The curious case of FTX and bitcoin’s surge

Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of fraud-ridden cryptocurrency exchange FTX, presented himself as an altruistic, unkempt genius who found himself unwittingly out of his depth. The jury, however, decided that he was a fraudster who knowingly stole $8 billion of customers’ money. Another example that all that glitters in crypto land is not gold? A blockchain lover’s Barbieland detached from the real world?

Whatever your stance, crypto now has its own Jordan Belfort, and Bankman-Fried faces years behind bars. Ironically, as the 31-year-old awaits sentencing, bitcoin is on a tear. Its price has doubled, surging back above $37,000, while trading volume went gangbusters. But away from the courtroom drama, the reasons for this tidal shift are more prosaic, with the U.S. rumored to be on the cusp of having spot-price bitcoin ETFs approved by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

This is arguably the biggest thing to happen to bitcoin since the mythical Satoshi Nakamoto invented it in 2008. Many clients will, therefore, see the legitimization provided by the new ETFs as a reason to ask their advisors why they aren’t benefiting from the price increase.

On the surface, there are compelling arguments for the nascent asset class — its increasing lack of correlation to major markets establishes it as an alternative to gold, and the pending regulatory approval indicates that the data and structure are sound. But as InvestmentNews’ Emile Hallez reports in this issue, most advisors don’t have exposure. In short, they don’t trust bitcoin or, whisper it, don’t understand it. Given the cryptocurrency’s short history and wild price swings, few advisors are willing to recommend an investment for which they can’t predict or measure risk.

Advisors are, of course, paid to steer clients away from unsuitable investments, and bitcoin’s volatility remains a huge turnoff for long-term financial planning. But doing so without a deep understanding of what you’re rejecting won’t be enough for bullish clients. Further education to get ahead of what could be another crypto wave looks like a smart play.

The new ETFs, at the very least, will make a small allocation of “play money” in portfolios more palatable. Perversely, the fall of FTX may embolden some investors who view its collapse as some sort of nadir for crypto. “That can’t happen again, right?”

But for advisors, the SEC approval will be what matters and there is little doubt that bitcoin is inching toward more widespread legitimacy. Advisors, even deeply cynical ones, should be prepared for clients’ crypto questions.

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