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Coinbase, A Bitcoin Startup, Goes Public. Is Crypto Really The 'Future Of Finance'?

Coinbase on Wednesday became the first major cryptocurrency company to be publicly traded on the Nasdaq.
Rafael Henrique
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Coinbase on Wednesday became the first major cryptocurrency company to be publicly traded on the Nasdaq.

Coinbase, a San Francisco startup that allows people to buy and sell digital currency, became the first major cryptocurrency company to go public when it made its stock market debut on Wednesday.

Trading began around $381 a share, pushing the company's valuation close to $100 billion. That's about what Facebook was worth when it had its initial public offering in 2012.

Coinbase's listing on the Nasdaq under the ticker symbol "COIN" was heralded by enthusiasts as a turning point for once-obscure digital currencies.

"Today was a landmark moment," said cryptocurrency investor Ian Lee. "Crypto is the future of finance."

Bradley Tusk, a political consultant and venture capitalist who financially backed Coinbase, said the company's public offering shows that more Wall Street banks and other traditional investors are warming up to the idea of cryptocurrency.

"People have had doubts about crypto for a long time. And I don't blame them," Tusk said. "But what it did become, whether it was intended or not, is an asset class — something that people looking for a really balanced portfolio want to be in."

But Tusk concedes that cryptocurrencies are notoriously volatile.

"Will cryptocurrency ever be used for everyday items? Not sure," Tusk said. "But another way to think about it is, are we going to hit a point where all payments are digital and we won't use cash or credit cards? Absolutely."

That point, however, may be far off.

Investment firm Wedbush Securities predicted on Wednesday that less than 5% of public companies will invest in cryptocurrency in the next 18 months, but that "could move markedly higher as more regulation and acceptance of this currency takes hold further down the road."

Coinbase's mission: Build the "the cryptoeconomy"

In 2012, former Airbnb software engineer Brian Armstrong became frustrated with the "high fees" and "opaque" nature of overseas digital transactions, so he and former Goldman Sachs trader Fred Ehrsam founded Coinbase, where people can easily buy and sell cryptocurrencies without having to go through a bank.

Like many startups in the crypto world, Coinbase has positioned itself as having the potential to disrupt the global financial system.

"Today, the way that we invest, spend, save, and generally manage our money remains cumbersome, inaccessible, expensive, and regionally isolated," Coinbase wrote in a filingwith the Securities and Exchange Commission. "We are building the cryptoeconomy — a more fair, accessible, efficient, and transparent financial system for the internet age."

At the time of the filing in December 2020, Coinbase told regulators that 7,000 retail and financial institutions and 43 million users were active on the platform.

Armstrong, 38, is now considered one of the richest individuals in the world, with his 21% stake in the company worth some $13 billion.

"There's a saying that the best way to predict the future is to create it. Hopefully we helped make the future happen a little sooner than it otherwise would have in the crypto space," Armstrong tweetedon Wednesday.

Researchers have long pointedto cryptocurrency's appeal to those engaged in fraud and other illicit activity like money-laundering, since the largely unregulated markets make it easy to conceal transitions. And lawmakers in Washington have been working to devise rules and regulations to bring government oversight to the industry.

But with laws slow to adapt, interest in crypto markets has been booming, especially in the pandemic.

At the end of 2020, for instance, a single Bitcoin cost around $28,000. The price has more than doubled since then. As of Wednesday, a Bitcoin costs about $62,000.

Other cryptocurrencies, like Ether, which is bought and sold on the Ethereum system, have also hit new record highs.

They've been helped by the hype around non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, the digital collectibles that are fetching eye-popping sums for what is essentially a string of computer code that confirms that a buyer has a unique version of something that exists solely on the Internet.

To venture capitalist Tusk, a broader theme emerges from the froth around crypto-related spending during the pandemic.

"People have less trust in government and the media and Wall Street than they ever have before," Tusk said, adding that many are now instead placing trust in the decentralized system that supports cryptocurrency.

But, he said, there's a less high-minded component of this moment bringing a crypto craze: "Everyone was at home and bored and playing around with their computers, which didn't hurt."

Whether that buzz will persist as the world opens up and people are less glued to their devices is the subject of debate.

Tusk said he invested in Coinbase because it makes money on both sides of crypto transactions, yet he himself does not feel comfortable buying cryptocurrency.

"I don't have a great read on whether Bitcoin is going to go up or down," he said. "So I don't trade in the currency at all."

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Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.