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Are ICOs Better for Bitcoin-Bullish Investors?

By Murray Coleman October 12, 2017

The first in an expected wave of bitcoin ETFs might be on the way. ProShares is filing with the SEC to launch two different virtual currency funds, each of which would invest in futures contracts instead of actual shares.

But some advisors are keen on taking an even more direct approach. Instead of planning to buy ETFs that trade throughout each day for clients, they’re working through online brokers at the creation level.

The idea is to cut middlemen costs for clients and get early access to initial coin offerings — a strategy akin to investing in traditional stock IPOs.

“It’s certainly a tempting proposition for advisors who are skeptical about bitcoin ETFs' getting a green light right away from regulators,” says Ashley Foster, an advisor in Houston who works mainly on retainer and charges hourly fees.

Others have tried and still are waiting for SEC approval, points out the partner at Gross & Foster Financial Services. Even if ProShares can launch such investment vehicles, he says liquidity issues and questions about how much “real market” access investors will get through such ETFs could remain in doubt for some time.

As a result, Foster believes a “heavy cloud of doubt” will hang over bitcoin ETFs. On the surface, he says, such ETF skepticism could lead bullish cryptocurrency advisors to try to strike deals to bring clients into the market by getting involved in ICOs.

But that’s a dicey proposition, cautions Foster, who has investigated such investments for his clients. “You might be able to get people into the ground floor of this marketplace, but as a fiduciary I’ve got to weigh potential gains against all of the risks,” he says.

In his view, ICOs are even riskier than bitcoin ETFs.

Ashley Foster

“If investors want to do it on their own, then I can’t stop them,” Foster says. “But I do feel a professional responsibility to let any client who really wants to invest in ICOs know that it’s the Wild Wild West out there — it’s an unregulated market and is purely a speculative trade, not a long-term investment opportunity.”

Patrick Camuso, a CPA in Charlotte, N.C., is also hearing increased interest these days in ICOs by advisors. In August alone, he saw more than three dozen non-financial-related U.S. companies issue ICOs for customers interested in doing business using alternative currencies.

Camuso has started an umbrella consultancy to handle requests by advisors, lawyers and other accountants about ICOs. “This market is already here,” he says, “even if an uncertain regulatory environment creates short-term uncertainty for institutional investors like pension funds and big endowments.”

Steven Crawford, an independent retirement consultant based in Charlotte, N.C., is also fielding a lot of questions about virtual currencies with RIAs he supports.

“While cryptocurrencies shouldn’t be considered as core investments, we see more of our clients at least looking at putting a part of their portfolios — less than 10% — into this market through direct participation in ICOs,” he says.

Crawford bristles at claims such alternative currency markets are too volatile and prone to regulatory uncertainty. Earlier this year, Finra issued an investment alert about ICOs. The SEC has done much the same. Meanwhile, this summer SEC commissioners opened the door to greater regulation of newly created coins.

“When change takes place there’s always going to be naysayers,” Crawford says. “But we see an important issue to raise with advisors is whether they’re being too conservative at a time when currency markets are at a crossroads.”

Until the SEC provides more clarity, his concern is that too many traditional investment advisors are going to sit on the sidelines in a market he estimates already has attracted $24 billion in global assets.

Three months ago, Crawford personally made a small — around 1% of his total portfolio — bitcoin investment. Through early October, its value has soared by more than 90%.

“Most retail advisors are probably going to see their best hope to offer clients exposure to cryptocurrencies as coming through any eventual launch of ETFs,” Crawford says. “That might leave them a little late to the game, but it’s probably the only way their compliance departments will let them get involved.”