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179: Buy, Borrow and Die: Bitcoin Style

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Buck: Welcome back to the show everyone. Today my guest on Wealth Formula Podcast is Zack Prince. He’s Founder and CEO of BlockFi. BlockFi bridges the gap between blockchain and the basic financial products that you’re used to including interest-bearing accounts and loans. Zack, welcome to Wealth Formula Podcast. I think you we might have had you on before as a Consensus Network replay but first time on Wealth Formula Podcast specifically, so welcome.

Zac: Yeah, excited to be here, Buck. Thanks for having me. And it’s good to chat with you again

Buck: Yeah so remind me how you got into this you know Bitcoin stuff in the first place, I mean you were as I understand you were a traditional finance guy right so where did the blockchain part come in?

Zac: Sure so I was I was working at a company in the FinTech world that provided data and technology solutions to institutional investors that wanted to participate in some of the new online lending platforms, whether they were real estate platforms or consumer lending platforms, and I kind of became the FinTech guy amongst my friend group and people would ask me you know should I invest in these real estate deals on fund rise or buy loans from Lending Club and I started writing a blog to share the information more efficiently with my friends basically and I started expanding a little bit writing about Robo advisory and some other things that were going on in the FinTech space and that’s what led me to Bitcoin, and this is back in early 2015. I didn’t start BlockFi until 2017 because I started following the market in the background, still working in traditional financial services in FinTech and then in early 2017 it started to feel like mainstream adoption was starting to happen in the crypto ecosystem. I’m started going to some meetups in New York City because at a certain point my wife said Zac, you’re talking about crypto all the time and you’re talking to me about it and I don’t want to talk about it so you should find some other people to talk about this with. And the meetup composition started to change and in 2016 when I started going to these meetups it was the early crypto adopters you know libertarians, computer scientists and then in early 2017 I started to see some venture capitalists, some guys who had just left their job at Wall Street still wearing a suit, some more entrepreneurs and it was a really exciting time in the ecosystem, things like the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance were getting announced which had participation microsoft and a lot of other you know fortune 500 companies and I had started to believe in it. I was drinking the kool-aid a little bit so I decided to find a way to get involved in the space full-time and that’s what led me to start BlockFi.

Buck: So I have to imagine that the response you got from the traditional finance people around that time when you started talking about the blockchain space and when you started being more and more involved with that was probably not a very positive response initially or did you did you experience some of that sort of you know rejection initially to what you were doing?

Zac: Yeah absolutely. But you know throughout my career this is now kind of the third emerging technology industry that I’ve worked in. I was originally an advertising technology starting like you know 15 years ago and I was in FinTech specifically the online lending side of FinTech which in its early days was called peer-to-peer lending and now in crypto. So having to do a lot of education explain it you know why something isn’t crazy and it might work and here’s why and here’s the value proposition and here’s what it is, I’ve gotten very used to that and comfortable with it. But yeah there were a lot of people who are like you know I’ve heard Bitcoin is only used by drug dealers and money launderers. I’ve heard that I’m supposed to care about blockchain and not Bitcoin. And you know at BlockFi we’re providing financial products into the market so it’s a heavily regulated business so we also had to communicate with regulators. We had to explain to state regulators, federal regulators why what we were doing with Bitcoin and other cryptos than when you’re doing these same types of things with assets that they’re more familiar with.

Buck: So when you were talking to people back in, I don’t know I guess 2016/17 and it’s not a long time ago, it’s only two years ago, but I have to imagine that the response or the you know the approach that people take to you when you speak to investors is very different. Has it become more mainstream in that regard for you know for big money investors?

Zac: It’s absolutely become more mainstream you know the end of 2017 Q3/Q4. Point was going on that parabolic run it started to get covered everywhere, I mean it was on CNBC every day it was in Bloomberg New York Times Wall Street Journal. If you were paying attention to the financial industry and markets you heard about Bitcoin at that time if you hadn’t heard about it before. So from a baseline of awareness perspective it got a lot better and then in 2018 you had a number of positive developments for the sector including one that I think is probably the most noteworthy which is that Bitcoin futures were listed on the CME the institutional investor perspective that’s massive. You now have a well regulated well known super trustworthy venue where you can get exposure to this asset class, you also had companies like Grayscale bringing products to the market which are accessible to certain types of investors and their low bridge accounts and you started to see some adoption from companies like FinTech companies like Robin Hood and Square making Bitcoin available on their platforms. So the conversation has absolutely changed a lot and it’s become less about whether or not this is something that’s going to continue to exist whether or not it’s something that was just a bubble and is going to die and now it’s more about ok how is it going to get used how big could it get what are the interesting applications of it and what could have potentially disrupt in the traditional financial ecosystem.

