Where Finance Finds Its Future
Is the digital asset custody industry ready to grow up?
Safe custody is the crucial service for crypto-currency investors. The theft, loss or destruction of the unique private keys to the digital wallets in which cryptocurrencies are held is irreversible and – unlike conventional cash deposits - they are not insured by any commercial provider or guaranteed by any government or government agency. Data analytics firm Chainalysis estimates that a fifth of all Bitcoins ever mined (or somewhere between 2.78 and 3.79 million of them, worth over US$200 billion) are now lost. Losses to hacks (such as the US$97 million stolen from Liquid Exchange in October 2021, the US$200 million stolen from Bitmart in December 2021, the US$320 million lost via the Wormhole bridge in February 2022 and the record US$624 million taken from the Ronin Network in March 2022) remain disturbingly frequent. Although some retail investors have ignored these risks, institutional investors cannot. These facts alone explain the two distinct surges in the foundation of digital asset custodians. The first was at the height of the Initial Coin Offering (ICO) boom and early crypto-currency exchange hacks in 2017-18, when no less than 65 specialist custodians were founded, including well-recognised brands such as Copper, Fidelity Digital Assets, HEX Trust, Komainu and Propine and leading custody technology vendors such as Fireblocks. The second boom occurred in 2021, as the first institutional investors such as Ruffer and MassMutual invested in crypto-currency. The two biggest global custodians in the world, BNY Mellon and State Street, found themselves pressed by watching buy-side clients to provide a crypto-currency custody service. A further impetus to invest was imparted by the leading crypto-currency exchanges, which launched independent, institutional grade and (most importantly) regulated custody services. Coinbase, for example, has established an independently capitalised institutional custody business (Coinbase Trust Company) that is regulated by the New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS). A third threat to the established custodians has come from specialist, independent, regulated, institutional grade custodians such as HEX Trust, Komainu, Standard Custody & Trust and Anchorage Digital. According to Blockdata, another US$1 billion of venture capital money was invested in digital asset custody businesses in 2021, taking the total raised since 2017 to US$4.6 billion. In its most recent fund-raising, technology vendor Fireblocks was valued at US$8 billion. In its last fund-raising, Copper was valued at US$3 billion. In a low margin business, these valuations indicate high growth expectations, and global custodian banks and central securities depositories (CSDs) are right to be concerned that they might be disrupted or even bypassed. That concern ought to become acute if the crypto-currency boom is followed by an equivalent boom in security tokens, though there are at present plenty of bystanders. London-based token exchange Archax is building its own CSD because no existing CSD can meet the needs of its customers.