Spot Bitcoin ETF vs. self-custody: Is there a conflict?

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As the crypto community holds its collective breath in anticipation of the potential approval of a spot Bitcoin (BTC) exchange-traded fund (ETF) in the United States, Trezor Bitcoin analyst Josef Tětek has argued that such products could take people further from self-custody. However, many industry observers don’t see a direct confrontation between the concept of a spot Bitcoin ETF and self-custody.

A spot Bitcoin ETF is an investment product that tracks the price of BTC by holding Bitcoin and allows investors to buy and sell BTC through a traditional brokerage account. Unlike a Bitcoin ETF — which offers indirect exposure to BTC — self-custodial solutions enable one to own Bitcoin directly, with users taking sole responsibility for holding the private key to access the assets.

Cointelegraph spoke to several executives and analysts in the industry to find out whether they agree with Tětek on this issue and found that not many do. Most said they believe that these different methods of exposure to Bitcoin do not compete with each other.

“ETFs are for funds and institutional investors that are unable to hold the underlying asset,” Jan3 CEO Samson Mow told Cointelegraph. However, this situation will change over time, and institutions could transform their mandates to be able to hold the underlying Bitcoin, he suggested.

“Some retail investors may also buy ETFs to add to tax efficiency structures, but holding real Bitcoin is what most people should do,” Mow said, adding:

“ETFs don’t really compete with Bitcoin, they are a poor substitute for the underlying asset; however, they are useful as a bridge solution as legacy finance adapts to the new Bitcoin reality.”

David Gerard, author of the book and crypto blog Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain, has voiced a similar stance. Holding keys is something for “serious Bitcoin enthusiasts” or traders who are cautious about the risks of keeping keys, he said.

“I don’t see how they’d conflict,” Gerard stated, adding that ETFs are treating Bitcoin as a “dollar-derivative so as to get more dollars.” He stated:

“You could do both — there are Bitcoin enthusiasts in the finance world — without issue, I’d think.”

Leah Wald, co-founder and CEO of Valkyrie — one of the applicants for a spot Bitcoin ETF in the United States — gave a similar take. “It is not a conflict; it is more a matter of preference,” she stated, adding:

“Some investors will prefer to self-custody their Bitcoin while other investors want access to the potential of Bitcoin via an ETF that alleviates the burdens that come with self-custody.”

Bloomberg ETF analyst Eric Balchunas compared Bitcoin to gold in an interview with Cointelegraph.

“Gold is the exact same way. Some people like to actually get gold bars and store them in the basement,” Balchunas said. The ETF market is for people who want exposure but don’t want to be bothered with the hassle like the wallet or buying gold bars in the case of gold. “Then you got to get a safe and put the bars in the safe. And most people aren’t that into it,” he noted.

Related: Bitcoin ETF race will push issuers to disclose addresses — Samson Mow

Balchunas also said that he doesn’t self-custody Bitcoin because he doesn’t trust himself to keep the keys safe or risk forgetting them. He stated:

“I can’t even remember my Amazon password, so I would never self-custody Bitcoin. And I think most people are in the same boat.”

Trezor’s analyst Tětek told Cointelegraph in December 2023 that he believes a spot Bitcoin ETF in the U.S. could trigger fundamental problems related to the original vision of Bitcoin by its anonymous creator, Satoshi Nakamoto.

“Spot Bitcoin ETFs take people further from self-custody and potentially introduce a systemic risk, as ETFs will be safer on the surface than exchanges,” Tětek told Cointelegraph in the interview.

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