Buck: So you know we had obviously following this you know pop in 2017, you know I actually like you kind of really got into this early 2017 so timing was pretty good I guess now regards. Good or bad depending how you look at it but I was there before before the parabolic move. And then we have you know then we followed this up with a crypto winter and and you know who knows if we’re done with it, I guess we certainly are much better off than we were. You know a unit buddy it’s funny Zac I don’t know if you remember this but I was about to, we’ll talk about BlockFi specifically in a minute but, I was about to use BlockFi for borrowing because I like this idea of borrowing you know collateralized debt and collateralized debt on assets and buying something else. So I was about to do it and then Bitcoin lost a clip and I was like literally and I remember I was just emailing with somebody somebody over there and I was like sorry dude I guess I just sold it, I just sold all that Bitcoin I had and you sent one email back to me and it said “capitulation” but it you know and so now we’re looking back at these we go down from 3,000 back up you know been sort of flirting around this 10,000 and it seems like we’re kind of maybe that we’re stuck there, maybe we’re kind of out of winter, maybe we’re in a holding pattern but it seems like to me that since that two years not only is the awareness increase but the development of the ecosystem itself is so much further advanced than it was in 2017. Is this an unusual case where the technology and maybe even the infrastructure is actually outpacing the price?

Zac: You know it’s really hard to say. I would argue that in some ways it’s typical. In other industries that showed a lot of promise where investors could you know participate maybe a little bit ahead of the adoption curve you saw crazy price run ups with the tech bubble and you know ‘99–2000 being the one that’s kind of top of mind in recent memory and then on the other side of things, are we behind where the price should be now? It’s really hard to say because this is kind of like a commodity type asset built on a payment network and valuing that is challenging and there’s not a perfect model for for doing it today. It’s not as easy as something that’s cashflow producing but I’m incredibly bullish. I’m on record as saying at the beginning of this year that Bitcoin has only had one year in its 10-year existence where it had a lower low than the year before and parted this year around the low price for 2018 and I predicted that we would in the year had a higher price than where we started the year pretty soon and now we’re up and you know around 300 percent from where we started the year. As that happens in investing is people frequently look at things on a year-to-year performance basis and when people are looking at Bitcoin even if all we do is stay around 10 K from here when they’re looking at how Bitcoin performed rather than other relative to other assets at the end of 2019 it’s probably going to look fantastic. And you also have an event coming up and in the summer of next year called The Halvening where basically the supply that’s produced by miners is going to get cut in half and so if you believe in the stock the flow type models of valuation for Bitcoin that is usually a very big driver of price appreciation.

Buck: I believe May of 2020, right?

Zac: That’s right.

Buck: In May of 2020. Can you just talked a little bit about that just so people know because people hear about it, I’ve been talking about it but I don’t think that it really explained it.

Zac: Yeah and you know I’m not I’m not a computer scientist so I can explain it in a you know in a very simple…

Buck: No one else here is either.

Zac: So basically the way that new Bitcoin is created is through this process called mining. And it’s analogous to mining gold except instead of finding a place in the earth where gold exists and then getting your trucks and mining equipment and digging it out of the ground, the way bitcoin is mined is using this computer program and there is now specialized computer hardware that’s built specifically and optimized for mining Bitcoin. And you have this network of machines around the world where the input is energy into the mining hardware and the output is new Bitcoin and those miners are what provides the power for the payment network a Bitcoin to run and when we say that there is this event called The Halvening, what that basically means is that the output that’s built into the Bitcoin program that the miners are receiving as their payment for contributing energy to the network, is going to get cut in half. So the miners are going to have the same you know relative input but the amount that they’re receiving is going to get cut in half for that input. This should, if the demand side for Bitcoin remains equal, it should drive up the price and historically Bitcoin has had three of these Halvening events in its lifetime so far I believe and around each Halvening you have seen you know six months before or six months after a pretty material run up in price.

Buck: Yeah so it also goes along with that sort of that the entire idea that Bitcoin unlike you know other assets including gold is it’s a deflationary asset ultimately and and that’s one of the things that makes that happening really significant. Apart from and I have one more question before we get to block five which is apart from the Halvening, you know thing that’s happening, what is maybe the biggest development or upcoming thing that’s coming up that makes you the most bullish on the future of Bitcoin or blockchain in general?

