The headlines coming out of the Consensus:Invest conference in the mainstream media, which included such phrases as “hatefest” and “hugs” amid bitcoin’s (BTC) recent plunge, suggested a combination gripe session and self-help seminar.
But beyond the personal issues the second annual event, held in New York City on Tuesday, provided several significant announcements that could shape the cryptocurrency investment landscape for years to come.
Such as? VanEck announced a partnership with Nasdaq to list bitcoin futures in 2019. Harbor launched a security token platform offering stakes in a $20 million student housing project. Ten companies announced plans to create the Association for Digital Market Assets, or ADAM, and a voluntary code of conduct for digital asset markets.
As if that wasn’t enough, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton reiterated previous statements that are informing U.S. regulators’ approach to determining whether tokens are securities as part of what he called “principle-based definitions.”
Here are five of the broader themes that surfaced throughout the day:
Price doesn’t matter, except when it does.
Bitcoin hit $10,000 for the first time during last year’s conference, and just kept climbing. This year, with crypto prices up to 80 percent off those highs, the tone was less exuberant. As Josh Brown, CEO of Ritholtz Wealth Management, asked, “WTF? I was here last year, and we were all rich.”
When a new asset class comes out, it’s usually the institutional side that develops it.
Other speakers predicted the bottom has still not been reached. “We haven’t had the crash, the 2000-esque Internet crash,” said Morgan Creek Capital founder Mark Yusko, noting that crypto’s greatest use case remains speculation, not long-term wealth creation.
Why? The reality hasn’t caught up with the promise, speakers said. Out of more than 800 business plans, “we haven’t seen a single blockchain application we see as investable,” said Vestigo Ventures co-founder Mark Casady. “It’s really tough.”
Despite crypto’s current decline, institutional investors were focused on other issues. “We’re kind of agnostic on price,” said Intercontinental Exchange CEO Jeffrey Sprecher, whose company is the driving force behind the Bakkt cryptocurrency exchange still not ready for prime time. The bigger issue? “There’s a lot of missing infrastructure and use cases,” he said.
Infrastructure, and institutional investors, are on their way.
BitGo CEO Mike Belshe called 2019 “the year of the on switch,” with institutional investors committed to creating the infrastructure needed to facilitate large-scale trading.
“They’ll build it,” he said. “Let’s see if the companies will turn the switch on.”
Two key pieces of infrastructure involve regulated price discovery and warehousing. Sprecher drew parallels between coffee and crypto warehousing, noting that ICE had shut down a real-world warehousing operation over fears of manipulation and could provide similar assurances with Bakkt. “That brings confidence for institutional investors,” he said.
Bakkt CEO Kelly Loeffler said that interest from traditional institutional investment firms, which contributed to the delays in its launch, has “been really encouraging, but that’s not to say it’s not going to be a long lead time with the learning curve.”
How long a lead time? Speakers representing an array of traditional players offered different perspectives. Blockchain investor Caitlin Long called Yale’s decision to incorporate crypto into its endowment “a big game changer” in the eyes of other institutional investors. Fidelity Product Manager Terrence Dempsey said education remains a critical need. Justin Schmidt, head of digital asset markets at Goldman Sachs, said many institutional firms “want to be a fast follower” — not offering crypto infrastructure first but not lagging far behind competitors.
“When a new asset class comes out, it’s usually the institutional side that develops it,” observed Cboe Global Markets head of cryptocurrencies John Tornatore. “Obviously, crypto has been completely different. The institutional side has had to play a bit of catch-up.”
ETFs are coming, but it’s not clear when.
Numerous speakers said the first approved cryptocurrency exchange-traded fund, or ETF, would open the floodgates of investor dollars and send crypto prices skyrocketing. However, absent an ETF, Ritholtz’ Brown said, crypto “isn’t a wealth management topic. It’s a curiosity.”
Yet, from what the top securities regulator, Jay Clayton, said, it’s still not clear if crypto ETFs will clear several key hurdles, including questions about the security of digital assets in custodial solutions and the price manipulation that’s been seen in unregulated exchanges. Digital assets in general, should be “free from manipulation — not free from volatility, but free from manipulation,” Clayton said.
Not every crypto enthusiast loves the idea of ETFs. “I have retail clients… who have gotten smoked,” said Tyrone Ross, managing partner at NobleBridge Wealth Partners. “Now let’s bring in all the big powerful Wall Street money, and it’s the same wealth transfer that it’s been forever.”
Real-world retail may be just as important.
While Galaxy Digital Managing Director Yoshi Nakamura called cryptocurrency “a people’s revolution,” the reality is that fewer than 5 percent of Americans have interacted with crypto. In part, that’s because the wealth managers and other financial advisers who control $4 trillion in assets often “know no more about crypto and the blockchain than their clients do,” said Edelman Financial Services Chairman Ric Edelman. “We are the gatekeepers.”
That may not be true of younger investors, said NobleBridge’s Ross. “They want no exposure to traditional assets,” he said, adding he often finds himself encouraging them to diversify out of crypto. VanEck’s Gabor Gurbacs, the director of digital assets strategy, estimated 90 percent of today’s digital assets market is made up of retail investors.
At the same time, real-world use cases may be just as important for cryptocurrency’s long-term viability. Loeffler stressed that Bakkt’s partnerships with Starbucks, whose payments app has 15 million users, and other retailers will be critical for establishing use cases. “Maybe institutional doesn’t mean [financial firms], but Microsoft and Starbucks,” Nakamura added.
Susquehanna International Group’s Bart Smith, the head of digital assets, put the argument more concisely. “People need to stop HODLing and start spending their bitcoin,” he said.
Traditional investments will move to the blockchain.
While the eventual fate of cryptocurrency remains open for debate, speakers agreed that traditional investments are likely to take on many of their features.
“Every security will be issued in a tokenized form,” Long predicted. “You’ll be able to buy an IBM bond on a blockchain in a means that… you’ll definitively know it was legally issued.” BlockTower Capital co-founder Ari Paul predicted that all securities “will have to be programmable in 20 years.”
In the meantime, speakers predicted the upcoming year will likely see incremental change. CEO Jan van Eck called 2019 a “year of singles, not home runs… and that’s just fine. The story’s not going to end next year.”