When it comes to the crypto-wealthy, wealth managers may be out of luck

Connie Loizos
It's half-serious joke among people who bet early on cryptocurrencies and have watched their values soar.

It's a half-serious joke among people who bet early on cryptocurrencies and have watched their values soar. At some point, it's time to buy a Lamborghini, as did Peter Saddington, an Atlanta-based coder and self-described serial entrepreneur who says he cashed out 45 bitcoins last fall to purchase a $200,000 Lamborghini with race exhaust features.

Saddington tells CNBC that he paid less than $115 for the bitcoins in 2011 and that he's been buying bitcoin every Friday for the last five years, suggesting he has more bitcoins in his possession.

In the world of cryptomillionaires, that's diversification, and it should be worrying for wealth managers beginning to eye those whose high net worth has risen along with the price of bitcoin. Though financial advisors have converted plenty of wealthy tech founders and employees into loyal clients over the years, the largely young and male participants in the cryptocurrency gold rush seem decidedly uninterested in traditional banking and traditional money management. They're preferring to pour their new digital riches in more cryptocurrencies and blockchain ideas -- as well as the occasional impulse purchase.

"Liquidity still remains a question in many people's minds," says Ben Jorgensen, the chief operating officer of Constellation, a San Francisco-based outfit that describes itself as a blockchain microservice operating system. But "reinvesting into blockchain and leveraging social and technical knowledge of companies is the most popular [approach to] wealth management," he says.

It's not so unlike successful startup founders going on to invest in their friends' startups, Jorgensen suggests. "Individuals are forming strong syndicates that share deal flow much like the venture world," he offers. "Nearly the whole community is reinvesting in the industry as it's still in its early stages, and there are brilliant companies and projects coming out the gate."

To non-believers, it all seems like an insane gamble. In 2017, bitcoin went from $830 to $19,300, then dropped below $6,000 this week before zooming past $8,000 again yesterday.

The broader market for cryptocurrencies is even more stomach churning. Some who are bullish on the growing number of cryptocurrencies in existence believe they could collectively pass the trillion-dollar mark this year in terms of value. Meanwhile, the head of investment research at Goldman Sachs reportedly issued a note this week comparing the current market to the "internet bubble of the late 1990s" and suggesting that most cryptocurrencies will likely "trade to zero."

All the ups and downs can impact less certain cryptocurrency holders, some of whom have begun cashing out their stakes.

Lorraine Fox, a principal with the San Francisco-based wealth management firm Aspiriant, says the firm is starting to hear from a small but growing number of people wanting to lock in their cryptocurrency gains. Notably, however, these aren't new customers in most cases. Instead, says Fox, they're clients with diversified portfolios, who "recognize the speculative and unregulated nature of [cryptocurrencies]" and "who've taken money off the table and want to figure out what to do with it."

For those who want to sell, she adds, "It almost creates more of a sense of urgency to figure out what to do once they've liquidated it, the money is being made so fast."

Not that everyone is ready to unload their holdings, Fox notes. "I do talk with people who think bitcoin will be valued at $100,000 and they're hanging on for the ride. I tell them, 'Go knock yourself out.' "

In fact, Stephen Goldbart, a Bay Area psychologist who counsels the newly affluent and coined the phrase "sudden wealth syndrome," doubts that cryptomillionaires -- the ones truly steeped in the industry -- will ever show up in droves to the offices of wealth managers.

In some ways, it's the continuation of years-long trend of younger founders and employees opting to manage their own finances through robo-advisory firms like Betterment and Wealthfront.

But Goldbart, who has been seeing patients since well before the internet bubble of the late '90s, says today's boom also has a "very different quality to it that has to do with who are the core investors in cryptocurrencies and what they are about."

He calls it a "counter-culture movement" with staying power.

"Unlike past generations of people looking to make the next great widget, [these entrepreneurs are] trying to shift the way that we think about money and the way that it's managed. It's almost like a religious cult, if not quite that extreme."

While he believes today's cryptocurrency disciples will eventually experience the same kind of impact as anyone else who becomes suddenly wealthy -- "they are human beings," he says -- he also sees a broader "movement against financial services as we know them.

"These aren't the same people who just want to make the next great widget," says Goldbart. "They have a mission. And those who've succeeded are gathering to support others, which is giving them power as a group, and a power base from which they can impact policy."

Put another way, says Goldbart, the likeliest scenario with crypto-wealthy isn't that they'll come around to traditional banks and bankers, but rather, that everyone else will start to recognize there is a revolution afoot -- regardless of where crypto assets are trading today. "The goal beside from making money is to change the culture of finance. They may well make banking obsolete as know it."

In the meantime, traditional money managers might continue focusing their attention elsewhere. Even an unlucky Welshman who works in IT and accidentally threw away a hard drive containing his 4,500 bitcoin recently told Newsweek that if he ever recovered it, he'd use the proceeds to fund cryptocurrency startups, buy some property, and, yes, acquire a Lamborghini.

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