Savings app unicorn Acorns is adding Bitcoin exposure to portfolios. Here’s the catch

March 22, 2022, 4:15 PM UTC

They say a little crypto can spice up a portfolio.

And by “they” I mean all the brokerages that have been lining up to offer it to customers. Nearly every app that caters to young investors offers Bitcoin now, and sometimes Ether and other cryptocurrencies, too: Robinhood, Public, SoFi, WeBull—you name it.

But today, long-term savings and investing unicorn Acorns is joining the fray, and it feels a bit different this time around.

Acorns, the Irvine, Calif.-based fintech that allows people to invest their spare change, said this morning that it would add optional Bitcoin exposure to its portfolios—permitting its more than 4.6 million users to invest up to 5% of their portfolios in the ProShares Bitcoin Strategy ETF, also known as BITO. (An ETF that invests directly in Bitcoin hasn’t been approved yet by the Securities and Exchange Commission, so BITO invests in Bitcoin futures and some other holdings like money market instruments).

The benefits were clear to Acorns’ investment team, Chief Investment Officer Seth Wunder tells me. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies behave differently than the traditional stock and bond markets, so it can act as a diversifier to an overall portfolio. 

“You can construct portfolios that will have lower, more diversified risk over the long-term, even by adding a singular asset that might itself be risky,” Wunder tells me. “And that was the analysis that we went through, and also why we think it’s the right way to invest in Bitcoin—to make sure that you’re adding bits of Bitcoin over time.”

Bitcoin has been around for 13 years, and its market cap has hit $1 trillion (though it’s currently just over $800 billion). The BITO ETF is an investment that trades on an exchange, so it is highly liquid and is a regulated investment product. Besides, 40% of Acorns customers said they were interested in investing in crypto.

But here’s the thing: While it’s initially only available to Acorns brokerage accounts, the company says it will eventually roll this out to retirement accounts as well, although it won’t specify a timeline. Read: Acorns customers will get to start putting their retirement savings into crypto.

Everyone acknowledges that cryptocurrencies are inherently risky. I mean—all investing coincides with some degree of risk. But crypto is different. Cryptocurrencies are still only about 13 years old, compared to the U.S. stock market that offers more than 200 years-worth of data to track, analyze, and predict. 

Crypto is the most volatile asset class on the market, and it’s largely unregulated—even if President Joe Biden recently signed an executive order to get the ball rolling. But don’t take my word for it: New disclosures on Acorns’ website describe BITO as a “high-risk investment” and Bitcoin and Bitcoin futures as “relatively new.”

If you read down a bit further, here’s another line: “An investor should be prepared to lose the full principal value of their investment suddenly and without warning.” 

But if we’re talking about retirement savings, I find that line a little jarring. The Labor Department seems to as well. Just recently, the DoL put out a notice that comes close to an outright ban for employers putting crypto in defined contribution plans. To be sure, this was regarding employee-sponsored plans (think 401(k)s)—not IRAs. But the message still rang clear: the DoL has “serious concerns” about the risks when it comes to retirement money.

Acorns says that its new Bitcoin exposure offering is a good move for investors who want to learn about Bitcoin and plans to add Bitcoin-related educational articles and content to its website, social media channels, and seminars. BITO doesn’t directly hold crypto—meaning that investors don’t have to worry about things like losing their wallet or theft, and it’s an ETF, so it’s a registered and regulated investment vehicle. Bitcoin exposure at Acorns is also capped at 5% (and may be as small as 1% depending on things like age, income, and money goals). That makes this allocation just about as risky for a portfolio as some stocks in the S&P 500, Wunder argues.

Tesla has similar volatility characteristics in terms of total annual volatility as does Bitcoin itself,” Wunder says. “And so if you’re in a purely S&P 500 fund, you will actually have an asset already in your portfolio of similar size to how Bitcoin acts itself.”

And risk can actually make the most sense in a retirement account, Wunder says. “You can’t touch it for 20 years or 30 years, and so realistically, you’re the best long-term investor there is. In that long-term framework, with time on your side, you should actually have the most amount of risk.”

Acorns, which recently raised $300 million in new funding from TPG, BlackRock, and others, is not the only brokerage to add Bitcoin into the retirement account mix. iTrust Capital, BlockMint, and Bitcoin IRA do the same.

At the end of the day, it’s investors who decide where they will park their retirement cash. But I think it’s worth pointing out that not everyone is going to read the fine print, and not all risk is created equal.

See you tomorrow,

Jessica Mathews
Twitter: @jessicakmathews
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Clarification: After the article was published, it was then specified by Acorns that the initial rollout of Bitcoin exposure would not include retirement accounts.

Jackson Fordyce curated the deals section of today’s newsletter.


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