For financial advisers, cryptocurrencies just might be internet 2.0.
Many advisers I know who were active during the dot-com mania in the 1990s have described the experience this way: “Clients wanted internet stocks and tech IPOs. If I gave them what they wanted, they could lose money. If I didn’t, I could lose a client.”
Cryptocurrencies may soon put advisers in a similar bind. Once a fringe movement of blockchain visionaries, monetary futurists and conspiracy theorists, cryptos have spilled into the mainstream. According to a University of Chicago poll conducted in June, 13% of Americans surveyed said they bought or traded cryptocurrencies during the previous 12 months, slightly more than half the number who said the same about stocks.
And that’s almost certainly just a preview of crypto fever. Two-thirds of those surveyed said they haven’t bought cryptocurrencies because they don’t know how, or they have concerns about security. The two Bitcoin exchange-traded funds that debuted in the U.S. last week go a long way to removing those barriers, and more are set to follow. Sprinkle in the surging prices of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies — and the inevitable FOMO that stirs up — and it’s a recipe for another speculative mania.
The ecosystem of custodians, brokers and technology providers that supports advisers is counting on it. Last week, Interactive Brokers began offering advisers custody and trading access to four digital coins, including Bitcoin, warning that, “If your clients haven’t started asking you to add cryptocurrencies to their portfolio allocations it’s likely that they will soon.” U.S. Bank began offering crypto custody for big money managers earlier this month. And technology providers that cater to advisers are offering to “educate” them about cryptocurrencies so they can sell them crypto-related analytics. The message is clear: Get hip to cryptos or get left behind.
But unlike the dot-com days, advisers probably won’t be swamped by crypto-crazed investors. The internet boom was all about stocks, so it made sense to call an adviser, or more likely a broker in those days. Investors also had little choice because online trading was new and not yet widely adopted in the 1990s. Today, no one needs an adviser to buy cryptocurrencies, particularly now that crypto ETFs have arrived.
Crypto enthusiasts also tend to be younger and therefore more likely to open a trading app than call an adviser. For the first time last spring, new customers of popular trading app Robinhood Markets were more likely to make their first trade in cryptocurrencies than stocks. Some younger investors avoid traditional investments such as stocks and bonds altogether, viewing them as relics of an antiquated and out-of-touch financial industry they derisively call TradFi. They’re right about one thing: Most investment professionals don’t know squat about cryptocurrencies.
That may explain why advisers I’ve spoken with have had few conversations about cryptocurrencies with investors. It may also explain why only 5% of those polled in Chicago’s survey said they haven’t invested in cryptos based on advice from a financial professional. Advisers are fiduciaries, the highest legal standard of care in money management, so they tend to be wary of untested or speculative investments. If more people haven’t received a stern warning about cryptos from advisers, it’s probably because they haven’t asked.
Asked or not, however, as interest in cryptocurrencies grows, advisers will feel increasing pressure to slide them into clients’ portfolios, even if it’s just window dressing. No responsible portfolio manager would allocate more than a small percentage to cryptocurrencies at this point, so it won’t make a big difference win or lose.
Still, it would be a tricky balancing act for advisers. If cryptocurrencies continue to surge, clients will ask why they don’t own more of them. And they’ll be even less forgiving if cryptos disappoint. Investors tend to feel the sting of losses more intensely than the thrill of gains. Bitcoin has already experienced several busts in its short life, and many other cryptocurrencies are newer and untested. If cryptos face a wipeout like the one that hit internet stocks from 2000 to 2002, clients will want to know what cryptos are doing in their portfolios.
That’s a lesson from the dot-com era advisers would do well to remember. When internet stocks collapsed, the zeitgeist quickly changed from “every smart investor must own internet companies” to “how could we have been so stupid?” Investors blamed the entire financial industry for their losses, from brokers to stock analysts and mutual funds to banks, many of whom profited handsomely from the madness.
The industry sees another gold mine in cryptocurrencies. The two Bitcoin ETFs that launched last week, ProShares Bitcoin Strategy ETF and Valkyrie Bitcoin Strategy ETF, charge 0.95% a year, nearly double the average expense ratio for ETFs and 30 times the cost of a broad market index ETF.
Another notable lesson from the dot-com era is that spotting a transformative technology and profiting from it are entirely different things. Most people understood the internet would change everything, and it did. But that didn’t stop investors from losing money on internet companies that went bust or failed to live up to expectations, some of which were among the most valuable companies in the world in the late 1990s.
I don’t doubt there are investment professionals who genuinely believe cryptocurrencies are a great investment — and who knows, maybe someday I’ll be among them. But advisers who venture into cryptos should be prepared for some hard questions if digital currencies encounter their own reckoning. In that moment, few investors will care that the blockchain truly did change the world.
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