16 February 2021

On today’s show, Preston talks about Bitcoin borrowing and lending with BlockFi’s CEO, Zac Prince. Additionally, Preston was accompanied by Blockfi investor, Mark Yusko from Morgan Creek Capital Management.



  • What are the basics of how Bitcoin lending works?
  • What is over-collateralization?
  • What are some of the risks with BlockFi?
  • How does BlockFi protect against institutional lending that isn’t over-collateralized?
  • How does BlockFi manage the escrow for depositors?
  • What is the future going to bring for BlockFi?
  • Does BlockFi’s Zac Prince think lending rates will go higher?


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Disclaimer: The transcript that follows has been generated using artificial intelligence. We strive to be as accurate as possible, but minor errors and slightly off timestamps may be present due to platform differences.

Preston Pysh (00:00:02):
Hey everyone, welcome to this Wednesday’s release of the show where we’re talking about Bitcoin. Today’s show is an important one because we’re talking about a really interesting and controversial topic, and that’s Bitcoin borrowing and lending.

To cover this topic I have two titans in the space, and that’s Zac Prince, who’s the CEO at one of the largest borrowing and lending platforms called BlockFi, and we’re also joined by Mr. Mark Yusko, who’s a major investor in not only BlockFi, but numerous other digital asset companies with Morgan Creek Capital Management.

Preston Pysh (00:00:31):
Mark wasn’t able to join us until later in the conversation, so it’ll just be Zac and myself for the first half of the conversation. I try to cover all the areas of this topic so the listener can fully understand what risks are being assumed by the potential user of these platforms. At the end of the conversation, I provide my own personal thoughts on the idea of lending and borrowing, and it’s a summary of everything I just learned. With that, here’s my conversation with Zac and Mark.

Speaker 1 (00:00:58):
You’re listening to Bitcoin Fundamentals by The Investor’s Podcast Network. Now for your host, Preston Pysh.

Preston Pysh (00:01:17):
All right, so here we are with Zac Prince Mark Yusko. Zac, Mark, welcome to the show.

Zac Prince (00:01:22):
Thanks so much for having me, Preston. I was telling you before we started recording, I’ve been a fan of the show since before you started talking about Bitcoin in almost every episode it feels like. I like to show even more now, but I’m really happy to be here because I’ve been a fan for a while, so thanks for having me.

Preston Pysh (00:01:38):
I’m humbled and honored that you’d say that, Zac. This is going to be fun. I think that when people think of BlockFi and they just think of lending in general for the overall Bitcoin or crypto market, it’s concerning for them because they’re so used to traditional banking. They’re more importantly used to fractional reserve banking, and they’re looking at something that’s going up like a rocket ship with tons of volatility, and they’re used to markets that settle like we just saw with GameStop. They’re used to stock certificates that are settling in two-day periods of time, right?

Preston Pysh (00:02:12):
So if you’re accustomed to that environment and you’re stepping into something that’s very volatile going up in a major way, you’re saying, “Well, that has to be insanely risky,” is the mindset. So what I want to do is walk through, because I think once people fully understand what’s taking place, it’s going to just warp perspective as to how risk is managed, and where risk has really migrated from that old system to the new system. So, let’s walk the dog on a simple scenario. Let’s say I have one bitcoin and I go to BlockFi. I deposit it at BlockFi, and I start collecting interest, and for one bitcoin, I would collect 6% interest.

Read More
Preston Pysh (00:02:54):
For people that are not familiar with the space, they’re hearing this right up to this point and they’re saying, “There is something seriously wrong when the rest of the world is getting 0.01% as interest in their account. So, walk us through what’s happening when that one bitcoin is deposited.

Zac Prince (00:03:11):
From the user’s perspective, it looks like you’re interacting with any other centralized regulated financial services company in the crypto space. You go through KYC, you log into your account, you have a wallet address that you can deposit to, you send your Bitcoin to it, it shows up in your account. The day after, your Bitcoin hits BlockFi, we’ve got this little accrued interest field in your portfolio overview page and you start to see interest accruing there. And you can hold not only Bitcoin, but also a couple of other cryptocurrencies, multiple stable coins which are one to one interchangeable with dollars in a bank account, and PAX Gold on our platform. For all of it, they work the same way. Bitcoin is a 6% base rate, stable coins are 8.6%.

Zac Prince (00:04:01):
The front end of this, it’s like the FinTech apps that you’re used to using. Behind the scenes, there’s a lot of stuff that goes on to enable what’s happening on the front end, and I want to get … You tweeted about having me on and asking what people wanted to talk about, and the number one thing was, how does the risk work? How do I know this is safe? And I want to go really deep on all of those things. I think it would be valuable maybe for some folks who don’t know about BlockFi yet if I give just a few minutes on the history of how we got here.

Zac Prince (00:04:30):
The first product we launched wasn’t come earn interest on your Bitcoin, which is now our most popular product by far. First off, my background. I always wanted to work in the financial services industry, but I graduated in May of 2009. It was a tough time me looking for jobs in finance. I ended up working at an advertising technology startup. Throughout my career I’ve always worked at venture-backed technology companies. And most recently prior to starting BlockFi, I was in the online lending industry. It was originally referred to as peer-to-peer lending, now it’s called online lending.

Zac Prince (00:05:02):
There are a few parallels to be drawn to the crypto ecosystem from that ecosystem and a lot of the strategy, the business development strategy that we’re implementing at BlockFi comes from learnings that I had in that sector, starting with how we saw the opportunity. So the number one thing that enabled firms like SoFi and LendingClub and others in the online lending world to build businesses, was the fact that banks pulled out of a lot of areas of lending coming out of the financial crisis. Businesses weren’t getting access to debt and credit like they used to be able to, consumers, et cetera, and now that online lending industry is responsible for a little over a third of the entire unsecured consumer lending that happens in the US, so it’s material now.

Zac Prince (00:05:47):
When I started working in it, it was pretty new. I actually started investing in Bitcoin in 2014 because I had been in the online lending industry for a few years. I became the FinTech guy amongst my friend group and I started writing a blog just because I was seeing so much cool stuff. I didn’t have anywhere near the audience you have. I had maybe 10 people, mainly my friends and family read this thing. But, I was writing about FinTech. I was writing about robo-advisors and investing in commercial real estate, all the things you could do, online lending.

