Bitcoin is dividing opinion on Wall Street, with a rush of investment banks expressing widely divergent views on the cryptocurrency boom.
The digital currency soared 300 per cent last year, and has roughly doubled in the opening weeks of 2021, taking its value to about $60,000. With an estimated 18.7m coins in circulation, that takes the overall value of the market to roughly $1.1tn — too big for investment banks to ignore.
But the extra scrutiny from professional analysts is not creating a consensus about its place in financial markets, or whether it should even have one at all.
Citigroup was one of the first big banks to explain its view. In a 108-page report released earlier this month, it said bitcoin “may be optimally positioned to become the preferred currency for global trade” — a prospect that fired up prominent cryptocurrency bulls such as SkyBridge founder Anthony Scaramucci.
It noted concerns over capital efficiency, insurance and custody and the environmental impact of cryptocurrencies, and concluded that “developments in the near term are likely to prove decisive as the currency balances at the tipping point of mainstream acceptance or a speculative implosion”.
Since then, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley Wealth Management have also chimed in.
“Total bitcoin returns this year are already among the highest in its short history and investors have noticed,” said Bank of America’s global commodity research team. But, the report highlighted serious concerns about the environmental impact of cryptocurrencies, noting that bitcoin’s annual energy consumption rivals that of the Netherlands because of the energy intensive process of “mining” new coins.
BofA analysts also said bitcoin was not a suitable hedge against rising inflation and its supply is controlled by a small collection of accounts, dubbed whales.
Lisa Shalett, chief investment officer and head of the global investment office at Morgan Stanley Wealth Management, wrote in a report last week that cryptocurrencies are reaching the threshold of becoming an investable asset class.
She said the evolving regulatory framework, improving liquidity conditions and growing interest from institutional investors have created conditions for cryptocurrencies to become part of mainstream institutional portfolios, similar to how gold markets emerged 45 years ago.
“Our recommendation is that investors get educated and consider how and whether to get exposure to this bourgeoning asset class in their portfolio,” Shallet wrote.
Others, such as Germany’s Commerzbank have deemed bitcoin not worthy of analyst coverage, describing it as a purely speculative asset. French asset manager Amundi also published its first paper on cryptocurrencies on Monday, with deputy chief investment officer Vincent Mortier warning of a possibly brutal price adjustment once major regulators set out rules for the space.
Goldman Sachs restarted its digital currency trading desk in March, a month after Bank of New York Mellon announced it would offer cryptocurrency custody services to its asset management clients.
The rally in bitcoin has been supported by the growing interest from institutional investors. Some companies, prominently including Tesla, have also loaded up. US Federal Reserve chair Jay Powell, meanwhile, said at an event on Monday that crypto assets are more for speculation than for payments.