15 min read
Analysts typically look to public exchanges to evaluate the market dynamics of crypto assets. These exchanges generally provide clear data on trading volumes, liquidity, volatility and geographic differences in buy/sell pressure. However, much of crypto asset trading occurs via other avenues. Among these are dark pools, P2P marketplaces, and OTC services, the subject of this report.
What is OTC Trading?
Little is known about the OTC industry and companies are notoriously reluctant to share their data and practices. It appears however that these venues account for a significant proportion of total volumes. In light of this, it is important to have an informed understanding of the sector.
Over-the-counter or OTC trading simply refers to trades not conducted directly through lit pools. A lit pool is any marketplace where the order book and available liquidity is publicly visible and includes all public exchanges. Agencies can either directly match buyers and sellers or OTC desks who operate as dealerships can extend their liquidity to an interested party.
Different OTC Models
The majority of major OTC services operate a dealership model, typically referred to as an OTC desk. In this case, the dealer has its own inventory of fiat currency and crypto assets. Their offering includes the extension of this liquidity thereby acting as a market maker. Ideally, the desk would have a counter-party to every desired trade, however, this is not always possible. As such through their inventory management and by accessing dark pools, most of the major desks should be able to facilitate any trade within reason.
Some other OTC services operate more like an agency. In this setup, the representative is directly matching buyers and sellers and does not offer any liquidity themselves. This is a less comprehensive service with several notable drawbacks. While one may save on fees, it generally takes longer to find and execute trades. Such companies are usually significantly smaller, with fewer other financial services while OTC desks often have multiple other offerings attached such as public exchanges or even hedge funds.
The Agency Service
When using an agency, the company attempts to match an individual’s requirements with a counter-party through their network of clients. The staff will facilitate a dialogue between them over a secure communications channel such as Signal, Telegram or via a live phone call. Upon agreeing on a price, the two parties will enter into a trade agreement and exchange the crypto asset and fiat currency, either directly or through an escrow service which may be offered by the agency. Alternatively, parties may take advantage of the growing number of custodial solutions now available who can offer more secure cold storage and multisignature options.
To participate in an OTC trade with a dealer, the party would first contact the desk, detailing their requirements. After passing the KYC and AML tests that the desk has in place, the trading team will establish a secure communications line. At this point, the party would inform the team of the asset type and size required and ask for a quote. It is possible with most services to ask for a two-way quote. A two-way quote allows you to know the bid and ask price, with the resulting spread. Quotes include all fees and commissions and are typically valid for less than a minute and sometimes for as little as 5-10 seconds. In the vast majority of cases, any quote will be a fill-or-kill whereby the trade is executed in full and immediately or is canceled. All desks operate slightly different models, however, they will typically provide different prices according to the size of the trade
Once the party agrees upon a quote, the deal is final. The dealer may already have matching offers available on the other side of the trade or may need to reach out to procure other interested parties. Unlike with an exchange, the trade is not settled until after the execution.
For trades by parties within the same country as the desk, settlement of fiat currency almost always happens within 24 hours while the settlement of crypto assets is much quicker, and is primarily determined by the speed of the asset’s blockchain.There are several benefits to using the dealership model.
Most notably, once you have agreed on a quote, your job as the client is done. There is no need to concern oneself with dealing with counter-parties or bearing the settlement risk yourself.
There are countless anecdotal reports of illegitimate OTC brokers, either engaging in outright illegality or not having the infrastructure or expertise to provide such services. Just as one would assess the reputation of a wallet provider or public exchange, it is equally imperative to evaluate the practices and conduct of any OTC service, whether it be a full dealership or agency. Prospective clients should look to the provider’s track record and regulatory status before moving ahead.
The regulatory position of any OTC service is an important factor to discriminate on. While the climate and requirements vary from country to country, certain prerequisites should be satisfied.
Within US markets, at an absolute minimum, a service should abide by FINCEN’s KYC and AML rules. Likewise in Canada, all providers should follow the guidance provided by FINTRAC at a minimum. Standards within Canada have been under consideration since the fallout from QuadrigaCX’s collapse. Just this week the government updated the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act to enforce the registering of all Canadian exchanges, OTC services included, with FINTRAC. As of now, the government classifies all such companies as money servicing businesses.
Some providers in the US such as Genesis Trading have sought broker-dealer licenses from the SEC, although due to the continuing regulatory unclarity around most crypto assets, it is unclear that such permissions are necessary.