Zac Prince (00:06:16):
I learned about Bitcoin, and what really struck me about it initially was that a lot of what happens in FinTech is just a new wrapper on top of something that’s existed for a long time in the traditional financial system, or you have to use a bank to do part of it, or you’ve just put a mobile app on something that used to not have a mobile app. I learned about Bitcoin and I was like, “This is not only a brand new asset, but it’s also built on top of a brand new network that enables you to move something that,” call it an asset or value or money, whatever you want to call it, around the world with no intermediary, 24/7, completely digital, completely global by design, and I thought that was awesome.

Zac Prince (00:06:57):
I just started buying some and slowly and steadily went down the rabbit hole. In early 2017, I had started going to meetups in New York City because my wife got tired of me talking about cryptocurrency with her. She didn’t want me to talk about it with her and she gave me Tuesday nights every week or something. I started going to these meetups, and the meetups started with just a couple folks in a random hole-in-the-wall bar in Union Square. They shifted, and they started happening at big law firm offices in Midtown, and it went from 10 people at the meetup to 400 people at the meetup.

Zac Prince (00:07:33):
It felt like things were really starting to happen, and I knew that banks weren’t going to be active in this space anytime soon because I had seen … I had a lot of experience working with banks in the online lending sector, and they weren’t going to be around anytime soon. So I thought, “Okay, I have to get involved in this full time.” There’s nothing I believed in more than what’s starting to happen in this ecosystem, and the original idea for BlockFi was to build debt and credit markets for the crypto asset class.

Zac Prince (00:08:00):
From that starting point, we always knew that we wanted to build not just a mono-line lending business. One of the learnings from the online lending industry is that if you can pick what company you want to emulate, you would much rather emulate someone like SoFi versus someone like LendingClub. Why is that? Well, LendingClub really was just a one trick pony, unsecured consumer loans. SoFi on the other hand started with student loans to Ivy League graduates and they said, “We’re going to refi the student loans of everyone that graduated from an Ivy League school because right now they’re all priced the same by the federal government, and Ivy League school graduates should get cheaper loans because they’re a better risk.”

Zac Prince (00:08:40):
But then they expanded and offered their student loans more broadly, and then they moved into other products to add more value for their clients. Mortgages, wealth management, now they do quite a few things and they’re going public with a [inaudible 00:08:51] SPAC. The first product that we started within 2018 was US dollar loans for folks that held Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but didn’t want to sell it. We were the first company to get lending licenses across the US from states to make loans to individuals secured by their Bitcoin, and we were the first company to raise institutional capital to support that type of lending.

Zac Prince (00:09:13):
From that starting point, we just listened to the market knowing that our priority was to diversify our products in a way that adds more value for our clients, and we got to where we are today. A lot of these things happen incrementally over time, and I think that’s important to understand in terms of how our risk management system works. With that backdrop, if you don’t have any questions, I can start talking about, how does this risk management system work and what are the things that we’re doing to generate the attractive yields that folks who hold assets of BlockFi are receiving?

Preston Pysh (00:09:50):
I love the background, and I think that it adds to the overall story of … Especially when you start talking about how the legacy system really wasn’t going to change unless it had to change. What we’re about to describe, people’s eyeballs are going to be pop open as they hear this. So, let’s describe the one BTC that was deposited on BlockFi. What happens after it gets there?

Zac Prince (00:10:15):
After that Bitcoin gets deposited at BlockFi, it is commingled with other assets at BlockFi with one of our custodians. Today, BlockFi works with three custodians. Gemini is our primary custody platform, but we also custody with Fidelity and BitGo. The reason for that is that we decided early on that we wanted to build a debt and credit business, a financial services business, not a new custodian that was going to safely hold private keys, so we just decided to work with the best folks in the market. We picked them based on their operating history, whether they’ve been through audits or not, how much insurance they have. So, that’s the starting point.

Zac Prince (00:10:58):
From that point, these assets are available to be utilized in different types of lending activities. These different types of lending activities are what generate the yield that we’re offering to our clients at BlockFi. Fundamentally, there are two different types of loans that BlockFi makes. There are loans where collateral is posted back to BlockFi, and there are loans well over-collateralized, and there are loans which are smaller as a percentage than the over-collateralized loans, but there are loans where they are under-collateralized.

Zac Prince (00:11:34):
Also, we have two different types of borrowers who are borrowing from BlockFi. We have our retail clients who are borrowing directly in our mobile app or our web app. They’re always borrowing dollars, secured by the value of their cryptocurrency holdings on our platform. And then we have institutional borrowers, who depending on who they are may be borrowing in a similar construct as our retail borrowers where they’re always minimum 2X over-collateralized, or they may be borrowing where they are one to one collateralized or under-collateralized. And importantly on the institutional side, the loans could be denominated in dollars or cryptocurrencies, they’re denominated in Bitcoin.

Zac Prince (00:12:19):
Now let’s talk about the risk management. The over-collateralized part is pretty easy, and that’s where we started. What do you need to effectively manage risk when you have over-collateralized loans? You need a system that is monitoring prices, that is connected to liquidity, and that is available to take actions in the event of price volatility where you would need to, based on the loan to value ratios of the different loans.

Preston Pysh (00:12:44):
Let’s just make it really simple with numbers. When we’re talking about an over-collateralized loan, the one bitcoin that I deposited at BlockFi is then lent out to a person who is in order to receive that loan, they’re posting collateral that is above the amount that they’re borrowing. So let’s say another person on the other end is borrowing that one bitcoin that I deposited, in order for them to do that, they might have to deposit 1.5 or two bitcoins worth of value, either in USD or Bitcoin or whatever, in order to borrow that amount.

Preston Pysh (00:13:19):
So if the price of that collateral starts moving down, they get a margin call, I’m still protected because it’s an over-collateralized loan. And if it gets down to the price that it was at parity with my original deposit of one, they haven’t stepped back into the market to replenish their escrow. The account would just be liquidated and my one bitcoin is protected. Did I describe that accurately for the over-collateralization process?

