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Bitcoin on balance sheet attracts negative attention from anti-crypto banks

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MicroStrategy’s continuous Bitcoin acquisition has drawn the ire of investment banking giant HSBC. Despite being one of the largest business intelligence firms in the world, HSBC has stated that MicroStrategy is now a “virtual currency product,” a designation akin to the pseudo-Bitcoin exchange-traded fund status attached to the company on account of its sizable Bitcoin (BTC) balance sheet.

Since August 2020, MicroStrategy has embarked on a Bitcoin acquisition spree and now holds more than $5 billion worth of BTC. Michael Saylor, the company’s CEO, has also become an outspoken Bitcoin proponent. Saylor’s Bitcoin evangelism has included attempts to encourage other publicly listed firms to add BTC to their balance sheet. Indeed, some other companies in the United States have emulated Saylor’s Bitcoin adoption.

With corporate Bitcoin adoption becoming commonplace, the conversation appears to be shifting toward life and annuity companies and sovereign wealth funds to see where the next wave of institutional BTC investment will emerge. However, for legacy players like HSBC, Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies, in general, remain anathema even if the actions taken thus far appear to be arguably arbitrary.

HSBC blacklists MicroStrategy stock

HSBC blacklisted MicroStrategy’s stock, preventing customers of the bank’s online retail trading platform in Canada from acquiring the company’s shares. While HSBC did not respond to Cointelegraph’s request for confirmation on the report, the bank has publicly verified the news using similar statements contained in the original message shared by customers on Twitter.

In the message sent to HSBC InvestDirect customers who already hold MicroStrategy (MSTR) stock, the bank revealed that additional MSTR purchases will no longer be possible on the platform. The communique stated that such customers could hold their current MicroStrategy stock balances or sell their shares.

According to HSBC, the blacklisting was in line with the bank’s crypto restrictions enacted back in 2018. An excerpt from the bank’s policy as contained in the message to HSBC InvestDirect, or HIDC, customers reads: “HIDC will not participate in facilitating (buy and/or exchange) product relating to virtual currencies, or products related to or referencing to the performance of virtual currency.”

Reacting to the news, Stuart Hoegner, general counsel at crypto exchange platform Bitfinex, told Cointelegraph that the decision was a “regressive step” in the context of the growing appeal of cryptocurrencies in the mainstream arena, adding:

“Instead of refusing to participate in products relating to virtual currencies, HSBC should instead focus on delivering optimal services to its customers, many of whom pay high fees and interest rate charges on the bank’s loans and credit card products. In fact, it is blockchain technology’s capacity — by virtue of removing intermediaries — that can enhance levels of inclusion, accessibility and transparency in financial products.”

Making sense of it all

In singling out MicroStrategy, HSBC referred to the company as a “virtual currency product,” hence its decision to prevent customers from buying MSTR. However, HDIC lists shares of several companies with significant cryptocurrency involvement including Tesla, Square and Hut 8 Mining, to mention a few.

Elon Musk’s electric vehicle manufacturing giant, Tesla, acquired about $1.5 billion worth of Bitcoin back in February. Hut 8 is a Bitcoin mining establishment, while Square operates Cash App, an avenue for buying BTC that also contributes greatly to Square’s revenue bottom line.

Unlike MicroStrategy, which only holds Bitcoin on its balance sheet while still carrying out its function as a business intelligence firm, some of the tradable stocks on the HDIC platform belong to companies, like Hut 8, that derive value directly from cryptocurrencies.

Commenting on the lack of clarity in HSBC’s decision, Jeffrey Wang, head of Americas at crypto finance provider Amber Group, told Cointelegraph: “It’s a very slippery slope for HSBC. Will they publish a clear set of defined rules for what they deem to be companies that derive value from virtual currencies?”

He questioned further: “Why haven’t they also put this trading restriction on other companies that have publicly disclosed holdings of Bitcoin like Tesla? Will they block trading in Coinbase?” As an HDIC customer, Wang also expressed displeasure at the uneven application of HSBC’s anti-crypto policies, adding:

“I think this is HSBC overstepping its reach on its retail brokerage offering. If a company is lawfully listed on the Nasdaq and is in compliance with any regulatory requirements, the decision to buy this stock should be left up to the end-user and not the brokerage.”

HSBC’s ban on MicroStrategy stock trading becomes even more bizarre, given that customers can still buy exchange-traded funds that contain MSTR on the platform. Indeed. According to ETF.com, 88 ETFs hold MicroStrategy shares.

The MSTR blacklisting is hardly the first negative consequence of MicroStrategy’s Bitcoin investment push. In December 2020, Citibank downgraded the company’s stock citing MicroStrategy’s “disproportionate” focus on BTC.

New layers of legitimacy

HSBC’s action puts the bank firmly in the corner of legacy financial institutions still averse to Bitcoin and cryptocurrency innovation. The move offers the latest indication of the bank’s repudiation of digital currencies following efforts to block customers from repatriating crypto trading profits from exchanges to their bank accounts earlier in the year.

