What Does the ETF Approval Mean for Bitcoin? - Bitfinex blog
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What Does the ETF Approval Mean for Bitcoin?

The highly anticipated approval of Bitcoin ETFs by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) marks a historical moment in cryptocurrency markets. By facilitating easy access to Bitcoin through traditional investment channels, these ETFs could attract a broader range of investors and possibly lead to a significant influx of capital into the cryptocurrency market. This decision by the SEC, therefore, holds considerable weight in shaping the future of Bitcoin investment, moving forward.

What is a Bitcoin ETF?

A Bitcoin exchange-traded fund (ETF) provides investors with an accessible path to engage with Bitcoin through established stock markets and brokerage accounts, circumventing the necessity to directly purchase or sell the digital currency itself, on cryptocurrency exchanges, or Peer to Peer (P2P).

While several nations, including Canada and certain European countries, have already authorised such ETFs, the United States has up until now, sanctioned only Bitcoin futures ETFs. These U.S. approved ETFs are linked to contracts derived from Bitcoin’s value, as opposed to the actual digital currency. As a condition of the SEC’s approval, The regulatory body will prevent potential ETF providers from utilising Bitcoin in in-kind redemption processes, preferring instead that these transactions be conducted using fiat currency.

The anticipation leading up to this historic approval of these Bitcoin ETFs stems from the ETF’s ability to potentially widen Bitcoin’s investor base. This is because ETFs can be bought through traditional investment channels, attracting institutional investors who are obligated to invest in and prefer regulated products.

Investing in a Bitcoin ETF presents several advantages over directly purchasing the cryptocurrency. These include not having to manage the storage of crypto, the regulatory comfort provided by ETFs, and the established track record of conventional brokerages compared to crypto exchanges. Additionally, the tax implications and guidance are clearer for traditional financial products than for digital assets.

By tracking the value of Bitcoin, the ETF enables investors to partake in the financial performance of the largest, most popular, leading digital asset through a familiar and accessible format, similar to trading traditional stocks. This structure alleviates the technical burden of managing a cryptocurrency wallet, safeguarding private keys, and navigating the nuances of crypto exchanges.

It essentially removes the barriers of entry for those who are interested in the Bitcoin market but are deterred by the intricacies of handling crypto directly. Consequently, it provides a streamlined and simplified investment avenue, while retaining the dynamic and potentially lucrative nature of Bitcoin’s market movements.

However, it’s not all peaches and cream, there are also downsides to consider. Crypto markets operate 24/7, whereas ETFs are limited to stock exchange hours and are closed on weekends and nights. While holding Bitcoin incurs no fees, ETFs do charge management fees, and investing in them requires trusting third-party custodians. The ETFs may be subject to stricter regulatory and tax reporting burdens. Holding Bitcoin directly, gives users more freedom and control over their Satoshis, although self custody does have a bit of a learning curve which new Bitcoiners must adapt to.

Spearheaded by BlackRock’s application for a Bitcoin ETF that was proposed last year, major traditional financial firms have also stepped forward with their own applications. Now that approvals are beginning to come through, Bitcoin ETFs could funnel a substantial influx of investment into Bitcoin, leveraging the ease of trading ETFs through conventional brokerage accounts.

Several traditional and crypto-native firms followed BlackRock’s lead in applying for Bitcoin ETFs, including Valkyrie, Franklin Templeton, ArkInvest, Grayscale, WisdomTree, Invesco Galaxy, VanEck, Bitwise and Fidelity. Indeed Grayscale has been a longstanding applicant, seeking to convert its Grayscale Bitcoin Trust into an ETF. Grayscale arguably was responsible for triggering the rush to apply to list an ETF after it took the SEC to court for consistently rejecting its application and received judgement  in August 2023, when a U.S. court directed the SEC to reconsider its application rejection. 

With the approval of Bitcoin ETFs, we can expect portfolio managers and advisors to recommend a small allocation of Bitcoin ETF shares to both institutional and retail clients alike, opening the floodgates to capital deployment from hedge funds, insurance companies, endowments and foundations, family offices, wealth advisors, retail funds, VC firms, banks, and other financial institutions.

