For months, there has been a consistent trickle of news about mainstream businesses getting involved in cryptocurrencies. In the past week, it has turned into a flood, helping to push the price of Bitcoin to a record of $48,297 on Thursday.
The most buzzworthy move came from Tesla (ticker: TSLA), which disclosed on Monday that it has bought $1.5 billion worth of Bitcoin to hold on its balance sheet. The company plans to let consumers use the currency to pay for cars.
But Tesla isn’t the only one. On Thursday, BNY Mellon (BK), the oldest bank in the U.S., said it will hold and transfer cryptocurrencies for customers. “Growing client demand for digital assets, maturity of advanced solutions, and improving regulatory clarity present a tremendous opportunity for us to extend our current service offerings to this emerging field,” said Roman Regelman, the bank’s CEO of asset servicing and head of digital.
Mastercard (MA) said on Wednesday that it will let merchants accept some cryptocurrencies through its network later this year. The payments will be converted to traditional money before it enters the companies’ systems.
(TWTR) is also considering a Bitcoin investment. And Square (SQ) has already put some on its balance sheet, as well as given users of its Cash App access to buy the cryptocurrency.
Why is this happening now? Cryptocurrencies are still not particularly useful outside of a very few cases, such as cross-border transactions. Even there, they haven’t fully taken hold.
There are at least four big reasons corporations are diving in.
One is that some company founders believe in Bitcoin. Their excitement about the asset has convinced them that their companies need to be involved, or have cryptocurrency investments, even if Bitcoin isn’t really the core of their operations. That appears to be the case for Tesla and its CEO
and for a software company called
and its CEO,
Microstrategy, whose entire market capitalization was below $1 billion early last year, now owns more than $2 billion of Bitcoin, and its market cap is now just under $10 billion. Saylor told Barron’s in an interview last year that he sees Bitcoin as a hedge against monetary debasement and inflation.
‘s fascination with Bitcoin also likely sped Square’s adoption. He has spoken about his interest in the currency for years.
Tesla’s purchase of Bitcoin is strong marketing for the company and the currency, said Dan Morehead, founder of the crypto hedge fund Pantera Capital. But it won’t likely change the way Bitcoin is used. “Tesla sells a half a million cars a year,” he said. “If they sold 4% in Bitcoin, I’d be surprised.” Morehead thinks Bitoin’s growing use for cross-border payments is much more exciting from a practical perspective.
Other companies are getting into Bitcoin because of customer demand. That appears to be the case for BNY Mellon, which is not known for making risky bets on new technologies. It could stay out of the industry altogether, but more institutional investors are buying Bitcoin and need somewhere to put it.
And the infrastructure around Bitcoin has grown, so that it now more closely resembles the systems used in the rest of the world of finance.. Big companies now insure cryptocurrencies or—as in the case of
(JPM)—offer services to cryptocurrency businesses, even if most still don’t hold Bitcoin on their own balance sheets.
A third reason is increasing government acceptance of the trend. BNY cited greater regulatory clarity around Bitcoin as one reason it is diving in. The U.S. government has taken a mostly laissez-faire approach to regulating digital assets even as many of the illegal activities that cryptocurrency has been associated with in the past have continued. Without at least the tacit approval of regulators, crypto couldn’t have landed on the balance sheets of so many companies.
A fourth reason cryptocurrencies are gaining hold in corporate boardrooms is that they serve multiple purposes. That gives corporations several different rationales to hold the coins, or offer related services. Cryptocurrencies have the potential to go well beyond Bitcoin’s initial premise as a way to send money without financial intermediaries. So-called stablecoins, whose value is meant to track fiat currencies, could allow for faster transactions for some kinds of financial services, for instance.
seem like the last places in the world that Bitcoin would take hold given that Bitcoin was created to eliminate the middlemen in finance. Few companies fill the role of middleman as perfectly as the credit-card processors. Visa, however, thinks that cryptocurrencies are useful for many other purposes, and its trusted brand makes it an important player, according to Cuy Sheffield, head of crypto at the company.
“We’ve seen growing demand from clients across the world that want to be able to plug in and use these networks, but they want a global, neutral, trusted brand, to help them be able to do that,” Sheffield said in an interview. Visa said last week it has created software that allows bank customers to buy and hold cryptocurrencies through lenders’ websites.
Will old-line financial companies be the biggest beneficiaries of the crypto “revolution”? Michael Venuto, the chief investment officer of Toroso Investments, doesn’t think it will be easy for them to dominate this new world. Toroso created the
Amplify Transformational Data Sharing
ETF (ticker: BLOK), which invests in public companies involved in the technology behind Bitcoin.
“In terms of the self-referenced paradox of the old economy accepting the blockchain, it is simply inevitable,” Venuto wrote in an email to Barron’s. “If they don’t explore the blockchain they will be extinct. They understand that, but they are not aware of how big the changes will be or how fast they will happen. They have to evolve, but evolution can be messy.”
Write to Avi Salzman at firstname.lastname@example.org