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With cryptocurrencies—and Bitcoin (BTC) in particular—back in the news and driving markets, Tony sat down with portfolio manager Jason Lee to discuss hot topics such as, what is BTC “halving” and why is it important; what the differences are between owning spot BTC exchange-traded funds vs. owning BTC directly; and the challenges BTC confronts in being used as an everyday currency.

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Crypto for the Masses: Will it Become Everyday Currency?

Tony Roth, Chief Investment Officer
Jason Lee, Equity Portfolio Manager

Tony Roth: This is Tony Roth, chief investment officer of Wilmington Trust, and you're listening to Capital Considerations. I'm very excited to welcome my colleague Jason Lee today, who is an equity portfolio manager who runs our FIRE portfolio, Fire stands for fourth industrial revolution equity, and we incubated that portfolio about three years ago, and one of the areas, of which there are many, that Jason covers and thinks about for us is the cryptocurrency space.

I want to remind everyone that we aren't making any specific investment recommendations today. The purpose of our discussion is to understand the current cryptocurrency landscape. The cryptocurrency space is one where we've seen some very interesting news flow over the last 12 to 18 months or so.

Probably the most spectacular, if you will, was the blow up of FTX, the company that Sam Bankman Freed ran at the same time, though. Bitcoin in particular has gone through a resurgence, notwithstanding a lot of the difficulty that has happened in the industry with a number of companies. And so it was incumbent on us, in my view, to readdress the question around cryptocurrency, generally Bitcoin in particular, and talk about, Why it is that despite the fact that almost everyone that invests in it really struggles to understand where the value consists in, notwithstanding that it continues to grow in popularity and value.

And so it's incumbent on us as investors to revisit the space and to ask ourselves, why aren't we investing in it yet? Why haven't we invested in it? Will we invest in it? Ultimately, we have not invested in it because probably 2 reasons. One is that we haven't been able to ascertain. Where the real value resides without having the cryptocurrency or Bitcoin in particular available as a common medium of exchange.

And secondly, we're waiting to see what happens from a regulatory standpoint in the US because the attractiveness and essentially the valuation is likely to be profoundly impacted when real regulation comes out, which eventually it will. As long term investors, we feel that we need to be patient. Let's start our conversation with the recent resurgence.

That we've seen in the price of Bitcoin, because certainly that is the behemoth in the room. It's the index that people use and think about around the success of cryptocurrency. What's going on? Why have we seen, notwithstanding these problems that some of the companies in the ecosystem have recently faced, such a big resurgence in the valuation of Bitcoin?

Jason Lee: Thanks, Tony. Bitcoin cryptocurrency is a very volatile and crazy market. So it all started late 2023 when it was apparent that BlackRock’s Bitcoin spot ETF was going to get approved by the sec after a long legal battle. The cryptocurrency space kind of understood that if BlackRock is throwing their weight in behind this, this is probably something that the U.S.government's probably going to listen to it and move toward…

Tony Roth: The idea is that maybe not as a medium of exchange, but at least as an investment, It's sort of going mainstream in some sense.

Jason Lee: Absolutely. The key there, and if you want to define it as mainstream is institutions would be able to hold it. Because prior to the ETFs holding a spot bitcoin meant going out and buying bitcoin, through different wallets and private keys and, and that whole ecosystem. It's getting easier, but still difficult, especially on a large scale, like an institution.

Tony Roth: Right. Because buying them directly in a sense, I mean, you never buy it directly, but you're buying it through Coinbase. You're buying it through some other exchange means that there's a facilitator, but you own it directly in an account in your name. And it also means that you have to hold on to the. The key or the code.

If you lose that, you lose your Bitcoin. So what happens with BlackRock for guess where they put their key for other Bitcoins?

Jason Lee: Luckily, BlackRock has partnered with Coinbase, which is probably the most trusted name within the Bitcoin space, at least in the U.S. and Coinbase promises they're holding these in cold storage, which means not connected to a computer.

Can't be hacked. Same as if you held a gold bar at the bank, you would expect them to be able to hold and physically store gold bar for you.

Tony Roth: Someplace, there's a vault. We don't know where it is. And there's a safe deposit box in that vault. And there's a lot of numbers scribbled out on a piece of the paper, essentially, that have the codes or the keys for all the Bitcoin that are in the different ETFs that have been created.

The most prominent one being the BlackRock one. Do you have any sense of what proportion of Bitcoin is now owned through ETFs?

Jason Lee: There's been massive inflows into the ETFs. I think somewhere close to 13 billion. Since they're launched, and that's ex, the grayscale, which was a, a trust that converted, there's some complexity around there, but ex that, I think there's still been about 13 billion.

