Investment firm VanEck calls bitcoin a 'fad,' then files for bitcoin ETF

Key Points
  • A leading manager of gold-related investment funds filed Friday with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for an exchange-traded fund to invest in bitcoin derivatives.
  • A day before, VanEck published a blog post that said the firm did not believe digital currencies will ever replace gold.
  • VanEck told CNBC in a statement the post makes a "great case for gold relative to bitcoin as a currency and store of value" but digital assets are an "investable asset class in their own right."
Investment firm VanEck calls bitcoin a 'fad,' then files for bitcoin ETF
Investment firm VanEck calls bitcoin a 'fad,' then files for bitcoin ETF

Money management firm VanEck is both skeptical of and planning to sell a related investment product, illustrating a rising perception that the surge of interest in the digital currency creates a high-risk opportunity that may be too big to miss.

Last Thursday, Joe Foster, portfolio manager and strategist for VanEck's flagship International Investors Gold Fund (INIVX) said in a manager commentary piece for July that bitcoin will likely never "replicate or replace" gold's place as a safe haven asset due to fundamental differences between the two.

"Bitcoin and other digital currencies are a fad that has attracted the attention of programmers, speculators, and early adaptors," Foster said. "It is my opinion that governments will not allow digital currencies to reach the critical mass needed to challenge the utility of fiat currencies" such as the dollar.

"At best, digital currencies may eventually occupy some middle ground as a niche product," he said. "At worst, they become a failed experiment that ends in tears."

One day later, VanEck filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for a VanEck Vectors Bitcoin Strategy exchange-traded fund that would initially invest in bitcoin futures contracts and trade on the Nasdaq.

"Performance of the Fund is determined by the price‎ movement of the underlying digital asset (i.e., Bitcoin), the rate of change and the change in volatility," the filing said.

The fund will be an actively managed ETF that seeks to "provide total return" without tracking the performance of a specific index. Derivatives like futures allow investors to bet on potential gains or losses in bitcoin's price without buying the digital currency itself.

"Joe Foster makes a great case for gold relative to bitcoin as a currency and store of value," VanEck told CNBC in an emailed statement. "VanEck believes that the technology underlying digital assets, known as distributed ledger technology, has tremendous potential to revolutionize finance and trade. Digital assets are an investable asset class in their own right and continue to be integrated into the broader economy."

The SEC declined to comment on the filing.

Many digital currency enthusiasts have called bitcoin "digital gold" and predict that a small percentage of gold's roughly $7.5 trillion market value will flow into bitcoin, sending the digital currency's price many multiples higher. Bitcoin has more than quadrupled this year, hitting a record high on Monday above $4,300 — triple the price of an ounce of gold.

Despite the many risks of the young digital currency world, analysts like Standpoint Research founder Ronnie Moas said cryptocurrencies' rapid gains are not something he "could keep [his] hands off of."

Gold futures for December delivery hit a two-month high last week of $1,298.10 an ounce on rising worries about the North Korea nuclear threat. The precious metal traded mildly lower Monday, holding gains of 12 percent for the year but remaining within a yearlong trading range.

According to VanEck's website, its International Investors Gold Fund became the first U.S. gold fund when it launched in 1968. The fund is up nearly 11 percent this year. The firm also manages the widely followed VanEck Vectors Gold Miners ETF (GDX).

Portfolio manager Foster said in the Aug. 10 blog post that "it is clear that those who promote bitcoin are using gold's image to help validate their product." He noted differences between gold and bitcoin such as how:

  • "Digital currencies are worthless without electricity."
  • "Bitcoin mining is a difficult concept to fathom. ... What does [solving complex math problems] have to do with creating a store of wealth?"
  • "Distributed ledger passwords could be relatively easily broken if quantum computing becomes a reality."

Foster did point out that distributed ledger technology, or blockchain, is "game changing," but noted another cryptocurrency could threaten bitcoin's dominance. He said in conclusion, "For now, the only thing we can forecast with confidence in the digital currency space is more volatility."

That high volatility and potential for significant gains may be enough reason for some investors to buy bitcoin and related investment products.

Other firms have proposed digital currency trading products in the last several months.

The SEC said in late April it would review the Winklevoss brothers' application for a bitcoin ETF, after rejecting it in March due to lack of regulation for the digital currency.

The initial rejection also noted the lack of a derivatives market for the proposed ETF, which would have traded on the Bats BZX exchange.

Since then, the Chicago Board Options Exchange said in early August that it plans to offer bitcoin futures as soon as the fourth quarter of 2017. The news followed the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission's late July approval for a digital currency trading platform LedgerX for clearing derivatives, which plans to offer bitcoin options in early fall.