The woes of an early bitcoin investor. Until recently, people who paid virtually nothing for the virtual currency and watched it soar had only one way to enjoy their new wealth — sell. And many weren’t ready.
Lenders on the fringe of the financial industry are now pitching a solution: loans using a digital hoard as collateral.
While banks hang back, startups with names like Salt Lending, Nebeus, CoinLoan and EthLend are diving into the breach. Some lend — or plan to lend — directly, while others help borrowers get financing from third parties. Terms can be onerous compared with traditional loans. But the market is potentially huge.
Bitcoin’s price hovered around $17,000 much of this week, giving the cryptocurrency a total market value of almost $300 billion. Roughly 40 percent of that is held by something like 1,000 users. That’s a lot of digital millionaires needing houses, yachts and $590 shearling eye masks.
“I would be very interested in doing this with my own holdings, but I haven’t found a service to enable this yet,” said Roger Ver, widely known as “Bitcoin Jesus” for his proselytizing on behalf of the cryptocurrency, in which he in one of the largest holders.
People controlling about 10 percent of the digital currency would probably like to use it as collateral, estimates Aaron Brown, a former managing director at AQR Capital Management who invests in bitcoin and writes for Bloomberg Prophets. “So I can see a lending industry in the tens of billions of dollars,” he said.
One problem is that bitcoin’s price swings violently, which can make it dangerous for lenders to hold. That means the terms can be steep.
Someone looking to tap $100,000 in cash would probably need to put up $200,000 of bitcoin as collateral, and pay 12 percent to 20 percent in interest a year, according to David Lechner, the chief financial officer at Salt, which has arranged dozens of loans.
That’s in line with interest rates for unsecured personal loans. The difference is that putting up bitcoin lets people borrow more.
The new loans should be of particular interest to miners, whose computers solve complex math problems to obtain new coins and help confirm transactions, Brown said. They have to pay for electricity and equipment. But, like many bitcoin believers, they don’t like to sell their crypto. Bitcoin startups also need cash to pay employees.