Bitcoin Was Left for Dead. Why Wall Street Is Bringing It Back to Life. - Kanebridge News
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Bitcoin Was Left for Dead. Why Wall Street Is Bringing It Back to Life.

A crash and the FTX scandal left the crypto’s reputation in tatters. Then ETFs gave it respectability.

Wed, Apr 10, 2024 11:30amGrey Clock 7 min

Andrew Pratt doesn’t expect pushback when he pitches Bitcoin to his firm’s investment committee this week. Bitcoin’s 140% surge in the past year has all but erased memories of the crypto crash and scandals. And now that companies like BlackRock are backing Bitcoin funds, he sees no harm in adding 1% to some client portfolios.

“The downside, if it were to blow up, is just a percent,” says Pratt, investment manager at Wiser Wealth Management in Marietta, Ga. “But the upside benefits could be very large.”

Debating Bitcoin has come to feel futile. That the token has no underlying value or real-world uses increasingly seems beside the point. Buoyed by a flood of new crypto products and services, Bitcoin has scaled new heights, reaching $1.3 trillion in total market value and lifting the broader token market to $2.5 trillion.

Wall Street, after years of dismissing crypto, is now embracing it as a practical matter: There’s money to be made , fear of missing out, and fewer executives willing to call crypto an emperor with no clothes.

Many strategists argue that crypto remains a speculative trade without much underlying utility. Valuing it remains a black-art exercise of technical analysis, mixed with assumptions about supplies of tokens, demand from U.S. investors and overseas traders, and hopes that Bitcoin will endure as a “store of value” akin to gold . Making it all the more challenging are the opaque nature of crypto markets, thin liquidity and volumes, and valuation models that lack traditional analogues.

“To be a real asset, you have to generate cash flows,” says Barry Bannister, chief equity strategist at Stifel. “It’s also attempting to be a currency, but then it would have to be used for transactions. Until I see Bitcoin transacted in everyday life, it’s not a currency. It’s more of a speculative instrument.”

Yet on Wall Street, executives are now far more supportive. BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, a former critic, epitomises the about-face. BlackRock scored a win with its iShares Bitcoin Trust , part of a crop of such ETFs approved in January. BlackRock’s fund is now the second-largest Bitcoin ETF on the market with nearly $18 billion in assets. And it’s promoted by Fink, who talks up Bitcoin in public, saying that he’s “very bullish” on Bitcoin’s long-term prospects in a recent Fox Business interview.

BlackRock’s backing of a Bitcoin ETF helped convince advisors like Pratt to consider buying some crypto for clients. And Fink is a powerful voice as head of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager with more than $10 trillion under management.

“When Larry speaks, a lot of people listen,” said WisdomTree Head of Digital Assets Will Peck, whose firm also launched a Bitcoin ETF and is creating tokens of assets like Treasuries that customers could then trade in digital wallets.

Some Wall Street firms and asset managers, meanwhile, are putting out lofty price targets for Bitcoin. Bernstein Research in late March raised its year-end price target to $90,000—a gain of 30% from recent prices around $69,000. Ark Invest CEO Cathie Wood, an uber Bitcoin bull, has said she expects the coins to trade above $1 million by 2030.

Bitcoin needs a few things to keep going right to maintain its momentum. Its run-up coincided with rising expectations that the Federal Reserve will soon cut rates; without favourable macro conditions, Bitcoin could slump like other areas of tech.

The price has also risen in anticipation of April’s “halving,” an event that occurs roughly every four years when the amount of Bitcoin that miners receive for processing transactions on the network drops in half. The next halving will cut the reward to 3.125 tokens, reducing new issuance sharply. Bulls see more gains with the event, but J.P. Morgan analysts have said Bitcoin’s price could fall to $42,000 after the halving “euphoria” wears off.

Is Bitcoin really worth $42,000 or $1 million? No one can say, reflecting the fact that Bitcoin lives in a mystery zone of valuation and trading dynamics. The token frequently has massive swings on seemingly little news. Regulators have said that many trading platforms, especially those based abroad, are subject to manipulation and “wash trading,” in which traders exchange tokens with themselves to create artificial volume.

