Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Portland — The woes of an early bitcoin investor. Until recently, people who paid virtually nothing for the virtual currency and watched it soar had only one way to enjoy their new wealth — sell. And many were not ready.

Lenders on the fringe of the financial industry are now pitching a solution: loans using a digital hoard as collateral.

While banks hang back, start-ups with names like Salt Lending, Nebeus, CoinLoan and EthLend are diving into the breach. Some lend — or plan to lend — directly, while others help borrowers get financing from third parties. Terms can be onerous compared with traditional loans. But the market is potentially huge.

Bitcoin’s price hovered around $17,000 much of this week, giving the cryptocurrency a total market value of almost $300bn. About 40% of that is held by something like 1,000 users. That is a lot of digital millionaires needing houses, yachts and $590 shearling eye masks.

"I would be very interested in doing this with my own holdings, but I haven’t found a service to enable this yet," said Roger Ver, widely known as "Bitcoin Jesus" for his proselytising on behalf of the cryptocurrency, in which he in one of the largest holders.

People controlling about 10% of the digital currency would probably like to use it as collateral, estimates Aaron Brown, a former MD at AQR Capital Management, who invests in bitcoin and writes for Bloomberg Prophets. "So I can see a lending industry in the tens of billions of dollars," he said.

One problem is that bitcoin’s price swings violently, which can make it dangerous for lenders to hold. That means the terms can be steep.

Someone looking to tap $100,000 in cash would probably need to put up $200,000 of bitcoin as collateral, and pay 12%-20% in interest a year, according to David Lechner, the chief financial officer at Salt, which has arranged dozens of loans.

That is in line with interest rates for unsecured personal loans. The difference is that putting up bitcoin lets people borrow more.

The new loans should be of particular interest to miners, whose computers solve complex math problems to obtain new coins and help confirm transactions, Brown said. They have to pay for electricity and equipment. But, like many bitcoin believers, they do not like to sell their crypto. Bitcoin start-ups also need cash to pay employees.

Late last month, London-based start-up Nebeus began helping third-party lenders offer loans backed by bitcoin and ether, another cryptocurrency. The firm arranged almost 100 such loans on the first day, according to Konstantin Zaripov, the company’s MD. It has since done more than 1,000.

Salt offers loans and plans to eventually help banks do so too. It was talking to financial institutions and aimed to strike a deal with at least one of them "within weeks," Lechner said.

Some companies also require a second form of collateral. Terms can include maintenance calls, requiring borrowers to post more bitcoin if the price drops. That is similar to the margin that a dozen or so cryptocurrency exchanges already offer clients so they can ramp up their trading bets.

In a twist, some lenders are hoping to use blockchains — digital ledgers akin to those underpinning bitcoin — to facilitate lending. The idea is to stitch terms into a ledger to help automate the loan and collections. If they took off, the model could challenge peer-to-peer lenders — such as LendingClub, Prosper Marketplace and Zopa — by offering debt investors more reliable repayment, said Lucas Nuzzi, a senior analyst at Digital Asset Research.

"Although this has the potential of revolutionising credit markets, we are still in the very early stages of development," Nuzzi said. "No companies have been able to fully implement such a system."

For now, banks are largely on the sidelines, reluctant to offer services that could leave them holding bitcoins. Some firms do not have a secure way to store cryptocurrency. And there is no established model to account for it on a regulated balance sheet.


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