Zac: Sure so I think I wouldn’t actually point to any one specific thing, I would point to two broad trends. So one is institutional adoption and participation in the asset class and the other is better ramps for retail participation into the asset class and just focusing here you know on the US market because it really is an international story but just in the US market. In September we should have Bakkt launching their futures platform. Bakkt is owned by ICE, the Intercontinental Exchange, and there’s a big core difference between their futures and the current futures that are available on the CME in that futures on Bakkt platform are going to be physically settled so that means that actual Bitcoin is going to be needed to facilitate the trading on Bakkt’s platform which does not happen on CMEs exchange so that’s that should be a very positive catalyst in terms of demand for physical Bitcoin that could have an impact on the price. Also on the institutional side this year I believe earlier this year, the first pension fund made an investment into an asset management vehicle that was focused on investing in Bitcoin and private equity opportunities in the Bitcoin and blockchain sector. So that will be a trend.

Buck: Which pension fund was it?

Zac: It was in North Carolina so I think it was like the North Carolina Firefighters and the group that raised the money from them was Morgan Creek Digital it’s actually invested in BlockFi by Anthony Pompliano Twitter and Mark Yusko so that’s on the institutional side. And then on the retail side you’ve seen FinTech companies like Square and Robin Hood offer Bitcoin trading to their users. But soon you will also have companies like TD Ameritrade E-Trade and others offer Bitcoin to their users sometimes be a partnership sometimes because they’ve built it directly. You also at some point might see progress made in terms of an ETF getting approved that would give retail investors in the US market exposure to Bitcoin in a really easy and familiar way. All of those things are tremendously positive catalysts and the caliber of people working on them only continues to increase. Talent was attracted into the sector very, very rapidly these days.

Buck: You know one question that leads me to is that all of this is happening with Bitcoin for the most part. Are alt coins in your opinion is that market coming back or is that something that we’re gonna see probably select you know group of tokens projects emerge and then the rest will kind of just get left in the dust, what do you think?

Zac: I mean I’ll tell you exactly what I’m doing with my portfolio and then I’ll provide a bit more color. So my asset allocation in the crypto side of my investing is I’m like 90% Bitcoin 5% Ethereum and 5% B&B; which is the Binance right. So I’m super bullish on Bitcoin. I think that you know there’s a chance that Ether makes a comeback specifically I think that a lot of the stable coins that have been launched have been built on Ethereum if you’re not familiar with stable coins it’s basically the concept of a dollar but on a blockchain which could be really really powerful because it creates the opportunity for the delivery of US dollar denominated financial services at a global scale not using the traditional banking rails. And then B&B; I mean Binance is the biggest and most successful exchange they have a history of innovating, creating new products, going fast and so I’m taking a bit of a flyer with them but I’m 90% Bitcoin. I don’t think that I’m not bullish on any of the other all coins frankly I struggle to see you know the big upside I have heard whispers in the community that there’s kind of like a new wave of altcoins 3.0 might emerge, you know could see some some good returns similar to what some of the ICOs did in 2017 but it’s not an area of focus for me. So that’s my view.

Buck: Yeah let’s talk about BlockFi. Remind us exactly what BlockFi is.

Zac: Sure so we’re a wealth management platform for crypto investors. Today we have two products that we offer. One product is analogous to a savings account from a traditional bank where you’re able to earn interest on your holdings except on BlockFi, the assets instead of being dollars are bitcoin and Ether and we don’t have FDIC insurance so it’s not exactly the same risk profile as a savings account at a bank, but conceptually you’re able to hold Bitcoin and an account with BlockFi and earn interest on it paid in Bitcoin every month. That’s one product that we have. The second product that we have which you are alluding to earlier offers our clients the ability to borrow dollars secured by the value of their cryptocurrency and it’s analogous to a securities backed loan or a liquidity access line in the traditional world except instead of securities we’re taking Bitcoin or other digital assets as collateral and lending it rates as low as four point five lending USD that rates as low as four point five percent a year.

Buck: I wanna pick these apart a little bit if you don’t mind. In terms of this savings account first of all is it just bitcoin or is it bitcoin, Ethereum?

Zac: We actually support three assets in the interest account currently Bitcoin, Ether and GUSD which is the stable coin from Gemini.

Buck: Got it. And talk about the interest because it’s not one flat interest rate right it’s different depending on how much cryptocurrency actually is held?

Zac: Correct so there’s a tiered interest rate structure. Currently on Bitcoin for balances up to ten Bitcoin, we offer a six point two percent annual yield and for balances above ten Bitcoin it’s a 2.2 percent annual yield. On Ether, for balances up to two hundred Ether it’s a 3.3 percent annual yield and balances above two hundred Ether is 0.5% annual yield and for GUSD the stable coin it’s an eight point six percent interest rate with no tier so yeah those are the different rates.