Zac Prince (00:13:46):
That’s perfectly accurate. One thing that I would mention is that in terms of how our system works, we’re doing this in both directions, meaning there are certain loans that we’re making where someone has held Bitcoin on our platform and they’re borrowing dollars at a 50% LTV secured by the Bitcoin. There are other loans that we’re making, your example, where someone’s borrowing Bitcoin and they’re holding dollars as collateral. In the scenario where the price of bitcoin moves down, the borrower of dollars secured by Bitcoin is getting warnings, and then a margin call, and then a liquidation. And in a scenario where the price of bitcoin moves up, the borrower of Bitcoin who posted dollars is getting warnings, and then a margin call, and then a liquidation.

Preston Pysh (00:14:28):
In terms that most people are just comfortable with, it’d be like your house is paid off and you want to go out and take a loan out against the house that’s completely paid off, but you can only borrow one-third of the value. It’s maxed out in order for it to be over-collateralized. That’s what’s effectively happening on both sides of this trade that you’re talking about, whether you’re borrowing or lending it. That over-collateralization is protecting it. Now, what I think is really interesting about this particular market that for me reduces a lot of risk is when we’re talking about a house how hard is it to step into the market and sell that if the price starts moving away from …

Preston Pysh (00:15:05):
Let’s just take the example where you took out one-third of the value of the house in a loan and it’s collateralized because the house is paid off, over-collateralized, and let’s just say there’s a meltdown in the real estate market and the price collapses 67% and it’s approaching down to the parity of the amount that was borrowed. You can’t step into the market in one minute from now and sell that and liquidate it in order to protect the underlying value of the loan. But in this space, it’s traded 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, all over the world, and so you can step in and if the price moves in a dramatic way like that and the loan is becoming at parity or under-collateralized, you can sell it immediately.

Preston Pysh (00:15:49):
This is just so different than how anything works in traditional finance, because you might have to wait, I don’t know, two days to clear if you’re talking stock certificates. That’s a huge risk. Even if you are over-collateralized, that’s a risk if you can’t step into the market and settle immediately.

Zac Prince (00:16:07):
Absolutely right. The liquidity profile of the assets that are supported to be used as collateral at BlockFi is dramatically better than a house. I would argue that it’s even dramatically better than securities because of exactly what you described, Preston. These things trade 24/7 365 globally across both bond exchanges, derivative exchanges, and with real over-the-counter institution to institutional volume, and BlockFi is connected to all of those venues where liquidity is available.

Preston Pysh (00:16:43):
Okay, now here is where I would be concerned. If I deposit my Bitcoin and it’s then either turned into USDC, into a cash stable coin and lent out or it’s lent out as Bitcoin, I don’t really necessarily care about that. The thing I really care about is the person who would be making that deposit, is that the escrow that’s being held on my behalf is being held in the token that I deposited. Let me give you an example. Let’s say I really dislike Ethereum and I don’t trust it. I deposit Bitcoin … I’m going to take so much crap for that on Twitter, but that’s okay.

Preston Pysh (00:17:20):
I deposit Bitcoin, and let’s say BlockFi is holding Ethereum in escrow for me. Then let’s just say that there’s a major issue with that escrow or with that protocol that moves in a very dramatic way, that we haven’t maybe seen or we might not expect. I would be very upset as a person who’s deposited Bitcoin that my escrow is not being held in the thing that I deposited. How do you guys think through that particular … Because it’s almost like a CDO. Your black box that I can’t see into and how you guys are managing this could be viewed as a CDO-like risk to a person like me who’s looking at that and trying to account for that risk. How do you guys think through that problem?

Zac Prince (00:18:03):
First off, one thing that we’re not doing in any scenario is taking a Bitcoin denominated liability, which is what that deposit from you, Preston, or any other client into a BlockFi interest account is on our balance sheet and saying, “Let’s convert this Bitcoin denominated liability into another asset and hopefully something we do with that other asset is going to generate a return that’ll keep up with Bitcoin, and then we’ll convert it back into bitcoin and everything will work out just fine.” The assets and the liabilities match in terms of the currency that’s being placed into the BlockFi account. So when bitcoin’s coming in, we’re making a Bitcoin denominated loan to a borrower.

Zac Prince (00:18:47):
As a general rule, we don’t accept cryptocurrency as collateral for a Bitcoin-denominated loan. We accept things like dollars, which could be either dollars in a bank account or stable coins. We also accept euros. We accept things like shares of the Grayscale Bitcoin Trust as collateral. We accept things like equity value in a Fidelity digital assets account. There was an announcement that at the end of last year, we were the first lender that was integrated into the FDAS environment as a third party providing financing to folks who are buying and selling the assets that are supported on that platform. But we’re not taking Dogecoin or even Ethereum as collateral for a Bitcoin-denominated loan today, and those assets and liabilities are always 100% matched throughout all of our activities.

Preston Pysh (00:19:43):
Hey, on the GBTC comment, I know when people heard you say that, they were thinking … My immediate thought was, “Well, how about the GBTC Premium?” How does that impact the way you guys are looking at how the value is managed? Because I mean, right now, we saw the premium on GBTC almost go to zero, and then you get a big bull run, it’s a 1.2 on the premium for that. How are you guys accounting for that in the way you’re managing risk? And then talk to us a little bit about your relationship with Grayscale.

Zac Prince (00:20:12):
We don’t prescribe any value to the premium in terms of financing that we’re providing the folks that want to use either liquid or shares that still need to be seasoned of the various Grayscale trusts. In terms of our relationship with Grayscale, we filed what’s called a Form 13G towards the end of last year in the fourth quarter, which disclosed that we are a greater than 5% holder of the total number of shares of the Grayscale Bitcoin Trust. The reason for that is that we … You can think of us as a market-maker of sorts for that product. We’re very active in facilitating the new creation of shares by subscribing it now with Bitcoin. We’re very active in the securities lending market for Grayscale Bitcoin shares, and we’re very active in capturing the premium that exists in the market on shares of GBTC.

Preston Pysh (00:21:09):
For a person who would go to your platform and they’d say, “All right, I’m going to borrow some Bitcoin.” Who is this person that is putting up double the collateral of what they’re borrowing and paying 9% interest for it? Who is this person, and what are their interests in order to take that on?

