In the latter half of 2018, few developments have occupied crypto investors’ headspaces like the industry’s indefatigable pursuit of a bitcoin exchange traded fund (ETF).
This conversation lay largely dormant since the two brothers’ first attempt was rejected by the U.S. securities regulator in March of 2017. But the Winklevosses reignited the conversation when their second attempt at an ETF was shot down by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in July of this year.
With the buzz back, the prospect (or failing prospects) of a bitcoin ETF have crowded the headlines of mainstream and crypto media alike. Following the Winklevosses’ failure to secure the coveted first-in-the-industry fund, the ensuing months would see a flurry of decision delays for existing applications, more rejections and revisions of said rejections.
The sheer volume of news surrounding ETFs — and the general complexity of the asset when compared to the simplicity of trading on the bitcoin spot market — makes the industry’s pursuit of one a rich and even abstruse topic.
So let’s see if we can set the record straight.
What an ETF Is and What It Means for Bitcoin
To start, a short explanation: an ETF is a fund that holds an underlying asset or assets, be they stocks, commodities, bonds, etc., which are then divided into shares for investors to buy. In structure, an ETF functions like a hedge fund, the primary difference being that an ETF is traded on a public market like shares of a stock, while a hedge fund is not.
With that primer in mind, we can now unpack the processes and jargon that constitute an ETF’s many working parts.
Typically, an ETF features four primary stakeholders:
- a sponsor (the entity who creates the ETF)
- a custodian (the entity who stores and manages the underlying asset/s)
- authorized participants (financial institutions or accredited individuals who create and redeem a block of the ETF’s shares)
- shareholders/investors (those who purchase the shares on the open market)
More or less, authorized participants and sponsors are in charge of the ETF’s supply. The participants create or redeem blocks of shares (called creation units) directly from the sponsor; typically, these creation units are settled in-kind, meaning they are purchased for or redeemed in the underlying asset. Once participants have purchased creation units, these units are then divided into shares and traded on public exchanges.
For bitcoin, an ETF would function similarly to ETFs for other commodities like gold and silver. Its sponsor, most likely a trust of sorts, would employ the help of a custodian to store the physical bitcoins backing the ETFs (or, in the case of futures, the futures contracts) and related cash flow, and it would also rely on eager financial institutions to jumpstart circulation by purchasing shares to trade on a regulated, legacy exchange like the NYSE, CME or Cboe.
Many investors see the bitcoin ETF as the hitherto undiscovered holy grail of institutional-grade bitcoin investments, something that could push the market to new heights. In the broader market, ETFs are considered to be a low-barrier, low-cost alternative to other investment vehicles like hedge funds, and per this rationale, community members in favor of a bitcoin ETF say it would finally give institutional investors easy, reliable access to the crypto market. Supporting this thesis, proponents often point to the impacts ETFs had on the underlying gold market, noting that bitcoin would likely experience a similar price stimulation.
Detractors don’t think this is a good thing. They believe that, by encouraging a flood of institutional money, a bitcoin ETF would drown the market in inflated valuations, an argument critics in other markets have made by insisting that ETFs distort prices and liquidity. So the argument goes: Why would we create an investment vessel that could leave bitcoin susceptible to the same inflationary threats that it was created to avoid?