Caitlin Long: ICE Cryptocurrency A “Double-Edged Sword”

By: Caitlin Long
Bitcoin

Caitlin Long, a 22-year Wall Street veteran and a leader in the cryptocurrency sphere, recently took to Forbes to write about the pros and cons of the Intercontinental Exchange (parent of the New York Stock Exchange) announcement that it is building “a new ecosystem for cryptocurrencies.” As she explains, while this is a major leap forward in the “normalization” of crypto, she has some concerns about what a growing role for Wall Street in the industry:

Positives

Bakkt is yet more evidence that incumbent institutions are increasingly taking the “join ‘em” approach to cryptocurrencies, as explored in Part 1 of my 3-part series about the building rivalry between cryptocurrencies and Wall Street. Bakkt could bring many positives to cryptocurrencies:

it will likely attract more institutional investors to cryptocurrencies,

it may solve the custody problem that has so far kept large institutions from investing in the cryptocurrency asset class due to the absence of a qualified custodian, which the SEC requires for investment advisors that manage $150 million or more,

it may help regulators become more comfortable with the sector to see ICE involved, and

most importantly—it will probably attract corporate issuers to raise capital using the Bakkt ecosystem. Cryptocurrencies offer issuers the prospect of covenant-free and preference-free capital at low cost. Investors have proven their willingness—rational, in my view—to trade standard investor protections in return for the low friction costs involved with cryptocurrencies—there are no underwriters, trustees, transfer agents, exchanges, custodians, clearinghouses or central securities depositories involved in cryptocurrency issuance, and—very importantly—cryptocurrency trades settle instantly and with no counterparty risk. Moreover, issuers incur only a small percentage of the costs of being a public company, such as investor relations costs, proxy solicitation costs and the significant compliance costs related to public-company financial reporting and auditing. Additionally, cryptocurrency issuers can repurchase coins or execute a tender/exchange offer much more efficiently than for traditional securities.

I doubt it will be very long before major corporate issuers join Telegram and Eastman Kodak in raising capital via these markets. This is the good type of financialization—attracting new investors to the networks, each of whom (in proof-of-work blockchains) makes the networks more secure by bringing new computer resources to the networks, directly or indirectly on their behalf—and that, in turn, makes the networks more decentralized, resilient and immune to attack.

Kudos to ICE for being first!

Negatives

But ICE’s news also has downsides. As explored in Part 2 of the 3-part series just two days ago, Wall Street’s only shot at controlling cryptocurrencies is to financialize them via leverage—by creating more financial claims to the coins than there are underlying coins and thereby influencing the underlying coin prices via derivatives markets. It’s pretty much impossible at this point for anyone to gain control of the Bitcoin network (and likely the other big cryptocurrency networks too), so Wall Street’s only major avenue for controlling them is to financialize them via leverage.

The financial system has perfected the art of leverage-based financialization, unfortunately, and ICE’s announcement about plans to launch a regulated, physical bitcoin futures contract and warehouse (subject to CFTC approval) in November means leverage-based financialization is likely coming to bitcoin in a big way.

This is exactly what I’d warned of in Part 2:

“As cryptocurrency markets develop further, here’s what I’ll be on the lookout for: financial institutions beginning to create claims against cryptocurrencies that are not fully backed by the underlying coins (which could take the form of margin loans, coin lending / rehypothecation, coin-settled futures contracts, or ETFs that don’t 100% track the underlying coins at any given moment). None of these are happening in the market yet, though.

“So far, regulators have only allowed bitcoin derivatives in cash-settled form among major derivatives counterparties. While cash-settled derivatives can affect the price of the underlying asset, the magnitude of the impact is lower than the impact if derivatives were settled in an underlying that is “hard to borrow” or “special” (using securities lending parlance). Bitcoin is especially “hard to borrow” so a requirement to deliver the underlying bitcoins into derivatives contracts would amplify bitcoin’s price fluctuations.

Eventually it’s likely regulators will approve bitcoin-settled derivatives among major derivatives counterparties. At that point, banks will be looking to borrow the underlying bitcoin—and that’s when the custodial arrangements made by institutional investors will start to matter. Will custodians make their custodied coins available for borrowing in “coin lending markets” as they do with securities lending today? Or will they deem the cybersecurity risks of lending coins (which entails revealing private keys) too high relative to the extra return available for coin lending? And will institutional investors even allow coin lending by their custodians? Regardless, when bitcoin-settled derivatives appear on the scene, it’s very likely that cryptocurrencies will be “hard to borrow” for quite some time because HODLers (long-term holders) own most coins and rarely use custodians.” (emphasis added)

Why does this matter? Bitcoin has algorithmically-enforced scarcity, and that’s a big part of what gives it value. If Wall Street begins to create claims to bitcoin out of thin air, unbacked by actual bitcoin, then Wall Street will succeed in offsetting that scarcity to some degree.

Read the rest of the article here

For more on this topic, listen to Cailtin Long’s talk at our recent Future of Money conference in San Francisco. 

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