IDX Offers Risk-managed Exposure to Bitcoin
Phoenix-based quant manager looks to control downside for institutions instead of maximizing the upside.
Ben McMillan, IDX Digital Assets’ co-founder and CIO
- IDX starting to see more investors who may not have embraced digital assets now realizing they cannot be ignored, co-founder says
- Firm opting for mutual fund wrapper for proposed bitcoin futures strategy rather than an ETF
As part of the latest installment of Blockworks’ Q&A series with fund managers, I recently spoke with Ben McMillan, IDX Digital Assets’ co-founder and CIO, about his firm and its investment offerings.
IDX Digital Assets is a quantitative asset manager that focuses on helping primarily institutional investors make bets across equities, fixed income, commodities and digital assets.
McMillan explained that the Phoenix, Arizona-based company currently offers risk-managed bitcoin and ether indexes and trusts. The interest in these offerings has evolved as the crypto market has matured. IDX is seeking to add more offerings for investors, such as a trust focused on decentralized finance, or DeFi, and a bitcoin futures mutual fund. Although ProShares began trading the first bitcoin futures ETF in the US this week, McMillan contended that the mutual fund structure may be better for a bitcoin futures-based strategy.
Keep reading to learn more about the firm and its strategies.
Strack: What are the goals of the IDX Risk-Managed Bitcoin Strategy? How does the firm achieve those goals?
McMillan: We’re really looking at all the data we can get our hands on. We run our own bitcoin node so that we can get data on wallet velocity, wallet size, wallet buying behaviors. We look at price data a lot. One of the appeals of blockchain in general is that it’s a very transparent data set.
We’re taking a different view as opposed to just strictly asset managers. We’re very quantitative, so we spend a lot of time in resources modeling the data, and then we’re also very active on the development side. So I think that is a differentiating factor for us as asset managers, that we’ve got a lot of perspectives into the space.
The models themselves are largely taking price as an input. It’s not just as simple as trend following. We’re looking at a lot of different ways of evaluating price movement and the path of price movement and volatility.
Pricing volume is very robust data and ultimately that’s where market participants make their bets, so we highly weigh that as an input. From there we’re evaluating not just the strength of the market as in this recent rally, but really also the weakness. Because we’re very risk-focused, for us the objective function is one more of controlling the downside as opposed to trying to maximize the upside.
That’s what allowed us to go completely flat back in April avoiding a 50% drawdown and then again back in September, avoiding a 20% drawdown — determining that the environment was starting to wane and shift from a favorable state to a less favorable one.
Strack: Who is interested in this offering?
McMillan: A lot of the early adopters of bitcoin were high-net-worth individuals or family offices, so they were much more comfortable taking a [venture capital] type of approach where 90% drawdowns are more typical.
When you’re starting to talk to fiduciaries — wealth managers and the like — that just makes the asset class untenable, so our approach is a much more holistic risk-centric approach as opposed to just kind of buying bitcoin or digital assets indiscriminately.
Everything we do is systematic, and our models are just constantly evaluating the favorability of bitcoin and tactically adjusting exposures so that our clients don’t have to worry about that or think about that.
Strack: How has the interest among investors evolved?
McMillan: Back to 2019 all the interest was early adopters. All the interest was RIAs that were already kind of bought into the bitcoin story. Most of them typically already owned bitcoin, and they just wanted to put some in their high-net-worth client accounts.
2020 was kind of a watershed year for institutional adoption of bitcoin, and March 2020 and the Covid crisis was really the catalyst there.
Last week I had a conversation with a Swiss CIO, and he said [he is] still skeptical as to the value prop around bitcoin and whether or not it’s really worth anything. He [said], “But I understand that I have to have a solution for this space because all my clients are asking about it, and they all want exposure. Long-only exposure doesn’t solve the problem for me, but this [strategy] does.”
So now we’re starting to see a level of adoption where even people who aren’t necessarily fully bought in or fully understand the value proposition of bitcoin or digital assets realize it’s something that can’t be ignored. It’s really been interesting to observe that evolution over the last 18 to 24 months.
Strack: What prompted you to file for a bitcoin futures mutual fund earlier this year? What other products is the firm looking to offer in the future?
McMillan: Based on SEC guidance back in May of this year as it related to ‘40 Act mutual funds, it made the most sense to make this as easily accessible to the broadest audience possible.
We firmly believe that offering a risk-managed approach that’s index-based in digital assets is really a great way for a lot of investors to gain exposure to this asset class in a prudent fashion, and the mutual fund using the futures achieves that.
We’d also like to file for a risk-based Ethereum futures mutual fund as soon as possible. That’s largely going to be a function of that market maturing a little bit in terms of liquidity, and then we have a risk-weighted DeFi trust coming to market. That won’t be a mutual fund; that’ll be a private placement trust.
Strack: Why is the firm looking to launch a bitcoin futures strategy as a mutual fund instead of an ETF?
McMillan: Mutual funds have two distinct advantages when it comes to managing liquidity versus ETFs. One is that mutual funds don’t have to provide intraday exposure like ETFs do, so it’s a little bit easier of an operational burden. We had a little bit of a concern about whether or not authorized participants would be able to efficiently be able to make markets … in the CME bitcoin futures.
Secondly and more importantly, mutual funds can cap assets, which we would fully intend to do. The CME bitcoin futures are liquid, but a lot of that liquidity are concentrated in the front-month contracts, it’s a market in which you have to roll contracts monthly as opposed to quarterly which is more standard across the commodities complex. What that means is the roll costs can be a little bit higher so we spent a lot of time modeling that.
It gives a little bit more flexibility as an asset manager to cap funds at a certain AUM … and really not be forced, like ETFs, to just kind of take capital on and then be indiscriminate buyers of bitcoin in every market cycle. That’s really something we wanted to avoid.
That’s something we have our eye on as bitcoin futures ETFs come to market. It’ll certainly have liquidity, but it’s also almost certainly going to add some distortion and potentially some non-trivial volatility to the market.
Strack: What are you most excited about in the crypto space going forward?
McMillan: DeFi is hugely democratizing. I tell people blockchain technology, in general, is transformative on a level like the internet was in the early ’90s. And that’s why I’m really excited about the DeFi trust.
We’re also seeing a lot of people — more on the institutional side — that may have been a little skeptical about bitcoin, but they’re jumping straight into Ethereum or DeFi. I think the fact that some of these DeFi protocols have real economics associated with them makes it a little bit easier of a thought exercise for investors to get comfortable with.
And when you look at what’s going on in the DeFi space, really in any open-source revolution … the innovation is like the big bang. It expands in all directions at once, and so the rate of innovation is just huge, and a lot of amazing things are happening out there. And that’s one of the reasons we’re very active in the development space. It helps us as investors to stay on top of the trends.
I’m old enough to remember people being skeptical about email being a fad. Ten years from now, or maybe five years from now, we’re all going to look back and just be laughing that anyone ever thought blockchain was a passing fad.
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