Tony Roth: So on the demand side, clearly, the ETFs have created a lot of incremental demand. Before we get into the other sources of demand, if you do buy an ETF, Bitcoin, how much pure exposure are you getting? How much friction is there? Are they always buying the actual Bitcoin? Do they buy futures in Bitcoin the way commodities do?

And how much are you losing? I know that Graystone, for example, is famously expensive. The fees are, I think, it's like a percent and a half or more, but how pure and efficient economic exposure to Bitcoin do you get by buying, let's say the Blackstone ETF.

Jason Lee: We spoke with a lot of these custodians, BlackRock, Fidelity, a lot of the big ones, and it's a pretty efficient way to get.

Bitcoin exposure and that spot Bitcoin, not Bitcoin futures, which yes, SEC actually let those ETFs launch several years ago and they never gained a ton of traction. There, there was some lag between Bitcoin futures, especially something so volatile compared to spot Bitcoin. So that's why it's spot Bitcoin ETFs has been such a big deal.

But speaking with the. Black Rocks of the World. You're paying between a 20 and maybe 35 basis point fee, which is pretty typical of a lower cost ETF nowadays, so pretty mainstream there. And then also the spread that they go out and buy the Bitcoin. So I give up a dollar, they go out and buy a dollar worth of Bitcoin.

The spread that they're getting, because they're such a large institution, they've negotiated with Coinbase. And they actually probably get a better rate than if you or I went to Coinbase to go buy one.

Tony Roth: I would think so, right? Yeah. What other factors have caused, if any, this big spike that we've seen just in the last four or five months, really, in the value of Bitcoin?

Jason Lee: The other big thing that just coincided with the launch of the Bitcoin ETS was a Bitcoin halving cycle.

Tony Roth: Let's not get too crazy on the technicality of it, but it has to do with the Bitcoin mining. Which is a term that many people have heard, and I think few understand, has to do with where the value of Bitcoin resides around the security, if you will.

These codes that you use to own the Bitcoin to unlock your Bitcoin are constantly changing and being modified. These Bitcoin miners. They're solving math problems using computers, which are causing the codes to change and become more complicated and more complex in a reward for doing that. They are actually given tiny pieces of Bitcoin they're mining, or they're receiving Bitcoin.

They're making Bitcoin by essentially enhancing or improving the strength of. ecosystem itself. Do I have that right?

Jason Lee: Mining is a, is a really important part of Bitcoin because it's, I think in an easy sense, they're trading energy usage, solving math problems to add security to the network. Right? So the reason why Bitcoin is secure is because it frankly takes a lot of energy to do a transaction on Bitcoin.

And so if you want to mess with those transactions or alter those transactions, You would have to expend a ton of energy to do it. It's secured because it's this difficult energy transactive network. Which is kind of the beauty of it, but for other environmental reasons, Right. Not the best.

Tony Roth: The fact that it is a store of value, to a large degree, is because, in fact, there's a certainty that when you put your code in, you'll get access to that ability to trade that Bitcoin.

And for cash someplace eventually, and it's really it's that certainty and the blockchain that that is enabling it with this mining ecosystem that is the intellectual source of value that there could be other sources of value just because you can speculate in anything like GameStop or a meme stock, and you can have value, but.

That's really what causes this to have value, is the certainty of the ownership more than anything else.

Jason Lee: As the saying usually goes, it's digital gold. It can definitely be that rainy day fund in this digital world.

Tony Roth: We got the ETFs, what else is going on? You talked about this halving.

Jason Lee: So the Bitcoin halving, basically, it's a halving of how much a miner gets rewarded with each block that they confirm on a transaction.

So, every four years, then this is written into Bitcoin code. The amount will go down by half.

Tony Roth:  For eternityor does it go to zero at some point?

Jason Lee: So there's only going to be 21 million bitcoin ever made, ever. And on this schedule, we can pretty much predict the date or at least the month. And it'll happen around 2100 something around there.

So a long time because of this halving cycle, I think each miner after this recent halving gets around 3.125 Bitcoin. Every time they succeed in confirming a transaction. That was down from 6. 25. Last year. Why this is a big deal, or at least pushes prices up, typically? There's a couple reasons people say it's that supply is coming down.

Tony Roth: Demand, less supply, it's worth more.

Jason Lee: Absolutely. But, I'll give you some, some interesting tidbits. So the first halving happened in 2012. Bitcoin was 13 at the time. In the following year, the price peaked for that cycle, went to 1,152. That's a, Almost a 9,000 percent increase in the price. The next halving cycle, in 2016, Bitcoin was 660, went to 17,760.

That's an increase of 2,600 ish percent.

Tony Roth: Okay. Big number, but less percentage increase.

Jason Lee: Less percentage increase, but again, that's the next year. So 2020 was the next halving, was around 9, 000, 10, 000 for Bitcoin. went up to 67, 000 per bitcoin. 700 percent increase roughly. Those numbers are coming down in terms of the increase, but it always seems to peak a year after the halving happens.

Now markets are pretty efficient when market participants like us, See this? People start jumping in, maybe start coming in earlier, probably brings that, that effect down, which I've seen.

Tony Roth: And tell me again, when was the date of the halving?

Jason Lee: So the date of this recent halving was April 19th this year.

Tony Roth: So we still have a potential opportunity to run.

Jason Lee: If the last three cycles are indicative, Bitcoin should peak next year for this cycle. Now, again, markets are efficient. Some of that could be priced in past performance is never a guaranteed of future results.

Tony Roth: These are two factors, the ETFs and the halving. Is there anything else that is important for us to understand around why Bitcoin has taken off again in value?

Jason Lee: I think those are the big drivers of Bitcoin for the larger crypto ecosystem. There's always development going on. But when Bitcoin usually runs, the ecosystem start starts running.

Tony Roth: Let's pivot and talk a little bit about the weaknesses of Bitcoin because if it's going to survive, For the long term, particularly as this, this halving, which is essentially the creation of a new supply is going to diminish.

That could be a drag on the value of Bitcoin over time, I suppose.

Jason Lee: It could definitely be less of an incentive to confirm transactions, which would make this network less secure and therefore less valuable.

Tony Roth: Computers get more powerful, people can go in there and hack the network eventually. So no one's ever done that today.

Jason Lee: Correct.

Tony Roth: But the day might come when someone goes in and figures out how to hack Bitcoin.

Jason Lee: Quantum computing or something could get there, yeah.

Tony Roth: Having said that, Bitcoin as a medium of exchange is an important concept. When I talk about why we don't invest in it yet, There's two things that we are principally concerned about.

One is that it is more of a curiosity than something that has useful value, to the extent that it's only a store of value, because the whole question is, Is it a valid store of value? And to say, well, it is because it's a store of value is historic yard. Yeah. So we want to see some other usefulness of it.

I mean, gold, at least you can use in a commercial settings, you can it's jewelry and it has been around for thousands of years as a rare and precious item. Bitcoin that doesn't have the advantage of that. And in fact, there are some countries that have tried to use Bitcoin as a medium of exchange. I think it was El Salvador, but they haven't gotten that far.

I don't think tell us about the state of the art, if you will, and what you expect. Going forward for Bitcoin, will there be a day that we can see on the horizon yet where instead of buying, um, a lottery ticket with cash, we go in and we swipe our phone and it's a fraction, it's something that represents the fraction of a Bitcoin somehow.

Jason Lee: For a Bitcoin to breach that medium of exchange state, especially in the, in the U. S., there are two different problems to solve here. One is a technological problem. So Bitcoin is. It's only limited to 7 to 10 transactions per second, which is pretty decent when there weren't that many people on the network.

But if we were all buying pizzas and buy our coffees with it every day, I think that'll clog up the system pretty quickly. So there needs to be a way to scale Bitcoin into having more transactions and being something closer to like a Visa or a MasterCard in terms of transactions per second.

Tony Roth: Just inherently, it seems very counterintuitive intellectually that if I want to buy 10, 000 A lottery ticket for 2 dollars that in order to accept my payment, someone has to confirm the payment by running some algorithm and unlocking some code in order to mine Bitcoin, right?

Just for my two dollar transaction.

Jason Lee: That's where the technological development is kind of going in. How many How many of those two-dollar transactions can we put into that miner's network to confirm at once? 3 Bitcoin worth of payment is worth millions of transactions potentially.

Tony Roth: Okay.

Jason Lee: So how do they do that? The solution's coming up.

They're called Layer 2, or maybe sidechains if you will.

Tony Roth: I thought it was something called the Lightning Network.

Jason Lee: The Lightning Network is a great project to be built on top of Bitcoin. Think of it as Me and you decide to start exchanging those two-dollar transactions between you and the coffee shop for your coffee every morning.

And then maybe at the end of the month, the coffee shop decides to settle up your account and secures it onto the Bitcoin network. Between you and the coffee shop, you're just transacting in some Bitcoin every day, pieces of a Bitcoin every day, but then only once a month or once a week does the coffee shop settle that account securely on the network.

That's the thought to kind of scale. Bitcoin and that

Tony Roth: the last time I did a podcast on cryptocurrency, we had a great guest, a woman who runs a Bitcoin company within the Bitcoin space. She talked about Lightning, and that was a couple of years ago. Have we made any progress in the last two years?

Because she said, El Salvador is going to use it, or they are the about to use it. Now here we are two years later and we're really having the same conversation.

Jason Lee: Lightning Network is, is up and running there. There are some drawbacks to the Lightning Network, uh, mainly. Kind of in that example I just used, you would have to lock up how much Bitcoin you expect to make with the coffee shop over the course of the month.

And then that wouldn't be in circulation. You couldn't use it for anything else besides working with the coffee shop. There's some limitations technologically with, with the lightning network that I think have held it back. There's other solutions being developed. There's other cryptocurrencies.

Tony Roth: So give us the punchline though, Jason, is there anything that you see today that within say, five years.

Would enable us to do what I talked about buying a lottery ticket.

Jason Lee: Something like the Lightning Network, which transactions per second theoretically could go up to a million transactions per second. By the way, Visa is estimated at like 60, 000 transactions per second. So, Theoretically, the technology could be built there.

It's not just a technological problem, especially in the U. S. I think it's a regulatory issue.

Tony Roth: and I would think that if I could go in and start buying lottery tickets by swiping my phone and not using dollars and not have it even be connected to dollars. The U. S. government might not like that for different, for lots of reasons that relate to the integrity of the dollar and the usefulness of the dollar and the survivability of the dollar to issues around my ability to engage in bad acts in a less transparent way.

Jason Lee: The biggest thing there is partially tax revenue or a loss of tax revenue for the U. S. government. And to me, no matter what regulations we talk about right now, if I wanted to go buy a pizza. With my Bitcoin, I'm paying capital gains tax. On whatever portion of my bitcoin that is way higher than just the sales tax I'm paying when I'm using U.S. dollars. So I'm going to use U. S. dollars every time.

Tony Roth: What if the bitcoin hasn't appreciated?

Jason Lee: So if I immediately bought bitcoin right before I walk in Buy it, buy pizza, don't pay the capital gains, right? There's no gains, but I just paid a transaction fee to Coinbase and I lost a spread there. So it's just more complicated.

It's more difficult right now with the current regulatory environment. It's slowing the adoption, especially in developed countries.

Tony Roth: So let's go back to my question. The answer to the question was yes. And I'm trying to understand it because I feel like the answer is no. How is it that in five years I'll be able to walk into.

The convenience stores swipe my phone and buy lottery ticket with Bitcoin. I don't see how that's going to happen.

Jason Lee: I will point to something interesting,  Block Inc., formerly known as Square, which you probably know from convenience stores and coffee shops, they're really pushing hard into a Bitcoin program where companies that opt into the program can get paid in Bitcoin, might do a lot more transacting.

On their terminals and everything in Bitcoin, so there may be a world where run through the lightning network You pay in bitcoin. It stays as bitcoin on their balance sheet stays as bitcoin on the coffee shop's balance sheet And they even pay their employees In Bitcoin, and that Bitcoin never gets sold.

Therefore, there's no capital gains being realized until that Bitcoin gets converted back to U. S. dollars. So, if we do kind of develop this economy where most of the time we're transacting in Bitcoins and never converting to U. S. dollars, That is an economy that can work and will skirt some of the issues going on right now.

Tony Roth: But it would still very much trouble the U. S. government for the reasons that we talked about. And so even though it may be possible to address a lot of the drag in the system that we talked about from a technology standpoint with Square and the technology they're using, there's still this massive overhang of The government's going to have to step in at some point and say, no, no, no, you can't do that because I'm not going to be able to tax the owner of that coffee shop on the sales because I'm not going to be able to track them.

Jason Lee: Cryptocurrencies in general get a little overblown on tracking because You can track every transaction that's happened on Bitcoin. You could look at the entire Lightning Network room that we set up and say, Tony and Starbucks have transacted once every day. You have almost a better log of transactions.

Tony Roth: It has to be converted back to dollars for tax purposes.

Jason Lee: For taxes, though. I do think if the U. S. government wanted Bitcoin to basically never be a means of exchange, they can do it just purely by taxes without even having to regulate Bitcoin if they put a really high tax on some of these transactions.

But I do have hope that the U. S. government, we've already seen it in this past two years, with the spot Bitcoin ETF, it went from no way to now they're everywhere and we might be getting a Ethereum ETF sometime in the next few years.

