For the past two years, the most popular type of new bitcoin company has been exchanges, where investors can buy and trade bitcoin and other virtual currencies. Now two exchanges are already rolling up, in the first major bitcoin industry acquisition of 2016.
Kraken, which is based in San Francisco but sees most of its trading activity in Euros, has bought Coinsetter, a smaller New York-based exchange, for an undisclosed amount. Coinsetter will shut down on Jan. 26 and its customers will be converted to Kraken. According to data from TradeBlock, the average daily transaction volume on Kraken last year was around $1.3 million.
The deal comes amid a price collapse and high negativity around bitcoin's future. Mike Hearn, a prominent bitcoin developer, wrote a post on Medium last week announcing his opinion that the bitcoin "experiment" has failed. "I will no longer be taking part in bitcoin development and have sold all my coins," he wrote. "The network is on the brink of technical collapse. The mechanisms that should have prevented this outcome have broken down, and as a result there’s no longer much reason to think Bitcoin can actually be better than the existing financial system."
The core of Hearn's argument is that the speed of transactions has slown; a contentious issue in the bitcoin community right now is whether and when to raise the size limit on "blocks," the term for a bundle of bitcoin transactions. Every single transaction is recorded and processed as part of a block on the bitcoin blockchain, a public, decentralized ledger. If this all sounds like a foreign language to you, don't worry: All you need to understand is that the bad optics of a prominent bitcoin flag-waver leaving the industry in a huff was enough to send the price plummeting. After Hearn posted his piece on Jan. 14, the price of the digital currency fell from $430 down to a low of $358 two days later. It now hovers around $380, according to Winkdex.
Viewed in this context, consolidation in the industry may look troubling. But Coinsetter CEO Jaron Lukasiewicz isn't concerned. "I’m bullish on bitcoin right now and believe we’ll see the price hit four-digits again," he tells Yahoo Finance. Perhaps that's easy for him to say: Coinsetter will shut down, and Lukasiewicz is moving on, likely following Hearn to the exit. ("For my next venture I am focused on starting or leading a team whose products are improving society... I’m not tied to any particular industry beyond that," he says.) The sale comes less than a year after Coinsetter made its own acquisition of the Canadian-based bitcoin exchange Cavirtex—a deal that likely helped make Coinsetter an acquisition target itself.
Benefiting from volatility
Kraken CEO Jesse Powell is less starry-eyed about the industry right now. "I think the market has not grown as fast as everyone anticipated," he says. "And the price has gone in the opposite direction of what people hoped. I think we’ll continue to see market consolidation. When the price is going up, new people are coming in, more media is covering it, it’s good news all around. When the price is going down, the public perception is bad, and everyone says bitcoin is crashing. The price is important in that aspect."
For a long time, many bitcoin believers insisted that the price isn't important. As long as it is relatively stable, they reasoned, startups can keep innovating and building useful applications on top of the blockchain. But for bitcoin exchanges, price matters: Most make their money from transaction fees, so they do best when there’s either a lot of volatility, or the price is high. When the price is stable and low, exchanges suffer.
Leaving New York
Kraken, founded in 2011, is like a foreign exchange for digital currencies. Its customers are mostly professional traders executing margin trades and other advanced orders. It is not a site where beginners would go to casually dip a toe into the bitcoin market. Coinsetter, founded in 2012, offers Kraken the chance to instantly expand its customer base in Canada (from Cavirtex) and the U.S.
Except in New York. Kraken was one of the companies to cut off service in the state last summer after the New York Department of Financial Services released the final version of the BitLicense, a regulatory framework for digital currency companies in New York that holds customers' funds. Many bitcoin entrepreneurs complained the framework was too strict and limiting, so rather than play ball, they left.
Coinsetter didn't leave New York. But under new management, it will now. "We’re going to shut down New York again right after the acquisition," says Powell. "So the Coinsetter New York clients will be out of an exchange there, unfortunately. Coinsetter did put in a BitLicense application, but when you have a change of control, the application is void, so we won’t be serving New York and we have no plans to apply for a BitLicense in the future."
In a sense, Powell is simply sticking to his guns, just like Hearn—except that the latter believes bitcoin has already failed, while the former believes it risks failure if there is over-regulation. Indeed, apart from the debate over block size, the industry's bigger battle will be over regulation. Many in the business are anxiously waiting to see whether other states will follow New York's lead and create their own form of a BitLicense. And while some companies stayed in New York and applied for a BitLicense (at high cost: Lukasiewicz says Coinsetter spent $50,000 to apply for one), others stayed in New York but did not apply, and continue to operate in uncertainty.
That concerns Powell. "There’s still not really regulatory clarity, and the banks still aren’t getting on board. They’re all about the blockchain these days, but they’re still not giving bitcoin exchanges bank accounts. So there are huge challenges with getting new exchanges started." He's right about the blockchain being a buzzword for big financial institutions: Everyone from JPMorgan (JPM) to the Nasdaq have talked up their interest in the blockchain while distancing themselves from the cryptocurrency that fuels it.
For now, Kraken gets bigger. It can compete more with the leading exchanges like BitInstant, Bitstamp, Coinbase and itBit, as well as brand new exchange platforms launched last year, including Abra, Align Commerce, and Gemini, an exchange launched by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, of Facebook fame.
"The issue for everybody in bitcoin right now," Powell says, "is if you started out a few years ago, say, in 2011, you thought that five years from now, it’s going to be flying cars, bitcoin everywhere, fiat currency will cease to exist. Clearly that didn’t happen, and bitcoin isn’t $10,000 a coin. I think a lot of companies created a structure that depended on a high price of bitcoin. When the price went from $1,000 to $200, they could no longer afford to finance their operation."
If the price drops further, expect to see more consolidation. And with so many different exchanges out there, it's inevitable more will roll up.
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology.