BlackRock files for spot bitcoin ETF, with Coinbase as a crypto custodian

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Bitcoin is up 50% so far in 2023, beating major commodities and stock indexes.
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Asset management giant BlackRock took the first steps Thursday to launch a spot bitcoin exchange-traded fund, which has long been a point of contention between crypto advocates and federal regulators.

The firm filed an application with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to launch the iShares Bitcoin Trust. If approved, the ETF would allow easy access for investors to get exposure to crypto in a product from one of Wall Street’s largest companies.

“The Shares are intended to constitute a simple means of making an investment similar to an investment in bitcoin rather than by acquiring, holding and trading bitcoin directly on a peer-to-peer or other basis or via a digital asset exchange,” the filing said.

The SEC has so far resisted allowing the launch of a spot bitcoin ETF in the U.S. The regulator is currently in a legal battle with Grayscale over whether the firm will be allowed to convert its Grayscale Bitcoin Trust into an ETF. A decision in that case is expected later this year.

Several other firms have filed and later pulled applications to launch spot bitcoin funds. If the SEC relents, there could be a flood of those products on the market.

ETFs typically take months to launch after an initial filing, if they ever begin trading. The proposed BlackRock fund will likely face heavy resistance from the SEC, and the filing could be pulled before an ETF is ever launched, said Aisha Hunt, principal at asset management law firm Kelley Hunt & Charles.

BlackRock’s move comes during a time when crypto prices remain well below their all-time highs and the industry faces increasing scrutiny in Washington, D.C.

The SEC recently sued Coinbase and Binance for allegedly running unregistered securities exchanges. The SEC also accused Binance of commingling customer funds with its own.

Coinbase is listed as the bitcoin custodian for the proposed BlackRock ETF. BlackRock has an existing strategic partnership with Coinbase. The companies announced last year that Aladdin, BlackRock’s institutional investment platform, would be connected to Coinbase Prime for crypto trading and custody.

The SEC did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on the new filing.

The entrance of BlackRock into the bitcoin ETF space could be a boost to a sector that has had a rocky start over the past two years.

Bitcoin futures ETFs first launched in 2021, but the ProShares Bitcoin Strategy ETF (BITO) is the only one that has grown to a substantial size, with about $800 million in assets. The fund has lost more than 40% on a total return basis since the launch, according to FactSet. The price of bitcoin hit an all-time high shortly after BITO launched and is down more than 60% since its peak.

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The largest bitcoin futures ETF has delivered a negative return since launching in 2021.

BlackRock already has an equity fund related to crypto, the iShares Blockchain and Tech ETF (IBLC), but that fund has less than $10 million in assets more than a year after its launch.