What are Bitcoin ETFs, and why do they matter?

With the introduction of Bitcoin Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs), Bitcoin is finally arriving on Wall Street. With BlackRock, the largest investment firm in the world, filing for a Bitcoin ETF and many other large firms following suit, the question is: what exactly is an ETF, and why are Bitcoin ETFs causing such a stir?

In this blog post, we look at the basics of ETFs, focusing on Bitcoin ETFs. We look at what makes Bitcoin ETFs special, how they differ from real Bitcoin, and what impact they can have on the price of Bitcoin.

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An ETF (Exchange-Traded Fund) is an investment fund that tracks the price of an underlying asset or a group of underlying assets. ETFs are traded on the stock exchange, similar to individual shares. The advantage of ETFs is that they offer an easy way to invest in a specific asset class or sector. And often at a lower cost than buying the assets directly.

ETFs are a relatively new financial product since the early 1990s. The first successful ETF in the United States was the Standard & Poor’s Depositary Receipts (SPDR), launched in January 1993. This ETF, commonly known by its ticker symbol “SPY”, was designed to track the S&P 500 stock index. This allows investors to invest in the entire index of the 500 largest listed companies in the USA via a single financial product.

Since then, ETFs have become popular due to their low cost, tax efficiency, and ease of trading. This has spawned numerous other ETFs that track various asset classes and indices. ETFs have evolved considerably since their introduction and have become a popular investment instrument for private and institutional investors, especially in recent years.


Different types of ETFs (Exchange-Traded Funds) are geared toward different asset classes, strategies, and markets. Equity ETFs, for example, track equity indices or specific equity segments, such as sectors, countries, or regions. Bond ETFs invest in bonds and attempt to replicate the performance of bond indices. Commodity ETFs provide access to commodity markets, from precious metals such as gold and silver to agricultural commodities and energy. Sector ETFs focus on specific industries such as technology or healthcare. Regional ETFs invest in stocks or bonds from specific geographic regions or countries. Factor ETFs use quantitative factors such as dividend yield or volatility to select stocks. There are also thematic ETFs focusing on trends such as renewable energies or artificial intelligence. 

A basic distinction can also be made between spot and futures ETFs:

Spot ETF (Physical ETF):

A spot ETF invests in physical assets that are traded on the current market, and its value depends directly on the performance of these assets. Spot ETFs are often used for long-term investments.

Futures ETF (index or futures-based ETFs):

A futures ETF uses derivatives such as futures contracts to track the performance of an index or asset class. Its value depends on the performance of these futures contracts and may differ from the actual assets. Futures ETFs are often used for short-term trading purposes.


A Bitcoin ETF works on the same principles as a traditional ETF but focuses on Bitcoin, the first and most popular cryptocurrency. A Bitcoin ETF aims to track the market price of Bitcoin and offers investors a way to participate in the Bitcoin market without having to buy, hold, or manage the actual asset directly. This is particularly interesting for investors interested in the potential gains from Bitcoin’s price movements but do not want to or cannot deal with the technical aspects of proper storage.

In the case of the Bitcoin ETF applied for by BlackRock, it is a spot ETF. This means that BlackRock buys and holds real bitcoins for clients who invest in the Bitcoin ETF. The value of the ETF shares traded on the exchange then reflects the current market value of those bitcoins. When investors buy a share in a Bitcoin ETF, they acquire a share in the collective pool of Bitcoins held by the ETF.

For more traditional or large institutional investors, a Bitcoin ETF is an important step towards integration into traditional investment portfolios. It provides a familiar investment vehicle to access a new asset class. It avoids the difficulties and risks associated with setting up a wallet, buying Bitcoin on an exchange, and storing it securely. This added security and regulatory compliance layer could attract investors who have previously hesitated to invest in Bitcoin.


While a bitcoin ETF reflects the price of bitcoin, it’s important to note that investors in a bitcoin ETF do not own real bitcoins. Instead, they hold a security that tracks the market price of Bitcoin. This distinction is important for several reasons, particularly concerning ownership rights and the philosophy behind Bitcoin.

