Why Is Wall Street Slow to Move into Crypto?
Not the sexiest topics, so we’ll keep it short.
Hedge funds and Wall Street firms have been slow moving into trading and investing in cryptocurrencies such as Ethereum and Bitcoin. There are some
indicators that sentiment is shifting such as JP Morgan (and others) joining the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance and Goldman Sachs initiating research coverage of Bitcoin.
Assume for a second that sentiment is suddenly 100% positive and that all the “scam” and “crime” stigma has left the building. So, whats the problem?
Regulation of Bitcoin, Ethereum
Party of the beauty and attraction of crypto is the decentralization and lack of regulation. There are many reasons why this is beneficial. But if you’re a big bank or managing billions of dollars, regulation matters. First, Bitcoin is not “legal” in all countries. Just look at what China did a few months ago when they started “regulating” Bitcoin. As per wikipedia: “While private parties can hold and trade bitcoins in China, regulation prohibits financial firms like banks from doing the same.” Not only is there (outside) risk of the US doing this, but if you’re a fund thats has Chinese investors or does business with China this clouds the water.
Most assets are also considered collateral. If I have $10 million in gold I can bet that the bank I deal with would consider that an asset against which I can borrow. Does every bank see Bitcoin in that same light?
What about tax treatment – the IRS has made some comments but I’d say nothing is set in stone. Just this month the IRS is talking to Congress about strategy.
A lower risk, but still foreseeable is the risks of regulators such as the SEC or FINRA coming after you for engaging in (for example) an investment used to launder money. Maybe you buy Monero and build up a large position and
those assets are seized because the FBI thinks they were used in some hacking blackmail scheme. Probable? Probably not. Possible? Sure.
The facts are that until a regulator “green lights” Bitcoin and/or Ethereum its going to be tough for large institutions to trade or invest.
When Might Regulators Weigh In?
I’ve been watching the SEC’s ruling on the Winklevoss Bitcoin ETF launch. Its taken years for a ruling, and earlier this year it was initially rejected. However in April the SEC decided to take another look. I think its a bit underestimated the impact that approval would have to the price of Bitcoin. This would give not only a regulatory stamp of approval, but paves the way towards clearing and settlement of Bitcoin at an institutional level.
Clearing and Settlement is a Major Problem
Take stock or ETF trading as an example. When funds (or anyone as a generalization) trade publicly listed stock that stock clears through a central clearing house called the DTC. If I am a hedge fund and have my assets at say, Goldman Sachs (your “prime broker”), I can trade stock with JP Morgan. JPM sends the stock to my account at Goldman through the DTC. Its a pretty seamless process and universal to US stock trading.
Now, lets say I’m a hedge fund and I want to buy $1 million Bitcoin. Buying is easy enough – you go to one of the exchanges, wire money and buy your Bitcoin. The problem is there is no way to get your Bitcoin back to your prime broker. No, a wallet even with vaulted cold storage wouldn’t work. The risks associated with that are high, but the mechanics of trading in and out are a huge hindrance. If the fund needs to immediately raise assets by selling Bitcoin they need to have immediate access to those coins. While yes, you can work out the mechanics if you are a small fund or “crypto” is your dedicated business. But for large institutions who want to simply invest in crypto this is a major hindrance.
How Could Clearing Change?
One possible way is for clearing houses/prime brokers like Goldman or Morgan Stanley to have some type of central clearing wallet. Linked to that wallet would be “sub-wallets” for each fund that owns Bitcoin. Therefore if I go to Gemini Exchange and buy 1000 Bitcoin, I tell Gemini to send that Bitcoin to Morgan Stanley on my behalf. Morgan Stanley then has custody and can allocate the Bitcoin to my funds sub-wallet. This “sub-wallet” concept seems to peripherally exist and I’d imagine banks could pay someone to hash it out rather quickly.
If the Bitcoin ETF launched this would circumvent all of this, because you could just buy the ETF and it would clear via the DTC like all other stocks and ETFs. (Yes, I am aware the GBTC exists, but the premium on that product is absurd). To this point I think this clearing/custodial aspect is probably one of the problems the SEC is having with the product.
In the End
I’m confident these issues will be worked out. The fact that they haven’t yet makes (in my opinion) Bitcoin and Ethereum such an interesting investment at the moment. The door is currently cracked open to big investors, but eventually we could see a real flood of assets.