The History of Bitcoin ETFs, Leading to Today’s Historic Decision

The journey toward the successful establishment of regulated Bitcoin ETFs in the U.S. has been a lengthy and complex process, marked by both scepticism, rejections, hype, and anticipation. Many potential investors find the process of buying Bitcoin from a crypto exchange daunting and perplexing, especially when it comes to understanding crypto wallets, Bitcoin addresses, and private keys. 

This complexity has significantly heightened the allure of a Bitcoin ETF, an investment vehicle that offers a more accessible and familiar route into Bitcoin investment through traditional financial channels. It is expected that institutional and retail investors will be incentivised to invest in Bitcoin, now that the process will be simplified, and now more similar to traditional securities investments.

Despite the compelling demand, the SEC was initially resistant towards granting approval for Bitcoin ETFs for quite some time, although major financial entities like BlackRock, Fidelity, and Invesco were among those who submitted applications. Grayscale’s prolonged struggle to launch a Bitcoin ETF might also be nearing a positive conclusion, following the positive court hearing in August last year. 

Globally, other countries have been more proactive, with Bitcoin ETFs already operational in Canada, Brazil, and several European nations. These ETFs, by nature, are traded on traditional stock exchanges and track the performance of an underlying asset, in this case, Bitcoin. They offer a straightforward and regulated avenue for investors to gain exposure to Bitcoin’s market movements, without the direct ownership of the cryptocurrency.

The first proposal for a Bitcoin ETF in the US, was made in 2013 by the Winklevoss twins with their Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust. Despite multiple attempts and filings by various firms over the years, the SEC consistently refrained from approving any spot Bitcoin ETF, citing concerns over market volatility and potential manipulation. However, the landscape began to shift with Canada’s launch of its first Bitcoin ETF in February 2021, followed by ETFs in other countries.

The approval of a Bitcoin ETF in the United States, which boasts the world’s largest and most influential capital markets, represents a pivotal moment in the mainstream acceptance and integration of Bitcoin into the global financial system. Given the U.S.’s dominant role in global finance, the recent approval of a Bitcoin ETF could signal a broad legitimisation of cryptocurrency as a viable asset class, attracting a substantial influx of institutional and retail investment. 

Although it is still too soon to tell, Bitcoin ETFs are predicted to catalyse a significant increase in Bitcoin’s market capitalisation and also mark a milestone in the evolution of digital assets in general, influencing global regulatory and investment trends. It could open doors for further innovation and investment in the crypto space, bridging the gap and blurring the lines between traditional finance and the ever-evolving world of digital currencies, setting a precedent for other nations in their approach to cryptocurrency regulation and adoption.

What Do the ETFs Mean For Bitcoin as a Tool for Freedom?

The anticipation surrounding Bitcoin ETFs has been met with a mix of excitement and concern within the cryptocurrency community. On one hand, ETFs are hailed for their potential to mainstream Bitcoin, offering an accessible investment avenue that could significantly broaden its investor base and, by extension, potentially stabilise and increase its market value. This mainstreaming is seen as a crucial step in legitimising cryptocurrencies in the eyes of traditional financial institutions and regulatory bodies.

However, there are growing concerns that the institutionalisation and regulatory oversight accompanying Bitcoin ETFs might lead to what some perceive as the “taming” or “capture” of Bitcoin. As ETFs bring Bitcoin closer into the fold of traditional finance, they subject it to increased regulatory scrutiny and compliance requirements. This shift could potentially undermine some of the fundamental “freedom first” principles that Bitcoin was built upon, like decentralisation, resistance to censorship, privacy, and financial autonomy.

Critics argue that the process of integrating Bitcoin into regulated financial products like ETFs could lead to a form of regulatory capture. This could see Bitcoin being increasingly influenced by the very financial systems and structures it was designed to challenge, possibly diminishing its role as a tool for financial freedom and empowerment, especially for individuals. 