Bitcoin ETFs are attractive to institutional investors for the following reasons:

  • Regulatory oversight: Bitcoin ETFs will be traded on regulated exchanges and thus subject to financial regulators, providing oversight and security that meets institutional investment standards.
  • Reduced custody risks: Investing in Bitcoin ETFs eliminates the need to store and manage bitcoins securely, reducing the risks associated with cryptocurrency custody.
  • Operational and trading efficiency: ETFs provide a familiar, efficient, and liquid investment vehicle that allows institutional investors to incorporate Bitcoin into their portfolios without the complexity of direct cryptocurrency transactions.

However, owning real BTC (Bitcoin) has distinct advantages for retail investors:

  • Full ownership and control: direct ownership of Bitcoin allows complete control. Investors can manage, transfer, or use their bitcoins without relying on a third party such as a bank or financial services provider, providing greater autonomy and privacy.
  • Potential for higher returns: Owning Bitcoin directly allows investors to benefit fully from price appreciation. Unlike ETFs, which come with fees that can somewhat diminish returns, owning real BTC means that potential gains are not reduced by management or operational costs.
  • Consistency with Bitcoin principles: Investing in real Bitcoins aligns with the basic principles of Satoshi Nakamoto’s idea – decentralization and disintermediation. It supports the ethos of a financial system free from traditional banks and government control, a key appeal of Satoshi Nakamoto’s invention for many investors.


When discussing Bitcoin ETFs, addressing the potential downsides and risks is important.

One main risk is the potential centralization of the Bitcoin holdings that can be compared. In addition, the involvement of large financial institutions in the Bitcoin market via ETFs could affect the supply and demand dynamics of Bitcoin. As investors in Bitcoin ETFs do not own the actual Bitcoin but a share in a fund that tracks the price, the direct link between supply and demand could be obscured. This could result in price movements in Bitcoin ETFs not accurately reflecting actual market sentiment or the underlying asset’s value.

Another aspect is the potential impact on the Bitcoin network and technological development. Institutional exposure to Bitcoin, especially through ETFs, could influence network upgrades and change decisions. There is a risk that institutional investors’ priorities may not align with those of the broader Bitcoin community, particularly in terms of improving the privacy and scalability of the network.

While Bitcoin ETFs offer investors a convenient and familiar way to invest in Bitcoin, they also carry risks related to centralization, market dynamics, and the future development of Bitcoin technology. These factors need to be carefully considered by investors and enthusiasts as Bitcoin continues to intersect with traditional financial structures.


The introduction of a Bitcoin ETF is expected to impact the price of Bitcoin significantly. Firstly, it opens the doors to a wider range of investors, especially those familiar with traditional investment vehicles. This may lead to increased demand and drive up the price. However, looking at this with a balanced perspective and considering volatility and the complex interplay of various economic factors is important.

It is important to note that it is impossible to predict the exact impact on the Bitcoin price. The Bitcoin market is known for its high volatility and is influenced by many factors beyond supply and demand. These include the global economic situation, regulatory changes, technological advances, and investor sentiment swings. A Bitcoin ETF is another variable in this complex mix.


Bitcoin ETFs represent a significant development for institutional investors, as they offer a more accessible and regulated way to invest in Bitcoin. For those who are not familiar with the complexities of cryptocurrency exchanges and the security of wallets, or feel uncomfortable with them, Bitcoin ETFs provide a familiar, traditional investment channel through brokers and stock markets. However, this convenience comes at a cost: investors do not actually own or control the underlying Bitcoin, they have to deal with management fees, and are subject to standard stock exchange trading hours. While they allow participation in the potential market growth of Bitcoin, they lack the direct benefits of owning Bitcoin, such as autonomy, 24/7 trading, and specific tax advantages. Therefore, Bitcoin ETFs are a bridging tool for traditional investors to approach the value of Bitcoin while operating in a familiar investment framework.

For retail investors, Bitcoin ETFs are less relevant as an investment product, since they typically involve management fees, which are not incurred with a self-managed wallet, like the one offered by Relai. Nevertheless, all Bitcoin holders probably benefit from the increased acceptance of Bitcoin. Whether this is reflected in the Bitcoin price in the short term is debatable. In the long term, however, as with the Gold ETF, it is assumed that this additional investment channel will continuously attract larger amounts of capital.

