Overstock.com was already having a banner year amid conditions wrought by COVID-19 that fueled an enormous uptick in overall e-commerce activity and a particular interest in the furniture and decor inventory that is the specialty of the Utah online retailer as millions lived and worked through months of home isolation.
But it’s been the company’s long-running investment in blockchain technology, the underlying structure behind cryptocurrencies, that’s driven another surge in Overstock’s value in the run-up to an epic entry into the public investment markets last week by San Francisco-based crypto exchange startup Coinbase.
Overstock had already seen its stock price rise more than 800% in the past year, but saw a jump of more than 16% in the week ahead of Coinbase’s debut on the Nasdaq exchange on Wednesday. Overstock was one of the first national retailers to begin accepting cryptocurrency as payment back in 2014. That was the same year the company launched investment subsidiary Medici Ventures, an effort focusing on backing startups that were leveraging blockchain’s distributed-ledger technology to create a new class of decentralized products.
Overstock CEO Jonathan Johnson said while he’s long felt like a “prophet in the wilderness” when espousing his faith in blockchain as a potential game-changing innovation for the business and finance worlds over the years, Coinbase’s rousing market entry, where it briefly created a company valuation north of $100 billion before settling back to end the trading day with a 31% jump over its $250 per share entry price, was a validating event.
“What Coinbase just did, with a big exclamation point, was establish that crypto and its underlying blockchain technology is for real and is here to stay,” Johnson said.
Johnson said Coinbase had successfully addressed “friction” issues when it comes to buying, selling and completing transactions using cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Ether, Dogecoin and others.
He said a phone call from a family member on Wednesday illustrated just how mainstream cryptocurrencies have become since first appearing over a decade ago and battling early criticisms that the medium was unreliable and best suited for shady dealings and money laundering operations.
“My 80-year-old uncle called to tell me he’d opened a trading account so he could get in on the Coinbase offering,” Johnson said.
Coinbase’s direct listing pathway to entering public investment markets has been followed by a handful of big tech companies over the past couple of years, but Wednesday’s debut was the first to launch on the Nasdaq exchange.
Shares of Coinbase are listed on the Nasdaq under the ticker “COIN,” and closed at $328.28 on Wednesday. That put Coinbase’s market value at $85.78 billion, making it one of one of the biggest publicly traded U.S. companies. Only 93 companies in the S&P 500 index have a higher market value. At the end of regular trading on Friday, Coinbase stock was trading for $342 per share.
Coinbase’s value is close to the combined market value of Nasdaq Inc., which runs the Nasdaq Stock Market, and Intercontinental Exchange, which owns the New York Stock Exchange.
Founded in 2012, Coinbase became popular among cryptocurrency fans by providing them with an easier way to exchange shares of Bitcoin and other digital currencies. Unlike many newly public companies Coinbase is profitable — the company estimates it had net income of between $730 million and $800 million in the first quarter.
Dan Ives, analyst at Wedbush Securities, said in a note Wednesday that “Coinbase is a foundational piece of the crypto ecosystem and is a barometer for the growing mainstream adoption of Bitcoin and crypto for the coming years.”
While Coinbase’s market splash reflected early investor optimism in the company, there remain plenty of crypto doubters.
Until recently the major financial institutions avoided cryptocurrencies, and Bitcoin is still viewed more as a store of value than as a method of payment.
Even as Coinbase made its trading debut, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell described cryptocurrencies as “vehicles for speculation” in comments to the Economic Club of Washington.
“No one is using them for payments, for example, like the dollar,” Powell said.
And not all investors are buying into the Coinbase hype.
David Trainer, CEO of investment research firm New Constructs, said Coinbase has “little-to-no-chance of meeting the future profit expectations that are baked into its ridiculously high valuation.”
Trainer last week put a valuation on Coinbase closer to $18.9 billion, arguing it will face more competition as the cryptocurrency market matures.
Coinbase said it had 56 million verified users as of March 31, with 6.1 million making transactions monthly. Trading volume in the first quarter was $335 million. Coinbase earns 0.5% of the value of every transaction that goes through its system. So if someone buys $100 in Bitcoin, Coinbase earns 50 cents. If Bitcoin or Ethereum prices drop, the commissions Coinbase earn drop as well, giving it some exposure to the digital currencies’ rise and fall.
Johnson said he believes the positive impact Coinbase has made on the general public’s confidence in cryptocurrencies is poised to outlast market fluctuations and compared the emergence to the early days of email or online commerce, advances that also had to evolve through a skeptical audience before becoming commonplace practices.
“To me, this is a ‘You’ve Got Mail’ moment,” Johnson said. “It’s the beginning of changing the world.”
And it’s that eye toward change that drove the investments of Medici Ventures, before Overstock spun the effort off earlier this year as an independent investment fund now under the management of Utah’s Pelion Ventures. Overstock put tens of millions into companies working on developing tools like digital wallets, secure mobile voting, digital identity, commodity transactions and more. Overstock remains a limited partner in Medici Ventures, and also owns blockchain-based trading platform, tZero.
And, of course, Overstock is still happy to accept a crypto payment for that must-have new couch.
“We have customers making purchases with cryptocurrencies today and everyday,” Johnson said.
Contributing: Associated Press