Institutional adoption, while beneficial in terms of investment and growth, might also lead to a scenario where the original ethos of Bitcoin which is to serve as a decentralised, censorship-resistant, peer-to-peer financial system is diluted in favour of traditional legacy financial models and interests.

In essence, while Bitcoin ETFs present a significant opportunity for growth and acceptance of cryptocurrencies, they also raise important questions about the future direction of Bitcoin and its core values in the face of increased institutionalisation and regulatory involvement.

The influx of a large quantity of mainstream investors into Bitcoin through ETFs is likely to bring a shift in the overall perception and ethos surrounding the cryptocurrency. Unlike early Bitcoin adopters, who were driven by a strong belief in decentralisation, privacy, financial autonomy, being permissionless, and Austrian School economic policies, these new entrants may not share the same philosophical underpinnings or appreciation for Bitcoin’s core principles. 

As a result, the fundamental tenets and objectives that have been central to Bitcoin’s early narrative could become diluted. This new wave of investors will most likely prioritise investment returns and market performance over the ideological and societal change aspects that have been central to Bitcoin’s community and development decisions.

Consequently, this could lead to a reorientation of the discourse around Bitcoin, focusing more on its financial potential rather than its revolutionary aspects as a decentralised P2P digital currency, which offers the prospect of financial freedom and has the potential to fundamentally improve shortcomings in our global financial system.

There is also a cautionary stance among Bitcoin enthusiasts and market analysts about the potential for Bitcoin ETFs to inadvertently create a scenario of “Paper Bitcoin” that isn’t backed by actual Bitcoin. This concern stems from the fear that these ETFs could lead to a form of fractional reserve system in the Bitcoin market. 

In such a system, more shares or claims on Bitcoin could be issued than there is actual Bitcoin held by the ETFs, effectively exceeding Bitcoin’s hard cap of 21 million coins. For example, in the global gold market, it is said that as many as 293 paper ounces of gold exist for every physical ounce of gold. Critics believe Bitcoin ETFs could lead to a similar dilution in terms of paper Bitcoin.

This could undermine one of Bitcoin’s fundamental principles, specifically its limited supply of 21 million coins, which is a key factor in its value proposition as a scarce digital asset. Such a development could lead to a disconnect between the actual supply of Bitcoin and the perceived supply, potentially destabilising its market dynamics and valuation.

Despite the concerns from the more die hard, idealistic side of the Bitcoin community, Bitcoin ETFs represent a significant development for individual, retail investors, often referred to as “the little guy”, who are not part of institutional or large Wall Street entities.

The implications for these individual investors are multifaceted, and do provide several key benefits for a certain type of investor. Bitcoin ETFs provide an easier entry point into cryptocurrency investments for those who may find the process of buying and storing actual Bitcoin intimidating or beyond their technical capacity. 

This accessibility is particularly beneficial for those who are familiar with traditional investment platforms but are new to the complexities of cryptocurrency, and the potentially devastating consequences involved with not custodying their coins correctly. Improved accessibility eliminates the learning curve associated with direct cryptocurrency investments, making it more approachable for the average person.

By investing in a Bitcoin ETF, individuals can gain exposure to Bitcoin’s price movements without the risks associated with securing and storing the digital asset themselves. This aspect is particularly appealing to those wary of the security concerns surrounding cryptocurrency holdings, such as hacking and theft.

For those looking to diversify their investment portfolio, a Bitcoin ETF provides an opportunity to gain exposure to cryptocurrency as an asset class, without needing to fully commit to the crypto ecosystem or understand its technicalities.

Bitcoin ETFs can democratise access to Bitcoin investments, offering a familiar, regulated, and potentially less risky avenue for individual and institutional investors to gain exposure to Bitcoin’s price movements. However, they also come with certain limitations, potential regulatory risks, and costs that direct cryptocurrency investments do not have, and which idealists, cypherpunks, and freedom-committed individuals may prefer to avoid.