Zac Prince (00:21:27):
Let’s go back to the segmentation of the groups that we lend to. The person who’s putting up Bitcoin to borrow dollars could be an institution or an individual just using the publicly available BlockFi platform. It’s someone like me, who is likely to have held Bitcoin for a while, is still very bullish on the future trajectory of the price of bitcoin, and who has a liquidity need for something that they want to do in their life. It could be making another investment or a down payment on a house or taxes, and they don’t want to sell their Bitcoin.

Preston Pysh (00:22:04):
They don’t want the tax burden. They want to be able to continue to hold it without the tax burden, and just pull their timeline a little bit to the left, they’ll quickly pay it off. It’s like working capital.

Zac Prince (00:22:14):
Absolutely. If your cost basis on Bitcoin is really low, and let’s say half of the position is a gain, or more than half of the position as a gain, paying 25 to 50% in taxes on a large part of your Bitcoin holding is a very expensive way to finance something. A 9% annual interest rate on a loan that you may only even use short term for a month, or two, or three or six pales in comparison to that tax cost, not to mention the fact that you’ve sold some of your Bitcoin, whereas when you get alone, you’re not selling that Bitcoin. You still have that long Bitcoin position and you benefit from any price appreciation that may occur.

Zac Prince (00:22:58):
And then lastly, note that if you are using the proceeds of the loan to make another investment, our tax code is very favorable to debt financing. And generally, depending on your personal tax situation, not tax advice of course, but generally you’re able to deduct the cost of that interest under what’s called the investment interest expense deduction. We never lend Bitcoin to individual or retail borrowers. It’s not something you can do on our platform where you’re also earning interest on your Bitcoin, and also [inaudible 00:23:32].

Zac Prince (00:23:32):
Institutions are the only folks who can borrow Bitcoin from us. What types of institutions are doing this? It’s primarily market-making firms, trading firms, hedge funds, and other types of institutions who are active in the cryptocurrency market, but importantly, they cannot finance that activity with their traditional prime brokers. The same problem that we set out to solve for retail folks, we pretty quickly after we got into the market realized that institutions had the exact same challenge. Banks weren’t actively helping them participate in the cryptocurrency market either.

Zac Prince (00:24:13):
Let’s talk about some of these use cases that the institutions have. Anyone who’s active in the cryptocurrency market knows that there are lots of different venues where cryptocurrency trades. Spot, futures, OTC, US-based exchanges, exchanges based in Asia, in Europe, in Africa, in LATO. The number one use case that we see for borrowing Bitcoin is inventory to conduct market-making. Susquehanna, who’s also an equity investor in BlockFi is a very well-known market-making firm, and they fit the profile of a very common type of Bitcoin borrower from BlockFi, traditional financial institution.

Zac Prince (00:24:53):
Cryptocurrency is less than 5% of their business, and they have a very long track record of operating incredibly profitably through lots of market cycles, lots of volatility, lots of major market events way better than banks, by the way, from a credit risk perspective. Actually, they make more money when things get volatile and markets are moving around, not less. So what do they do? It’s really simple. They buy bitcoin over here for 99.95 cents, and they sell it over here for 1.002, and they just do that all day. It’s a service that they’re providing to the market at the end of the day in their services. They’re providing liquidity into the market and they get paid by capturing those small spreads.

Preston Pysh (00:25:38):
They’re doing this simultaneously, so from their vantage point it’s practically risk free minus their ability to control the technical aspects of it. Since they’re going long and going short and capturing that spread by being a market-maker, it’s very risk free for them to be participating in this. Now, the spread that you just said sounds to me that the margin there is actually way bigger than what you just said. Are they capturing pretty fat margin? Because every time I talk to [Plan B 00:26:07] or I look at his post-it he’s doing, he’s saying that these margins, the spread between going long and going short are massive relative to anything else in financial markets right now.

Zac Prince (00:26:17):
They absolutely are massive, and the level of sophistication that’s needed from these firms to capture these spreads in the cryptocurrency market is dramatically lower than in traditional markets because it’s still nascent. We’re not using the same technology in the cryptocurrency trading ecosystem that exists in the US public equities markets where folks are co-locating servers in the data center, and you’ve had regulation put in a bunch of rules around best execution and you’re selling order flow. We’re not even close to that point in this market’s evolution yet. The market is sufficiently liquid, but the market is fragmented and the market lacks access to traditional financing.

Zac Prince (00:26:59):
As a result, whether you’re talking about someone who’s borrowing dollars secured by their Bitcoin or someone who’s borrowing Bitcoin to finance their market-making activities, the cost of borrowing is higher than in the equities market as an example. This doesn’t just show up in market-making for the Bitcoin spot price. It also shows up in the futures curve where the implied basis, which is if you take the futures price compared to the spot price and then you annualize that, oftentimes has a yield which is basically risk-free. You’re taking risk to the CME north of 20%.

Zac Prince (00:27:39):
What happens if you’re a portfolio manager at Susquehanna or another firm like them? Well, what happens is, you go to your bosses one day and you say, “I think that the trading strategies that I’ve implemented in traditional markets could work great in crypto. In fact, they could deliver way better returns than what I’m delivering in traditional markets.” And your bosses say, “That’s great, go do it. Here’s 10 million bucks.”

You start doing it with 10 million bucks, and it works great. Well, then what do you want to do? You want to start doing it with 100 million, or 200 million. And normally in traditional markets when you want to scale something like that up, you call your prime broker, you tell them what you’re doing. They already have a relationship with you, and they have no problem giving you financing for it.

Zac Prince (00:28:22):
Well in cryptocurrency, they had literally no one to call. Some BlockFi’s phones started ringing towards the end of 2018, when at the time, we had really only brought this retail loan product to market and it was folks like Susquehanna and others saying, “We have an idea we want to run by you. Have you ever thought about providing financing to the institutional side of this marketplace?” And we said, “Yeah, we thought we would get to that at some point.

We’d love to do it.” We were one of the first companies providing financing into that part of the market as well, and we really quickly learned that the amount of Bitcoin that we had, which at the time was just the Bitcoin that was being posted for US dollar loans, we didn’t have the interest account yet, was not going to be nearly enough to meet the demand from the institutional side of the equation.

Preston Pysh (00:29:08):
But now you have institutions and you have companies that are now putting this on their balance sheet. Are they coming into the lending side or deposit side for you?

Zac Prince (00:29:17):
They are. The total size of assets on BlockFi’s platform today is over 10 billion and it’s growing by every week so far this year, north of a quarter billion.

Preston Pysh (00:29:30):
When I think of a stress test for BlockFi, I would think that the March liquidity crunch where the market had an immediate reaction to COVID, the whole derivatives market was getting repriced, you had this massive run on baseline dollars. What was that experience like for customers at BlockFi as far as depositors and margin calls, and that kind of stuff?

Zac Prince (00:29:55):
A few things that are worth noting here. First off, we made our first loan in January of 2018, and we’ve had perfect performance with no losses in our lending activities in terms of our clients’ accounts with BlockFi throughout not only the event in March, but also the final capitulation coming off the 20K high in October of 2018 when we went down from 6K to 3K. And, multiple times where we’ve had greater than 20% upside volatility in a single day, including at least one day where we went up 40% in a single day, and most notably, and most recently, in March when we went down 50% in a single day. One of the things that I think is indicative of the strength and robustness of our risk management system is that on March 12th, the day after Bitcoin went down 50%, we were operating across our entire platform completely normally. We were processing withdrawals-

Preston Pysh (00:30:56):
Still over-collateralized on it.

Zac Prince (00:30:59):
Still over-collateralized, still making loans for our retail and institutional clients, and that was not true for everyone. I mean, if you look up other folks, at least cosmetically reports do the same things that we do in this market, a lot of them publicly stated, “We are not actively lending right now. We are waiting for the dust to settle,” or, “We’re evaluating the condition of our books,” not BlockFi. We were open the whole time, we were available to our clients and our risk system performed perfectly.

Zac Prince (00:31:28):
What you realize when you’re in the business that we’re in providing the products that we offer to our clients is that oftentimes the hard part isn’t just, does your risk system work well? Can it make the margin calls and get the liquidity? It’s, how do you in the context of market volatility still deliver a positive experience for your clients? We don’t want to liquidate someone’s Bitcoin who’s borrowed dollars from us because the price of bitcoin goes down 50%. That’s a horrible experience. We don’t want to do that to anyone.

Zac Prince (00:31:59):
And one of the things that we did, two things actually, that are I think fundamentally different than how a lot of folks and certainly DeFi approach things is, we’re capable of using our own equity capital to hedge extreme volatility when risks systems are flashing yellow or red lights on our side, and we did that in March.

Preston Pysh (00:32:20):
You’re saying the retained earnings that you as a company have were put at risk in order to allow your customers more time to react to their margin calls? Is that what you’re saying with that?

Zac Prince (00:32:32):
That’s exactly right. Additionally, what happens in these stress scenarios is the blockchain gets very active, sending Bitcoin gets very expensive. We have clients, every time there’s been extreme volatility who with the best intentions are trying to send us collateral, but whatever wallet infrastructure they’re using or whatever traditional bank payment rail they’re using, isn’t set up to make it move quickly. As a result, despite the best intentions of our clients and their ability to post more collateral, the timing gets off a little bit.

It’s not that we turn our wrist system off and say, “Oh my gosh, we’re going to just take all the risk and trust that everyone’s going to send us the money.” We obviously don’t do that. But we absolutely do, on days like March 12th, listen to our clients. If they’ve sent us collateral that arrived 12 hours after we liquidated part or all their position, we do the right thing to the best of our abilities.

Preston Pysh (00:33:37):
While still having an interest for the depositor and not putting them in a predicament or risking the depositor’s capital, right?

Zac Prince (00:33:46):
The starting point, the baseline is preservation of capital and never incurring a hedging cost or a client service expense that would put client capital at risk. That’s the baseline. We’re now in extra credit land. In extra credit land, you can make a decision like, “Okay, the market has moved in the 12 hours that it took my client’s collateral to arrive,” and the cost of that in terms of us just reinstating their position versus what actually happened, which is we liquidated part of it in accordance with the loan agreement and how our risk management system works is, let’s say 50 grand. Well, we can say things like, “We’ll split it with you.”

Zac Prince (00:34:26):
I’m just giving an example, but that’s the type of thing that our client service team was doing with our customers not only on March 11th, but also on March 12th and 13th, and I think that is truly unique. I don’t know of any other platform that was not only operating, but also operating in a way where we have a long-term client relationship at the front of mind. Because, we’re not here to make a loan to someone and then blow them out and, “Great, the risk system works. Have a nice day.” We believe that our platform is going to keep growing, we’re going to keep adding more products that should add more value for our clients, and we want them to be our clients for life. It’s more important than a single trade or a single day of volatility.

Preston Pysh (00:35:11):
We had a lot of questions in reference to insurance. Lots of people wanting to know, let’s say there is a mistake or the risk management somehow goes wrong for one particular token. Is that somehow insured, or is that part of the expense that is being taken out of my yield that BlockFi has?

Zac Prince (00:35:33):
Yeah, there is insurance available from our custodians for the assets that are held with them, which is at all times a minimum of 20% of the client assets on BlockFi are just literally sitting in a custody account not being utilized, and oftentimes it’s a much higher number than that. So there’s insurance there that would protect against things like employee theft or cybersecurity issues with the custodian. There is not insurance today for losses that may be incurred from the lending activities that BlockFi does. We are always thinking about ways that we can bring insurance to the table. To date, it’s been cost-prohibitive.

Zac Prince (00:36:16):
The cost of insurance would effectively completely eliminate the yield that we’re offering to our clients, but I believe that that will change. The question is just, how long will it take? And the things that help it change our operating history, capitalization of BlockFi’s business, data that you can share about what happens to our risk management system in periods of volatility. I also think that over time, we’ll have probably different flavors, or different levels of risk accounts and associated yields that you can have on our platform. On one end will be the highest yielding option, on the other end there’ll be a very low, or zero yielding option where literally your assets are just held with one of the top custodians that we work with.

