Roughly 18 months after Fidelity investments started allowing customers to interface their Coinbase accounts with Fidelity's platform, the company - which started mining bitcoin at a small profit during the 2017 boom - announced on Monday that it had launched a separate company, Fidelity Digital Asset Services, that would handle cryptocurrency custody and trade execution for institutional investors.
For now at least, FDAS' services are only accessible by institutions like hedge funds, endowments, and family offices. However, such a monumental vote of confidence in crypto by a member of the financial establishment could revive traders' hopes that the long-awaited flood of institutional money could soon arrive to reinflate the prices of the largest cryptos. The company was reportedly developed out of the Fidelity Center for Applied Technology, or FCAT as employees call it.
"Our goal is to make digitally-native assets, such as bitcoin, more accessible to investors," Fidelity Investments Chairman and CEO Abigail Johnson said in a press release. "We expect to continue investing and experimenting, over the long-term, with ways to make this emerging asset class easier for our clients to understand and use."
While crypto prices spiked overnight, the news, which broke Monday afternoon, had little impact on the price of bitcoin and other top cryptos, which have fallen into a sustained slump since peaking at all-time highs late last year.
Long-term crypto bulls like Mike Novogratz were quick to applaud Fidelity for being "ahead of the pack" with its foray into crypto, and that others would soon follow.
Fidelity's head of crypto said the company decided to launch the business because it saw a "need" for institutional trade-execution services in the crypto space.
"We saw that there were certain things institutions needed that only a firm like Fidelity could provide," Jessop told CNBC, adding that it already works with 13,000 institutional clients. "We've got some technology that we've repurposed from other parts of Fidelity — we can leverage all of the resources of a big organization."
The new company, which has about 100 employees, will be headquartered in Boston.
Perhaps the most important service being offered by the company is crypto custody, which has so far stymied institutions from holding crypto directly. Because of the ease with which crypto can be stolen by hackers, the need for a secure custody bank to hold on to institutions' crypto had, until now, gone unmet. Fidelity said cybersecurity would be a top priority for the new company.
According to Fidelity, it already has a "pipeline" of customers, per BBG.
"Most institutions want to deal with another institution,” Tom Jessop, who is heading the unit, said a telephone interview. “We understand institutional finance."
The firm has a "robust pipeline of customers," said Jessop, who was previously president of Chain Inc., which offers blockchain technology to financial companies. There are more than 370 crypto funds managing as much as $10 billion in assets, according to Autonomous Research -- still just a drop in the bucket in the investment universe.
But Fidelity will soon need to grapple with a handful of other high-profile entrants into the crypto custody market, including Nomura, Goldman Sachs and Northern Trust.
The new company will handle custody, or how to safely store digital assets. Crypto companies Coinbase, Gemini (run by the Winklevoss twins), BitGo, Ledger and ItBit are among those already working on similar solutions. Japanese bank Nomura also announced plans in May to offer crypto custody, and Goldman Sachs and Northern Trust are reportedly exploring custodial services. But until now, there's been a noticeable lack of a big U.S.-based incumbent like Fidelity officially entering the space.
Part of the risk in cryptocurrency investing, which experts say has largely barred institutions from embracing them, is how to prevent these digital assets from being hacked. As of the end of June, $1.6 billion in cryptocurrency had been stolen from clients, according to CoinDesk's 2018 State of Blockchain Report.
Fidelity will use "cold storage", a technique whereby coins are held on an air-gapped hard drive, to secure coins in its custody.
Fidelity has a long history of dealing with enterprise security, as well as public and private key cryptography to make sure it isn't part of that statistic. Its custody solution will involve vaulted "cold storage," which involves taking the cryptocurrency offline, and multi-level physical and cyber controls, among other security protocols that have been created leveraging Fidelity's security principles from other parts of the business.
"You might look at the crypto world and say 'wow is this a new thing' but we've been managing key materials for a long time," Jessop said. "We took our learnings in how to run enterprise security, then through our exploration of bitcoin and some of the people we've hired, quickly developed some of the crypto native expertise and federated the two those things."
As CNBC pointed out, college endowments have led the institutional push into crypto funds, with endowments at Yale, Harvard and several other top schools owning exposure to at least one crypto fund.
While this is undoubtedly a vote of confidence in the crypto market, it's worth noting that the launch of crypto futures late last year was supposed to bring a flood of institutional money into bitcoin and other crypto. But so far, whatever impact they have had has done little to keep the price elevated.
Galaxy's Mike Novogratz noted, after the announcement, that a Bitcoin price move "awaits institutions getting in" and sees a "big price move in Bitcoin in Q1/Q2."