Investing

The Bitcoin IRA


The Bitcoin IRA

Photograph by Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

(Updates second paragraph to reflect Fidelity’s decision to end its participation with SecondMarket.)

If you want to bet long on Bitcoin, what better way than to put some in your retirement account?

SecondMarket, a finance startup that has helped people invest in private technology companies, has been gathering the virtual currency into the Bitcoin Investment Trust. It has been buying Bitcoin for several months and currently holds about $70 million worth. About 90 people have invested in the trust. While SecondMarket makes direct investment available only for accredited investors or financial institutions, it also has worked out arrangements with several self-directed IRA platforms, including Pensco and Entrust, so that people can use their retirement accounts to invest in Bitcoin in increments as low as $25,000. Fidelity had also been involved but  says it has decided to end its participation with the SecondMarket program.

The trust, started in September, is just another example of the money flowing into the Bitcoin world. On Thursday, Coinbase, a Bitcoin wallet with 600,000 users, announced it had raised $25 million from venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, the biggest investment in a Bitcoin startup to date. Regulators in the U.S. have been making increasingly friendly noises about the cybercurrency, and financial types are circling. “2014 will be the year of Wall Street and Bitcoin,” says Barry Silbert, the founder and chief executive of SecondMarket. As that happens, there will be increasing options for people to tie their own financial fortunes to Bitcoin’s value.

The Bitcoin Investment Trust isn’t the only way to bet your retirement on the value of Bitcoin. People have already found other ways to do it. Tym Blanchard, who works at a chemical company in Charlottesville, Va., says he set up a Roth IRA to invest in Bitcoin directly, purchasing the currency through Coinbase. While he expressed some wariness that traditional investments tend to move in line with one another, he was also looking for tax benefits. “If the currency is still thriving by the the time I’m allowed to make distributions, the tax savings will be enormous,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I enjoy taking risks.”

What SecondMarket offers is a far easier way to do this. Buying Bitcoin is complicated and storing it is fraught with danger from hackers. Basically, this offers investors who want to ride the wave but don’t really understand the nuts and bolts of the currency a way to do so.

Of course, people can do all kinds of silly things with money they might actually need later in life. The Securities and Exchange Commission has already expressed a general concern about the fact that approximately 2 percent of IRAs are held in self-directed accounts, totaling $94 billion. ”The large amount of money held in self-directed IRAs makes them attractive targets for fraud promoters,” the agency wrote in an alert to investors in 2011. This August, the SEC brought charges against a man who persuaded people to invest their IRAs in his Ponzi scheme, then used the money to invest in a reality show about bounty hunters.

Bitcoin doesn’t have to be a fraud for people to lose their shirts. It would have the same effect if it was just a farce, as some people think it is. The only sure way that Bitcoin will stabilize is if becomes a widely adopted global currency. That day, if it ever comes, is a while off.

Even Silbert says that people shouldn’t be investing money in Bitcoin that they can’t afford to lose. While he’s bullish on its long-term future, he expects volatility to increase over the next year and acknowledges that the value could well hit zero eventually. “I think Bitcoin is an incredibly risky investment,” he says. “You’re either going to lose all your money or you’re going to see meaningful, meaningful returns. There’s no in-between.”

Brustein is a writer for Businessweek.com in New York.

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