Ten years ago, Sandra Ro was working in finance in London when some currency-trading friends told her about bitcoin. The cryptocurrency had been released only a couple of years previously and was still far from a global phenomenon.
“Bitcoin was only really known in geeky tech circles and eventually currency traders in London found out about it around 2010,” says Ro. She invested in the cryptocurrency, made a substantial fortune and is now chief executive of the Global Blockchain Business Council, a Swiss non-profit organisation that promotes the technology behind cryptocurrencies.
With a background in markets at global banks such as Deutsche Bank and Morgan Stanley, Ro was quick to grasp blockchain’s revolutionary potential. “What really piqued my interest was whether the tech could disintermediate financial markets. I thought, what the heck?” she recalls. “Bitcoin was trading at a couple of hundred bucks at the time and I bought a bunch thinking, what if it works? And guess what? It did!”
Today, bitcoin and its digital peers are becoming mainstream. The hype reached new heights this year after the cryptocurrency gained 600 per cent in value in 12 months. The mania has swept up not only retail investors but also very wealthy people. Ultra-high-net-worth individuals (UHNWs — people with assets of $30m or more) such as Paul Tudor or Stanley Druckenmiller were among the earliest backers of bitcoin, the biggest cryptocurrency, and are prominent in the market today.
Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are also gaining traction as a store of value for financial institutions. Banks are queueing up to compete — Goldman Sachs is trading cryptocurrencies while Citigroup is considering providing trading, custody and financing services. Billionaire investors openly discuss their cryptocurrency-related investments, while some large publicly listed companies, such as software company MicroStrategy, hold billions of dollars’ worth of bitcoin on their balance sheets.
Neither the sharp sell-off that hit cryptocurrencies last month nor the surrounding turmoil should obscure the fact that these are now huge markets, with a combined value of $1.6tn. That is big enough as an investment pool for even the richest private investors and largest family offices.
But bitcoin still divides opinion. For some it is an obsession, for others a speculative bubble. Yet financial industry analysts say that few people really understand how it works. To make life more complicated, it has spawned scores of other cryptocurrencies, all based on complex computer-driven calculations but with different levels of liquidity and transparency. “We have seen UHNW individuals and family offices looking into cryptocurrencies and becoming interested in allocating some portion of their investments into crypto,” says Calvin Koo, a Hong Kong-based lawyer at Kobre & Kim. “But it’s important to make sure investors don’t inadvertently step into a minefield.”
Clearly, what makes the crypto field tempting are the stories of those who have struck gold. Ro is reluctant to say how much she is worth as a result of her bitcoin punt, as she has been targeted by scammers and has received death threats after talking about the subject. But she was able to leave full-time banking in 2017 — the year of bitcoin’s first significant rally, when prices rose from just above $800 to almost $20,000. Bitcoin’s surge to $63,000 earlier this year increased Ro’s fortune.
“Let’s just say, I have done very well. I have gone from being a banker to working at a non-profit,” says Ro, who studied at Yale and Columbia universities. “Getting in early because the tech seemed really cool also worked out as an investment, so that’s also pretty cool.” Being an early investor meant…
Read More:Bitcoin and the wealthy