Coinbase Is Dominating a Key Bitcoin ETF Service

Brian Armstrong's exchange is way ahead in being the custodian for ETF applications, and a famous name in custody, BitGo, has been missing from the conversation.

AccessTimeIconNov 27, 2023 at 7:45 p.m. UTC
Updated Mar 8, 2024 at 5:39 p.m. UTC
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  • Custody services are a vital part of bitcoin ETF applications, and Coinbase has been picked by nine out of the 12 prospective issuers.
  • BitGo, a large crypto custodian, has been left out. But BitGo CEO Mike Belshe says he's been in talks with ETF issuers.
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  • The race to provide a key bit of infrastructure for bitcoin (BTC) ETFs – custody services – hasn't actually been much of a race so far. Crypto exchange Coinbase (COIN) has dominated so far, winning the job from nearly every firm that wants to list an ETF, including BlackRock, Franklin Templeton and WisdomTree.

    That's left a giant player in the space, BitGo, on the sidelines – an eye-catching omission.

    Only one company that wants to create a bitoin ETF in the U.S., Hashdex, has yet to pick a custody partner. BitGo CEO Mike Belshe confirmed in an interview with CoinDesk that his company is working with "many" of the applicants, opening the possibility – albeit a slim one now – BitGo might show up yet.

    "I think Coinbase is the obvious solution on the custodian side and it makes sense that they're the most common," Bloomberg Intelligence ETF analyst James Seyffart said. "But there are some others," he added.

    Seyffart said he wouldn't be surprised to see BitGo appear on someone's bitcoin ETF application eventually. Crypto exchange Gemini recently became the first third-party custody partner on an application, appearing in VanEck's.

    Crypto Custody (8).png

    Custody is an important part of the effort to bring a spot bitcoin ETF to the U.S. market. Custodians hold onto assets on behalf of someone else. In this case, that means safekeeping the (presumably billions of dollars worth of) bitcoin that ETFs will own, keeping hackers and any other bad actors at bay.

    Coinbase, run by CEO Brian Armstrong, currently is the custodian for nine of the 12 proposed bitcoin ETFs in the U.S., a level of concentration that makes some uneasy. With Fidelity deciding to custody their own assets and VanEck picking Gemini, that leaves only one application that lists no custodian.

    "Having so much bitcoin concentrated in one custodian is not exactly ideal, and I think it would be beneficial for other quality exchanges to participate as custodians for ETFs," said Brian D. Evans, founder and CEO of BDE Ventures.

    But it's tough to find other contenders, given the lack of regulatory clarity in the U.S., so the list of suitable companies is short, he said.

    "While I do think it's notable to have a majority of the products choosing Coinbase, and I understand why people might be concerned, I don't think it's a problem as long as the security at Coinbase is sound," Seyffart said. "We probably need to see how things play out over the coming months and years."

    CORRECTION (Nov. 27, 2023, 21:11 UTC): The story initially didn't note that VanEck had picked Gemini as a custody partner and neglected to mention several other applications in which Coinbase was named as custodian.

    Edited by Nick Baker.

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    CoinDesk is an award-winning media outlet that covers the cryptocurrency industry. Its journalists abide by a strict set of editorial policies. In November 2023, CoinDesk was acquired by the Bullish group, owner of Bullish, a regulated, digital assets exchange. The Bullish group is majority-owned by Block.one; both companies have interests in a variety of blockchain and digital asset businesses and significant holdings of digital assets, including bitcoin. CoinDesk operates as an independent subsidiary with an editorial committee to protect journalistic independence. CoinDesk employees, including journalists, may receive options in the Bullish group as part of their compensation.

    Helene Braun

    Helene is a New York-based reporter covering Wall Street, the rise of the spot bitcoin ETFs and crypto exchanges. She is also the co-host of CoinDesk's Markets Daily show. Helene is a graduate of New York University's business and economic reporting program and has appeared on CBS News, YahooFinance and Nasdaq TradeTalks. She holds BTC and ETH.


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