Given the risks, some financial advisors aren’t convinced there’s no harm in owning a touch of Bitcoin. When Pratt mentioned to a colleague at another firm that he was considering adding Bitcoin to client portfolios, the response was, “That’s pretty insane,” Pratt says.

But the fact that traditional firms are now backing crypto may lead more people to invest. “Folks are buying these products assuming they’re legitimate because a legitimate Wall Street actor offers them,” says Mark Hays, a senior policy analyst for the Americans for Financial Reform. “That’s not the case.”

Also worrying to consumer advocates is that investment firms may sell and trade Bitcoin without traditional investor safeguards. Investment banks, for instance, are required to separate their equity research arms from the banking side and must disclose banking relationships; the goal is to avoid conflicts of interest in research. Since Bitcoin isn’t considered a security, such laws potentially don’t apply to it, according to former SEC counsel Tyler Gellasch.

“It’s easy to see the potential for the types of abuses that have plagued the investment research business since its creation,” says Gellasch.

Wall Street has far bigger aspirations for crypto than ETFs. While the products now hold more than $55 billion in assets, they aren’t big fee generators. BlackRock until next January will only charge a 0.12% expense ratio on the first $5 billion in assets of the iShares Bitcoin Trust, with the remaining assets carrying a 0.25% fee. Even after the waiver expires, the fund will only charge a quarter percentage point. Other firms including Invesco , Franklin Resources , and WisdomTree are charging similar fees or less. For firms like BlackRock with $17.9 billion in 2023 revenue, the ETFs alone won’t move the needle.

The real prize for much of Wall Street will be convincing pension funds, sovereign-wealth funds, and insurance-company portfolios to own Bitcoin and open actively traded separately managed accounts for crypto, says Steven McClurg, head of U.S. asset management for CoinShares . McClurg was co-founder of Valkyrie Investments, whose ETF business was recently acquired by CoinShares and was among the nine firms that launched a Bitcoin ETF in January . Now, he says he is competing with major investment managers to win the business of pensions and insurance companies’ portfolios.

“For the last four years it’s been me begging them to listen to me and now people are begging me to talk to them,” says McClurg of executives in traditional finance.

The financial industry’s embrace of Bitcoin isn’t entirely a recent phenomenon. Fidelity Investments was early with CEO Abigail Johnson heavily involved in the company’s early research and experiments into Bitcoin, according to her recounting at industry conferences. In 2017, the company started letting employees pay with Bitcoin in the company cafeteria. The firm started a blockchain meetup and developed an internal list of dozens of potential crypto use cases. Fidelity also started offering Bitcoin custody services to institutions.

Now Fidelity is all-in on crypto, with ETFs, custody, and brokerage services. Its research division puts out reports that are generally favourable to crypto. Fidelity is also offering digital assets accounts to 401(k) plan sponsors. Fidelity declined to comment on how much its 401(k) products and crypto platform have grown so far.

Some executives early on found Johnson’s Bitcoin focus risky but didn’t feel comfortable challenging her, partly because her family controls the company, according to a former Fidelity executive. Johnson herself said in 2022 that her early push into crypto “was very controversial in the organisation,” adding “a lot of people are still very confused, and you kind of can’t blame them.”

Yet 2022 may have marked a nadir for crypto’s reputational risk. Between late 2021 and the end of 2022, the token market crashed 70% amid a spate of scandals, culminating in the collapse of Sam Bankman-Fried’s trading platform FTX. In March, a federal judge sentenced Bankman-Fried to 25 years in prison for fraud.

Coinbase and some other large crypto companies survived, though, and the token market recovered amid a broader rebound in risky assets. Sentiment also got a big lift last June with BlackRock’s application to launch an ETF holding spot Bitcoin. Even though its product and the other applications wouldn’t be approved until January, others on Wall Street took it as a signal that it was safe to move into crypto.

“We continue to focus on education and believe it’s imperative for investors to consider the potential upside of investing in bitcoin and its volatile characteristics and risks,” BlackRock said in a statement.

Today, the conversation isn’t so much about whether to own crypto as how much. A few years ago, pro-Bitcoin firms and advisors would make the case that a 0.5% slug could improve risk-adjusted returns, said VanEck director of digital assets product Kyle DaCruz. Now advisors talk about 3% to 5% to a portfolio, he says.

