What You Need to Know
- In the absence of a Bitcoin ETF, these trusts are the most convenient and transparent way to buy Bitcoin within a brokerage account.
- Bitcoin trust shares trade at either a premium or a discount to Bitcoin.
- This premium/discount feature creates a fascinating opportunity for accredited investors willing to take some risk.
You buy $100 worth of Bitcoin. Assuming the price doesn’t change, and ignoring expenses, how much Bitcoin do you own?
It’s not a trick question, but yeah, it’s a trick. You might be surprised to discover that you could own more or less than $100 worth of Bitcoin. This article explains how this can happen.
If you mine Bitcoin, or buy it directly from an exchange, the value of your Bitcoin will always equal the price of Bitcoin (ignoring expenses). But a different answer applies when you buy Bitcoin via Bitcoin over-the-counter securities, often referred to as “Bitcoin trusts.”
(This conversation actually applies to all OTC trusts of digital assets; we’re using the term Bitcoin as a catch-all phrase.)
Bitcoin Trusts: An ETF Workaround
These trusts look a lot like mutual funds, so don’t confuse them with the kind of trusts that are associated with estate planning. Why, then, are they called trusts instead of funds? That question is not relevant to this conversation. Work with me here, people.
Although I’m not going to tell you why they are called trusts, I will tell you why the digital asset community has created them. There’s just one reason, and it’s the Securities and Exchange Commission’s fault. To date, the SEC in its wisdom has refused to approve the creation of Bitcoin ETFs. With that door closed, the digital asset community has used a window. And that window can be a trapdoor for the unwary or a launchpad for knowledgeable investors.
More on that in a moment.
First, there’s that ETF issue. There’s an obvious need for a Bitcoin ETF. Without one, buying Bitcoin is a challenge. You could mine for Bitcoin, but that’s like traipsing into the woods to find some blueberries. People would rather just go to the grocer. So, forget mining. And going to the grocer — called an exchange in Bitcoin parlance — is also a hassle.
Exchanges aren’t familiar names, can be of questionable financial solvency, are cumbersome to establish, require connections to your bank account, are exposed to hacker risk, and force you to obtain and safeguard passwords or private keys which, if lost, could mean your Bitcoin is lost forever. For most Americans, all this is rather scary.
But investors love mutual funds and ETFs; these securities have been around for decades and are offered by some of best-known companies in the world, including BlackRock, Fidelity and Vanguard, and thus hold tens of trillions of dollars for tens of millions of investors.
Since the SEC has refused to approve any of the many applications for a Bitcoin ETF, the crypto community has released OTC-traded trusts instead. That’s a reference to securities that trade over the counter, usually at OTCQX Best Market (OTCmarkets.com).
Although paying $100 for Bitcoin at an exchange will get you $100 worth of Bitcoin (again, excluding expenses), putting $100 into an OTC Bitcoin trust could get you Bitcoin exposure that’s worth a whopping $500 or a teeny $50.
How could this happen? Well, let’s start at the very beginning, which is, with thanks to Julie Andrews, a very good place to start.
Mutual Fund Shares vs. Trust Shares
With mutual funds, the share price is called the net asset value; it’s simply the total value of the assets held by the fund divided by the number of shares that investors own. For example, if the fund owns $100 worth of Bitcoin and there are 20 shares outstanding, the NAV of the shares is $5.
Want to cash in your shares of a mutual fund? You don’t really “sell” them; you “redeem” them — meaning you give them back to the fund company, which essentially erases them from its books and gives you whatever they were worth when doing so.
Using our above example, if an investor redeems three shares, only 17 will thus exist and the fund’s total assets will thus be $85. And all the outstanding shares will still be $5 each.
But that’s not how a Bitcoin OTC trust operates. Each of these vehicles raises money privately from institutions and “accredited investors” (wealthy individuals) via a “private placement;” the investors receive NAV shares of the trust, and the trust buys Bitcoin with the money raised.
After 6 or 12 months, the trust’s shares trade OTC. Because the trust doesn’t create or eliminate shares when they are bought and sold as mutual funds do, the OTC share value can deviate from the value of the Bitcoin the trust holds.