When Bitcoin ETFs Are Right for Investors (and When They're Not)

SEC approval in January opened up the market to a new generation of investors but there are still advantages to directly owning crypto that ETFs can’t provide, says Eric Ervin, CEO of Onramp Invest.

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There’s no doubt that the approval of bitcoin ETFs in January was a historic moment for the U.S. crypto market. It’s impactful from an acceptance as well as an access standpoint. Investors interested in digital assets heaved a big sigh of relief as the SEC finally relented, while financial news reporters can focus on which of the “Newborn Nine” ETFs will gain the top seat in terms of assets under management and volume. This is a sign of progress, something that a dedicated handful of industry leaders have been painstakingly trying to promote over the last several years through letters, repeated application submissions, and even, for a few, lawsuits. The BTC ETF approval feels like a big step in the right direction.

But now the question becomes more practical: Investors can have a bitcoin ETF, that’s great, but is that enough? While the bitcoin ETFs are a remarkable innovation in cryptocurrency investing, they may not be right for everyone. I’m a huge fan of ETFs and all they have done to democratize investing. It is one of the most important financial innovations of the 21st century, but placing bitcoin into an ETF is a bit like putting training wheels on a Ferrari… and that is okay. I am not saying that to suggest that the spot bitcoin ETFs are anything less than brilliant. However, I am suggesting that there is so much more when you take the training wheels off.

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  • When the BTC ETF is right for investors

    Part of the reason bitcoin ETFs are so valuable is because they provide investors an opportunity to test the crypto waters in a way that’s familiar (ETFs for gold, for instance, have been available since the early 2000s). It opens the door to an entirely new generation of investors. It allows people to access one of the essential pieces of the crypto asset ecosystem: the price. By owning a fund that owns bitcoin, you gain indirect exposure to the potential price appreciation of bitcoin, and you offload the responsibilities of custody, acquisition, and disposition to tried and true institutions: household names like Blackrock, Grayscale, Fidelity, and Ark Invest, to name a few.

    For allocators, and investors who are just getting started in the asset class or are specifically interested in this one feature, ETFs provide exposure to a potentially growing asset class with little effort and extra assurance through brand trust. The fees, for the most part, are low, and access is simple and easy. There’s also the added benefit of now being able to add bitcoin to retirement plans like 401Ks and IRAs, an option for which we’ve seen increased demand over the last few years.

    With any luck, we’ll see more crypto ETFs launch for investors this year, with the potential for an Ethereum ETF looking somewhat promising. However, for the moment it’s just bitcoin, and that’s our perfect segue.

    When it’s not: the “one-way bridge”

    Dave Nadig, a thought leader in the finance space, really put the bitcoin ETF into perspective in a recent piece entitled “Why a Bitcoin ETF Doesn’t Matter,” which he published ahead of the SEC approval. He highlights all the upsides for ETF-driven BTC market growth but ultimately refers to it as a “one-way bridge.” And that’s going to be the problem for many investors. Why? Because there are so many other great benefits from direct investing that are lost when you don’t own the asset directly.

    Here are three reasons I think direct ownership is important:

    1. Diversification. Think of buying a bitcoin ETF like buying a Netflix subscription and only having access to one movie, or getting the final score of the Superbowl but never getting to watch it. Having exposure to only bitcoin is the same as owning only one stock, which, as everyone knows, supremely limits your performance potential in the market. There are so many other assets to consider as a part of a balanced, comprehensive digital asset portfolio, and ETFs reduce this potential.
    2. Access to the ecosystem. Decentralized finance is all about building bridges by eliminating intermediaries, increasing on-demand liquidity, and creating seamless global connectivity. It’s a 24/7 market with instantaneous transaction capability and mobile accessibility where you can access various cryptocurrencies and even swap them in-kind through fast decentralized exchanges (DEXs). It’s this network structure that makes cryptocurrencies so powerful, and that gives bitcoin its wide appeal. In other words, it gives investors access to the broader decentralized landscape.
    3. Tax harvesting. The standard rules surrounding wash sales of investment assets don’t currently apply to the crypto market. For this reason, the market’s inherent volatility can be beneficial for tax loss harvesting, allowing you to sell assets at a loss and repurchase them while still being able to repurchase them shortly after. By investing indirectly through an ETF, you automatically lose the ability to take advantage of the volatility.

    Although bitcoin is arguably the most recognized and established cryptocurrency, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. By investing in BTC through an ETF provider, investors are taking a trip across a one-way bridge. They don’t actually own the asset directly, they own an interest in a fund that owns the asset directly.

    Overall, the major loss investors take when investing in a bitcoin ETF is the benefit of self-sovereignty. Part of the promise of bitcoin is that anyone can self-custody their value rather than rely on a fractional reserve banking system. The censorship resistance of bitcoin also prevents the chance of having assets frozen or being de-banked (which is becoming a growing problem). The ability to self custody bitcoin drastically reduces counterparty risk. It’s the same old story, but it still rings true: not your keys, not your crypto.

    Ask your advisor

    Unlike a few years ago when crypto was just starting to circulate into mainstream markets and most people were new to digital assets, financial professionals can now be relied on to help you understand the emerging market. We built Onramp to support digital asset management and trading for RIAs because we know this market can be over-complicated, and investors need advisor input more than ever when deciding to allocate to this new frontier.

    We’re excited to see the crypto industry making such powerful strides in the market because these steps forward only increase opportunities for investors. This is just the beginning.

    Edited by Benjamin Schiller.


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    Eric Ervin

    Eric Ervin is the CEO Onramp Invest, a Securitize company.

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