‘There’s more belief that the floodgates may be set to open’: Saxo Bank founder on BlackRock Bitcoin ETF filing
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The BlackRock Bitcoin ETF filing continues to be a massive talking point, with other big institutional finance players subsequently laying their cards on the table.
To learn what it all could mean for BTC and the crypto market and industry, Stockhead spoke with a former “TradFi” notable – co-founder of Saxo Bank Lars Seier Christensen, who is now the chairman and founder of layer 1 blockchain project Concordium.
Hi, Lars. Thanks very much for chatting. Can you please give us your take on the significance of this BlackRock ETF spot Bitcoin filing in the US? How big do you think this is for the crypto market and industry broadly – firstly just as a matter of intent from the financial titan, and secondly if it were to be approved by the SEC?
LSC: Last week’s news shouldn’t come as any big surprise. BlackRock is in the business of selling ETFs and we know that institutional investor interest in digital assets is on the up.
It was a matter of time before BlackRock applied for a Bitcoin ETF, what is most interesting is the timing itself. The move may be indicative that we are reaching an inflection point in the industry where Wall Street sees the opportunity to dip more than just its toes into crypto waters.
From a regulatory point of view, we will need to wait and see if the firm has any more luck than its predecessors in convincing the SEC. However, given the flurry of others who have since renewed or lodged their own ETF applications in the wake of BlackRock’s filing, it’s clear there is more belief than previously that the floodgates may be set to open in that regard.
Why now, then? Why do you think BlackRock has chosen this moment in time to make this play?
While I’m sure there are many factors that influenced BlackRock’s decision to push for a Bitcoin ETF now, the most obvious reason is that they simply see the demand for it.
Across the board, institutional investors are showing increasing interest in exploring crypto options and BlackRock is simply responding to that interest amongst its own clients.
And as you say, it’s not just BlackRock… as we’ve seen this week. Fidelity Investments has just filed for a BTC spot ETF, while it, along with Citadel Securities and Charles Schwab have also just enabled their EDXM institutional/accredited investors crypto exchange. Then there’s Invesco, WisdomTree, ARK Invest… Do you think some of these other players have been waiting for BlackRock to jump as a sense of validation for their own crypto moves?
There could be a number of factors contributing to the coalescence of institutional adoption right now. Bitcoin has slowly been growing in market dominance since the FTX collapse in November, which drove a lot of investors towards so-called “safe haven” assets. Witnessing this trend, institutions may have begun preparing their digital asset teams to capitalise on this market trend.
Given its size and status, it is likely that BlackRock acted as a trigger for others who had already been laying the groundwork for a move into the space. While previously we have seen institutions look on from the sidelines with curiosity, there is now a sense that the landscape is primed for these players to make significant investments and moves to establish a firmer foothold in the crypto sphere.
Given BlackRock’s strong track record of ETF approvals, what do you think the chances are of this one in particular actually being approved? And if approval is likely, when might you expect that to happen?
While BlackRock represents the biggest player yet to file for a spot ETF, the makeup of the SEC itself hasn’t changed since any of its past decisions to deny or delay applications.
It is difficult to see what has changed on the regulatory body’s side that would make this filing any different in the immediate term, regardless of BlackRock’s past ETF approvals record.
As such, I don’t predict we will see approval in the immediate term. However, as we know, things can change quickly in this space.
Do you subscribe to the school of thought that the SEC/regulators are playing a game of institutional favourites when it comes to Bitcoin/crypto as an asset class? Could all the tight and punitive oversight on crypto-native firms be part of a broad plan to “clean up the industry” in order to make way for the big guns?
Whether or not we see BlackRock or other institutional players’ filings for spot ETFs approved is still to be determined, so it’s hard to argue or speculate until then that the SEC is acting in favour of them.
Broadly, though, the main criticism of the SEC regards its “enforcement” above “regulatory guidelines” approach, and I would like to see more collaboration between the SEC and anyone operating in the crypto space – web2 or web3-native – to establish a clearer set of rules.
Do you think a BlackRock Bitcoin ETF approval could open the floodgates for immense capital into the market? Could it be the catalyst that moon-shooting retail crypto investors have been hoping for?
Institutional adoption played a key role in crypto’s last bull run, and studies have shown that investors feel more confident investing in projects that are backed by large-scale institutions.
