Among the financial titans cleared to sell “exchange traded funds” that invest directly in bitcoin are Boston’s Fidelity Investments, along with other heavies such as BlackRock and VanEck. On Fidelity’s investment platform, one of the largest in the world, you can now buy these ETFs right alongside regular stocks and bonds.
Franklin Templeton, another investment giant, on Thursday posted a picture of its Ben Franklin avatar featuring the ‘laser eyes’ meme, usually used by crypto superfans on social media to embellish their profile pictures with a tongue-in-cheek, futuristic vibe.
“It’s a very big deal but possibly not for some of the reasons people have been excited on X, and all the memes and jokes of the last few hours,” said Christian Catalini, founder of the MIT Cryptoeconomics Lab. “It’s a very important step toward bitcoin establishing itself as an important, new asset class that traditional finance institutions can directly engage with.”
(Catalini is also cofounder of the bitcoin payments company Lightspark.)
If you have not been paying attention to crypto following the market crushing implosion of the FTX exchange fourteen months ago, this might surprise you: Despite mounting regulatory and economic setbacks, crypto was a top market performer in 2023.
Bitcoin, the largest and most valuable cryptocurrency, surged 154 percent last year. Meanwhile, the Standard & Poor’s 500 index gained 24 percent, and Nasdaq rose some 44 percent.
All this was happening as one-time FTX chief executive Sam Bankman-Fried went on trial — and was convicted — for the fraud associated with his firm’s collapse.
“It’s been a wild ride to see the belief system of this industry come to fruition,” said Dave Balter, chief executive at FlipSide Crypto, a Cambridge firm that specializes in crypto data analysis. “The ‘big deal’ on a personal level’s a spiritual one, where disbelievers and contrarians now recognize why our conviction has never wavered.”
But even as some big names have come along to the crypto world, there are some high-profile holdouts — and they’re airing some of the same critiques that have faced crypto for years. Namely, bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have always been among the riskiest, most volatile investments — prone to wild swings in value that are difficult to predict.
Vanguard, the bastion of plain-vanilla index funds, said it was not planning to offer bitcoin ETFs through its brokerage even as its competitors rushed to do so.
“Our perspective is that these products do not align with our offer focused on asset classes such as equities, bonds, and cash, which Vanguard views as the building blocks of a well-balanced, long-term investment portfolio,” the company said in a statement to The Wall Street Journal.
And lest anyone think crypto had lost its ability to unpleasantly surprise investors, the market took another big hit just days after the ETF approval many boosters had been eagerly awaiting. By Sunday, bitcoin had seen its price drop by upward of 10 percent from its midweek high as investors sought to take profits following the recent runup.
It was just the first week of growing pains in the relationship between bitcoin and the big-time traditional investment firms.
“It’s like communing with the enemy,” said Ryan Shea, a London-based crypto economist at the financial technology firm Trakx. “But for moms and pops to get comfortable in this world, to gain legitimacy, it’s important to get to the next level.”
Traditionally, buying bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies has looked a lot different than trading more familiar investments. Investors often must create accounts with crypto exchanges such as Coinbase (though a handful of stock brokerages offer some crypto services). And for those who want maximum control of their assets’ security, there are a handful of independent “crypto wallets” to use for storage.
Compare that process to the relative ease of investing in one of these new bitcoin ETFs, which you can buy and sell in the same way you’d trade shares in Microsoft or Nvidia. While ETFs for stock and other investments have long been available to brokerage customers, this is the first time one of these funds can actually hold bitcoin.
Already, the 11 funds approved by the SEC are battling it out over the new money in the market, and that could mean lower costs for consumers in the short term. They are competing on fees, which tend to be below 0.5 percent of assets, and some, such as ARK Investment Management, have temporarily waived fees altogether.
Bitcoin-linked products that were on the market before, including derivatives-based funds and trusts, charge as much as 2 to 3 percent.
“It’s a land grab,” said Paul Karger, cohead of Boston’s Twin Focus, a wealth adviser. “A handful of big winners will own most of the Main Street in-flows.”
Given the lower fees, these new funds may hew to the price action of bitcoin more closely. That is something their predecessors, which were largely based on futures contracts and have been around for two years and change, have not done. This discrepancy, called ‘tracking error’ in trade lingo, occurs when an ETF’s value diverges from its underlying assets.
Matthew Walsh, of Boston blockchain investor Castle Island Ventures, said that bitcoin futures ETFs have a “tracking error,” that can reach 5 to 10 percent, while he predicts the spot ETFs will have a one-to-one correlation to the underlying price of bitcoin. “It’s a huge win for the retail investor,” Walsh said.
Eric Biegeleisen, partner and deputy investment chief at ETF investor 3Edge, said with this move, bitcoin is a step closer to becoming a “legitimate” asset. While he likes having 11 funds to choose from, now comes the work to figure out which one he likes best. “Certainly, there are concerns right out of the gate,” he added. Chief among them are fraud and asset security.
It is going to take a huge amount of education to get investors comfortable, said Ophelia Snyder, cofounder and president of 21Shares, a financial firm that worked with ARK to create one of the new bitcoin ETFs. But the early signals show there’s a lot of potential.
“Crypto’s never seen money like this. A billion dollars is a lot of money in one day, but we saw that within the first two hours. This isn’t the same ballgame anymore.”
Suchita Nayar can be reached at email@example.com.