3,845 days. More than 10 and a half years. That’s how long it has taken from the filing of first ever bitcoin ETF registration statement, the Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust, in 2013 until approval by the SEC last Wednesday. Frozen yogurt. Vine. The Harlem Shake. “What Does the Fox Say?” 2013 might be remembered for some shortly lived trends, one of them (for the digital asset community) is certainly sub $100 bitcoin. Since the filing of the first ETF registration statement until its approval, the value of bitcoin has compounded at an annual rate of 82.0%, making it one of the best, if not the best, investments over that period. Despite the significant changes in the landscape of bitcoin markets since that initial filing, these remarkable returns were achieved without the safeguards provided by the nation's securities and exchange laws. It was only through the legal system's intervention, which compelled the top financial and markets regulator to reverse its disapproval order (thank you checks and balances), that investors were able to gain access to this asset class with the protection of the nation’s securities laws.
The final approval, however, was not without last minute drama. While we had expected multiple ETFs to be simultaneously approved, we certainly did not predict a hack of the SEC’s Twitter (X) handle falsely prematurely announcing the ETF’s approval, such a divisive vote amongst SEC commissioners, one in which Chair Gary Gensler cast the deciding vote, or the public comments by many of the commissioners (Gensler - approved, Uyeda - approved, Pierce – approved, Crenshaw – not approved), many of which took issue with many of the aspects of bitcoin. The SEC is not a merit-based regulator, meaning its approval is not an explicit endorsement of the underlying investment, pointed out in Gensler’s statement. However, many of Commissioners' statement criticized many aspects of bitcoin and its use cases, all of which could be leveled at cash and fiat currencies. As for the idea that many metals have industrial and consumer use cases, only 6.5% of new gold supply in 3Q23 went to consumptive uses like dentistry, electronics, and other industrial applications (reference). The rest, a whopping 93.5%, went into store of value applications (jewelry, bars and coins, and central bank holdings). Bitcoin might be mostly used for investment purposes, but to not acknowledge that the same is true for gold is to be dismissive of the facts.
It may not be obvious given by the underlying price action since the ETFs launched, but let us state something important. The bitcoin ETFs have been an unequivocal success so far. The ETFs raised hundreds of millions of new investment into bitcoin, given investors access to the asset class in a familiar way, given investors protections afforded by our nation’s securities and exchange laws, reduced fees, and reduced portfolio issues with existing exchange and broker dealer traded alternatives, including tracking error, discounts/premiums to NAV, and roll costs (all associated with owning derivatives based ETFs or closed-end funds). Each of these bring significant benefits to the investing public who desire access to the asset class.
The rub, however, and one we pointed out several times, was that investor expectations for the launch of the ETFs in terms of demand was nothing short of Herculean. This is why spot price has disappointed since the actual launch of the ETFs, despite their success. Active investment management, predicting the undulations in markets, is not one of absolutes, but one of expectations, and clearly in this case, investors ran away with their imaginations.
On an absolute basis, however, the collective launch of bitcoin ETFs (so far) have been phenomenal, raising $965M net for the purchase of bitcoin. In making this calculation, one must include the initial fund AUM (seed investments) and then add on daily fund flow estimates. We are commonly seeing the omission of seed funds and thus the collective impact of these fund launches (not just day 1 and 2 fund flows) is widely underestimated by the street.
The $830.8M of net fund flows less seed funds since trading began is impressive, but by looking at the launch of GLD in 2004 and BITO in 2021, it is clear that we need another day or two of trading to get accurate measurement of launch demand. BITO fund flows dried up on day 4 at $1.22B while GLD dried up on day 3 at $1.13B in 2004 ($1.84 in today’s dollars). While it trailed off significantly on day 2 of trading, the spot bitcoin ETF complex still showed $205.0M of net inflows. Trading on day 3 (Tuesday) will be critical to judge the full launch of these ETFs, although there are worries about the ramp of redemptions of GBTC given the increasing outflows in that product. Only $579.1M of net outflows so far for GBTC has to be considered a massive win for the Grayscale team given their product is nearly 6x the weighted average fee of the rest of the spot ETF complex.
Grayscale, of course, had a massive lead in the assets under management (AUM) department coming into the launch of the spot ETFs. This is why seed funds and purchase commitments were so important to the launch of the new entrants. From the data we have so far, iShares (BlackRock), Fidelity, and Bitwise are the clear top 3 new entrants.
A couple of other funds got a quick start off the blocks, however. VanEck benefitted from at a $72.5M seed investment prior to the start of trading and Bitwise likely benefitted from a prearranged investment from crypto fund Pantera, which if executed fully (up to $200M), would account for most of the fund’s AUM. However, these two funds saw no demonstrable inflows on day 2 of trading.
Before their launch, investors were wondering what fees might be for these funds. Low fees are seen as an important factor in an ETF’s success, but many did not foresee how low fees ultimately went. Stated fee rates went as low as 0.19%, with many funds offering to waive their management fee entirely for some period (6 – 12 months) on a certain amount of AUM. Grayscale lowered its fee from 2% to 1.5%, willing to accept some share losses (the jury is still out on the final impact), but is clearly unwilling to play the race to zero game the rest of the industry is currently engaged in.
Collective annual fees (excluding fee breaks) to sponsors after the launch amount to a little over $400M, with only $3.8M divvied between the 10 new challengers, and this is before fee breaks. With fee breaks, annual revenue for all sponsors excluding Grayscale amount to only $1M. Almost all the ETF industry revenue in its current form goes to Grayscale. We would guess 5 – 10 bps of AUM goes to the custodians (mostly Coinbase) and other service providers. This analysis doesn’t even include the initial setup costs and legal fees associated with just getting these funds to the starting line.