Buck: Why did, I mean was it just a matter of like an issue with people dumping like a thousand Bitcoin and trying to get six you know 6% of that, was it just too hard to you know make that a long-term part of the business model or why did the higher levels end up changing to a lower rate?

Zac: Sure so I wanted to function of market conditions and to it’s a function of supply and demand. So we launched the interest account in March of this year. We were just starting to come out of the bear market and one of the things that happened as we switched from being in a bear market to being in a bull market is the futures switched from being in backwardation to contango which basically means that our institutional borrowers the groups that we lend to that enable us to pay the rate to depositors had less of a need they had less demand to borrow and they were willing to pay lower rates to borrow crypto than they were when we were building and planning to launch this product. The second thing that happened is we were surprised to the upside in terms of the level of interest that we received from depositors and especially depositors with very large sums of cryptocurrency. So to give you an example you know within a day or two of making the product available publicly, we had a number of groups that were depositing 5, 10, 15, 20 million dollars worth of Bitcoin and so the supply-demand that we have to manage is, the amount that we have on deposit relative to the size of this market that will borrow Bitcoin size of the market that will borrow Bitcoin is partially a function of market sentiments partially a function of number of trading venues and the liquidity profile and it’s partially a function of you know BlockFi’s efforts in terms of sales and client development relationship management. So the supply side got a little bit ahead of the demand side on deposit and how much there was available to borrow so we made a few tweaks. We want to keep the 6%, 6.2% rate on Bitcoin available to as many people as possible for as long as possible so that’s why we went with the tiered structure where we made it available on balances up to 10 and reduced it for balances above that.

Buck: Got it and the interest on that, when you say 6.2 percent that six point like it’s all denominated in Bitcoin, you’re not paying cash out right?

Zac: Correct so to use round numbers to provide an easy example you start on January first with a hundred Bitcoin in an account, by the subsequent January first you will have 106 point 2 Bitcoin in your account.

Buck: Yeah and that that’s kind of neat too because then you’re you know you’re also getting potentially the upside of that you know I mean they made 6% but if you if you’re really bullish on the market you could be potentially looking at a lot more than 6% on your money. How about in terms of the, is there like a you know do you do it sort of a month-to-month or six month or month you know year-long contracts for these things?

Zac: It’s month-to-month. So the rates are subject to change on a monthly basis. We provide notifications at least a week in advance before the end of one month on what the rates will be for the subsequent month and people are able to you know withdraw any time without penalty. We reserve up to 7 days to process withdrawals but we’ve never taken more than one business day to process a withdrawal so they’re pretty quick but not instant for security reasons and yeah it’s pretty flexible.

Buck: How about the lump in the lending side how does how does that work? So now I’ve got like 10 Bitcoin and so I would deposit that I guess and you guys I understand that maybe that that goes into like a Gemini account or something, is that still how it works?

Zac: Correct so we have a partnership with Gemini for custody. So when you log into a BlockFi account you’ll have a deposit address. When you send Bitcoin to that deposit address it actually goes directly into storage with Gemini. Gemini was the first custodian in the crypto sector to receive insurance against cyber hacks on their platform. They were also the first custodian to get to complete a SOC 2 compliance audit and they have a really long track record of custody billions of dollars worth of crypto without ever having any issues. So it goes directly to Gemini and then you’re able to interact with block-wise platform to take any actions that you might deem necessary. So you can view your interest payments you can withdraw you can deposit more you can also take out a loan. So in terms of taking out a loan, if you have ten Bitcoin that’s worth roughly a hundred thousand US dollars at this point in time, you can borrow up to fifty percent of that value in a US dollar loan which can be funded be a wire or stable coin and then the structure of those loans is that you make interest-only payments on the amount that you borrowed throughout the duration and you can prepay at any time without penalty.

Buck: And what’s the typical you said it was four point six.

Zac: We have interest rates as low as four point five. The interest rates on borrowing USD vary according to your initial loan to value ratio. So if you have a hundred thousand dollars worth of Bitcoin we actually have three loan-to-value ratio options. You can borrow at a 50 percent initial loan-to-value ratio which would mean you’re borrowing 50k, the interest rate on that will be eleven point two five, if you borrow thirty five percent of the value so 35k the interest rate is seven point nine, and if you borrow twenty five percent of the value of the interest rate is four point five percent per year.

Buck: Got it. In terms of you know the technical, so you basically pay that on a month-to-month basis and then in terms of contracts, are those also month-to-month loans or how does that work?

Zac: Those are one-year term loans well now it’s the ability to renew without repaying the principal at the end of the term at current rates and our rates for those loans have always come down so far. So it’s a one-year term loan BlockFi committed for a year at that rate your payments stay the same but you can prepay at any time without penalty.

