Bitcoin ETF approval: the long game

by Louis Blythe for Unsplash - Bitcoin ETF approval
by Louis Blythe for Unsplash

The looming decision by the US Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) is, according to market analysts, putting wind under the bitcoin price sails. Market attention and media headlines seem to be focusing on the short-term impact. A pity… they’re missing out on a more interesting story.

A brief summary of the situation so far: in June 2013, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss – the owners of the New York-based Gemini bitcoin exchange – submitted a proposal to the SEC for a bitcoin exchange traded fund (ETF) to list on Nasdaq. Since then, the Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust proposal has gone through several amendments, including switching to the BATS exchange (newer, and allegedly more technologically advanced) and establishing pricing mechanisms and custodianship procedures. After seeking public comment and using up all the deadline extensions available, the SEC is due to make a decision on approval by March 11th.

Many doubt that it will be approved. In fact, BitMex is running a book on the outcome, which places the probability at less than 40%.

Why would the SEC say no? The decision is a complicated one, but can be broken down into three sections: the intrinsic (issues pertaining to the fund itself), the extrinsic (issues pertaining to the market) and the bigger picture.

Amongst the intrinsic considerations are the suppliers of the various services that the fund will need. The Winklevosses propose that price determination and custodianship be carried out by their Gemini exchange. In the ETF world, it is unusual for one entity to fulfil both of those functions and at the same time be the sponsor.

The SEC also has concerns about bitcoin and its market. Its recent request for information included questions about forks, immutability and hacking, which reveals uncertainty over the strength of the technology. Furthermore, most of bitcoin’s trading volume is in China and Japan, which raises the spectre of manipulation of a US asset by foreign entities.

While structure and market concerns are fundamental, the SEC is no doubt also considering abstract issues such as its own reputation, and the possible effect on financial instruments. Here’s where the more interesting long game shows itself.

The SEC’s main purpose is that of protecting investors. Supporting innovation is not on its list of priorities. Given the relative youth of bitcoin and the potential vulnerabilities of the technology (mining decentralization, accidental forks, quantum technology), the risks are high. And if the SEC approves and something negative happens, that’s their reputation shot.

So, will the SEC embrace evolution and innovation, and acknowledge that bitcoin is here to stay? If so, that would mark a precedent that could shape expectations for years to come.

Or, will the SEC play it safe and defer difficult decisions until a later date? In which case, think about the message sent to change-makers. While it’s impossible to suppress creativity, a “no” decision could send innovators scurrying to find alternative (and less-regulated) outlets.

It’s also important to think about the bitcoin market beyond the immediate impact.

The Winklevoss proposal was recently amended to increase the initial amount from $65m to $100m, which signals strong initial demand. Analysts Needham & Company estimate that $300m could pour into the fund if approved, which given the limited daily volume (US$ trading is usually under $50m/day) would push up the price. How much of that is already priced in, we don’t know. And it’s worth remembering that the estimated inflow is just that, an estimate based on the performance of other similar funds (which is tricky, given that this is a first).

If the SEC decides “no”, it’s probable that the price will fall sharply. But bitcoin has many other fundamentals in its favour, and the price is likely to find support at lower levels (how much lower, I don’t know).

So, the immediate impact, even if the ETF is approved, is uncertain. The longer-term impact, however, is clearer.

There’s the liquidity aspect. If approved, the increase in bitcoin demand will boost trading volumes overall, which will reduce volatility, making bitcoin even more attractive to investors. Most of the increase will be in the US, since the fund will be doing its trading on the Gemini exchange. This will even out the current geographical imbalance in trading volumes, and calm the unease of regulators. It’s worth noting that Gemini is one of two bitcoin exchanges to have a BitLicense, which makes it one of the most highly regulated exchanges in the world.

Beyond price and liquidity improvements, there’s the reputation. Bitcoin will go from being “something criminals use” to “something approved by the SEC”, which would add a lasting veneer of respectability. Institutions and investors, not just in the US, would start to see it as an asset class rather than a libertarian speculation.

This could rattle economists and policy makers, since bitcoin represents an alternative to the established system. But it is in line with increased interest in blockchain technology from institutions. Central banks around the world are studying cryptocurrencies, some with a view to launching their own. And the recent appointment of bitcoiner Mick Mulvaney as Trump’s Director of Office of Management and Budget could herald a shift in the official attitude.

Finally, it’s important to bear in mind that an approved bitcoin ETF would be the first “mainstream” fund to be based entirely on a digital concept, with no tangible underlying asset. This could unleash a stream of creative financial engineering which could usher in a new era of opportunity. Or, it could end up increasing market instability, especially when combined with a federal policy of more relaxed regulation of financial institutions.

So, the ramifications go well beyond a “yes” or “no” and the resulting impact on the price. The initial swings will be exhilarating or horrifying, depending on your position. But the bigger picture, which affects us all, is much more compelling.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *