Grayscale saw its assets under management skyrocket as Wall Street used it as a proxy to invest in bitcoin.
The New York-based investment firm kicked off last year with $2 billion in assets and ended with more than $20.2 billion. That 900% increase was driven by demand from institutional investors such as hedge funds, endowments and pension funds, the company said in a quarterly report Thursday.
Grayscale's Bitcoin Trust became a popular, publicly traded way for investors to get exposure to cryptocurrency without owning the coins themselves. The investment product ballooned from $1.8 billion to $17.5 billion in assets year over year.
"We saw a meaningful acceleration of institutional participation," Michael Sonnenshein, who recently took over as CEO of Grayscale Investments, told CNBC in a phone interview. "There's no longer professional risk of investing in the digital currency asset class — there's probably more career risk in not paying attention to it."
Grayscale's banner year came as high-profile money managers publicly warmed up to digital currency.
Billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones called bitcoin the "best inflation hedge" and compared it to putting money behind tech giants like Apple and Google. Stanley Druckenmiller and Bill Miller are among the other high-profile bitcoin bulls. Their backing, analysts say, has given Wall Street more confidence to invest.
Institutions made up 87% of Grayscale's inflows for the full year, the company said. The average size of commitments from those investors doubled in a matter of months. In the third quarter of 2020, investors were putting in roughly $3 million on average, and by the end of last year were committing an average $6.8 million.
Institutional demand has been cited as a key reason for bitcoin topping $40,000 last week and a triple-digit rally last year. Sonnenshein said those professional investors often don't have the legal or "operational wherewithal" to buy and hold cryptocurrencies safely.
Many professional investors see it as an alternative to established safe-haven assets, such as gold, and a hedge against "perpetual money printing" by central banks, Sonnenshein said.
"The most prevalent theme for investment conviction in bitcoin is coming from a rotation out of gold," he said. "Investors are also anecdotally sharing that that's where, and how they're making room for bitcoin in their portfolios."
At the same time as $3 billion flowed into the Grayscale Bitcoin Trust since mid-October, gold ETFs lost $7 billion, according to JPMorgan. A strategist for the investment bank also told clients in a note last week that a bitcoin ETF could weigh on prices in the short-term, and spark outflows from Grayscale. In response to the analyst note Sonnenshein, a former JPMorgan associate, said an ETF is likely to be approved but wouldn't pull interest from Grayscale.
"The kind of inflows that we're reporting should be evidence that investors are not waiting for an ETF to begin participating in this asset class," Sonnenshein said.
Bitcoin prices have been volatile since dropping below $40,000. After falling as low as $31,000 on Monday, the cryptocurrency was trading back near $39,000 as of Thursday morning.
Professional investors may be using the dips as an opportunity to get back in. When there are pullbacks in price, Sonnenshein said incoming phone calls and the emails are often about putting more money to work.
"Investors are used to seeing those types of cycles in the price," he said. "They're using pullbacks in price opportunistically to double down and add to their positions."
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