Buck: Right. When do you do when would you do an actual sort of I guess a cap will call like what loan-to-value because you can go up to say you’re borrowing at you know you’re borrowing at the lowest rate you know you’re at 4.5% you’re borrowing see you know just for round numbers 100 Bitcoin you borrowed or you said 10 Bitcoin hundred thousand dollars but you only borrowed twenty-five thousand dollars at four point five percent, what if Bitcoin you know loses 50 percent of its value then what happens?

Zac: Well you wouldn’t have a margin call based on on that example. If your loan to value ratio hits 70 percent that’s when we have a margin call and the way the margin call works is our clients have the option to either post more collateral, pay down the loan using USD or some of the collateral that’s posted for the loan or take no action. If they take no action there’s a 72-hour window where we’ll wait to see if the price recovers, if it does then no action is required, if the price keeps going down further then we will initiate a partial collateral sale to rebalance that LTV to a healthy level at the end of that window.

Buck: So in terms of the clients that you see doing this kind of stuff, I mean who are you seeing borrowing because you don’t have a cap I mean you can on the borrow side, I mean and the rates don’t really change like if you’re depositing a hundred Bitcoin you’re getting the same rate differences as somebody who’s depositing ten for borrowing right?

Zac: That’s right.

Buck: So who are the people who are putting I mean what are these businesses that are putting are using these loans who are the typical clients?

Zac: Sure so it’s a mix of retail and corporate. On the retail side we actually did a survey recently on use cases and the number one use case about a third of our borrowers expressed is that they were using the funds that they borrowed to start a business, which we were really excited about. So the other popular use cases were investing in real estate, investing in other types of traditional assets like stocks and bonds, home improvement, larger purchases, vacations were all used cases, paying down higher cost debt was another use case, and then on the corporate side the loans are used for operating capital. So we have some mining companies that borrow from BlockFi. Other types of companies who you know maybe have crypto denominated inventory like exchanges or crypto ATM businesses our frequent borrowers from BlockFi and our loan sizes rearranged from you know as low as five thousand dollars all the way up to seven figures. So it’s a pretty diverse group of borrowers.

Buck: So recently it sounds like you guys partnered with another company called Casa. What is Casa and I guess how does that benefit both companies?

Zac: Sure. So Casa is a leader in fighting self sovereign storage solutions for cryptocurrency owners so if you’re alone that owns Bitcoin and to use a gold analogy. If you want to own gold but you keep it in your vault or in your backyard you want to have physical possession of it yourself if you want to do that same type of custody with Bitcoin. Casa has a solution that makes that really easy. Our partnership with Casa provides mutual benefits to clients on either side. So Casa clients are able to receive some discounts in terms of accessing BlockFi products and vice-versa BlockFi clients are able to receive discounts in terms of accessing kasam products and over time we’ll build some things in to the user experience specifically on Casa’s platform that will make it you know a bit more seamless to interact with BlockFi products while you’re on their platform. In general that partnership strategy is something that you’ll see more of we think there are in the ecosystem that are specializing in areas that BlockFi’s not focused on and doing things where we can provide benefits to clients on both sides is a win-win for us then and our clients.

Buck: Last thing I want to ask you about, last time I spoke to you, you had talked about the idea of potentially Bitcoin backed credit cards meaning like you know getting Bitcoin back instead of miles or dollars back. You guys any closer to that, because I definitely want one of those cards.

Zac: I’m so glad you brought it up. We’re definitely closer, but we’re not you’re not going to have the card until like Q3 of next year probably. It’s getting worked on, these things you know for better or worse they take a long time launching a credit program is no small feat you know we’re working on it. We’ve identified some of the key partners that we’ll be working with to bring that product to market it is going to happen and I share your sentiment like I wish I had it now.

Buck: Yeah seriously that’d be great. Well listen it was great talking you. So it’s BlockFi.com and it’s spelled like block and then fi and tell us you know tell us the process of doing is pretty simple okay how long does it take to apply for these things…

Zac: Yeah I mean nothing takes any time really. So you could come in and start earning interest and get a loan from us all in under five minutes. And we also have a client service team that’s super responsive in in terms of communication however you want to communicate with them, over email, over the phone, over text message so you know don’t don’t hesitate to reach out to us. We’re also on twitter. My twitter handle is BlockFiZac and our company twitter handle is @therealBlockFi so we’re very active on those platforms and happy to chat with you there as well.

Buck: Zac Prince, thank you very much for being on Wealth Formula Podcast today.

Zac: Thanks for having me, Buck, I appreciate it.

Buck: We’ll be right back.