Preston Pysh (00:37:06):
Zac, you and I have had a lot of back and forth here and Mark has been insanely patient. He’s listening and smiling, and I can see his reaction on the various questions. So Mark, I want to throw it over to you. This is a tricky question. When you look at this marketplace, it’s getting competitive by the day. Everyone who’s probably listening to this is thinking DeFi and how … What’s DeFi’s impact to BlockFi as far as the competition for yield moving forward? How do you think through that? After you respond, Mark, I’m curious how Zac sees it as well.

Mark Yusko (00:37:41):
I’m mostly just smiling because we’ve been partners with Zac for a long time and every time I hang out with him, I just get more excited about being partners because he’s just so clearly visionary, and that client focus is so unique in this business. Great business person, and he and Flori have built an amazing team. But more importantly, they’ve built an amazing customer-centric business. The way I see it is, the ecosystem is going to evolve and there’ll be lots of other systems that pop up, but in the same manner as how the traditional financial services ecosystem evolved and at the core of that are the banks. [inaudible 00:38:26]. I say it five, six times a day.

Mark Yusko (00:38:28):
I say it’s called BlockFi for a reason, and what they do is essentially banking services for digital assets. Don’t call them a bank, they’re blockchain financial, or a financial services company utilizing this wave of technology around blockchain and Bitcoin and crypto, to provide essential services as we all transition from the analog, to the electronic, to ultimate the digital financial ecosystem that’s ahead. At the root of it, no matter what other systems come up, let me take FinTech and what it does relative to the banking system.

Mark Yusko (00:39:09):
In the old days, you had a banker. The banker knew your name, and he knew where you lived, and he knew your family. And if you wanted a loan, he would facilitate, he or she would facilitate that loan. Today it’s nameless, faceless organizations and if you want a loan, you can go online with one of these and you can get a loan through a peer-to-peer exchange a lot faster than the bank and not have the experience my first time I tried to do it on this. They said, “Well, you deposit 100,000, we’ll lend you 50,000 to buy that house you want to buy.” If I had 100,000, I wouldn’t need to borrow the money for the house.

Mark Yusko (00:39:40):
But I think that importantly, there’ll be some number of institutions and I think BlockFi is one of them that will be the core of the digital financial system and the other systems including DeFi will evolve around that. But I don’t see them as negative at all, I see them as complimentary to one another with the core, and then the satellite services same way that investment banks built up around commercial banks. Then you’ve got financial services firms, and then you’ve got the whole FinTech industry around that.

Preston Pysh (00:40:14):
It sounds like you look at CeFi, which is the centralized finance that we’re talking about here being more accommodative to institutions, where the DeFi might actually be more towards retailers or individuals that are willing to take on more responsibility in order to capture more yield. Would you characterize that as accurate?

Mark Yusko (00:40:34):
I think that’s a piece of it, and I think part of … Why do any of us use a services organization in anything we do? I mean, there are plenty of things we can do ourselves. I could hold my Bitcoin, but there are personal security risks, there’s implementation risks, there are all kinds of risks. So having a service, a business where I can deposit those assets and have somebody take care of custody and safekeeping could make sense to me, and I’m willing to pay for that. So I do think CeFi and just the automation of functions that have historically been people-centric, legacy system-centric … Why does it take three days or two days to settle a common stock transaction when I can settle it at BlockFi instantaneously?

Preston Pysh (00:41:21):
Zac, would you characterize the risk of a person putting their money in BlockFi to being akin or being almost the same level of risk of a person just having their money on an exchange because it’s a key management risk, or is there more risk that doesn’t meet the eye with BlockFi?

Zac Prince (00:41:39):
I think it depends on the exchange. I think it’s certainly in the same ballpark. There are probably quite a few exchanges where I would categorize it as more risky to hold your assets there versus BlockFi, and there are exchanges where I would categorize it as less risky because they’re not offering the same service that we are where there is, even though it’s very small, but there is an incremental layer of risk because of the lending that we’re doing to generate the yield. So, I would say it’s both.

Zac Prince (00:42:08):
But from a user experience perspective, the same value that Mark was alluding to around just making it super easy or enabling me to send money to and from this account and my bank, or get paid for referring a friend to it, know who I am and if I lose my password, help me recover it safely, there’s a lot of things that a centralized financial services company can do that add a lot of value for people like me. I tried the hardware wallet thing and I didn’t sleep well at night. Not because I don’t love the idea of it and not because I don’t believe that it’s one of the unique and incredible characteristics of Bitcoin that gives it value, but just because I lose my car keys once a quarter. It’s not my style or personality to want to keep track of a large amount of money.

Preston Pysh (00:43:05):
You had mentioned early on when we were talking about that there’s a portion of the funds that you manage that are under-collateralized. I’m curious what that would be as a percentage of the overall funds. And then, why are some of them under collateralized?

Zac Prince (00:43:24):
As a percentage of the overall funds, I don’t know the exact number today but it’s well south of 50%, maybe even south of 20%. Why is that? Well, certain institutions who borrow from BlockFi are getting … Go back to that example with Susquehanna. I started trading with 10 million, it worked out great. Now I want to do it with 100. Their return improves, if part of that 100 million that they’re making markets with is debt, not equity. Their equity has a pretty high hurdle rate in terms of the return that they want to generate on it. For the same reason, folks finance all types of investments, whether it’s real estate or other investments.

Zac Prince (00:44:06):
Market-making firms like to finance their activities and BlockFi, our institutional services team which primarily comes from prime brokerage backgrounds, are familiar with and comfortable underwriting the credit risk of these firms. As a result, it’s more valuable for them if we can get comfortable taking some amount of credit risk and not always requiring over-collateralization and we’re capable of assessing that risk, not for everyone. Not a lot of people pass the credit risk assessment threshold. Less than 50 firms ever have passed it. That’s how it works.

Preston Pysh (00:44:43):
As a person on the retail side that’s thinking about my deposit, my immediate thought went to, that could be managed by a corporate governance structure at BlockFi in order to separate institutional under-collateralization from retail over-collateralization and then have a parent company above that, that would separate from a legal structure, would remove that risk from your retail depositors and borrowers. Is that something that you have in place from a corporate governance standpoint, or is that something that you were thinking about doing in the future?

