The Big Banks Are Coming For Bitcoin
No matter what Jamie Dimon may say, bitcoin’s durability can be expressed by one simple fact: With a market cap of $100 billion, digital currencies have become too big for banks to ignore.
As Bloomberg recalls in a story about how banks are preparing to confront the thorny regulatory issues related to dealing in bitcoin and other digital currencies, on the same day Dimon trashed bitcoin, calling it a “fraud,” his firm’s private bank hosted a panel featuring cryptocurrency investors, and even helped some wealthy clients transact in a bitcoin exchange-traded product listed in Stockholm, raising questions about whether the bank violated its fiduciary duty in doing so.
Dimon isn’t the only one of his peers to harbor reservations about bitcoin. Bridgewater Associates’ Ray Dalio and BlackRock’s Larry Fink have criticized it as a “bubble” and a “a tool used by criminals.” Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman defended bitcoin, arguing that it is “more than just a fad.”
But with clients demanding bitcoin exposure in greater numbers, banks have little choice but to assent to their demands, like JPM did. Goldman’s tentative embrace of bitcoin has so far also been the most ambitious, with the firm saying it is considering opening a bitcoin-trading business that would function like an interdealer broker for exchanges and large players.
Two days ago, Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein tweeted that he’s still on the fence about bitcoin, and that he’s “not endorsing or rejecting” the digital currency.
Still thinking about #Bitcoin. No conclusion – not endorsing/rejecting. Know that folks also were skeptical when paper money displaced gold.
— Lloyd Blankfein (@lloydblankfein) October 3, 2017
But for banks hoping to enter the bitcoin business, many unanswered questions remain. For example, how do banks that are required by law to prevent money-laundering handle a currency that’s not issued by a government and that keeps its users anonymous?
According to Bloomberg, handling bitcoin would invite scrutiny from every major U.S. regulator, according to Joshua Satten, director of emerging technologies at Sapient Consulting.
“From the perspective of the U.S. Treasury, do you classify it as an asset class or a currency?” Satten said. “If banks are starting to manage and hold bitcoin for their clients, you would have the OCC and the FDIC looking at how they classify the assets on their balance sheet and how they state the assets for the portfolio of a client.”
However, the advent of cryptocurrency focused hedge funds like the $500 million crypto-focused fund being planned by Mike Novogratz means that banks risk falling behind their competitors if they hesitate.
Already, there are 75 funds investing in the space, according to Autonomous Research.
And that number will likely rise after the Chicago Board Options Exchange introduces bitcoin futures and options, which it says it’s planning on doing some time next year, making it easier for traditional investors to gain exposure to bitcoin.
Other potential applications for bitcoin that are being considered by banks include derivatives contracts and using the digital currency for trade finance, Bloomberg reported. For regulators considering how to move forward, Switzerland created a precedent over the summer when it granted a license to Falcon Bank to transact in bitcoin on behalf of its wealth-management clients.
However, while an endorsement by the banks would help cement bitcoin’s reputation as a legitimate asset, it could also bring changes as regulators demand more transparency. After all, the lack of transparency and the difficulty enforcing financial laws were both cited by the SEC as reasons for the rejecting two proposed bitcoin ETFs back in March.
Assuming US regulators assent to allowing banks to deal in bitcoin, the fundamental question then becomes: Will the banks change bitcoin? Or will bitcoin change the banks?