Noelle Acheson is a 10-year veteran of company analysis, corporate finance and fund management, and a member of CoinDesk’s product team.
The following article originally appeared in CoinDesk Weekly, a custom-curated newsletter delivered every Sunday, exclusively to our subscribers.
While Jamie Dimon may be convinced bitcoin is a fraud, it appears that the competition has a different view.
Earlier last week, The Wall Street Journal reported on a rumor that Goldman Sachs is considering putting together a new trading outfit for cryptocurrencies. Its CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, later tweeted that he was undecided on bitcoin as a currency, deftly skirting the issue. Of course, it’s not necessary to “believe” in the bitcoin story to see that there’s money to be made by trading it (and Goldman Sachs research covers bitcoin as an asset).
If true, however, this is more than just another example of Wall Street and bitcoin getting closer. First of all, Goldman Sachs would not be alone in putting financial weight behind bitcoin.
Fidelity Investments has been working on bitcoin-related projects for some time through its R&D arm Fidelity Labs, most recently unveiling a partnership with Coinbase to enable account holders to track their cryptocurrency holdings alongside more traditional assets.
Still, it would be the first Wall Street-based institutional trading desk for the asset.
The report does stress that Goldman may eventually pass on the project. Yet even if it does, it is indicative of an increasing acceptance in the upper echelons of finance that bitcoin is not going away, and that there is money to be made.
What’s more, the strategy does fit in with Goldman’s reputation as aggressive traders seeking high-risk, high-return turnover – more so than does its recent foray into retail banking.
And with market volatility at a five-year low (according to the leading index), it makes sense that the investment bank would look for a new opportunity to offset the recent slump – Q2 trading revenues were down 40 percent year-over-year.
Will other Wall Street giants follow? It’s likely. Last week the CEO of Morgan Stanley stated that bitcoin was “more than just a fad.”
Yet, the potential impact of the project, if pursued, would go beyond Goldman Sach’s bottom line.
The most noticeable impact would be on bitcoin’s trading volumes, as even more institutional funds pour into the market. This could significantly push up the volatility, making bitcoin even more of a high-risk/high-return asset than it already is – which in turn could attract more risk-seeking institutional funds, perpetuating a chaotic cycle that could well end in tears.
On the other hand, we could also see a corresponding increase in the trading of bitcoin derivatives. Earlier this year, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission authorized LedgerX as the first regulated bitcoin derivatives exchange and clearinghouse. And the Chicago Board Options Exchange is expected to launch bitcoin futures contracts later this year.
With heightened demand for hedging instruments, it’s likely that others will emerge.
Since hedging reduces the need to “churn” positions (what investors lose on one position they make on another), a more liquid derivatives market could partially calm bitcoin volatility.
It could also kickstart a snowball effect on liquidity. One of the reasons the SEC gave for rejecting the Winklevoss brothers’ bid to launch a bitcoin ETF was the vulnerability of the bitcoin price to manipulation. A strong increase in liquidity could encourage a favorable review of the situation.
A final, tenuous but nevertheless intriguing effect could be the emergence of bitcoin as a competitive tool. We could see corporate strategies regarding bitcoin services as a differentiating factor that positions financial businesses as more forward-thinking, trader-friendly and value-driven than the “old school” counterparts.
This is already beginning to happen in the banking sector. In Japan, several large financial firms have invested in bitcoin exchanges, with SBI contemplating setting up its own. And Skandiabanken of Norway is offering its clients cryptocurrency services. That investment banks are thinking of officially getting involved is a sign of the idea spreading to other areas of finance.
It’s worth emphasizing, though, that rumors by nature are unconfirmed, and Goldman Sachs may decide to not go ahead.
It’s even possible that they’re not even thinking of it at all, and that this rumor was maliciously started to move the bitcoin price. However, the strategy makes sense, and if Goldman Sachs isn’t thinking of it, it should be.
Because if they don’t, a competitor will. And the rest of us will have to brace for yet more of a wild ride.
Goldman Sachs logo image via Glassdoor