth effect — is a hot topic whenever crypto prices are surging. A group of researchers tried to quantify it and determined that crypto bonanzas in the US aren’t exactly spent like windfalls from winning the lottery. And so far, the effect has been relatively modest on the $28 trillion American economy. But if the asset class continues to boom, the study provides insight on potential game-changers in consumer patterns. 

The new wealth increased households’ consumption by about $30 billion in total over a decade, the researchers estimated, with every dollar of unrealized gains leading to about nine cents of spending. While that figure is almost double the marginal propensity to consume when it comes to stock-market returns, it’s about one-third that of income shocks such as lottery winnings. Despite all the flexing on social media, it wasn’t all blown on Lamborghinis and bling: Some went toward home purchases, boosting real estate markets where crypto is popular. 

“If households tend to treat crypto like gambling, then we would expect them to spend their gains in similar ways as lottery winners do,” Darren Aiello, assistant professor of finance at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Business and one of the authors of the paper, said in an interview. “In contrast, our estimates suggest that household spending out of crypto gains is more like the patterns we see from traditional equity investments.”

It’s a topic that is likely to gain more attention from economists after this year’s launch of spot-Bitcoin exchange-traded funds expanded the universe of potential crypto investors. 

The researchers, who presented the paper to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in March, also hail from Northwestern University, Emory University and Imperial College London. They used data from 60 million people from 2010 to 2023, spanning millions of bank, credit- and debit-card transactions, to analyze how crypto wealth spills over into the real American economy. They found that 16% of the households analyzed made deposits to retail cryptocurrency exchanges at some point in the decade through 2023. 

Making the connection between spending and crypto investments can be tricky, since some may invest in the asset class in hopes of boosting their savings in order to make a big purchase, rather than deciding to make a big purchase only after a crypto windfall. As a result, the researchers isolated the portion of household crypto gains that were driven by long-term buying and holding, rather than recent investments, in order to directly measure the causal effects of crypto on spending.

“There is significant debate about the role crypto should play in a household’s portfolio due to its high volatility and nebulous fundamentals,” Jason Kotter, another assistant professor of finance at BYU who co-authored the paper, said in an interview.  

To Noelle Acheson, author of the Crypto Is Macro Now newsletter, the insights about how crypto holds different appeal to different investor types is more noteworthy than the takeaways for the macro economy. “For lower-income investors placing less priority on wealth preservation, a crypto allocation could be seen as a make-or-break play — more to gain than to lose,” she said. “So it makes sense that any gains would be spent on big-ticket items such as a house.” 

Housing market

While the boost in wealth was mostly poured into discretionary spending, a significant portion spilled into local housing markets, the researchers found, especially in parts of California, Nevada, Utah and other places where crypto is popular.

To arrive at a figure, the researchers went back in time to 2017, a year when Bitcoin saw its price jump from around $950 to $14,000 for a nearly 1,400% rally. Using zip codes associated with brokerage accounts, they compared what happened to home prices in counties with high crypto wealth compared with those that were less enthusiastic toward digital assets. They discovered that home prices in crypto-wealthy counties grew 43 basis points faster, pushing the median house price up by about $2,000 in 12 months. 

They analyzed what that would look like spread out over the decade through 2023, and found that every dollar gained in households’ crypto wealth pushed median home price up by 15 cents over the following three months. 

The researchers also tracked investors who withdrew at least $5,000 from their crypto brokerages — around 90% of which came from Coinbase Global Inc. — between 2018 and 2023. That analysis revealed that Americans increased their total spending in the year after a large withdrawal by around $5,754 relative to the prior year. And while mortgage spending remained constant in the six months leading up to large withdrawals, it rose significantly after the event. 

“For every household that withdrew $5,000 from their crypto exchange account, one in 20 bought a house for the first time,” said Kotter. 

After all, you can’t live in a Lambo.

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