One of the biggest surprises thus far, aside from Grayscale retaining most of its AUM, is how little the biggest futures-based ETF, BITO, has been affected. In fact, on the first day of trading it gained a massive amount of AUM. There could be a variety of reasons why BITO initially saw inflows, including demand for shorts/hedging, but since the beginning of trading of the spot ETFs, BITO has only seen net outflows of $17.9M. While it may be early to judge the ultimate impact on BITO, we would consider the current state a win for ProShares given the product’s high fee (0.95%), tracking error to spot, and roll costs.
One of the wildly incorrect assumptions about the inflows into the new ETFs was that they would be somehow predicted by first day trading volume. The purported heuristic was that inflows would be approximately equal to turnover (dollar trading volume). With massive trading volumes on the first day, there were expectations for big first day inflows, which failed to materialize. Maybe it will take another day or two of trading for AUM to materialize (BITO did $1B of turnover on day 1 and hit $1B of inflows by day 3), but thus far this heuristic has been wildly off so far. It is entirely possible that this was simply not a great heuristic (we are not ETF experts ourselves so have a very limited sample set), but as the table below shows, the numbers are all over the place. At this point, we’d be surprised to see $3B - $4B of net inflows once the dust settles, so it may just be that this was not a great metric.
But this also begs the question as to why there was so much turnover on the first two trading days. For example, the iShares Bitcoin Trust (IBIT) traded over a billion dollars the first day but only resulted in $112M in fund flows. One reason could be the premium to NAV at which most funds were trading (at times mid to high single digits percentages) incentivized abnormally high trading volume for market makers and Authorized Participants who were engaged in arbitrage activities. While the premium to NAV eventually shrunk into the first day close, this profit opportunity could’ve motivated abnormally high trading activity compared to other ETF launches.
The ETFs were a momentous event long anticipated by investors. But with the event beginning to recede into the rearview mirror, many are asking what is next for bitcoin? First, we would like to see another few days of trading volume before the final verdict on their success is in. After that, we would expect the onslaught of inflows and outflows to abate. Maybe products like GBTC and BITO see continued outflows (it would be hard for us to imagine major inflows for either product at least) for a sustained period, but if investors are redeeming one spot bitcoin ETF for another, there should not be any net new demand for bitcoin.
After the dust settles on the ETFs, the next catalyst investors should look forward to is the halving in mid-April. At the halving, the number of new bitcoins that are produced drops by 50%, from 900 bitcoins to 450 per day ($18M reduction in supply issuance at $40K/BTC). We view this event as less of an economic catalyst ($18M/d is very small in the grand scheme of bitcoin trading volume) and more of a psychological one because the dates of bitcoin’s halvings have roughly bisected cyclical peaks in its price. Bitcoin seems to be following a similar pattern as previous cycles following a steep drawdown, but there's of course no guarantee that that will continue (it remains one of bitcoin's enduring mysteries).
However, we are encouraged the path bitcoin has taken. After all, who would have guessed that at this time last year, when the industry was still in a state of shock following the collapse of FTX, that we would finally have multiple spot ETFs available to US investors? Admittedly, that was certainly not something on our radar. So while we are appreciative of the journey the past year, we also remain humble in our predictions about the road ahead.
This report has been prepared solely for informational purposes and does not represent investment advice or provide an opinion regarding the fairness of any transaction to any and all parties nor does it constitute an offer, solicitation or a recommendation to buy or sell any particular security or instrument or to adopt any investment strategy. Charts and graphs provided herein are for illustrative purposes only. This report does not represent valuation judgments with respect to any financial instrument, issuer, security or sector that may be described or referenced herein and does not represent a formal or official view of New York Digital Investment Group or its affiliates (collectively NYDIG).
It should not be assumed that NYDIG will make investment recommendations in the future that are consistent with the views expressed herein, or use any or all of the techniques or methods of analysis described herein. NYDIG may have positions (long or short) or engage in securities transactions that are not consistent with the information and views expressed in this report.
The information provided herein is valid only for the purpose stated herein and as of the date hereof (or such other date as may be indicated herein) and no undertaking has been made to update the information, which may be superseded by subsequent market events or for other reasons. The information in this report may contain forward-looking statements regarding future events, targets or expectations. NYDIG neither assumes any duty to nor undertakes to update any forward-looking statements. There is no assurance that any forward-looking events or targets will be achieved, and actual outcomes may be significantly different from those shown herein. The information in this report, including statements concerning financial market trends, is based on current market conditions, which will fluctuate and may be superseded by subsequent market events or for other reasons.
Information furnished by others, upon which all or portions of this report are based, are from sources believed to be reliable. However, NYDIG makes no representation as to the accuracy, adequacy or completeness of such information and has accepted the information without further verification. No warranty is given as to the accuracy, adequacy or completeness of such information. No responsibility is taken for changes in market conditions or laws or regulations and no obligation is assumed to revise this report to reflect changes, events or conditions that occur subsequent to the date hereof.
Nothing contained herein constitutes investment, legal, tax or other advice nor is it to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Legal advice can only be provided by legal counsel. NYDIG shall have no liability to any third party in respect of this report or any actions taken or decisions made as a consequence of the information set forth herein. By accessing this report, the recipient acknowledges its understanding and acceptance of the foregoing terms.