A lukewarm U.S. economy is making big banks like JPMorgan Chase struggle to produce fast loan growth - even with interest rates close to historic lows. Yet, in the white-hot cryptocurrency industry, lenders are burgeoning.
The Commerce Department reported Thursday that U.S. gross domestic product rose at a 2.1 percent annual pace in the fourth quarter, on par with the third quarter’s clip, even after the Federal Reserve cut interest rates three times earlier in 2019 to stimulate growth. For the full year, the economy expanded 2.3 percent, a slowdown from 2018's 2.9 percent, according to the report.
If there's any softening in the economy, it hasn't been felt by lenders like Genesis. The New York-based trading firm that lends cash alongside cryptocurrencies like bitcoin said Thursday in a report that loans increased by 21 percent during the fourth quarter to $545 million, driven by demand from big investors as well as aggregators of smaller loans in Asia and Europe.
Such growth was more than 10 times the pace at New York-based JPMorgan, the biggest U.S. bank, where loan balances increased by 2 percent - roughly the same pace as the economy - during the period to $959.8 billion.
Only a few lenders can be found in the decade-old digital asset industry, and they are starting from a smaller base. There’s also a dearth of competition from established banks for loans to crypto traders and businesses, due to conservative risk-management policies and restrictions imposed by regulators. Since a cryptocurrency like bitcoin can be a highly volatile collateral for loans, more traditional lenders are rare.
But crypto lenders are seeing strong demand from borrowers who want loans denominated in bitcoin, cash or “stablecoins” - digital tokens like tether and USD Coin whose price is linked to the U.S. dollar or other government-issued currencies. And there are plenty of investors willing to pledge cash to lenders like Genesis in exchange for interest rates of 7 or 8 percent.
BlockFi, a big crypto lender backed by the investment funds Galaxy Digital and Winklevoss Capital, said earlier this month it planned to add five to 10 new assets to its platform, including the cryptocurrency litecoin and a dollar-pegged digital token, USD Coin. Later this year BlockFi plans to launch a credit card that offers rewards in bitcoin.
Celsius Network, another crypto lender, said in December large institutional clients were becoming an increasingly key contributor to the platform’s loan growth.
“Obviously the crypto sector is not even a beauty mark right now compared with the banking sector, in terms of the size and maturity,” Genesis CEO Michael Moro said in a phone interview. “But there is rapid growth in this new market, and it’s not just us. There are other companies trying to accomplish similar things.”
Genesis is controlled by the crypto-focused investment firm Digital Currency Group, which also owns CoinDesk.
Bitcoin, the oldest and largest cryptocurrency, surged 94 percent in 2019, more than three times the gains in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index of large U.S. stocks over the period.
So far in January, bitcoin is up another 30 percent to about $9,300, the best start to a year since 2013. Earlier this month, the professional-network website LinkedIn named blockchain - the cryptographically-enabled computer-network technology underpinning cryptocurrencies - as the most in-demand skill among employers.
Silvergate Capital, one of the few banking companies serving crypto-related businesses, said Wednesday total assets were flat in the fourth quarter at $2.13 billion. But the La Jolla, California-based publicly traded company said it added 48 digital currency customers during the period, bringing the total to 804, while transactions on its digital Silvergate Exchange Network rose by 17 percent from third-quarter levels.
A recently announced initiative at Silvergate will allow customers to obtain U.S. dollar-denominated loans collateralized by bitcoin.
Genesis said in its latest report a new source of demand for cash loans in 2020 could come from "mining" companies that need capital to build, expand or upgrade data centers used to process transactions on the bitcoin blockchain.
“We will likely see miners leverage their existing balance sheet and treasury to source the cash necessary to invest in their operation,” according to the report. “Those unable to source cash will be stuck mining on old-generation machines and might face serious profitability issues if the price of bitcoin doesn’t rise substantially.”
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