The Cryptocurrency Funds have arrived, and they’re bringing Wall Street money

If 2013-2016 was the era of venture investment in bitcoin and blockchain startups – VCs put north of a billion dollars to work, peaking at $290M in the first half of 2016 – then 2017-2020 will in hindsight be seen as the Wall Street era. The startup equity investors have come and – in the absence of unicorn valuations or breathtaking growth – they’re starting to move on. But now the bitcoin and cryptocurrency funds have arrived, and they’ve brought public markets investors with them.

Just about every week I’ll discover a new investment fund that gives investors liquid exposure to the cryptocurrency asset class. At latest count, there are at least 5 exchange-listed bitcoin investment products, 3 US-based ETFs under review by the SEC, and hedge funds that cover just about every cryptocurrency asset type and investment strategy. By my rough estimate, these funds represent $1-2B USD in AUM, or 5-10% of the $20B in total that’s been invested in cryptocurrencies.

For clarity, I define a cryptocurrency fund as a pool of professionally managed capital, available to outside investors, where the majority of AUM are invested in publicly tradable cryptocurrency assets. Examples of such assets include bitcoin, ethereum, and the 500+ altcoins and 50+ digital tokens listed on Coinmarketcap. Thus venture capital funds who invest in shareholder equity – eg, of blockchain startups – don’t qualify.

I’ve sorted the different funds into three broad categories and wanted to give a description of each category along with some prominent examples. They are:

  1. Publicly traded funds
  2. Private buy-and-hold funds
  3. Hedge funds

Disclaimer: Please consider this information as strictly educational and not meant to represent specific investment advice or recommendations.

Publicly traded funds

These funds follow a buy-and-hold strategy and usually focus on a single asset. For now, all of them are bitcoin-only, although I expect publicly traded ethereum funds to come online perhaps as early as this year.

A management fee is charged for the service, which ranges from 1.5-2.5% per year. As more funds enter the space, fees will likely decrease, perhaps to below 1% which is what most vanilla ETFs charge. You may wonder why anyone would invest in a public bitcoin fund when you can just buy bitcoin and hold it yourself, but you could ask the same of gold. The biggest gold ETF – the SPDR Gold Trust – manages $35 billion USD. That’s double the bitcoin market cap – all in one ETF. The attractions for investors are varied, from ease of access to peace of mind to lighter regulatory regimes. The consistent price premium of Grayscale’s Bitcoin Investment Trust (GBTC) shares over the NAV of its bitcoin holdings is more evidence that such vehicles are desired.

Within the cryptocurrency universe, there are roughly two types of such funds: ETFs and ETNs (what are also called asset backed notes). The main difference is that an ETF’s value is collateralized by an equivalent value of its underlying benchmark asset – eg, bitcoin – and allows an investor to redeem their ETF shares for the asset.

An ETN doesn’t allow redemption and doesn’t make the same guarantees about how much eg bitcoin it actually holds. An ETN is better thought of as unsecured debt that roughly tracks the price of its benchmark asset but has looser reporting and compliance requirements. Because of these differences, ETNs are a bigger credit risk, and we’ve already seen this risk manifest when KNC Miner filed for bankruptcy. KNC Miner was the guarantor of the COINXBT and COINXBE ETNs on the Nasdaq Nordic, and the bankruptcy filing forced trading to a halt. Two weeks later, the investment firm Global Advisors stepped in and became the new guarantor and trading was allowed to resume.

Examples of bitcoin ETNs include BTCETI (which is co-listed on the Gibraltar Stock Exchange and the Deutsche Borse) and the abovementioned Global Advisors’ COINXBT and COINXBE.

Thus far no bitcoin ETFs have been approved. There are three US-based funds under review by the SEC. They are, in order of their filing:

GBTC is a hybrid, in that it’s currently an ETN which is filing to become an ETF. While it has filed for a $500M IPO on NYSE Arca to become an ETF, it is currently traded on the US OTC exchanges and doesn’t allow redemption of shares into bitcoin.

The only ETFs with bitcoin exposure are Ark Investment Management’s ARKK and ARKW, but these hardly count as official cryptocurrency ETFs because both hold less than 0.3% of their portfolio in GBTC.

Bitcoin IRA is an interesting outlier in that it’s a public bitcoin investment fund, available to any investors who have or want to open an IRA, a type of US retirement savings account. They allow the redemption of bitcoin, but the company is not listed on any publicly traded exchange.  You must contact them directly to invest. Bitcoin IRA charge a 15% one-time upfront fee of any money invested.

