The Node: Goldman's 'DeFi' ETF Is a Nothingburger

Goldman Sachs filed for a "DeFi" ETF that would track stocks mostly associated with enterprise blockchain.

AccessTimeIconJul 27, 2021 at 6:19 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 1:31 p.m. UTC

In what appears to be a world first, Goldman Sachs has applied to list an exchange-traded fund (ETF) with the neologism “DeFi” in the title. But the fund appears to have little to do with “decentralized finance” as we know it.

The Goldman Sachs Innovate DeFi and Blockchain Equity ETF would track 20 companies that advance blockchain technology and the digitization of finance, according to a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

This article is excerpted from The Node, CoinDesk's daily roundup of the most pivotal stories in blockchain and crypto news. You can subscribe to get the full newsletter here

With companies like Cisco, Nokia and Sony in the mix, though, it’s clear the investment banking giant is taking something of a liberal view of what constitutes “DeFi.” For instance, the greatest contribution to the blockchain sector made by the German tech giant Siemens might be a press release announcing its inclusion in the ETF.

Although the news is a nothingburger, it is revealing in its own right of the extent that “crypto” has permeated the business world. It’s also a clear expression of the disconnect between what hardcore coiners may want versus what is realistic to expect.

Many of the stocks included in the ETF could claim to be working on blockchain technology broadly, but any specific DeFi application is likely suspect. Most of these corporate efforts would fall under “enterprise blockchain,” a term that’s become a punchline among anyone who has actually used MakerDAO, Compound or Aave. But the phenomenon is still chugging along, presenting its own vision of corporate blockchain adoption. 

While DeFi seeks to remove middlemen from the equation, enterprise blockchain is about bringing them back in. Truly, a revolution is coming to database management and tracking leafy greens.

Take Nokia, the Finnish company widely remembered for its near-indestructible, pre-smartphone era cellular devices. The company recently launched a blockchain and artificial intelligence powered data marketplace, according to a press release. Buzzwords aside, that’s not very sexy.

Accenture, Alibaba and Overstock also have well-documented, blockchain-related ambitions. CoinDesk reported in 2020 that Alibaba, for instance, was zeroing in on International Business Machine’s place as the top blockchain-related patent holders, with fingers in everything from music streaming to a Cosmos-like cross-chain product.

These efforts don’t always pay off. IBM notably slashed its blockchain division after revenue misses. Its stock wasn't included in the ETF application.

Yesterday, the markets went wild amid a circulating rumor that Amazon would soon accept bitcoin payments. That turned out to be false, though a company spokesperson did say the company remains interested “in the space.” 

If Amazon did accept bitcoin payments, it would be another strong endorsement of the crypto economy. It would also introduce another intermediary in the sector, another company with its own corporate responsibility commitments

Meanwhile, DeFi has organically blossomed into a $65 billion industry. It’s a testament to the idea that complex financial systems can run without centralized, corporate oversight. I wouldn’t bemoan an ETF application that tracked MKR, AAVE or COMP, but do we need the validation?

Crypto is meant to undercut or exist independently of corporate and state interests. The fact that so many international conglomerates and tech giants are taking note of the technology, while staying at arm's length from the exciting stuff, is a testament to that. Their PR departments seem to find this simulacrum useful, but calling enterprise blockchain “DeFi” doesn’t make it so.

Goldman’s “DeFi” ETF application may stand a better chance than most crypto-related funds in getting approval from the SEC, exactly because it plays into this publicity trick. As CoinDesk's Nathan DiCamillo noted, there are 12 outstanding bitcoin-related filings and several for Ethereum before the SEC, and so far the agency has only punted on making a decision. Pretending that a bunch of blue-chip stocks are interchangeable with cutting-edge experimental protocols might help Goldman get past that gate, but it’s hard to think that would be doing its clients any favors. 


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