JPMorgan: Institutional Investors Are Piling Into Ethereum, Leaving Bitcoin

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by Tyler Durden
Thursday, Sep 23, 2021 - 02:40 PM

It's not the first time that a major bank has expressed preference for ethereum over bitcoin: back in May, when Goldman published its initiating coverage on the crypto sector (available for professional subs in the usual place), the bank was surprisingly dismissive toward bitcoin which it saw as an electricity-draining Proof-of-Work, one trick pony...

... while praising ethereum (which is well on its way to becoming a much more efficient Proof-of-Stake in its Ethereum 2.0 metamorphosis) which it summarized as having the potential to one day become the "amazon of information" to wit:

It’s all about information

As the value of the coin is dependent on the value of the trustworthy information, blockchain technology has gravitated toward those industries where trust is most essential—finance, law and medicine. For the Bitcoin blockchain, this information is the record of every balance sheet in the network, and the transactions between them—originally the role of banks. In the case of a smart contract—a piece of code that executes according to a pre-set rule—on Ethereum, both the terms of that contract (the code) and the state of the contract (executed or not) are the information validated on the Ethereum blockchain. As a result, the counterparty in the contract cannot claim a transfer of funds without the network forming a consensus that the contract was indeed executed. In our view the most valuable crypto assets will be those that help verify the most critical information in the economy.

Over time, the decentralized nature of the network will diminish concerns about storing personal data on the blockchain. One’s digital profile could contain personal data including asset ownership, medical history and even IP rights. Since this information is immutable—it cannot be changed without consensus—the trusted information can then be tokenized and traded. A blockchain platform like Ethereum could potentially become a large market for vendors of trusted information, like Amazon is for consumer goods today.

Ether beats bitcoin as a store of value

Given the importance of real uses in determining store of value, ether has high chance of overtaking bitcoin as the dominant digital store of value. The Ethereum ecosystem supports smart contracts and provides developers a way to create new applications on its platform. Most decentralized finance (DeFi) applications are being built on the Ethereum network, and most non-fungible tokens (NFTs) issued today are purchased using ether. The greater number of transactions in ether versus bitcoin reflects this dominance. As cryptocurrency use in DeFi and NFTs becomes more widespread, ether will build its own first-mover advantage in applied crypto technology.

Ethereum can also be used to store almost any information securely and privately on a decentralized ledger. And this information can be tokenized and traded. This means that the Ethereum platform has the potential to become a large market for trusted information. We are seeing glimpses of that today with the sale of digital art and collectibles online through the use of NFTs. But this is a tiny peek at its actual practical uses. For example, individuals can store and sell their medical data through Ethereum to pharma research companies. A digital profile on Ethereum could contain personal data including asset ownership, medical history and even IP rights. Ethereum also has the benefit of running on a decentralized global server base rather than a centralized one like Amazon or Microsoft, possibly providing a solution to concerns about sharing personal data.

We bring this up because overnight the assault on bitcoin - while praising bitcoin - was repeated by that "other" big bank, JPMorgan, which concluded that institutional investors are showing "a strong preference for ethereum versus bitcoin". It made this determination by looking at both the relative futures spread to spot for the two cryptos, as well as the relative institutional open interest in bitcoin vs ethereum.

Starting with bitcoin, JPM's Nick Panigirtzoglou writes that this month’s correction in crypto markets saw bitcoin futures shifting into backwardation after spending August in contango. The charts below show the 21-day rolling average of the 2nd CME Bitcoin futures spread over spot since the beginning of 2018. According to JPM, bitcoin's backwardation "is a setback for bitcoin and a reflection of weak demand by institutional investors that tend to use regulated CME futures contracts to gain exposure to bitcoin."

Why is this notable? Because as JPM explains, in a normal environment when demand for Bitcoin futures is not particularly weak, Bitcoin futures trade at a positive spread over spot, i.e. the futures curve is in contango. The typically high (above 5% annualized) futures to spot spread is a function of the high “risk-free” rate or opportunity cost implicit in crypto markets. Lending USD in crypto markets typically attracts annual interest rates of 5-10%, and this high “risk-free” rate is a common component in the futures vs. spot arbitrage trade across both bitcoin and ethereum futures. This high “risk-free” rate or opportunity cost is also likely a reflection of how “crypto-rich” and “cashpoor” crypto markets still are. Adding to this elevated “risk-free” rate storage costs of around 2% per annum, as well as similarly high transaction costs given the fragmentation in crypto markets, one can easily see why futures to spot spreads of as high as 10% per annum could be justified in a normal market environment in bitcoin or ethereum futures.

But when demand is particularly weak and price expectations turn bearish, the futures curve shifts into backwardation. This was the case between last May and July as shown in Figure 11 above for CME Bitcoin futures.

As a result, JPMorgan believes that the return to backwardation in September is a negative signal pointing to weak demand for bitcoin by institutional investors.

In contrast, the largest US bank points to the ethereum futures chart which remains in contango and if anything this contango steepened in September towards a 7% annualized pace (on a 21-day rolling average basis).

This, as Panigirtzoglou summarizes, "points to much healthier demand for ethereum vs. bitcoin by institutional investors."

The strong divergence in demand is also evident in JPM's futures position proxy shown below; it has been rising for ethereum and declining for bitcoin steadily since August.