Finally, while the publicly traded funds are all bitcoin, the ethereum funds are coming. One example is the EtherIndex Ether Trust which filed in July 2016 with the SEC to be listed on the NYSE Arca, but has seen little activity since. Here are my notes on its filing. I have seen some other ethereum-based efforts and I expect at least one will be approved for public trading this year.

Private buy-and-hold funds

These differ from public investment funds in that they usually have restrictions either on investment size (eg, $100K USD and above) or status (eg, accredited investors only). They’re not listed on publicly traded exchanges, without the attendant regulatory requirements and investment disclosures, and you can’t use investment software like Bloomberg to obtain quotes and place trades. But otherwise the strategy and product and fees are similar: they offer investors comparatively simple and safe exposure to cryptocurrency and charge an annual fee for the service.

The best known example is probably the Pantera Bitcoin Fund. Pantera Capital is a blockchain investment firm which has multiple funds. One of them specializes in equity investments of blockchain startups. The one relevant for our discussion is a private bitcoin buy-and-hold fund which has over $100M in AUM and charges 0.75% annual management fee and a 1% fee for redemption.

An ethereum example is Grayscale’s Ethereum Investment Trust, which has not formally launched but will be a private product that provides qualified investors access to Ethereum Classic.

DLT10 Index is an interesting example of a private buy-and-hold fund which offers a proprietary basket of 10 publicly traded cryptocurrency assets. The index is a mixture of leading cryptocurrencies and digital tokens, with a preference for enduring assets.

Hedge funds

Last we have cryptocurrency hedge funds. A hedge fund is a pool of lightly regulated capital that invests in whatever it likes within some broad strategic parameters. They have active trading strategies including eg leveraged trading, price arbitrage, and algorithmic trading. In addition to charging a management fee comparable to the above two types of funds, they also charge a performance fee that in this space can range from 15-45%. The performance fee is only paid out when the hedge fund beats an agreed-upon benchmark, such as the price of bitcoin. So if a hedge fund can generate better returns than simply owning bitcoin, they’re paid very well for doing so. This benchmark outperformance is called alpha.

Known cryptocurrency hedge funds include:

  • Global Advisors – a Jersey bitcoin fund that is the sponsor of COINXBT and COINXBE
  • Polychain – a US fund digital token and ICO fund started by Coinbase’s first employee, Olaf Carlson-Wee and seeded with a $10M investment from prominent VC firms
  • Metastable – a US bitcoin and altcoins fund which counts some prominent Silicon Valley names among its investors
  • Logos Fund – a German bitcoin and mining fund from the founders of Genesis Mining

I believe the above mentioned funds are all actively seeking outside investment. Coinfund.io is an example of a cryptocurrency hedge fund which is no longer taking outside investors. They focus on digital token investment, what are often called ICOs, and host a knowledgeable and active community chat on Slack.

A final interesting example is the TaaS fund (Token-as-a-Service), which will exist on the Ethereum blockchain and in March will sell up to $100M of their tokens via the ICO process. The fund will keep some proceeds to fund operations and invest the remainder in a proprietary mixture of bitcoin, altcoins, and other digital tokens. Token holders will receive an ongoing percentage of trading profits.

The hedge fund space – of the three categories – is likely to see the most growth and proliferation because of its light regulatory touch, the speed to market, and the chance for fund managers to make outsized profits in a still volatile and developing asset class.

The next 3 years are a window of opportunity for starting and investing in cryptocurrency funds

We’ve entered a golden era of professionally managed money moving into liquid cryptocurrency assets. The risks that prevented Wall Street investor types from entering the market earlier – lack of liquidity, regulatory uncertainty, China trading centralization, lack of sophisticated financial products – are now reduced enough that those hungry for returns have taken the lead and others are starting to follow.

There’s no better time to start a fund or raise one, and there’s no better time to take a cryptocurrency position if you manage money, especially when you consider the past price performance of cryptocurrency assets and research that proves bitcoin’s lack of correlation with existing asset classes. An approved US bitcoin ETF will only add fuel to the growing fire.

In the coming years, the abovementioned three funds types will expand and evolve: Hedge funds will grow larger and develop more exotic trading strategies, increasingly blending cryptocurrency with mainstream asset classes like equities and commodities. Private funds will diversify from one cryptocurrency asset to multiple assets and seek listing on exchanges. Finally, publicly traded funds will expand from bitcoin to ethereum and then cryptocurrency indexes, and fees will likely come down as competition grows.

Thanks for reading! A number of people read drafts of this essay and I’m grateful for their feedback. I look forward to your comments and questions. Send me an email or find me on Twitter @kgao.

PS. I originally published this piece to LinkedIn but it got very few views so I decided to cross-post here as well 🙂