Cryptocurrencies invite paranoia. Maybe that is why Brad Garlinghouse of crypto company Ripple is the only tech boss to have brought a bodyguard with him for an interview at the FT’s San Francisco office. He may not be the last. The direct listing of cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase this week has created a new batch of wealthy crypto investors likely to beef up their security.
Coinbase has arrived on public markets in the midst of an extraordinary rise in crypto prices. Bitcoin topped $64,000 this week — more than double its price at the start of the year. Even Ripple’s XRP token, which was suspended from Coinbase after the US Securities & Exchange accused Ripple of selling unregistered securities, saw prices rise.
Coinbase, which helps users to buy and sell cryptocurrencies, is hoping to drag the sector away from the shadows into the light of the mainstream — hence its caution around XRP. It lists just 90 cryptocurrencies out of more than 4,000 available. Staying on the right side of sceptical regulators is key to survival.
One day, Coinbase thinks that it could be at the heart of a new, decentralised online financial system. Crypto could be “as revolutionary and widely adopted as the internet,” it claimed. For now, it has to accept that its fortunes are entwined with bitcoin, the world’s biggest cryptocurrency.
When bitcoin prices crashed, business fell. As bitcoin’s price has increased, so has the volume of trading, the transaction fees collected and the valuation. Between its last private fundraising round in late 2018 and the price the stock opened on Wednesday, Coinbase’s valuation has grown by 1,000 per cent.
If you have looked on enviously from the sidelines as bitcoin prices rocketed perhaps you’ll be more inclined to wade in now that a large US cryptocurrency platform is public. Of course, platforms that skim fees are just the sort of intermediary that blockchain is supposed to eliminate.
Coinbase would say that it is a necessary bridge between the public and the crypto community. It may be hard to believe given the noise the sector makes, but cryptocurrencies are still a niche interest. A survey of 5,000 Americans by the blog Crypto Radar found that nearly two-thirds had no intention of buying any bitcoin. A fifth had never even heard of it.
For the nervously inclined, scare stories are everywhere too. After the 2018 death of Gerald Cotten, the young chief executive of cryptocurrency exchange Quadriga CX, users found themselves unable to access accounts. Speculation that he may have faked his own death and absconded with their money led some investors to request Cotten’s body be exhumed. It was not necessary. Canada’s biggest securities regulator found that the money had disappeared before Cotten died, lost in unsuccessful trades and the pursuit of a lavish lifestyle. In the UK, a man who threw away a hard drive containing private keys to a digital wallet holding 7,500 bitcoin has spent the past seven years begging the council to let him excavate an entire landfill site to hunt for it. Data company Chainalysis estimates around a fifth of all bitcoin may be similarly stranded.
Coinbase offers services that should prevent such problems. But investors in both bitcoin and Coinbase must still reconcile themselves to the environmental damage caused by crypto miners, the fact that the US will never allow a digital currency to challenge the dollar and the threat of prices falling. All three pose hefty obstacles to mainstream acceptance that Coinbase's public listing cannot resolve.