LL schreef op 19 oktober 2022 15:01:DAS: What does it really mean to be a crypto prime broker?
Panellists at this week’s Digital Assets Summit explored the definition of a crypto versus traditional prime brokerage – and what role they can really play in the new world of digital assets investment.
By Laurie McAughtry
The prime brokerage world from a traditional asset class perspective is well established – with a wide range of bells and whistles, its USP is its holistic approach, covering everything from custody to capital introduction, and assisting its client base to source liquidity they couldn’t find themselves. But in the digital assets space, what role can prime brokers really play – and is it realistic to try and shoehorn the current model into this new decentralised world? Panellists at Blockworks’ Digital Assets Summit (DAS) this week discussed the concept of prime brokerage, and how it can be updated to apply to the new paradigm.
“Not everyone with a lending service can call themselves a prime broker,” warned George Zarya, founder, CEO and head of sales at crypto prime broker BEQUANT. But the problem is that, unlike in traditional finance, prime brokers in the crypto space have not yet evolved to offer everything that their clients need.
“In crypto, it seems that ‘prime’ and ‘brokerage’ are two different things. Brokerage is just people buying crypto off each other,” agreed Maja Vujinovic, managing director of blockchain advisory and investment firm OGroup. “But Prime is a whole bundle of services. It depends on the seat you’re sitting in.”
So what is a crypto prime broker, and is anyone filling that role yet?
“There are some firms out there that are doing some parts – the custody role, for example – but right now I don’t think we have yet reached the finished article,” said Edd Carlton, institutional digital asset trader with Flow Traders. “The use of the word ‘Prime’ is usually because it’s a one-stop shop. If you don’t do all the pieces, you aren’t hitting the target.”
“The two key variables we need to place importance on, when discussing the difference between crypto and tradfi, is fragmentation and pre-funding,” stressed Omid Zadeh, head of business development EMEA at Matrixport.
“The crypto market is so fragmented, there is liquidity across hundreds of different venues, and you need to pre-fund them, which is very different to the traditional space. Pre-funding and fragmentation of liquidity is where the real value proposition of a crypto prime broker comes in right now – we can offer access to each exchange, and top tier fees to each exchange, which is very important in this low volume environment. We can also give the key advantage of offering one margin to play with – cross-margining services can be key for firms.”
The panel agreed, however, that while there are currently numerous players in the market, we are likely to see significant consolidation going forwards – the question being, who buys who.
“It’s not an easy feat, to build a crypto specialist firm, such as crypto custody – there’s a lot of coding and technical architecture involved. Those pieces will inevitably get acquired. You can’t have a one-stop prime shop without offering a complete parcel and there are only two routes to that – you build or you buy. The Goldman Sachs approach has been to buy it, and we’re already starting to see more big tradfi names aligning themselves with specialist firms, either through acquisitions, licensing agreements etc. One of the roles of a prime brokerage is to be a rock to stand steadfast in turbulent times, and in times like these, balance sheet is important.”
Zarya, however, disagreed. “Balance sheet is important, but it’s not everything. It’s all optics. What happened to Credit Suisse? To Lehman Brothers?”
The concern appears to be avoiding a simple copy and paste of what is being done in the traditional world of finance. “Early adopters went into crypto because they were passionate about decentralisation,” stressed Vujinovic. “Now, we’re just trying to cram that back into a centralised model again. But I think technology is going to evolve to a point where it disrupts that. Yes the tools, the picks and shovels at the coal face, are being acquired by bigger institutions. But banks will end up just being software-as-a-service platforms. They’ll offload crypto custody, just like they do KYC. We’re in a place now where we have to change it up, think outside the box and create a different system that works better – not just do the same old thing, just because Goldman Sachs are doing it.”
Carlton, however pointed out that acquisitions could also work the other way – with big crypto firms buying smaller banks in order to bring in regulated capabilities.
“We need to get capital into the crypto markets, and the way to do that is by creating a market infrastructure model that replicates the prime model, with centralisation of clearing and risk, but with the nuance of a hybrid model using DLT and smart contract applications. That’s the way we’ll see the tide move,” he said. “Would a full belt and braces prime brokerage in the crypto market help right now? Yes. Would it increase investor confidence and make the market more efficient? Yes. I think that prime brokerage services have a key role to play in moving this forward.”
The biggest issue in the space, however, remains the problem of pre-funding. Right now, most of the liquidity in the crypto space is on centralised exchanges, and these require pre-funding, which all the panellists agreed was not efficient.
In addition: “The netting side of things doesn’t exist yet in crypto, and that needs to change,” pointed out Zadeh. “For example, let’s say you have two exchanges: Binance and FTX. If you’re Hedge Fund A trading $100 million on Binance long, and $100 million on FTX short, if you had a prime broker in between, he would require minimal margin from you. Whereas currently in the crypto space, it’s different, because of pre-funding. You would have to have $200 million at both exchanges. Obviously, you’d have a prime broker in between leveraging you, but that funding would be on those exchanges.
“The only way I can see that potentially changing in the future is regulation as the first step; then after regulation the real money clients will come in, the banks will then come in, and then a big player – a Citibank or a JP Morgan, with a ginormous balance sheet that dwarfs the exchanges, that could PB, and net across all of the exchanges, and then all of the institutional counterparties (the big real money clients that have trillions under management) can really start to trade crypto full pelt.”
But will institutional traders ever come in at full pelt?
“We have certainly seen a shift with institutional traders coming into the space, but we still run on retail rails,” said Zarya.
The move, for institutional involvement, is likely to be accompanied by a shift from on-exchange to OTC trading – similar to the trajectory in the FX markets a few years back. “Electronification, going from hi-touch voice-driven trading to an API, FIX-driven market – we are seeing the same trends apply,” agreed Carlton.
“Retail flow lends itself to exchanges, but institutional flow sits a lot more happily on the OTC markets. When the barriers are removed to allow true institutions to enter the market, I’m not saying the exchanges will become defunct, but they will probably continue to service retail clients while institutional flow will more to the OTC space.”