Tony Roth: And I know we're running out of time, but Ethereum is essentially another type of cryptocurrency.

It's like Bitcoin, but it's just a different one. And there are some things about it that are potentially better, and some things that may be less attractive, depending on what you're trying to use it for.

Jason Lee: If Bitcoin's digital gold, Ethereum's gotten the nickname of digital oil. So it's kind of a commodity used to perform work, in this case, computing.

So it's kind of a massive online computer that you pay a fee to use that processing power to do something. That something could be buying a coffee, or trading cryptocurrencies on Ethereum, or buying an NFT, or playing a game.

Tony Roth: And to be fair, Bitcoin could gain adherence as a medium of exchange in other places in the world. I talked about El Salvador, but some other places that are more significant potentially as an economic share of the global pie.

Jason Lee: We forget. Being so U. S. centric that we're blessed to have the U. S. dollar as our means of exchange every day. But if I were living in certain other countries where hyperinflation is rampant or I have to transfer money across border all the time, it's honestly much easier in cryptocurrencies.

Once you kind of learn how to use the systems, then Going to a Western Union and paying a 20 dollar fee to send 100 dollars back to my home country. Doing a remittance in Bitcoin is much easier.

Tony Roth: But it is interesting that in countries like China, Russia, it's essentially been outlawed. Not necessarily as an economic proposition.

I mean, it is outlawed as that, but not because of that, because of the ability to do things outside of the vision of the governments. And they're very, from a certain perspective, weak autocratic governments that need to be able to control things. And if they don't have that information, they can't do it.

Jason Lee: But I would argue that's a, that's a point for the store of value of Bitcoin. China and Russia, two of the biggest economies in the world, have pretty much banned Bitcoin, yet Bitcoin's hitting new highs. And people are still able to transact on it. And if I were under that authoritarian government, maybe I would want to be able to hold some of my assets in something that the government can't get to, or devalue, or destroy, if it came to shove.

Tony Roth: So you think that Putin would hold some Bitcoin?

Jason Lee: I think if, if he wanted to skirt some of these issues he's going on monetarily, Having some Bitcoin would help them.

Tony Roth: This has been a great conversation. Jason, and we have to end, unfortunately, because we're out of time. But if there's one thing that I think that the listeners take away from today's conversation, it's that we at Wilmington Trust are very cognizant of the arrival and the ascension of Bitcoin as an investment, and we're patiently waiting.

To see if and when it might transmogrify, if you will, from what really today still is a very speculative asset into something that has, in our view, permanence based on its usefulness. And we're not there yet. In order to be there, we need to see further advancements in the technologies like Block. And we need to see, really, the government step in and embrace that. And provide certainty around how the government's going to treat it rather than what's really been a, an overhang of silence.

I think.

Jason Lee: Absolutely. I think it's proven that it's has staying power and increasingly younger people are more and more interested. Digital gold, as they say, and younger people are living their lives. It's almost exclusively digitally now. So we've seen the articles written about the death of Bitcoin over and over again.

And then every four years, we also start having these conversations on why is Bitcoin hitting new highs.

Tony Roth: Well, it'll be fascinating to keep engaged on it and see how it unfolds.

So I want to thank everybody for listening today. A special thanks to Jason Lee portfolio manager here at Wilmington trust. If anybody wants to listen to a full roundup of our intellectual capital, please go to only to trust. com. So you'll find lots of great thought leadership.

Thank you very much.



Spot refers to the price of an asset for immediate delivery, or the value of an asset at an exact given time. Any asset that can be traded as a future can be quoted as a spot price.


This podcast is for educational purposes only and is not intended as an offer or solicitation for the sale of any financial product or service or recommendation or determination that any investment strategy is suitable for a specific investor. Investors should seek financial advice regarding the suitability of any investment strategy based on the investor's objectives, financial situation, and particular needs.

The information on Wilmington Trust's capital considerations with Tony Roth has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but its accuracy and completeness are not guaranteed. The opinions, estimates, and projections constitute the judgment of Wilmington Trust as of the date of this podcast and are subject to change without notice.

The opinions of any guests on the Capital Considerations podcast who are not employed by Wilmington Trust or M& T Bank are their own and do not necessarily represent those of M& T Bank Corporate or any of its affiliates. Wilmington Trust is not authorized to and does not provide legal or tax advice.

Our advice and recommendations provided to you is illustrative only and subject to the opinions and advice of your own attorney, tax advisor, or other professional advisor. Diversification does not ensure a profit or guarantee against a loss. There is no assurance that any investment strategy will be successful.

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