Zac Prince (00:45:17):
What we have right now I think is better than that, which is, every penny of BlockFi equity sits junior to our clients’ assets in our capital stack. Meaning structurally, we wouldn’t be passing through $1 of loss to our clients unless our equity was wiped out, and our equity is north of half a billion dollars today. One of the big constraints that goes into what portion of the lending that takes place is allowed to be credit or how much credit exposure could we take to any one counterparty are based on things like the size of BlockFi’s equity that stands behind it.

Preston Pysh (00:45:58):
This is my last question for both of you guys. When I think about the price action that I expect in the coming six months to year and I think about everything that we just discussed, it makes me think that interest rates are going to go higher for people that are depositing their funds. What are your thoughts on that, and what do you see as the primary driver for those interest rates or the amount that you’re paying out to depositors?

Zac Prince (00:46:25):
I think it’ll be interesting to see. I could argue both scenarios. I could argue a scenario where rates go up and a scenario where rates go down. Ultimately the drivers are adoption, liquidity, volatility and sentiment, market sentiment. The more volatility there is, the more demand there is to borrow. The more liquidity there is, the more demand there is to borrow. The more different types of institutions there are, the more demand there is to borrow. And on the market sentiment piece, directionally there’s less demand to borrow Bitcoin in times where the market is bullish and more demand to borrow Bitcoin in times where the market sentiment is bearish.

Zac Prince (00:47:06):
I think rates will stay … The way I think about it is, relative to traditional financial rates, how long of a runway do we have where … For market constituents who are capturing these yields, how long of a runway do we have where they’re staying incredibly attractive relative to what you can get in the traditional market? From that perspective, I think we have a long way to go long.

Mark Yusko (00:47:30):

Zac Prince (00:47:31):
I think we have-

Mark Yusko (00:47:32):
Super long.

Preston Pysh (00:47:34):
Which is crazy because the spreads are so massive and the margins are so fat. You would think everyone and their kid sister would be trying to capture that.

Mark Yusko (00:47:43):
They are, Preston, and I think that’s the key. And again, Zac can’t say this, but I will. It’s because it’s hard to build what Zac and Flori, and the team at BlockFi have built. It’s hard to have the quality and the trustworthiness. I refer to this whole thing is the trust net for a reason. It is literally all about trust and eliminating that lack of trust that we have in institutions today that’s been on a downward trajectory like interest rates for last couple of decades. And, by focusing on a high standard of quality and a high standard of risk management and asset management, and building out infrastructure and capabilities well ahead of the asset growth.

Mark Yusko (00:48:28):
BlockFi has put themselves in a position where they are the gold standard in this nascent industry, and so yes, there will be competitors and you’re right, Preston. Everybody would love to do this. But if I’m a borrower, I don’t want to borrow from Joe’s crypto shop, I want to borrow from somebody that I really trust, that I know has the systems in place where there’s not going to be a question of whose assets or who’s and how the transactions are occurring. Paul Romer won the Nobel Prize for this, right? It’s called the law of increasing returns.

Mark Yusko (00:49:07):
It’s not necessarily the best technology that wins, it’s the technology that gets critical mass and the network effect first, and the network effect of BlockFi in the most important circles of financial services users is there. It’s like when people say, “Oh, something better is going to come along and displace Bitcoin.” No, it’s not. One because it’s open-source, but two, because network effect wins. You can just look around the world.

Five of the top 10 largest most valuable entities in the world, they’re not companies, they’re networks. Amazon, what is it? Amazon doesn’t make anything. They’re a network of users. They’re basically a search engine that matches buyers and sellers and they take the cut. A brilliant business model, incredible. But the scale as you get more users, when there was one of these, not valuable at all. Now that there’s 10 billion of them connected around the world, pretty valuable.

Zac Prince (00:50:08):
One thing that I want to mention if I can Preston is, a year from now if we do check in again, I believe that you will be talking as much about some of the other things that we’re doing at BlockFi as you are about the lending side of it. The thing that I’m most excited about personally, is the Bitcoin Rewards credit card which we’re launching in the second quarter of this year, which will be the first ever Bitcoin rewards credit card. We’ll launch cards outside the US market and make it available in places where credit cards are available like Canada and the UK, Australia, other European markets.

Zac Prince (00:50:43):
That’s just going to be our first product in the payments category. I mean, there’s so much that we anticipate building over the next few years and against the backdrop of what’s happening in the Bitcoin ecosystem, we think that … People think of us as a crypto lender today or maybe crypto financial services. Five or 10 years from now, it’s just going to be financial services. We’re going to be doing all of the things that the big banks do or traditional FinTech companies, we’re just going to be doing them better, faster, cheaper for consumers than they’re able to.

Preston Pysh (00:51:18):
On that note, do you see … Because we’ve got these stable coins, you have a gold token that’s backed by physical gold in a vault. I’m curious, when are we going to start to see the major ETFs or major stocks, call it Apple, Amazon, that’s tokenized that’s held in some central entity’s treasury, and things like that start to become available on the platform as well?

Zac Prince (00:51:45):
That one’s probably going to take some time. The regulatory regime that is the toughest to crack in a lot of ways, is the SEC. Folks have tried in different ways to make US equities available in markets that aren’t as under the purview of US regulators, and it’s really, really challenging.

Preston Pysh (00:52:06):
Even though you’re a custodian of the underlying? It’s not like you’re … I’m not talking about launching a new token like sushi or something like that, that doesn’t have any backing to it. I’m talking about something that a person would be taking stock certificates and they would be holding, almost like a USDC or your Gemini coin, the US dollar Gemini coin. Why isn’t that happening with stock certificate? Because I don’t see it as an equity issuance, I see it as somebody just managing collateral for something.

Zac Prince (00:52:37):
That’s a good question. We have not started working on that yet so I don’t know the specifics of why it hasn’t happened. I would guess that there’s some nuance in the regulation that makes it really, really hard or else it would be here, but I would also guess that someone’s working on it.

Preston Pysh (00:52:52):
Here’s the reason why Zac. I look at it as, my hurdle rate these days is the NASDAQ. If I can outperform the NASDAQ … I’m not looking at measuring … My unit of account is not the dollar anymore. My unit of account is the NASDAQ. Can I beat that? If I was going to have that as one of my tokens that I could convert into as almost my form of $1, I mean, with the printing that’s happening, it’s just going to keep nominally. It’s just going to keep driving everything up, right? If we’re just going to print 5 trillion here and 5 trillion there, it’s going to make equities keep going up.

