A startup called Anchorage announced on Wednesday that it has become the first cryptocurrency company to receive a federal charter from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Wonky and technical as it sounds, the news is a significant milestone for the burgeoning crypto industry, since it provides a legal green light for big banks and other traditional financial companies to use Anchorage as a means to offer Bitcoin and other digital currencies to their customers.
Founded in 2017 by two veterans of financial giant Square, Anchorage began as a custody company that offered institutions a novel way to access and store cryptocurrency. While custody is still the company’s bread and butter, Anchorage now offers other services including trading, lending, and tools to help customers navigate the emerging world of “decentralized finance.”
In an interview with Fortune, CEO Nathan McCauley predicted that the new charter will lead hundreds of banks to turn to Anchorage as a partner and provide new fuel to the recent cryptocurrency boom. “It will let all sorts of people come to the table who until now have been hesitant to come in. It marks a big shift in the availability of crypto assets,” said McCauley, adding that he expects more big corporations to follow the example of Square and Microstrategy by adding crypto to their treasuries.
While several crypto companies, including Anchorage and the exchange Kraken, have already received state banking charters, the legal effect of those charters is ambiguous. Conversely, the federal charter makes clear that big banks can use Anchorage to hold the crypto assets of their clients. The specific charter issued to Anchorage is a trust charter, which does not entitle the company to claim the backing of the FDIC, as traditional savings and checking accounts do. But McCauley says this is not a concern for institutional clients, adding that Anchorage has a comprehensive policy with insurance giant Aon to serve as a backstop in the event of loss.
A new frontier for the crypto industry
The decision by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which oversees the federal banking system, to issue Anchorage a charter follows a series of recent crypto-friendly decisions by the agency’s head, Brian Brooks. Those decisions by Brooks, a former top lawyer at crypto giant Coinbase, include permitting banks to use stablecoins—synthetic currency pegged to fiat money—and to rely on blockchain networks to settle transactions. According to McCauley, these regulatory developments are helping to initiate a major update to the country’s financial plumbing. He says this could entail Visa, one of Anchorage’s largest investors, and other big payment providers incorporating crypto-native “rails”—the industry term for the networks over which financial information travels—in the near future.
Anchorage is not currently profitable. McCauley says its revenue last year was in the tens of millions and that it has a “very healthy” balance sheet. The 70-employee company still makes the bulk of its money from charging a commission on the crypto assets it stores, but its lending and trading operation now makes up around 25% of its revenue. In the future, McCauley expects Anchorage to bring in more money from what are now exotic services like “staking” and “governance.” These terms describe features of newer cryptocurrency projects like Tezos and Dfinity, which allow their digital tokens to serve as voting tools by which their owners can determine how the projects operate. Those features are also an important feature of the emerging world of decentralized finance (DeFi), including projects like Uniswap, which are largely governed by automated computer programs.
If cryptocurrency continues to gain traction in the world of mainstream finance, services like Anchorage and rival Coinbase Custody could benefit enormously as banks turn to them to provide white label software to serve their own clients. In theory, this could involve the likes of Bank of America one day offering not just Bitcoin but a galaxy of other crypto assets and services to customers. There is no guarantee all of this will come to pass, however. While the crypto market has been red-hot in the past six months, with the price of Bitcoin eclipsing $40,000, it is still prone to violent crashes like one that happened the weekend of Jan. 9–10. It’s also possible that the incoming Biden administration may replace Brooks at the OCC with a less crypto-friendly leader, while other financial agencies—notably the SEC—remain deeply skeptical of the crypto industry.
McCauley, though, professes not to worry about regulatory headwinds. He notes that Brooks’ directives from the OCC, which is also considering federal charters for two other crypto companies, are not new rules but rather interpretations of existing ones—meaning they are less likely to be rolled back. Meanwhile, Anchorage, which has raised $57 million from Visa and others, says it has been receiving numerous inquiries from other potential investors and that it expects to raise more money in the near future.