Despite the public hype and speculation, institutional investment into cryptocurrencies has remained a relatively fringe activity with banks, hedge funds, pension funds and family offices particularly hesitant to get involved.
That’s all about to change.
Goldman Sachs told the New York Times last week it will soon leverage its own money to trade contracts linked to the price of Bitcoin for its clients. This is admittedly not true Bitcoin trading, but what is more interesting, and will have real impacts on institutional crypto trading, is that Goldman Sachs is putting its money on the table, and it is the very first institutional bank in the U.S. to do so. This is a huge step forward for traditional finance, whose players — Goldman Sachs chief among them — are typically very risk averse and wouldn’t make a move like this unless they believed they could profit from it.
I predict two major shifts based on this news. The first is that other financial institutions will continue to follow Goldman Sachs’ example. The company already had significant demand for these services, according to the New York Times report. Investors at other firms will likely take their business elsewhere if their banking partners can’t deliver. In fact, the bandwagon effect has already begun: Just a few days after the Goldman Sachs announcement, we heard that ICE, the NYSE’s parent company, plans to offer its own cryptocurrency exchange.
The second shift is more speculative, but is a logical progression based on where the markets are today and how this has already played out elsewhere: We’ll start to see more regulation.
Regulation is not a crypto killer. Regulation will provide much-needed clarity to investors big and small, as well as the entities issuing the coins themselves. People can start to focus on how these assets can best be leveraged to diversify portfolios, transfer money overseas, and improve business models, instead of looking over their shoulders in fear of running afoul of the SEC. With increased regulation, increased adoption will follow, particularly among those for whom due diligence is paramount. Financial institutions will be able to confidently bring these investment options to their clients, pension funds can incorporate cryptocurrencies into their long-term holdings — the applications are endless.
There is precedent informing this assumption. The fact is that while Goldman Sachs is leading the way in the U.S., the U.S. is still playing catch-up to crypto powerhouses like Japan, which has codified the crypto experience and thus allowed it to flourish. Japan’s FSA (similar to the SEC in the U.S.) has already approved numerous exchanges to trade cryptocurrency. Japanese financial services giant SBI Holdings is launching a cryptocurrency exchange, and GMO Internet, also out of Japan, announced the launch of a cryptocurrency mining business in December 2017 — a lifetime ago in the crypto world.
Goldman Sachs’ bold move notwithstanding, institutional crypto investment is still in its early days, and there is much work to be done before the majority of the high-volume players will feel comfortable participating in the space. The liquidity issue remains a challenge on individual exchanges, and it may take years to build the trust that stems from a solid sense of security.
Akbar Thobhani is the CEO of institutional cryptocurrency broker-dealer SFOX. He was previously head of growth and business development at Airbnb and managed their payments in over 190 countries. He has built four trading and payments platforms for ITG, Boku, and Stamps.com. He started his career as a software engineer at JPL / NASA, and began mining bitcoins while attending MIT.