Zac Prince (00:53:26):
I couldn’t agree more with you. I think about my personal investments the exact same way. The question for me is whether tokenizing the equities will happen or if we’ll just have to become a traditional broker-dealer and enable folks like yourself to also buy QQQ in your Blockfi account.

Mark Yusko (00:53:44):
The question is, which way does that end up happening, not whether it happens in my mind.

Preston Pysh (00:53:51):
I just don’t want it to have to clear two days to clear the certificate.

Mark Yusko (00:53:53):
Digital’s coming. It will come. The cool thing, not to put too much pressure on you Zac, but most people don’t know that Visa was started by Bank of America and they had basically the majority of customers in Sacramento, California and they had this idea followed Diners Club. I think the analogy works with BlockFi at the center of this digital financial services revolution and to Zac’s point, really expanding all of the tools for us as users of financial services, so pretty exciting.

Preston Pysh (00:54:32):
This is some exciting stuff. I want to thank both of you, Zac, Mark, for taking time to chat. Can you guys give everyone a hand-off? I think they all know your location to find you Zac, but go ahead and give people hand-off where they can do some more research and learn more about you.

Zac Prince (00:54:48):
Yeah, happy to. The company’s website is, I think we’re one of the only companies in crypto that has a phone number that you can call during normal business hours and talk to someone in the US who loves BlockFi and understands how everything works on our platform and also loves crypto. So, click on the contact us and give us a ring or an email if you want. I’m very active on Twitter. My DMs are open. My handle is BlockFiZac, Z-A-C. I love hearing from folks. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.

Mark Yusko (00:55:20):
Preston, thanks for letting me be the fly on the wall with this just unbelievable conversation with you guys, and I really appreciate it. So,, where you find everything about Morgan Creek. And then, I also am active on Twitter, my wife might say to active, @@MarkYusko. My DMs are open as well, although I hazard a guess that I’m probably less good at answering than the two of you, but I’m trying to … I aspire to get better.

Preston Pysh (00:55:50):
Gentlemen, thank you for your time. This was really fun.

Zac Prince (00:55:53):
Thanks, Preston.

Mark Yusko (00:55:54):
Thank you, Preston.

Preston Pysh (00:55:55):
All right, what did you guys think? I’ve been getting asked a ton of questions online about Bitcoin borrowing and lending. So here are my thoughts, and first things first. These platforms, as I suspect everyone already knows, are not FDIC-insured. So if something happens to the way the platform owner is managing risk or the private keys, you name it, there isn’t anyone that’s going to come and bail you out. Now, what’s the likelihood of something like that happening?

Preston Pysh (00:56:25):
Well, I just don’t have any idea how I would assign a probability to something like that. If anything, this space is like the Wild Wild West, that’s probably the only way I can describe it. There are enormous yields relative to traditional finance but like anything, it’s just because there are risks associated with where we’re at in the maturation of this entire process. When I think about the way I distribute risk and invest, I view it as an expected value problem.

Preston Pysh (00:56:55):
Let’s say you own one bitcoin, and your expectation for the rest of 2021 is that the price will double from here. Let’s just say that you’re expecting Bitcoin to go to 100,000. Or, your second option is you could take that one bitcoin and put it on a platform, the borrowing and lending platform, and let’s say you could get a 6% return on top of that 100% that you’re expecting to get from here. But that investment of putting it on a lending platform comes with higher risk than just taking the self custody of the coins. So you’re comparing a choice of 100% or 106% with higher risk. That’s also assuming that you’re really good at self custody, which might be an if for some folks.

Preston Pysh (00:57:39):
Well, when you do that problem from an expected value mindset, the answer isn’t binary, it isn’t you should do one at 100% and you should do the other one at zero. The answer is some percentage of the one strategy and then the other percentage for the other strategy. So, maybe 10% of your portfolio position of Bitcoin should be in lending, and 90% should be in self custody. I’m not sure what that number is, that’s totally up to you. It really becomes a personal preference how you can view the risks of not holding your own private keys, and it also depends on your personal net worth and your lifestyle expenses.

Preston Pysh (00:58:17):
There’s no way to perform a Kelly criterion because that’s what we’re ultimately talking about here, to put quantitative values necessarily to some of these factors. It’s your personal preference, it’s your personal expertise, and some things that you have to work out in your own head. I strongly encourage people to do their own homework and to make your own decisions. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Bitcoin from the beginning, it’s truly making personal responsibility a real thing again.

Preston Pysh (00:58:45):
Now, one of the reasons I’m so excited about this space is because I think it’s going to change a whole lot in the near future. In the past, you would always hear that Bitcoin has no intrinsic value because it doesn’t produce any free cash flows. Well, that’s just not the case anymore. In fact, when you look at companies like MicroStrategy have more than $1 billion dollars of Bitcoin on their balance sheet. That Bitcoin now has the earnings capacity, through lending, to actually generate more free cash flows than all the workers currently employed by that company. It’s a mind-blowing fact if the management actually start to put the Bitcoin into the lending market.

Preston Pysh (00:59:25):
In fact, since this lending is over-collateralized, and it’s operating in a 24/7 liquid market, I could see these kinds of rates in the future whenever these lending platforms really have established themselves as being to have your private keys with them, that it could maybe even be considered a risk free rate in the future. But it’s hard stuff for us to wrap our head around and I suspect its impact is going to start intertwining itself into the valuations of every other asset on the planet at a time where central banks keep debasing fiat currency, and the stock and traditional bond markets appear to just keep on getting bid into the stratosphere.

Preston Pysh (01:00:06):
What if this really high-interest rate that we’re seeing in these markets start to demonstrate to the traditional markets that these are what free and open interest rates actually are and actually look like? What would that do to equity valuations? What would it do to fiat-denominated fixed income prices? As you can see, this particular part of the digital assets space has really caught my attention, and I don’t suspect these yields are going down anytime soon. With that, I hope you guys have enjoyed the discussion, and please do your own homework.

Outro (01:00:39):
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