10.23.2017
By Rob Daly

Wall St. Eyes Bitcoin Trading

With one coy tweet, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein pushed J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon’s criticism of digital currencies as an investment vehicle to the back pages and may have changed the nature of the digital currency conversation on Wall Street.

“Goldman Sachs’ statement said it was being driven by client demand,” Richard Johnson, vice president, market structure and technology at Greenwich Associates, told Markets Media. “That says a lot. They have clients looking at it. They are hedge funds probably, but a large traditional asset management firm not so much.”

Johnson also noted that Blankfein’s statement might be a turning point for institutional interest in digital currencies.

The investment bank first telegraphed its curiosity regarding digital currencies in 2015, when it took a stake in bitcoin payment startup Circle Internet Financial.

However, can a broker-dealer trade an unregulated market and still keep on the right side of market regulators, especially the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control given the anonymous nature of digital currencies?

It would be a challenge, according to Johnson. “I think it would be an easier on-ramp for companies if they traded regulated derivatives like what LedgerX is doing and Cboe has applied to do. Or they could do swaps, which is something Goldman Sachs could do if it offered a total-return swap for bitcoin.”

However, he noted that there is a growing number of bitcoin forensic firms, such as ChainAnalysis and Elliptic that aim to keep clients away from illicit transactions.

“On the other hand if you look at the paper money in your wallet, a lot of it probably has been used for illicit transactions at some point, but it is still accepted by any bank where you walk into, hand it over, and deposit it into your bank account,” Johnson added.

One of the highest hurdle that broker-dealers would need to clear before establishing a digital currencies trading desk would be determining the firm’s custody procedure for what is in all tense and purposes an electronic bearer instrument, wrote Johnson in a newly issued report, Wall St.’s New Trading Desk: Bitcoin.

Again, the digital currency vendor community that has developed platforms designed to meet institutional requirements.

Johnson expects that within the next 12 months that Wall Street market makers will be making markets in bitcoin, ether, and XRP, which represents the majority of market capitalization and liquidity among digital currencies.

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