Goldman Sachs Closes One Crypto-Door But Opens Another

Cryptocurrency markets fell off a steep, boulder-strewn cliff early Wednesday following news that Goldman Sachs was delaying plans to open a cryptocurrency trading desk. The decision, first reported by Business Insider, seriously wounds one of the major dreams of cryptocurrency speculators: that big-money traditional investors would soon flood the market and save their digital asse(t)s.

Instead, Goldman’s pullback swiftly wiped out billions of dollars worth of market value. As of midmorning, bitcoin was down 4.4 percent, Ethereum was down over 10 percent, and nearly every other top-20 coin was down between 7 and 12 percent. The lone notable exception was Stellar Lumens, a Ripple-like money-transmission coin, which seemed barely troubled by the news.

That market reaction may have been driven by people who only read headlines, though. Yes, Goldman is stepping back from any plans to buy and sell bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies directly. But such schemes were only ever tentative at best, and the bank will continue offering crypto derivative products, such as bitcoin futures. Those contracts—agreements to buy bitcoin at a specified price next month or next year—were a milestone for the blockchain industry when they emerged in December of 2017, and will remain an important tool for distributing risk in the marketplace.

It’s a bad time for a mainstream player like Goldman Sachs to become an on-ramp for crypto-novices, at whatever scale. 

More importantly, Goldman will reportedly be shifting focus towards developing cryptocurrency custody servicesa trusted, easy way for large institutional clients to hold crypto. Crypto traders constantly trade fever dreams of institutional money, whether from big banks themselves, mainstream retirement funds, or university endowments, whose vast pools of cash could be expected to meaningfully raise prices of crypto-assets. If you believe in the transformative power of blockchain technology and its attendant digital assets, you can still rationally believe that institutions will get on board, and Goldman’s continued commitment to custody services will smooth the road.

But it’s still a long road. Direct cryptocurrency trading by a major investment bank isn’t coming tomorrow or, realistically, this year. That’s mostly because the early 2018 crypto-crash took a lot of hyped-up retail investors to the cleaners, in part thanks to brazen and widespread scamming. That environment of fraud was cited by the SEC in its July rejection of a proposed bitcoin exchange-traded fund (ETF), which would effectively allow bitcoin to be bought and sold on a stock exchange like the NASDAQ. The SEC also pointed to large-scale market manipulation that may still be ongoing, and that the Commodity Futures Trading Commission is also looking into.

With scammers roaming free, regulators on the hunt, and money laundering still a murky legal liability, it’s a bad time for a mainstream player like Goldman Sachs to become an on-ramp for crypto-novices, at whatever scale. But this isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon, and with some improvements in the environment, big banks could certainly take another look at trading crypto. In fact, despite the temporary stutter-step, Goldman hasn’t even fully rejected the idea, saying in a statement that “at this point, we have not reached a conclusion on the scope of our digital offering.”