Meanwhile, several major players in the traditional finance arena are increasingly becoming more exposed to Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies as the novel technology gains new layers of legitimacy. From offering custody services for digital currencies to establishing digital asset exchange platforms, banks across the United States, Europe and Asia are showing a greater appetite for digital currencies.

For Wang of Amber Group, HSBC is holding fast to a shrinking position of being a banking institution that remains averse to cryptocurrencies, telling Cointelegraph:

“I think HSBC will be in the tiny minority — if not the only brokerage — that will restrict its retail investors from buying shares in publicly traded and regulated companies due to exposure to virtual currencies.”

Recently, European investment banking giant Société Générale issued a tokenized security representing one of its structure products — investment packages linked to assets and derivatives — on the Tezos blockchain. The news marked a third consecutive year of a blockchain-related financial product being issued.

In a message to Cointelegraph, Jean-Marc Stenger, managing director of digital capital markets at Société Générale and head of its fintech startup subsidiary, SG Forge, remarked that crypto companies will challenge legacy finance players that are slow to adapt to the emerging digital financial landscape. Rather than advocate for eschewing digital assets, Stenger identified the advantages held by traditional finance in real-world asset-based tokenization, adding:

“Traditional financial institutions know how to structure regulated digital assets and how to cope with related requirements (investors protection, rules for markets integrity, compliance, KYC, continuity plans). But more importantly, they have origination and distribution capabilities and day-to-day business relationships with their clients.”

While Société Générale’s digital asset offerings are not tied to cryptocurrencies, major U.S. investment banks such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are looking to offer their clients exposure to Bitcoin funds.

Amid the continued influx of institutional actors into the Bitcoin space, the question of whether governments will invest in BTC is likely becoming a matter of “when” and not “if.” With insurance companies and pension funds dipping their toes in the Bitcoin pool, sovereign wealth funds appear to be not too far behind.



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GBTC discount presents a unique challenge for Grayscale and investors

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Since 2013 the Grayscale Bitcoin Trust Fund (GBTC) has offered its investors exposure to Bitcoin (BTC) through a publicly quoted private instrument. However, the trust’s convertibility and liquidity vastly differ from an Exchange Traded Fund (ETF).

Trusts are structured as companies, at least in regulatory form, and are ‘closed-end funds’ which can initially only be sold to accredited investors. This means the number of available shares is limited, and retail traders can only access them via secondary markets. Furthermore, a GBTC share cannot be redeemed for the underlying BTC position.

Historically, GBTC used to trade above the equivalent BTC held by the fund, which was caused by the retail crowd’s excess demand. The common practice for institutional clients was to buy shares directly from Grayscale at par and sell at a profit after the six-month lock-up period.

During most of 2020, GBTC shares traded at a premium to its Net Asset Value (NAV), which varied from 5% to 40%. However, this situation drastically changed in March 2021. The approval of two Bitcoin ETFs in Canada heavily contributed to extinguishing the GBTC premium.

ETF funds are less risky and cheaper compared to trusts. Moreover, there is no lock-up period, and retail investors can attain direct access to buy shares at par. Therefore, the emergence of a better Bitcoin investment vehicle seized much of allure that GBTC once possessed.

Can DCG save GBTC?

Grayscale GBTC premium vs. net assets value. Source: Ycharts

In late February, the GBTC premium entered adverse terrain, and holders began desperately flipping their positions to avoid getting stuck in an expensive and non-redeemable instrument. The situation deteriorated up to an 18% discount despite BTC price reaching an all-time high in mid-March.

On March 10, Digital Currency Group (DCG), Grayscale Investments’ parent company, announced a plan to purchase up to $250 million of the outstanding GBTC shares. Although the conglomerate did not specify the reason behind the move, the excessive discount certainly would have pressured their reputation.

As the situation deteriorated, DCG announced a roadmap for turning its trust funds into a U.S. ETF, although no specific guarantees or deadlines have been informed.

On May 3, the firm announced that it had purchased $193.5 million worth of GBTC shares by April. Moreover, DCG increased its GBTC shares repurchase potential to $750 million.

Considering the $36.3 billion in assets under management for the GBTC trust, there’s reason to believe that buying $500 million worth of shares might not be enough to ease the price discount.

Because of this, some important questions arise. For example, can DCG lose money by making such a trade? Who’s desperately selling, and is a conversion to an ETF being analyzed?

Looking forward

As the controller of the fund administrator, DCG can buy the trust fund’s shares at market prices and withdraw the equivalent Bitcoin for redemption. Therefore, buying GBTC at a discount and selling the BTC at market prices will consistently produce a profit and there’s no risk by doing this.

Apart from a few funds that regularly report their holdings, there’s no way to know who has been selling GBTC below net asset value. The only investors with 5% or more holdings are BlockFi and Three Arrows Capital, but none have reported reducing their position.

Therefore, it could be potentially multiple retail sellers exiting the product at any cost, but it is impossible to know right now.

While buying GBTC at a 10% or larger discount might seem a bargain at first, investors must remember that as of now, there’s no way of getting out of those shares apart from selling it at the market.

The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Cointelegraph. Every investment and trading move involves risk. You should conduct your own research when making a decision.