Financial Market

Bitcoin exchange-traded funds get approval from U.S. SEC

After a head-spinning and bizarre chain of events, U.S. financial regulators have formally approved new bitcoin exchange-traded funds. The move is being heralded as a landmark moment in the history of cryptocurrency and its acceptance into mainstream financial markets.

In its approval announced on Wednesday, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) expressed its long-standing discomfort with cryptocurrencies.

“While we approved the listing and trading of certain spot bitcoin ETP [exchange-traded product] shares today, we did not approve or endorse bitcoin. Investors should remain cautious about the myriad risks associated with bitcoin and products whose value is tied to crypto,” wrote the agency.

Exchange-traded funds pool assets like gold, stocks bonds and now bitcoin to provide an easy way to invest in something without having to buy the asset itself.

The approval caps off a wild week for the SEC.

A social media account run by the SEC initially made the much anticipated announcement on Tuesday on X, formerly Twitter. But moments later, it repealed that approval saying its X account had been “compromised.” (X said its systems weren’t breached, but that an “unidentified individual” got control over a phone number associated with the @SECGov account, which didn’t have two-factor authentication enabled.)

The controversy briefly overshadowed the actual approval, which opens up bitcoin to a vast new pool of potential investors.

A gold Bitcoin coin sits on top of a computer chip.
While other countries, including Canada, have already allowed bitcoin ETFs, the approval by the U.S. SEC is seen as a major shift in legitimizing bitcoin and cryptocurrencies more generally. (Paul Kemp Productions)

‘Legitimizing bitcoin’

Bitcoin was the first and remains the best-known cryptocurrency. It’s built and traded on a decentralized ledger system known as a blockchain.

Its champions have heralded it as a breakthrough in how we use money; its critics have compared it to a Ponzi scheme.

But as of this week, Americans can use their traditional investment accounts to buy and sell bitcoin.

“This is the biggest step to legitimizing bitcoin and digital assets … for the masses” in the cryptocurrency’s 15-year history, said Mark Connors, head of research at 3iQ Corp., a crypto investing firm in New York City.

It’s a bold new step in the U.S., where regulators have long opposed allowing crypto assets to enter into the mainstream.

SEC Chair Gary Gensler has been a vocal opponent of crypto during his tenure. Just days before the approval of the bitcoin ETFs he tweeted out a warning about the use of crypto currency.

“If you’re considering an investment involving crypto assets, be cautious. Crypto asset securities may be marketed as new opportunities but there are serious risks involved,” he wrote on X Tuesday.

Buying bitcoin without a crypto exchange

As much as the announcement is seen as a breakthrough in the United States, many countries including Canada have allowed bitcoin ETFs for years. A Toronto-based money manager called Purpose Investments launched the world’s first bitcoin ETF back in 2021. 

“What the ETF will ultimately do and what we did in Canada was it made it available and ubiquitous to any account, any investor,” said Som Seif CEO of Purpose.

Seif says ETFs aren’t just a low-fee way of accessing bitcoin, they’re the safest and most efficient way for investors ranging from advisers to individuals to pension plans or hedge funds to buy and sell pieces of crypto.

Until this week, Americans who wanted to buy bitcoin had to use a crypto exchange. Some of the best-known exchanges, like FTX or Quadriga turned out to be scams. 

“At the end of the day, what I’m really proud of it is that our ETFs have $2.7 billion in assets and what I always say is that’s $2.7 billion of people who had a safe and secure way and didn’t get caught up in things like FTX and things like Quadriga,” Seif told CBC News in an interview.

Sam Bankman-Fried, wearing a blue suit, white shirt and blue necktie, leaves a court in New York City.
Sam Bankman-Fried, founder of the the now-collapsed cryptocurrency exchange FTX, was convicted of fraud in November 2023. (John Minchillo/The Associated Press)

When the U.S. SEC did finally approve bitcoin ETFs — for real this time — the price of bitcoin passed $62,000, continuing its surge leading up to the announcement and hitting its highest point since 2021.

Still, not everyone is convinced bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have proven they have any underlying or future value.

Karl Schamotta, chief market strategist at the financial services firm Corpay says there’s a clear incentive for Wall Street giants like Blackrock and Fidelity to get on the bitcoin bandwagon.

“The secret to getting rich in a gold rush isn’t in digging for gold — most prospectors don’t break even — but in selling the picks and shovels,” said Schamotta. “The incentives for major institutions to offer these products are clear, but no one should make the mistake of believing that they are taking the interests of long-term investors to heart.”

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