Why institutional investors are entering the digital asset space – Edward Woodford

MIT Sloan Master of Finance Alumnus Edward Woodford

Digital assets have garnered increasing interest from institutional investors, despite questions remaining around the regulation, security, and reliability of trading venues. Today, the largest trading venues – typically referred to as “crypto exchanges” – serve individual investors and traders, are limited to spot trading, and are often unregulated or based in foreign jurisdictions. What’s more, they often lack the technological infrastructure and depth of liquidity to execute larger orders that institutions require.

As a result, many of these institutional investors – typically those managing large amounts of money – bypass exchanges and turn to the opaque world of over-the-counter (OTC) trading, buying and selling large amounts of cryptocurrency directly with a specific counterparty. Deals are done in the dark, primarily through messaging platforms like Telegram and Skype. We estimate that the OTC market is currently around three times greater than the on-exchange volume.

However, the OTC trading has some considerable downsides compared to on-exchange trading. Participants can see a publicly disclosed order book on exchange, which does not exist OTC. With an order book, there is more transparent pricing, which allows for the best executable price within the market. In addition, contrary to an exchange where the identity of your counterparties is hidden, with OTC, an investor’s intention – to buy or sell – is revealed and thus can cause slippage in price or leakage in terms of your trading intentions.

The fact is that the lack of an acceptable institution-ready exchange is the one of the single largest barriers to crypto asset class growth, as every meaningful financial market is built on a foundation of institutional involvement.

What does the digital asset space look like today?

Today, digital asset trading is dominated by institutions, principally OTC. The type of institutions involved is changing. The early players were proprietary trading firms and family offices, who have the most latitude in their investment mandates. Digital asset hedge funds were also established with specific mandates to trade digital assets. Now, more established funds are entering the space, along with asset managers who’ve had to gain additional comfort.

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