“There are still folks asking the question ‘Is this a real asset?’ But the numbers are far less,” says DaCruz, whose employer offers a Bitcoin ETF and aims to launch an ETF holding Ether , the second-largest cryptocurrency.

Many advisors are getting ready to offer crypto to clients. The major wealth managers— Wells Fargo , Bank of America , UBS , and Morgan Stanley —can already include Bitcoin ETFs in some portfolios if clients ask. Some of their executives have met with ETF sponsors to consider whether to allow advisors to suggest Bitcoin ETF trades to clients, according to people familiar with the matter. UBS has no plans to put the ETFs in portfolios on a proactive basis, a person close to the firm said.

Pro-crypto advisors say the ETFs solve two problems: They make Bitcoin more seamless to own, and they allow advisors to charge fees far more easily on digital assets.

“For the first time in Bitcoin’s history, we have an easy and familiar way for everybody to participate,” says Ric Edelman, founder of the Digital Assets Council of Financial Professionals. Far more advisors are now seeking crypto education, he says, as well as personnel at companies that run model portfolios for other advisors. “Let’s be honest, advisors can now bill on the assets,” he says.

Major banks are also coming around to crypto after arguing for years that many of the industry’s products—like high-yield accounts and stablecoins pegged to the dollar—were similar to bank products and should be regulated as such. Now, lobbying groups like the Bank Policy Institute and American Bankers Association are urging the Securities and Exchange Commission to change rules that make it difficult for banks to custody crypto tokens.

Wall Street still has skeptics. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon is one, calling Bitcoin a “pet rock,” though his firm has experimented with blockchain technology.  Goldman Sachs Wealth Management chief investment officer Sharmin Mossavar-Rahmani recently told The Wall Street Journal that her firm’s executives are “not believers in crypto.” Vanguard remains unmoved, saying it won’t put the new Bitcoin ETFs on its brokerage platform due to the token’s lack of fundamentals.

Washington, for its part, is still cracking down on crypto. SEC enforcement is ongoing—notably a lawsuit the SEC is pursuing against Coinbase Global. SEC Chair Gary Gensler has said the entire industry is rife with fraud. Another big test is coming in May when the SEC will decide whether to approve ETFs holding Ether, the second largest token.

Firms including Coinbase have lobbied to convince Congress to pass crypto-specific rules though haven’t yet garnered enough support. The companies have given more than $80 million to pro-crypto political action committees this election cycle, a huge amount by Washington standards. The money will support crypto friendly candidates while blocking detractors.

“It gets harder and harder every year to find a crypto skeptic,” said Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong put it at a D.C. policy event in March.

His comment reflects the fact that a technology meant to disrupt the financial industry is now being embraced as prices rise and fees roll in. While the Bitcoin bears may have been silenced for now, however, they may only be hibernating until the next crash.

— Paul R. La Monica contributed to this article.


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The benefits of steering people toward making better decisions has become conventional wisdom. But the evidence suggests it doesn’t work quite as well as we hoped.

Mon, May 27, 2024 5 min

The concept of nudging has become popular in the past few years—using psychological tactics to subtly steer people toward making better decisions that are aligned with their own interests or societal goals.

Companies and governments are using nudges, for instance, by automatically enrolling people in retirement savings plans instead of having them opt in, or by placing healthier snacks at eye level in a cafeteria or by comparing people’s electricity consumption with their neighbours’.

But as nudges became increasingly popular, we wondered: Can they go the distance? Would they keep people on track beyond the initial push, like actually eating healthier foods or saving more money or reducing their energy use over the long term?

We found that, in many settings, they don’t. Lots of people simply don’t follow through on options they have been nudged to choose—making those nudges less effective than many people believe. As the old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

Other research has shown this effect. In 2012, a team from Cornell University published research showing that more people grabbed healthy snacks—like apples and carrots—when they were placed in contexts that made them more convenient, such as being put at eye level, among other things. The finding got wide attention and helped spread the idea of nudging.

But another aspect of the experiment didn’t get much attention at all. Those Cornell researchers didn’t just measure what went on at the cash register. They also stuck around to see what people did with the food. The nudged people ended up eating the same amount of healthy food as the ones who weren’t nudged—and the extra that was taken because of the nudge was thrown in the garbage. In the end, the effect on consumption of healthy foods was nil.

