Why the SEC will Ultimately Deny VanEck’s Third Application for a Bitcoin Spot ETF and What it Means for Digital Assets

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Late last month, August 2022, the SEC announced a 45-day delay to rule on VanEck’s third Bitcoin Spot ETF application. This comes on the heels of the SEC denying Grayscale’s GBTC – an SEC backed Bitcoin Trust – conversion to a spot ETF, as well as Bitwise Asset Management’s application for a spot ETF, on the same day in late June 2022. VanEck currently has an SEC-backed Bitcoin futures ETF, the “VanEck Bitcoin Strategy ETF” (Cboe: XBTF). Their two previous applications for a Bitcoin spot ETF were rejected first in 2017, then late in 2021. VanEck is considered somewhat of an “investment giant”, with roughly $65B currently in AUM.

Grayscale, with roughly $20M in AUM and a digital asset manager giant themselves, a subsidiary of Digital Currency Group (DCG) – who’s also the parent company of CoinDesk – sued the SEC immediately after they rejected the GBTC’s conversion from a SEC-backed Bitcoin Trust to a SEC-backed spot ETF. A ruling from a Federal Appellate Court is expected sometime in Q4 2023 or Q1 2024.

Why Will the SEC Reject VanEck’s Application for a Bitcoin Spot ETF a Third Time?

A better way to phrase the question is: why wouldn’t they? Has anything dramatically changed about either the SEC’s mandates, Bitcoin, market conditions, or is VanEck’s application unique? No, for all the above. VanEck’s Bitcoin spot ETF, which they’ve proposed to list on the Cboe BZX Exchange, would still create direct Bitcoin ownership for investors who purchased it. In my opinion, the SEC’s had to issue a 45-day delay because VanEck’s argument appears to differ from Grayscale’s. VanEck isn’t relying on a futures versus spot Exchanged Traded Fund [ETF] derivative comparison. Rather, they’re urging the SEC to reconsider because investors can access Bitcoin spot ETFs through our neighbors in Canada.

They’re not wrong. As early as February 2021, Canada became one of the first countries in the world to place a Bitcoin spot ETF on one of their national exchanges. But given that was back in February 2021, the question remains: what’s changed? It’s completely unrealistic for the SEC to admit they weren’t aware of a Bitcoin spot ETF on a Canadian exchange. Hypothetically, it would very likely give Grayscale the green light to pursue further, more substantial legal action against the SEC.

At the time Grayscale’s GBTC was rejected, many analysts cited the heightened potential for fraud and malpractice amongst digital assets being a key reason institutional investors, who generally purchase far more spot products than futures derivatives (as part of their traditional investment strategies), should not get access to an SEC-backed Bitcoin spot ETF yet. They said digital currency exchanges needed total transparency inside their marketplaces, like the DOW and NASDAQ. While this flies in the face of many reasons investors purchase digital assets and it’s not practical, it didn’t matter. That’s what the institutional investor community who was with the SEC just two months back demanded. VanEck is not purely a digital asset manager like Grayscale and in terms of AUM, they’re over 3 times larger.

As another interesting reference point VanEck currently has 3 CO (Commodity) ETFs. The first is XBFT (Bitcoin Strategy ETF) and the second is OUNZ (VanEck Merk Gold ETF). XBFT has $19.2M in total net assets, while OUNZ has $600.4M. Interestingly, VanEck offers 65 EFT products and only 3 fall in the Commodities Asset Class. The other 62 are split between Fixed Income (Corporate, International, & Municipal Bonds, Rates products, etc.) and Equity ETFs. VanEck’s GDX has $9.4B in total net assets, while their ITM has 1,939 holdings (September 2, 2022). The XBFT has just $19.2M in total net assets and only 8 people holding it (September 2, 2022). Of the roughly $65B VanEck has in AUM, XBFT – a Bitcoin futures ETF – represents around .002% of their investment portfolio.

Concisely, VanEck is a bigger, more established firm that has broader appeal to institutional investors already compared to Grayscale, who owns roughly 3.5% of all of Bitcoin and is purely a digital asset manager. They have the first SEC-approved Bitcoin Trust ETF with GBTC, trading on the NASDAQ. They are doing their best to bring digital assets to institutional investors. That’s why they’ve gone all out for a Bitcoin spot ETF, whereas VanEck seems to have strategically made a push when they’ve felt they had a compelling case.

Does the SEC’s 45-Delay Mean VanEck has a Real Chance?

I believe it means they have a better chance, but will ultimately suffer the same fate as Grayscale and Bitwise. I don’t even think it gives them much of a better chance; only if the SEC makes an unexpected blunder. Nothing has changed about their concerns related to GBTC that would warrant VanEck’s application to get approved.

“The Commission [SEC] finds that it is appropriate to designate a longer period within which to take action on the proposed rule change so that it has sufficient time to consider the proposed rule change and the issues raised therein.”
-SEC Spokesperson, in a letter to VanEck (August 2022)

The verbiage in this quote seems to be hinting that the SEC is actually considering accepting VanEck’s argument. However, the SEC issuing a delay on a ruling isn’t exactly breaking news. They’ve shot down over a dozen attempts at a Bitcoin spot ETF in the last 12-month calendar year alone. There is no new information to indicate Bitcoin is any less susceptible to fraud – thereby posting inherent investor risk – than two months ago. The SEC is buying time in hopes of making a more compelling case regarding Bitcoin spot ETF’s in Canadian markets. What’s going to make more headlines in 45 days, the macroeconomic conditions from rising rates, inflation, and other recessionary indicators, or the SEC rejected the 15th (or so) Bitcoin spot ETF in the last year? After all, the SEC isn’t completely unaware of the current dynamics in financial markets.

If VanEck is Ultimately Denied, What Does that Mean for Cryptocurrency?

The overall impact is unlikely to be large, unless the SEC gets unpredictable here. Assuming they stay consistent with their rationale, this matter will go back to the DC Appellate Courts. But if you’re an institutional investor of SEC-approved Bitcoin assets, you’re not going to be majorly impacted by this. Inflation and rising interest rates? That will likely negatively impact at risk assets across the board and digital assets are certainly in that category. But the long-term ramifications for Bitcoin from this latest SEC ruling are likely to be very minimal.

Just to end with a key point we just touched on, watch out for at risk assets considering this is very likely going to be the realest felt recession since 2008. There won’t be a major economic downturn because we’ve learned our lessons from 2008, but investors will sell off at-risk assets as soon as financial markets show signs of destabilization. Digital assets in an investor’s portfolio will be one of the first to go. Combined with the seasonality of Bitcoin slumps, expect the price to drop below 15,000 and who knows how much lower. How much lower would it take for the strongest crypto asset enthusiasts to wave the red flag? Would that ever happen? Only time will tell, but again, considering we have a lot of indications a recession is coming, taking a bullish position on Bitcoin in the short-term is unwise at best.