Cryptocurrency bitcoin's price dropped in 2018 after reaching record-setting price levels in 2017. However, even seasoned investors may be reluctant to get involved in direct investments relating to cryptocurrencies, or digital currencies, since they're usually highly speculative, the market is largely unregulated, and storing them safely can be challenging. A trust whose shares trade over-the counter on OTCQX offers investors exposure to Bitcoin through the form of a security. In particular, the Grayscale Investment Trust (GBTC) can help simplify the process, but it also comes with disadvantages, such as a high premium and annual fee.

More About the Bitcoin Investment Trust

The Grayscale Investment Trust debuted as The Bitcoin Investment Trust on Sept. 25, 2013 as a private placement to accredited investors and, later on, received FINRA approval for eligible shares to trade publicly. This means that investors have access to buy and sell public shares of the Trust under the symbol GBTC. Grayscale Investments calls it a traditional investment vehicle with shares titled in the investor's name. Although the Trust is not an ETF itself, Grayscale says it's modeled on popular commodity investment products like the SPDR Gold Trust, a physically backed ETF. 

GBTC is traded publicly on the OTCQX, an over-the-counter market, under the Alternative Reporting Standard for companies not required to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Its success mirrors that of Bitcoin because its value is derived solely from that cryptocurrency.

As of September 11, 2019, GBTC had approximately $2.16 billion in assets under management (AUM) and 2.4 million shares outstanding. The trust requires a minimum investment of $50,000 and charges an annual fee of 2.0 percent, which accrues daily, for accredited investors who wish to subscribe to the Trust as a private placement. On the other hand, investors are eligible to purchase as little as one share of the GBTC public quotation.

Grayscale suggests that its management of the fund is worth more than the annual fee, and one of its major selling points is its security. Storing cryptocurrency safely is notoriously challenging, and the company assures investors that the Bitcoin Investment Trust's assets "are safeguarded by a robust security system that uses industry-leading security standards."

As an investment vehicle which trades over-the-counter, GBTC is available for investors to buy and sell in the same way as virtually any U.S. security. As an example, GBTC can be traded through a brokerage firm, and it's also available within tax-advantaged accounts like IRAs or 401(k)s.

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How to Buy Bitcoin

Disadvantages of GBTC

Andrew Left of Citron Research has publicly criticized the Grayscale Investment Trust, and Citron has tweeted that GBTC is the "most dangerous way to own Bitcoin." Possible disadvantages of investing in the Trust include paying high premiums along with the annual fee, along with the risk factors associated with the overall volatility in the cryptocurrency market, as well as with investments vehicles that aren't required to register with the SEC. 

Because the Trust is currently the only fund of its kind specifically for bitcoin, investors have been paying a high premium. In Sept. 2018, shares of GBTC traded at a high of $7.95, which was around 20% higher than the value of the bitcoin within the trust that each share represented at that time. Although that premium is significant, it’s lower than it has been in the past — GBTC has closed at prices more than two times the value of its underlying bitcoins. Grayscale offers that prices are dictated by the market and not by Grayscale itself, so price fluctuations may be a result of supply and demand.

As of Oct. 2018, each share of GBTC represented less than 0.0001 bitcoin. That means it would take more than 1,000 shares of GBTC to own one bitcoin. GBTC saw a steady increase in 2017 and peaked at the end of the year. However, its performance in 2018 has fluctuated, and overall, GBTC has trended downward, with a nearly 65% year-to-date decline as of Oct. 2018. Steeper declines could mean that shares could lose most or all of their value. In 2019, as Bitcoin's price has generally trended upward, GBTC has followed.

Another possible disadvantage to consider is that the Trust's private placement shares are restricted to a one-year holding period before investors can resell them in the public market, so accredited investors in the private placement need to weigh the risks of having no liquidity for that period of time. On the other hand, investors in the public quotation GBTC are able to buy and sell shares in the same fashion as other U.S. securities.