The entry of a number of TradFi giants will bring to the table more feasible options for institutional investors to take their first steps into the crypto market.
At the same time, we are in a very different place than we were in 2021. The FTX scandal and its fallout have done a lot of damage to the industry’s reputation, which we are working against, so I think growth will be more gradual this time around.
In the long run, a slower, more stable and sustainable growth path will benefit the industry in comparison to the peaks and troughs that we have become accustomed to.
Conversely, could there be any negative effects that the global crypto market might need to endure or compromise with if/when a Bitcoin ETF does happen to gain approval in the US?
There are some concerns that the entry of these institutions will crowd out crypto native companies and smaller players, however I think the industry as a whole stands to benefit from increased capital and legitimisation gained from mainstream adoption.
There are loud voices on both sides of the crypto fence in US politics, including some very dim views from Senator Elizabeth Warren and SEC boss Gary Gensler, who is leading the regulatory oversight of the industry there at present. Is the “anti-crypto army” on the wrong side of history with this?
I understand the frustration with the regulators in the US, but I think there is a misconception that the regulatory debate is finally settled in places like Europe, Hong Kong and Dubai, where frameworks have been passed. The reality is, our industry will always be under some kind of pressure from regulators, just like the traditional finance (TradFi) sector has been.
When I worked in the TradFi industry in the ’80s and ’90s, it was the wild west. Then regulators came in and laid down some ground rules. A lot of people were frustrated by this and left, but the people who adapted were ultimately rewarded with bigger business in the long term.
The silver lining to regulatory enforcement is that it gives both users and investors greater confidence in the market and more assurance that there will be stability and accountability. That’s why I think it’s important for firms to cooperate where we can with regulators.
Of course, it’s important to speak out when you see an abuse of power, but it’s our job to demonstrate the utility of digital assets to regulators so that they can work with us to ensure the longevity of the crypto space.
What is your general view of Bitcoin as an asset? And on “crypto” as an asset class and blockchain tech more broadly? What positives and/or negatives do you see regarding crypto?
It makes sense that institutional investors would flock to Bitcoin in the current market, given that it is viewed as a safe-haven asset. Last week Bitcoin dominance spiked to 50%, and this is part of a growing trend since November 2022, which was a time of uncertainty in the crypto space.
I believe that Bitcoin will always play an important role in the industry, providing a gateway for institutional investors, but the real innovation is going on beyond Bitcoin, both in the DeFi space and the broader blockchain landscape.
As crypto matures as an asset class, I think we will see a lot more diversification in investors’ portfolios as they give these other projects more attention.
One of the most exciting aspects of blockchain technology is its potential outside of financial markets, whether that be ID verification, supply-chain management, data storage and more. I have a lot of faith in the value of this technology, and I think there are a number of institutional actors who see this value as well.
From your vantage point as a founder of Saxo Bank, now with Concordium, how do you think the world of traditional finance views the crypto industry and the asset class? The market-roiling FTX and LUNA circumstances last year cast a heavy gloom over it all. But is that pall, that negative perception lifting somewhat?
In my personal experience, people are much more open to the crypto space than they were even three years ago. Today, it’s much easier to arrange a meeting with a group of investors or consultants to talk about blockchain as a solution.
I see a lot of similarities between where the blockchain industry is today and where the internet was 30 years ago. The real use cases for the internet were only discovered after all the opportunists left and the hardcore believers who were focused on creating real value for society took over the space.
The firms that have survived the crypto winter are full of talented, dedicated individuals who want to establish use cases for blockchain that will transform finance, health, ESG and other sectors. There are many projects left standing that bear no resemblance to FTX and Luna, which were focused primarily on making money.
As more attention is given to developer-focused projects, we will see this negative perception of the crypto and blockchain industry dissipate over time.
What headwinds and tailwinds do you see for Bitcoin and the crypto industry and market globally? Are macroeconomic concerns still the main roadblock to another bullish run?
As with all industries right now, inflation and rising interest rates continue to affect investment. For the crypto industry, this happens in two ways. First off, rising inflation means that your average retail investor has less disposable income to spend on investments.
At the same time, rising interest rates increase the cost of borrowing, so institutional investors are more concerned about seeking returns on their investments sooner.