What is the difference between Bitcoin ETFs in the USA and Bitcoin ETPs/ETCs in the European Union?

There are clear differences between Bitcoin ETFs in the United States and Bitcoin ETPs (Exchange Traded Products) / ETCs (Exchange Traded Commodities) that can be traded in the European Union. In the EU, UCITS (Undertakings for Collective Investment in Transferable Securities) ETFs cannot be used for single assets like Bitcoin or gold, in contrast to the USA where Bitcoin ETFs are possible. As a result, Bitcoin ETPs, particularly ETCs and Exchange Traded Notes (ETNs), have already existed in Europe for years. However, these are relatively small compared to US ETFs, with the fund size of the largest Bitcoin ETC in Europe being about 1 billion EUR.

Another significant difference lies in the cost structures. The average total expense ratio (TER) for the 10 largest ETPs/ETNs in the EU is 1.047%, while the average fee for the 10 Bitcoin ETFs in the USA is only 0.451%, significantly lower. These cost differences are significant for investors who value efficiency and economy.

Moreover, there are structural and risk-related differences. ETPs and ETNs in the EU are structured as debt securities, meaning that the invested capital is not separately protected in the event of the issuer’s insolvency. This poses a higher risk for investors, as they may lose their investment if the issuer becomes insolvent. In contrast, the structure of US ETFs offers protection for the invested capital, making them a safer investment option.

In conclusion, once approved, US Bitcoin ETFs are likely to offer much cheaper and safer options for Bitcoin-based security products than their European counterparts. This is expected to result in US Bitcoin ETFs significantly surpassing the EU ETP/ETN market in terms of size, especially due to the larger scale of US capital markets.


As we are on the verge of seeing Bitcoin ETFs on the major exchanges, this is an exciting time for both the cryptocurrency and traditional financial worlds. The intersection of these two areas through Bitcoin ETFs is a significant step toward the mainstream adoption of digital currencies.

Whether you’re a seasoned crypto enthusiast, a traditional investor, or simply curious about the future of finance, the emergence of Bitcoin ETFs is a development to watch. It underscores the changing nature of investing in the 21st century and highlights the growing importance of cryptocurrencies in the broader economic landscape.


Is owning a Bitcoin ETF the same as owning Bitcoin itself?

No, owning a Bitcoin ETF is fundamentally different from owning real Bitcoin. When you own a Bitcoin ETF, you invest in a financial product that tracks the price of Bitcoin, not the cryptocurrency itself. This means that you don’t have the same control over Bitcoin as you would if you owned it directly, such as the ability to use or transfer it directly.

Can a Bitcoin ETF influence general market sentiment towards Bitcoin?

Yes, the introduction of a Bitcoin ETF can have a significant impact on market sentiment. It represents a form of validation and mainstream acceptance of Bitcoin and could attract more investors into the cryptocurrency space. This could lead to increased demand and potentially influence the price of Bitcoin.

What should investors consider before investing in a Bitcoin ETF?

Before investing in a Bitcoin ETF, you should consider factors such as Bitcoin’s inherent price volatility, how it aligns with your investment goals, and the differences between owning a Bitcoin ETF and real Bitcoin. Understanding the ETF’s fee structure and how it can affect your returns is important.

How can a Bitcoin ETF differ from other traditional ETFs?

While a Bitcoin ETF is similar in structure to traditional ETFs, it tracks the performance of a highly volatile and relatively new asset class – Bitcoin. This means it may have higher volatility and different risk/return characteristics than ETFs that track stocks, bonds, or commodities.

Could a Bitcoin ETF lead to greater scrutiny of Bitcoin by regulators?

Introducing a Bitcoin ETF could draw the attention of regulators to Bitcoin and the wider cryptocurrency market. As Bitcoin ETFs would be regulated financial products, they could prompt regulators to establish clearer guidelines or rules for the cryptocurrency market, which could have far-reaching consequences for Bitcoin investors and users.

Information about the author

Raphael Schoen

Raphael Schoen

Raphael is a former journalist, content strategist, and author. He wrote a book about Bitcoin and regularly shares his thoughts on X. Follow Raphael on X


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