The big financial headline this week is the introduction of the first-ever bitcoin-linked exchange-traded fund, which made its debut on Tuesday.
The ProShares Bitcoin Strategy ETF (ticker: BITO) is a possible game-changer and can be looked at in many ways, but it’s not the bitcoin fund investors have been waiting and hoping for.
Plenty of investors have no interest in bitcoin and cryptocurrency at all, but there is no denying that crypto is gaining grudging acceptance with the financial advisory community, which historically has had stodgy thinking when it comes to anything new and different. Mainstream financial advisers have become increasingly comfortable with the idea of ordinary investors considering cryptocurrency an asset class, a part of a broadly diversified portfolio strategy.
Bitcoin sharpies and traders — the true believers who have fueled the crypto investment craze — have been all-in for years, and have the big profits to show for it. But Main Street investors weren’t so intrigued with an asset they couldn’t buy easily in their standard brokerage account, and that involved a special electronic wallet or trading platform to add a small position.
The long-awaited solution, of course, is to make bitcoin available in the form of traditional mutual funds or exchange-traded funds. While there have been a few crypto-oriented funds, they haven’t actually been investing in the currencies themselves; options like the Bitwise Crypto Industry Innovators ETF (ticker BITQ) are akin to buying gold-mining companies to get exposure to gold, sensitive to moves in the asset price but not the same as holding the asset itself.
Unlike the gold and precious metals ETFs such as SPDR Gold Shares (GLD), which invest in the physical metal, there’s no way for a fund to buy and store “physical” bitcoin; crypto is ethereal, not corporeal, and if you can’t touch it, the Securities and Exchange Commission isn’t sure how a fund that buys and sells an unregulated asset will react.
So while investors want funds that trade crypto at the spot price of bitcoin, what they’re getting instead is what the SEC currently is willing to allow.
Bitcoin futures, as opposed to the actual cryptocurrency, already are regulated and traded on an exchange, which addresses some of regulators’ key concerns over the potential for fraud and market manipulation.
Judging from the SEC’s past statements on the issue, the ProShares fund – and a whole bunch of others that are in the pipeline and likely to come to market in the coming weeks and months – are more “allowed” than “approved.”
An ETF built on buying crypto and tied to the spot or market price is still a ways off.
Yet with the ProShares fund in the news, the question most investors are asking is whether it belongs in their portfolios.
Start answering that question in your own head space rather than the fund marketplace.
Cryptocurrency remains a highly volatile asset class. In investment terms, it’s still new, and there are some well-founded fears from skeptics wondering what, exactly, drives its market value and whether that worth can be sustained.
Speaking historically, investors have a tough time with volatile asset classes, buying and selling at the wrong times; they get excited by gains and defeated by drops and the resulting performance is disappointing, even when the underlying asset gains in value.
ETFs will make it easier to ride along with crypto, but if you’re not prepared to go for the long haul, it’s likely not worth your effort.
The chatter beneath the headlines on the ProShares fund was all about the futures structure; that’s a legitimate concern, but dramatically less important than simply deciding if you want crypto now.
Still, you need to know how a futures fund will work and the potential trouble spots.
Futures-based funds typically focus on “front-month” futures contracts, the ones with the nearest expiration date, with some leeway to go out longer. When those contracts expire, the money must be reinvested; if the price of bitcoin is spiking, the next futures contracts will be priced way above the ones that a fund owns, which means that the fund will be routinely and systematically selling low and buying high.
At its worst, the pricing curve goes “contango,” a situation where money can be lost simply trying to retain exposure to the underlying commodity (in this case, bitcoin).
That’s how a futures fund sometimes gets away from the spot prices, something seen in the past with volatile ETFs trading in oil and natural-gas futures.
Another concern for a hot futures-based fund is that there is a limit on how many futures contracts these funds can own; if the funds must run up against that boundary and stop issuing new shares as a result, the ETFs could trade at a premium to their underlying net asset value. That sounds good, but typically isn’t for reasons too technical to cover here.
If this all sounds complicated — even as cryptocurrency sounds enticing as an alternative asset in your portfolio — the right strategy might be to wait a little longer.
One thing is clear about cryptocurrency: It’s not going away, and with funds in registration from the likes of Ark Invest, VanEck, Valkyrie Digital Investments and many others – plus Grayscale Investments’ efforts to turn its Grayscale Bitcoin Trust into an ETF – there will be many more options to choose from in the near future.
In time, investors can expect some resolution to allow for a fund that trades at the spot price of crypto too.
But no one needs to rush into these issues to be “first.” Crypto has now been around for over a decade — bitcoin was created in 2009 on the heels of the financial crisis the prior year — so unless you were an early-adopter the revolution started without you.
If cryptocurrency has matured into an asset class that will be considered for a small part of the average investor’s portfolio — and it has — and you’re considering it, wait for the tools to develop, mature and prove something before taking the risk.