Prime brokerage is a term that’s synonymous with financial markets, but never with crypto. Used to describe the sort of bundled services that investment banks offer, it has little application to the cryptosphere, because there are no bitcoin investment banks. At least not in the traditional sense.
For all its innovation, however, crypto has a habit of borrowing from the world it was meant to have deviated from. Think custodial services for cold storage of digital assets, which evoke banks with their dusty vaults and safety deposit boxes; or consider annualized interest from defi platforms that mirrors that once offered by personal savings accounts. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Prime brokerage firms are coming for crypto in what’s likely to be a race of winner-takes-almost-all. Goldman Sachs is synonymous with institutional wealth and power, even to those who’ve never purchased a financial product in their life. Like the eponymous tower it occupies in Jersey City, Goldman Sachs dominates the prime brokerage trade. What will happen when crypto gains its own Goldman Sachs – an institutional investment company whose AUM grant it unprecedented sway?
It should come as no surprise, therefore, to learn that HNW individuals will soon have their own all-in-one firms willing to manage their wealth across a range of verticals, altcoins, blockchains, and sectors.
If you’re willing to trust a third party to custody your crypto – as many investors are – you might as well trust them to invest your assets into the bargain, putting them to use in a manner that will generate the best return. It’s a world away from the financially sovereign one that Satoshi and Hal Finney envisaged, but then a lot has changed in Bitcoin in a decade.
Troy Trade is one company eyeing the lucrative prime brokerage market, with the sort of all-in-one service that will be familiar to traditional investors: institutional-grade trading, including margin and OTC, together with quant strategies, and a suite of dynamic data tools. Having secured $10 million in funding from the likes of Block VC and Consensus Labs, Troy is now promising institutional investors direct market access to all tier-one exchanges such as Binance, Huobi, and Bitfinex.
Newcomers such as Troy will face competition from several of the same exchanges whose liquidity they’re tapping into. In the last two years, virtually every major U.S. and global exchange has courted institutional investors through laying on services such as custody and OTC, and slashing trading fees for high volume traders.
Binance and Huobi have made significant headway in provisioning turnkey services tailored to the needs of institutional investors, but have struggled to shed their reputation as retail trading venues. It’s one thing to offer a suite of services under one roof; it’s another to successfully be all things to all people simultaneously, as the needs of distinct investor groups are very different.
In crypto, as in traditional finance, institutional investors are seeking certain provisions before they’ll bring their money, and that of their clients, to the table.
This latter caveat is particularly important, as institutional traders demand more comprehensive and sophisticated datasets from which to base their trading decisions. This includes detailed historical data, plus tools to facilitate the construction of proprietary trading systems. In addition, low latency, to maximize the performance of high frequency trading algorithms, is a must.
Looking around the cryptosphere, there aren’t many companies that can meet these sorts of demands. When reputable exchanges such as Kraken are experiencing $4,000 wicks, like the example below, it’s safe to say that institutional-grade liquidity still isn’t there, or at the very least, it’s beyond the reach of any single exchange right now.
Holy shit at Kraken.
This is the biggest holy cross yet.
Wick from $8000 – $12000 pic.twitter.com/xHoji6PWHx
– Squeeze (@cryptoSqueeze) September 14, 2019
Candles of this extremity are unusual, it’s true, but their very existence shows that the cryptosphere still has work to do before it can open for business to the big boys. Combining the liquidity of multiple exchanges, as brokerage services such as Troy Trade, Tagomi, and Caspian are doing, is a start, but institutional demands run deeper. What they’re really seeking is a prime broker they can trust, and that’s something which can’t be bought or acquired by plugging in to the trust of others.
It will take time and flawless service for any of the emerging institutional brokers to become crypto’s own Goldman Sachs. Until then, expect to see intense competition among crypto brokers and established exchanges to woo Wall Street.
The rise of prime brokerage firms may be good for institutional investors, but what will it mean for the rest of the market?
Lower volatility: When Cboe and CME launched BTC futures in late 2017, the talk was of big money “taming” bitcoin, but as history has shown, bitcoin doesn’t like being told what to do. As more money enters the market from institutional coffers, some of the intra-day moves should be flattened out, but lower volatility should not be mistaken for low volatility. This bronco will still buck.
Greater protection: Bitcoin, to all practical intents and purposes, cannot be killed. As such, it doesn’t need institutional investors to park their wealth in it to prevent the U.S. government from overregulating it. That said, the deeper crypto roots itself into the financial system, the harder it will be to weed out. By the time it’s a trillion-dollar asset class, the Federal Reserve and the IMF can bump their gums all they like – crypto won’t be going anywhere.
New products: Why trade an asset when you can trade derivatives of it, gaining exposure without the risk of custody? It won’t be retail investors who drive the innovation of new synthetic instruments for trading BTC, ETH, BCH, and other leading assets. The demand for new crypto derivatives will come from institutional investors, and as synthetic assets catch on, more money will flow into crypto. At the moment, there are limits on what you can do with bitcoin as an institutional investor, save for going long or short and playing around with leverage. Expect more levers to be added in future, and more complexity added, for the benefit of sophisticated traders with an appetite for such things.
For retail investors seeking a means to buy and sell cryptocurrency, platforms such as exchange.Bitcoin.com are more than up to the task. Institutional investors, however, tend to demand more bespoke solutions. For these entities, prime brokerages are the answer. The question is, which broker will be the first to step up and claim that crown?
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