Inflation has been pretty stubborn, even more stubborn than central banks have expected, which is why we have seen some of them slow down their interest rate hikes.
But it looks like we have to take this as a given for the next while and work on building products with clear use cases that can continue to attract users and investors even in a market with high inflation and rising interest rates.
Greater interest in the industry from large institutions can certainly give the crypto space some tailwind, providing much-needed liquidity and legitimacy for us to ride out the next wave of interest rate increases, and continue developing blockchain solutions.
Can you explain what Concordium is, and how it differs from other Layer 1 blockchains, which comprise an increasingly crowded sector of the crypto industry?
The key differentiator between Concordium and other Layer 1s is our built-in digital identification layer, which enhances safety, transparency and trust on the network. This is beneficial for a variety of use cases and for both individual users and corporations.
A recent implementation of this technology is mysome.id, which launched in May this year. Built on Concordium’s protocol, mysome.id allows users to create digital identities stored exclusively in a user’s wallet to ensure privacy while allowing them to verify who they interact with on social media.
With the emergence of web3, I see a growing need for digital ID verification. As users flock to decentralised platforms, traditional methods of authentication cannot be used. At the same time, when exchanging digital assets like NFTs, there is a risk of fraud and rug pulls which can be reduced with ID verification and transparency.
From the beginning, Concordium has prioritised this issue in our protocol development and is uniquely positioned to facilitate a compliant and sustainable growth period for web3.
Concordium bills itself as a “science-backed blockchain”. What does that mean?
By “science-backed blockchain” we are referring to the Concordium ethos and the credentials of our best-in-class team. Concordium combines a scientific philosophy with an academic approach.
The company is research- and business-driven by its highly experienced team of software engineers, cryptographers, researchers, and business leaders, many of whom hail from the top of organisations such as Saxo Bank, Nasdaq, Volvo, IKEA, and A.P. Moller-Maersk, as well as from the highest levels of government and banking.
In addition to an internal dedicated science team, the Concordium Blockchain Research Center at Aarhus University is led by prestigious academics and some of the world’s top-cited and published researchers in cryptography such as Professor Ivan Damgård and Professor Jesper Buus Nielsen.
Our team of cryptographic scientists are working to resolve key issues with layer 1 protocols. For example, a big cryptographic challenge right now is the issue of scalability. We are currently working on a solution that involves sharding, which will allow for infinite scalability, the goal being that you can essentially do everything at the layer 1 level.
While we’re not entirely there yet, we have pretty decent scalability at the moment, thanks to the work of researchers.
What made you decide to move from the world of TradFi trading to the Concordium project?
As an early adopter of the internet, I see a lot of parallels between the two industries. At the beginning, a lot of people found the internet too difficult to deal with, most people couldn’t be bothered with it. But over time, people began to see use cases here or there, and when they reaped the benefits, the industry really grew.
For me, as a serial entrepreneur, one of the most attractive aspects of blockchain technology is the diversity of its use cases, from finance to the health sector, social media and beyond. I think there is a lot of potential with blockchain technology to improve transparency and coordination in processing.
In the carbon market, for example, where it is very much a trust game and there are a lot of dubious projects, blockchain can enable verification of credentials for parties all the way up the logistics chain, meaning that the end user can be sure that a product has been produced sustainably. That’s an area where Concordium is already involved, with a number of innovative climate tech projects supported by the Concordium blockchain like Carotanix, Energinet and ClimaFi.
Why might crypto investors consider the Concordium (CCD) token (currently ranked 350 on CoinGecko.com) as a potentially promising investment in a balanced crypto/risk-asset portfolio?
We believe that, as we see growing interests from traditional institutions and blockchain edges towards mainstream adoption, Concordium will break through as a leading layer 1 protocol.
Our unique digital ID infrastructure will be key to securing trust in the world of web3, laying the groundwork for a network of global trade. For individuals, governments and corporations looking to benefit from blockchain technology, Concordium provides a safe, trusted environment to interact with.
This interview was edited lightly for clarity. Concordium did not sponsor this article. The author of the piece is invested in various cryptocurrencies, mostly comprising Bitcoin and Ethereum. None of the views expressed here, or anywhere within Coinhead, represent financial advice.