Amongst the latest “hot topics” in the Financial Technology (FinTech) space is a cryptocurrency product aimed at changing the receptiveness of the international investment community to cryptocurrencies. Grayscale Investments, LLC has created the GBTC (Grayscale Bitcoin Trust), in an attempt to make a cryptocurrency product more marketable to institutional investors, pension funds, and other more traditional investment vehicles. Whether this approach will work in the long-term seems to be very hotly contested at the moment, for a number of reasons.
The Grayscale Bitcoin Trust (GBTC)
Surprisingly – though maybe not to many in the crypto community – Grayscale largely markets the GBTC for its “robust security and storage”. You would think that as an asset manager, even a crypto asset manager, Grayscale would be more excited about presenting numbers that investors are typically hungry for. However, they lead by offering the following:
“Grayscale Bitcoin Trust’s assets are stored in offline or “cold” storage with Coinbase Custody Trust Company, LLC, as Custodian. The Custodian is a fiduciary under § 100 of the New York Banking Law and a qualified custodian for purposes of Rule 206(4)-2(d)(6) under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, as amended.”Grayscale Investments, LLC (2022)
Additional benefits, advertised by Grayscale, to purchase the GBTC include tax-advantaged account eligibility, “titled, auditable ownership [of a crypto asset] through a traditional investment vehicle”, publicly quoted price (OTCQX®: GBTC), and support from a network of trusted providers (this is where they let you know they have hired global financial services legal tycoon Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP). Why is that relevant?
The SEC’s Ruling on Grayscale’s Bitcoin Spot ETF
At the top of Grayscale’s website, you’ll see a banner with a hyperlink stating, “We’ve received a decision in our application to convert GBTC to an ETF”. That’s the real storyline here. It’s not the GBTC, it’s the fact that the SEC has disallowed Grayscale to convert the GBTC into a Bitcoin spot ETF. The concise version of the SEC’s 86-page decision can be captured in the following paragraph:
“This order disapproves the proposed rule change, as modified by Amendment No. 1. The Commission concludes that NYSE Arca has not met its burden under the Exchange Act and the Commission’s Rules of Practice to demonstrate that its proposal is consistent with the requirements of Exchange Act Section 6(b)(5), which requires, in relevant part, that the rules of a national securities exchange be ‘designed to prevent fraudulent and manipulative acts and practices’ and ‘to protect investors and the public interest.’’’SEC, Release No. 34-95180; File No. SR-NYSEArca-2021-90 (July 22, 2022)
Grayscale immediately responded by hiring former U.S. Solicitor General, Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. – best known for arguing President Obama’s ACA (Affordable Care Act) successfully before the US Supreme Court – who filed an appeal of the SEC’s ruling. Grayscale says they had no choice but to escalate the matter, given the “SEC’s arbitrary and capricious actions and discriminatory treatment of issuers”. The appeal seems to be almost exclusively relying on the argument that the SEC has allowed multiple Bitcoin futures ETFs into the marketplace. Furthermore, since their treatment of futures and spots of derivatives is generally similar, they are unjustly denying investors access to a new marketplace: Bitcoin spot ETFs. GBTC has the potential to become the first Bitcoin spot ETF to be approved by the SEC.
A High-Level Look at GBTC’s Financials
Below you can see some basic financials on GBTC from Grayscale’s website. They include the CUSIP (389637109), where we’ll use Bloomberg to investigate GBTC’s high-level financials.
The “Key Statistics” from Bloomberg for CUSIP 389637109 as of Tuesday August 9th, 2022 (GBTC US) are below.
Looking at the YTD, 1-year, 3-year, and 5-year average returns, in the context of converting this Bitcoin asset to a spot ETF, is the SEC wrong when they say Grayscale is breaking an SEC rule that “requires, in relevant part, that the rules of a national securities exchange be ‘designed to prevent fraudulent and manipulative acts and practices’ and ‘to protect investors and the public interest’”? In other words, is introducing a Bitcoin spot ETF into the marketplace more dangerous than a Bitcoin futures ETF?
Bitcoin Futures ETFs vs. Bitcoin Spot ETFs
While we’re not opining on a question that’s currently an open legal issue, perhaps understanding the difference would help. A spot Bitcoin ETF brings many (almost all) of the benefits of a futures ETF. Some include investing in Bitcoin without using an exchange, paying less in fees than on a crypto exchange, and streamlining the overall process (Moeller, Cointelegraph). However, a spot ETF invests in Bitcoin on the spot.
With a Bitcoin spot ETF, you invest in Bitcoin at its spot price, meaning buyers will be holding Bitcoin within their portfolio. In practice, it’d be very much like buying a stock. Crypto enthusiasts view a spot ETF as a more legitimate method of investment, therefore Bitcoin would become more legitimized with a SEC-approved Bitcoin spot ETF product.
Futures are defined as “derivative financial contracts that obligate parties to buy or sell an asset at a predetermined future date and price” (Investopedia, 2022). So, what’s the key difference? With a Bitcoin spot ETF, you have immediate ownership of Bitcoin. When you purchase a Bitcoin futures ETF, you’re effectively just betting on the market, depending on if you choose to take a long or short position. But purchasing a Bitcoin futures ETF by no means entails immediate ownership of Bitcoin as an asset. If you’re going to purchase a SEC-approved Bitcoin spot ETF in the future, as one does not exist today, it’s critical to understand you’ll immediately add Bitcoin to your asset portfolio.
GBTC’s Primary Differentiator: Security
That seems to circle back to Grayscale’s initial pitch of the GBTC having “robust security and storage”. The SEC appears to be making less of a comment on the GBTC than they are about Bitcoin in general. A Bitcoin spot ETF can only be rejected for the reasons given by the SEC if they felt that Bitcoin was too susceptible to “fraudulent and manipulative acts”. Through strategic marketing, Grayscale is looking to differentiate their potential Bitcoin spot ETF product as completely secure. Furthermore, they’ve had the longest and most hopeful petition to the SEC for a Bitcoin spot ETF, with initial efforts dating back to 2016 (Moeller, Cointelegraph). Over six years later, Grayscale remains just as committed to convert the GBTC to Bitcoin’s first SEC-approved spot ETF. Whether or not they’ll be successful is still very much an open question. It’s worth noting that Grayscale’s Bitcoin Trust (GBTC) is the world’s only SEC-approved, publicly traded “Bitcoin Trust”. A “Bitcoin Trust” can be very closely compared to a private-placement trust. It trades just like a stock over the counter. That existing confidence, along with potential first-mover market advantage, would certainly give Grayscale a huge reason to seek to overturn the SEC’s latest official ruling.
For reference, if you want to investigate a few of the best-known Bitcoin futures ETFs, they include ProShares BITO Bitcoin futures ETF, Valkyrie Bitcoin Strategy ETF, and VanEck Bitcoin Strategy ETF. The ProShares BITO Bitcoin futures ETF currently holds around $1B in investments (Moeller, Cointelegraph). For a look closer at information and BITO’s financials, they’re listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE: Arca). For additional information on Grayscale Investments or the GBTC, their website can be found here.