Feeling the heat from employees, Wall Street banks get closer to adopting bitcoin
A bitcoin ATM is seen inside the Big Apple Tobacco Shop on February 08, 2021 in New York.
Michael M. Santiago | Getty Images
Pressure is building on Wall Street banks to accept bitcoin as a legitimate asset class – and it’s coming from within, CNBC has learned.
Last month, during a town hall meeting held for thousands of JPMorgan Chase traders and sales personnel around the world, global markets head Troy Rohrbaugh acknowledged a question that is increasingly being asked by the bank’s own employees: When will they get involved in bitcoin?
To answer that question, Rohrbaugh, who had logged into the Jan. 18 Zoom call from his New York office, brought on his boss, JPMorgan co-president Daniel Pinto, according to people with knowledge of the meeting.
In a response that took up a chunk of the hour-long call, Pinto signaled he was open-minded about bitcoin, said the people, who declined to be identified speaking about an internal event. When asked later by CNBC to clarify his remarks, Pinto, who leads the world’s biggest investment bank by revenue, said the firm’s decision would be informed by whether a critical mass of clients wanted the firm to trade bitcoin.
“If over time an asset class develops that is going to be used by different asset managers and investors, we will have to be involved,” Pinto said in an interview. “The demand isn’t there yet, but I’m sure it will be at some point.”
JPMorgan traders aren’t the only ranks of crypto-curious at big banks. Last week, Goldman Sachs hosted a private forum with Mike Novogratz, the CEO-founder of crypto firm Galaxy Digital, for employees and asset management clients. Novogratz expounded on his thesis for bitcoin, ethereum and other digital assets as well as their macroeconomic backdrop during the 90-minute event held virtually on Feb. 2.
Wall Street’s newfound openness to cryptocurrency shows that the industry is being forced to contend with bitcoin as its latest dizzying ascent and increased adoption among institutional investors, corporations and fintech competitors sparks fears of being left behind.
Banks, which generally face the highest regulatory scrutiny among financial firms because of the breadth of their operations and crucial role in the economy, have been largely reluctant to play in the crypto space, preferring to focus on related technology including blockchain. If one of the six biggest U.S. banks decides to embrace bitcoin, it would be a major stamp of legitimacy for the nascent asset class.
During bitcoin’s earlier 2017-era boom cycle, banks including Goldman flirted with the idea of setting up dedicated crypto trading desks, but they ultimately shelved most of their plans. Born less than a decade earlier out of the wreckage of the global financial crisis, bitcoin was deemed too speculative and risky for bank clients. As the price of bitcoin skyrocketed in late 2017, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon called bitcoin a fraud that wouldn’t end well.
But by merely continuing to exist through 2018 and 2019, lean years known as crypto winter when bitcoin traded for below $4,000, the technology showed its staying power. Then the coronavirus pandemic struck, and governments led by the U.S. unleashed trillions of dollars in support for markets, businesses and individuals during the crisis.
A new narrative emerged, seemingly tailor-made for the era and adopted by billionaire hedge fund managers like Paul Tudor Jones and Stanley Druckenmiller: Bitcoin, which is limited in supply by design, is a hedge against inflation and the debasement of the U.S. dollar.
Fear of currency debasement is the major theme of clients who ask about bitcoin, according to the head of a major bank’s wealth management business for clients worth at least $25 million. The bank is considering matching buyers and sellers of bitcoin for clients, but is studying how to integrate the cryptocurrency into its risk management systems.
There is irony here: In a few short years, bitcoin went from an idealistic technology meant to cut out banks and other intermediaries to a store of value used mostly by rich people so they can remain rich.
Now, as a steady stream of news on adopters seems to propel bitcoin ever higher, industry insiders say it’s only a matter of time before traditional banks get more involved.
In particular, JPMorgan’s Pinto cited the move last month by BlackRock, the biggest asset manager in the world, to add bitcoin futures as an eligible investment in two of its funds as evidence of broader adoption. Regulation of bitcoin trading would be manageable, Pinto said, adding that if it happened, trades would involve vetted clients and reputable exchanges including Coinbase.
This week alone, electric car manufacturer Tesla became the latest company to plow corporate cash into bitcoin, and payments network Mastercard and custody bank BNY Mellon said they will become more involved in crypto. With each announcement, the likelihood rises that banks, including JPMorgan and others decide, to join the party.
Damien Vanderwilt, co-president of Galaxy Digital, Mike Novogratz founder of Galaxy, and Chris Ferraro, co-president of Galaxy
Source: Galaxy Digital
“For the large banks, the volume of client inquiry and demand at some point will break the camel’s back,” said Damien Vanderwilt, co-president of Galaxy and head of its global markets division. “Banks eventually get strong-armed into developing these products by their clients.”
Vanderwilt would know. Before joining Galaxy last month, he spent more than two decades at Goldman Sachs, where he led efforts to modernize the bank’s trading infrastructure, most recently as a partner and global head of fixed-income execution services.
During his tenure, there were a handful of times when his bank was slow to adopt new trading techniques or spot emerging trends like quantitative trading, which eventually forced them to play catch-up, he said.
For banks to avoid a similar fate with crypto, Galaxy – which views itself as a bridge between established finance and digital natives – can help accelerate the development of products for their clients, he said.
Vanderwilt hinted at upcoming collaborations with traditional banks, saying “it’s possible Galaxy could help Goldman and other banks facing the same challenges; we’re uniquely positioned to do that, as the nexus for financial services in the digital asset sector.”
As for adopters in the corporate world, Vanderwilt said there is a considerable pipeline of companies that haven’t yet publicly disclosed their bitcoin investments. “You’re going to see a range of releases over 2021, there will be more corporates, pensions, more insurance companies” investing in bitcoin, he said.
Meanwhile, as its price continues to surge, some traders at big banks eye bitcoin’s charts with envy. Just two months ago, bitcoin made headlines for breaching $20,000 for the first time. On Thursday, it traded for more than $48,000, according to Coin Metrics.
“In this industry, we’re always looking for things that make money,” said a trader who only agreed to be quoted on condition of anonymity. “And there’s this shiny thing that’s so freaking volatile and we’re told we can’t touch it — it’s like the forbidden fruit.”