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Why Coinbase’s Cryptocurrency Business Could Jump 50%


Today, the more than USD 365 billion invested in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is owned almost entirely by individual investors—not by Wall Street institutions.

That’s finally about to change. Coinbase, the largest U.S. Bitcoin exchange, launched new professional-grade trading products for institutional investors this week, citing increasing demand for cryptocurrency from smart money heavyweights.

“How we’ve seen it play out in the institutional space, very few want to be first, but most want to be second,” says Adam White, Coinbase’s general manager who runs its institutional business including the GDAX exchange.

Coinbase’s announcement continues moves by major Wall Street banks earlier this month towards entering the cryptocurrency market. Goldman Sachs revealed at beginning of May that it is opening a Bitcoin trading desk, and JPMorgan Chase said this week that the bank is “looking into the space,” naming its first-ever head of crypto-assets strategy to lead those efforts.

“In a couple years we’re going to look at Goldman Sachs’ announcement that they’re going to begin trading cryptocurrency as very much a watershed moment,” Adam White says on the latest episode of “Balancing the Ledger,” Fortune’s weekly show about the union of finance and technology, which you can watch above.

Wall Street’s hesitation to invest in cryptocurrency is rooted in concerns over scams that have plagued the industry and in fears about security. Many of the world’s most popular Bitcoin exchanges have been hacked, including the infamous Mt. Gox, from which a record-setting 650,000 Bitcoins—worth more than USD 5 billion today—were stolen and remain missing. Even Coinbase, whose own systems have never been breached, has been targeted by thieves who have hacked and drained scores of its customer accounts, including those of prominent investors.

That’s why Coinbase is rolling out a custody service to securely hold cryptocurrency on behalf of huge investors (with a minimum deposit of USD 10 million), adds White. Coinbase currently stores more than USD 20 billion in digital currency, most of which belongs to retail investors, he says—but the company expects that amount could jump 50,5 % once the custody product goes live.

“By our best estimates, there’s at least USD10 billion in institutional capital that’s hanging on the sidelines just to move in for a safe custodianship product, just for cryptocurrency alone,” White says.

That money is likely to come from hedge funds and banks initially, but pension plans and sovereign wealth funds could eventually follow, White adds. The establishment of premium cryptocurrency investment services “is going to unlock tens of billions of dollars of institutional capital,” White says. “We hope it comes through us.”

But while Coinbase’s business, valued at USD 1.6 billion during its most recent fundraising round, currently revolves around the financial industry, it ultimately aims to be much more than a bank or fintech company. “Very simply said, we want to be the Google of crypto,” says White.

Although he claims to be skeptic about the Bitcoin price and how the influx of Wall Street money could boost the market, Coinbase is betting on cryptocurrency’s long-term potential: “Anyone in the space needs to have a 20- or 30-year vision to really look at what a foundational technology like Bitcoin or Ethereum will provide.”

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