Public trading could begin next week for bitcoin fund

Investors soon could begin trading shares of the first investment vehicle tied to bitcoin.

It's been called "bitcoin's golden moment," and some see it as the start of the financial trend of the future. The Bitcoin Investment Trust (BIT) is just about ready for public trading.

The fund, whose share price would be about one-tenth of one bitcoin's selling price minus fees, has cleared all of its regulatory hurdles, and many shares have surpassed their year-long holding period, according to Barry Silbert, the founder of Digital Currency Group, which owns the fund's manager Grayscale Investments.

Barry Silbert, Founder and CEO of SecondMarket.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
Barry Silbert, Founder and CEO of SecondMarket.

All that's left is for BIT shares (which trade at ticker symbol "GBTC") to be moved into shareholders' brokerage accounts, a process that should be finished by next week, and "then it's up to them if they will sell," Silbert said.

The BIT—which cannot technically be called an exchange traded fund because it does not yet have Securities and Exchange Commission approval—received the go-ahead from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority to trade on the over-the-counter markets. But while these exchanges may conjure up images of boiler rooms and penny stocks, the BIT will be on the higher-standard OTCQX marketplace.

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There are about 1.4 million BIT shares outstanding, and about half of them have been held for more than a year, Michael Sonnenshein, Grayscale's director for sales and business development, told CNBC.

Although trading has not begun for the fund, there are already several pending orders, Sonnenshein said, with the lowest bid at $20 and the highest topping $35. The latter offer would value a bitcoin at more than $350. The cryptocurrency traded around $244 Monday afternoon.

"That's a pretty meaningful premium," Silbert said, explaining that the business model calls for the share price to eventually come closer to reflecting the trading price of bitcoin. For now, however, he said he expects that investors will be willing to pay some premium for BIT shares because it offers them ease of use and storage.

If, however, potential investors do not want to pay for relatively expensive shares on the open marketplace, BIT's authorized participants (such as banks and broker firms) can go out and create more shares at a cost of close to that day's bitcoin price. While this is a cheaper option, new shares are subject to a one-year holding period, which means they are better suited to long-term holders than day traders.

In addition to the pricing premium for free-trading shares, Grayscale charges an annual 2 percent administration and safekeeping fee. That charge is steeper than most ETFs, said Eric Mustin, vice president of ETF Trading Solutions at WallachBeth Capital.

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In fact, he said, BIT investors could be paying 5 percent more than if they simply bought bitcoin on an exchange—when considering Grayscale's fee, and issues with setting a fair price in a relatively non-liquid market.

"People who read tabloids deserved to get lied to, and that's how I feel about someone buying a bitcoin ETF," he said. "If you're confident in this currency that you want to buy it, but you can't take the 30 seconds to set up a wallet, which is incredibly easy, then you deserve to pay the 5 percent or whatever."

"I'm not cynical about bitcoin, but I just think it's a goofy way to trade it," he added.

For their part, Grayscale representatives justified the annual fee by citing the 1 percent charges to put money into and take money out from most bitcoin platforms and exchanges. "From a cost perspective you're no worse off," Silbert said.

"The difference is we handle the custody so you don't have to worry about safekeeping, and you can hold in brokerage accounts," he said.

Sonnenshein also noted that a share in BIT is a titled security, so investors have more protection than if they were simply to write down the key to their own bitcoin wallet on a slip of paper.

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The agreement to potentially pay a price premium will probably appeal to two groups of investors: retirement accounts and the wealth management community, Silbert said.

While there is a lot of money in retirement funds, "up until now there's been no way to invest in bitcoin through a tax-efficient account," he said. And the wealth management and financial advisor crowd has expressed interest in the BIT because it represents a way for firms to keep client money in in-house accounts while satisfying any desires for bitcoin speculation.

"Given the amount of publicity that bitcoin gets, any firm that is managing individual accounts, there's a chance that one of their clients has called their financial advisor and asked, 'How do I invest?' " Silbert said.

The BIT may also represent a smart tool for investors who don't want to risk putting their money in the hands of exchanges (some of which have suffered scandals throughout bitcoin's young history), according to trader Brian Kelly.

"If you're going to put any real money into bitcoin the last thing you want to do is put any money on an exchange," he said. "This gives you that kind of security."

But even if some investors see the appeal of the BIT, it may soon have competition.

Investors Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss have been pitching a bitcoin ETF for some time and are going through the regulatory process of applying through the SEC. Their fund, which would trade on the Nasdaq and have the ticker symbol "COIN," is seeking to list 1 million shares, according to a recent filing.

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While Kelly allowed that some traders may find the Winklevoss ETF more appealing because it does not trade on the OTC markets, he said he did not think that the added draw would be significant.

"Really, you are talking about technicalities. If you want to just buy bitcoin they are similar," he said.

For his part, Silbert was confident about the future success of BIT (and its first-mover advantage) compared to any would-be competitors. "The way we think about it is the race is already over," he said.

The "ultimate end goal" is to register BIT shares with the SEC, and trade the fund on the New York Stock Exchange, Silbert said, adding that he cannot give any assurances of what the future may hold.

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