A Facebook Investor is Calling for Regulated ICO Investment Products

Asset manager ARK Invest would like to diversify its portfolio into ICOs, but, for now, a barrier of regulatory hurdles stands in the way.

AccessTimeIconMay 31, 2017 at 12:30 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 1:57 p.m. UTC

An asset manager with stakes in Facebook, Google and Tesla is looking to diversify its portfolio into the cutting edge of investment, but a barrier of regulatory hurdles exists between the idea and its execution.

Two years ago, New York-based ARK Invest became the first firm of its kind to buy exposure to bitcoin. Now, its founder and CEO Catherine Wood has her eyes set on what she considers the next frontier – initial coin offerings (ICOs), or sales of blockchain protocol data she believes could appreciate in value.

Obstacles to an investment fund focused on these projects, however, include an uncertain tax climate and the fact that some consider the ICO model itself – which lets individuals gain exposure to investments without middlemen – as potentially disruptive to Ark Invest's own model.

But the single biggest issue facing Ark Invest and its peers may be a lack of trusts offered either on public exchanges or via over-the-counter options, according to Wood. As a result, Wood is calling for the creation of a trust that would assure a degree of due diligence had been done on a number of ICOs.

In conversation with CoinDesk Wood said:

"We'd need someone to create a kind of a security backed by the ICOs or a group of ICOs. Then we'd have assurance that it’s passed all of the regulatory requirements that we need it to pass before we can invest in it."

Unlike venture capital investors who have already begun to participate in ICOs (including Fred Wilson, Naval Ravikant and Tim Draper), Ark Invest and other ETF managers are required to comply with stringent investor protections.

But there's opportunity in navigating this hurdle. Since Ark Invest's initial bitcoin investment in 2015 via an exchange-traded trust, the weight of the investment had grown from 1% of its total portfolio to as much as 10% without any additional investments.

Unexplored territory

With such growth, Wood is now turning her attention to the ICO market. But she is no longer alone in offering bitcoin as part of an ETF.

SEC-registered Kinetics Mutual Funds now includes two funds with bitcoin exposure in excess of 2% each, and Acatis Datini's ValueFlex fund consists of a 5.3% bitcoin stake, its largest position. Further, since Ark first announced its bitcoin investment vehicle, the price of bitcoin has increased by 880% from $230 in September 2015 to around $2,300 today.

By comparison, the total number of ICO sales denominated in ethereum, waves and other blockchain asset platforms reached $103m last year, and between 1st January of this year and 10th May, 37 ICOs have already generated $136m in funds, according to ICO data provider Smith + Crown.

But before firms like XBT Provider, Revoltura and Vontobel will likely consider building a trust based on one or more of these token sales, Wood expects that more regulatory certainty will be required.

Specifically, she expressed concern over whether using one token to buy another token is an in-kind exchange and therefore not taxable, or if it constitutes a taxable event based on capital gains law.

"I actually would like the IRS to weigh in on this," said Wood. "I would like them to say this is an in-kind exchange and the capital gains are therefore not taxable. If they decide otherwise that is going to upset the apple cart here."

Bridging worlds

In a sense, the transition from being an investor in disruptive technologies to being an investor in disruptive investment models has already begun. In spite of being prohibited from buying a stake in an ICO until a trust is created, Ark Invest is already building out its expertise in the field.

Since its earliest days in the world of digital assets, the firm has been sought after by startups looking for a more accurate way to appraise their valuation, according to Wood.

Increasingly, she said her firm is being contacted by entrepreneurs looking for more advanced valuation techniques that take into consideration the potential net savings to an industry by moving its transactions to a blockchain.

While Wood calls the work a "bridge between financial services and the blockchain world", she said her involvement in the tokens sales themselves will always be limited until someone else builds a bridge of a different sort.

She concluded:

"We can’t buy them because they’re not financial securities, but I can see [us] in the ICO world, picking and choosing, because some of them are going to hit it big."

Chart image via Shutterstock


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