Legendary investor Warren Buffett may still hate cryptocurrencies, but other stalwarts of traditional finance (TradFi) are following his maxim to be "fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful," piling into digital assets following this year’s rout.
The crypto winter – which has driven bitcoin (BTC) down more than 70% since its November peak – has been a painful reminder of how volatile the industry can be. TradFi’s commitments to crypto amid the decline, however, makes this winter stand out from prior ones.
Most recently, Nasdaq (NDAQ), the second-biggest U.S. stock market operator, announced this week that it will start a crypto custody service – finance jargon for holding onto investors’ assets, keeping them safe – as it aims to cash in on burgeoning demand for crypto among institutional investors. The move came after BlackRock (BLK), the world's largest asset manager, said last month that it will offer cryptocurrencies to its institutional clients, and Depository Trust & Clearing Corp., which processes essentially all U.S. stock trades, released its own blockchain as it looks to speed up the settlement of trades.
Those are just some of the big TradFi players entering the sector this year, but what they all have in common is that they are citing strong demand from institutions. With smaller investors still licking their wounds from this year’s price plunge, the narrative has shifted largely to how TradFi can profit from this new industry, embracing a field that many say is the future of finance.
Cash on the sideline
TradFi is probably far from done getting into crypto. And with Nasdaq and other large TradFi players entering the crypto industry during a bear market, it seems obvious the sector is anything but dead.
"We think that there’s a lot of investors on the sidelines," Jamil Nazarali, CEO of the new crypto exchange EDX Markets, said in a CoinDesk TV interview this week. Nazarali himself just made the leap from TradFi. He previously held a senior role at Citadel Securities, one of the biggest U.S. stock traders. And EDX is part of the TradFi-comes-to-crypto trend, given that its backers include Citadel Securities and other big firms like Charles Schwab and Fidelity Investments.
Large investors seeking to get into crypto are likely to want to do so through their existing partners, instead of through a new broker or other trading-services provider, Nazarali said. Many TradFi banks are extending their reach into crypto-linked products to offer their institutional clients options to diversify into the industry. On Wednesday, French lender Societe Generale, which has been actively expanding its digital assets offerings, said it’s offering new services for asset-management companies looking to invest in the industry.
Nasdaq’s move this week is "going to bring more institutional players in and we welcome it," Nazarali said. Overall, he believes that having TradFi slowly dipping its toes into crypto is a good start and will eventually lead to more widespread crypto adoption.
One of the main hurdles preventing mass adoption among the TradFi crowd is uncertainty around regulations. Many crypto services are already waiting on regulators for any indications of what legislation to adhere to, but the process is moving slowly. In the U.S., there are questions about which regulator will oversee which crypto assets – and how stringently.
'"You see entrepreneurs in the space that have been here for several years, waiting for regulatory clarity, and they’re struggling," said Bruno Ramos de Sousa, head of global expansion at Hashdex, a crypto asset-management platform.
Gary Gensler, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which shares responsibility for crypto oversight in the U.S., has argued that the crypto industry doesn't need any more specific guidance. This leaves traditional investors confused as regulators try to catch up with how to properly govern the industry, a situation that could undermine the U.S. role as a global financial powerhouse if it doesn’t provide more clarity and crypto becomes an even more important market.
The Apple example
Another question: Will TradFi take over crypto, making it look more like old-school finance, or will it go the other direction, with crypto fundamentally reshaping how finance works? With conventional finance players coming into digital assets and regulators bringing a more conservative way of governing markets, there is a chance crypto will be absorbed by Wall Street-types and resemble the finance status quo.
Crypto firms are moving into TradFi’s turf, too. The U.S. division of exchange giant FTX, for instance, has introduced stock trading this year. Big crypto exchanges have enough money to buy stock exchanges, Ramos de Sousa argued. And there’s talk of tokenizing all manner of traditional assets, essentially bringing a crypto ethos to the broader financial system.
Buffett provides a lesson here, too. For years, he famously avoided tech stocks, arguing understanding them was outside of his grasp. And then several years ago, he dove into Apple (AAPL), one of the techiest of stocks, recognizing that the strength of its brand among consumers was similar to the dominant position other companies he liked had.
His switch was gigantic; Apple is now one of largest investments of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A), the conglomerate Buffet founded. Buffett’s move into an industry he was once hesitant about could point the way for TradFi in crypto.
“It’s probably the best business I know in the world,” Buffett once said on CNBC about Apple. “I should have appreciated it earlier.”