“For a long time we had always included language in these published studies lamenting the lack of long-term studies to see exactly how long the effects would last,” says one of the researchers, David R. Just, a professor of applied economics at Cornell.

Just adds: “It makes some sense that nudges would be much more effective in the short term than in the long term. Choices like food that are repeated often over time lead to learning, and eventually people are likely to recognise how the environment is interfering with their choices. This may say that nudges are most important in one-time or rare decisions like organ-donor status.”

In the long run

To be sure, sometimes a nudge is better than nothing. Let’s say somebody who wouldn’t otherwise join a gym is nudged into becoming a member. In the end, that person probably won’t use the membership regularly, but might use it occasionally—which is better than not exercising at all. And nudges may be beneficial when people don’t have to follow up on their initial choice, such as a plan that automatically puts a part of each paycheck into a 401(k).

That is only some cases, though. In others, no nudging might actually be better than a nudge. For instance, somebody might want to choose to join a gym, and plans to attend three days a week. But if nudged into the choice, this person might go there much less.

But even when nudges are better than no nudges, we have found that nudges don’t provide nearly as much benefit as initial results indicate—or as much as many nudge proponents are counting on.

We conducted studies on three of the most popular nudge strategies. In one, we gave the participants a chance to sign up with a website to get daily trivia. We described one as a way to have fun, the other as a way to get smarter every day. In reality, everybody was directed to the same site, no matter which option they picked.

When we gave participants one website as a default—in other words, we nudged them to choose it—70% opted for it, compared with 48% who chose the same one when it wasn’t preselected. That’s typically how default nudges work: People are much more inclined to pick the default, which presumably will be the one that is best for them or society.

Next came the important part. We waited. We tracked how often the study participants visited their website membership over eight months. Those who were nudged to choose the default plan visited the site 42% less often than people who chose an identical plan without nudging.

This was true for people nudged with a default option, as well as people nudged with what’s known as a decoy: a deliberate dud that makes another option really shine. In this case, the dud was an offering designed for children. So, in effect, the default and decoy strategies had a positive impact on choice, but not on long-term actions. When we nudged participants into the program, they used it less than they would have at all if they hadn’t been nudged.

Another study that we conducted threw cold water on a nudge known as the compromise effect. Think of Goldilocks choosing a bed: Nudgers know that people make choices in the same way, preferring to avoid extremes. Let’s say a store is trying to boost sales of a product that gets high ratings but is considered too expensive. The store might try to nudge customers by offering another version of the product at an even higher price—so the original looks like a better deal.

In this study, we gave people the option of choosing a plant, and steered some of them toward a compromise option (a plant that wasn’t too flashy or high maintenance). As with the trivia website, everyone ended up getting the same plant, no matter which option they chose. But people who ended up with the plant by way of the compromise effect let theirs die 16% sooner than those who chose without a compromise option. In other words, the people who were nudged into the “Goldilocks” choice weren’t as committed to caring for the plant over the long term.

A better way

Why don’t people follow through on nudged choices? When people are subtly steered toward options, it can feel as if a decision happens on autopilot. This lack of conscious effort might lead people to feel disconnected from their choices, potentially reducing their engagement with them.

This raises all sorts of questions about social programs designed to help people make better choices. Although nudges can be a powerful lever to increase sign-ups, program organisers shouldn’t conflate the popularity of a plan with the amount of people who actually use it. As our studies show, nudges can increase the latter, but decrease the former.

Encouraging individuals to save for retirement through nudges, for instance, may boost initial participation rates but may not translate into sustained engagement or prudent financial habits over time. A nudge might get people to enroll, but it doesn’t make them feel ownership, like the choice was really theirs, so they don’t follow through as much.

In designing nudges, the focus should shift toward helping individuals follow through with their decisions, complementing nudges with strategies that promote sustained engagement and behaviour change. For instance, people get more motivated for tasks when you turn the jobs into games and let them share their achievements on leaderboards. (Think of the popularity of Wordle.) It feels good to have a streak and see how you stack up to others. We might be able to transfer those competitive elements to nudged choices: If you nudge people into saving for retirement, for instance, you could show them how their savings stack up against other people’s each week.

In the end, though, the main takeaway from our research is that nudges may be a great first step. But that’s all they are: a first step. Much of the hard work is what comes next.