Outside of North America, clients should ensure that any service at least follows the AML requirements within the jurisdiction of the provider before proceeding. Crypto assets regulations in China, for instance, are murky at best. According to news reports, crypto asset trading is officially illegal on the mainland. Officials then added OTC trading to this ban in August 2018. Consequentially, most exchanges and OTC desks have relocated to either Hong Kong or other friendlier jurisdictions. Due to the regulatory climate within China, it may be wiser to avoid services operating within China at this stage.
It is our view that it is worth using services with the highest degrees of regulatory compliance. By doing so, one minimizes the risk of law enforcement freezing funds or causing unnecessary stress.
Advantages of the OTC Markets
There are multiple reasons to use an OTC service over a public exchange. Contrary to common belief, these services are not purely for participants with extremely large positions. Indeed, many medium and larger-sized retail investors and traders can benefit. At Bitbuy, we can work with positions anywhere from $25,000 CAD and upwards.
The Requirements of Large Positions
The primary motivation for accessing the OTC markets is due to a large position size or one that you feel uncomfortable settling on a public exchange. Many exchanges lack the liquidity and order book depth possible to execute a trade at market price. To achieve this price, the trader may have to split their position over multiple exchanges. This approach, however, induces more counter-party risk.
Furthermore, the trader may have to wait for the market to absorb the order, which runs the risk of the market moving away and wastes valuable time. For most parties in this situation, time is critical. Participants cannot wait hours or even days to execute orders, nor can mining pools who are often operating on extremely tight margins already.
If the trader were to try and execute the position on just one exchange immediately, they would experience a large degree of slippage. The order would be filled at a variety of prices, leading to an average significantly below market price.
Issues regarding insufficient liquidity are generally worse with assets that have smaller market capitalizations, volumes, and more shallow order book depth. In such cases, if your position is one of even medium-size, it may be impossible to fill via the public markets at all.
In bypassing the public exchanges, a party can maintain a much greater degree of privacy and anonymity. By submitting a limit order on an exchange, one is declaring the position size and intention before executing the trade. This issue is compounded if the assets are not yet on the exchange. When selling an asset, one’s blockchain transaction is broadcast and publicly visible before it even reaches the exchange. This can make one subject to intense scrutiny. In the case of extremely large sums, just the movement across the blockchain can lead to front-running. Front-running occurs when other traders have early knowledge of your trading intention, allowing them to enter a trade, profiting and distorting the organic market price. As such you are unable to execute the trade at your desired price.
Conversely, by using an OTC desk, the trade is finalized before funds are settled. This design allows the client to protect themselves from this kind of front-running and heightened scrutiny.
The design of the OTC desk in our opinion allows for a much higher level of customer service than one would otherwise find at an exchange. At almost all points, the client deals with a member of the desk’s team, either a trader or sales representative. This direct human contact means that all questions can be answered swiftly and with a personalized touch.
For clients inexperienced with crypto assets and the public exchanges, an OTC service can be ideal in allaying fears and shouldering as much of the burden as possible. By choosing a reputable and long-standing desk, there is no need to navigate exchange wallets or order books. After passing KYC and AML requirements, it can be as simple as agreeing to a quote and awaiting execution.
Unlike the majority of exchanges, all OTC desks support fiat currencies. For investors wary of stablecoins, especially ones subject to scrutiny such as Tether, using an OTC service offers an attractive solution to move in and out of positions. Although stablecoins are an interesting and helpful choice for many, for those without the expertise or confidence to safely secure these assets, they introduce an unnecessary dimension of stress and risk. What is more, of the few fully-regulated stablecoins available such as PAX, there is often insufficient liquidity to satisfy the other side of one’s trade.
Burdensome Withdrawal Limits
Conventional exchanges usually have prohibitive withdrawal limits. Such limits effectively exclude anyone with large positions. Although many exchanges have increased the limits for crypto assets, the majority still impose exceptionally tight fiat withdrawal limits.
Conversely, an OTC brokerage can work with clients of any size, removing all limitations on the flow of funds, whether they be crypto or fiat.
OTC services also present the optimal route for disposing of premium crypto assets. Miners and mining pool operators can secure the premium that freshly mined Coinbase coins, commonly known as virgin coins attract. Any proof of work (PoW) crypto asset relies on the miners for security who in turn are financially rewarded through the protocol’s inflation rate. When a miner successfully mines a new block they are rewarded with a fixed amount of coins. Since these coins appear from nowhere they have no transaction history whatsoever. In contrast due to the privacy and fungibility limitations of most crypto assets, all other coins have some degree of visible transaction history.
As a result, analytics companies can trace this history. If at any point these coins were held or used by a party conducting illicit activity, then they can be seen as tainted and therefore less valuable. Since coinbase coins are free from such tainting they can often attract a higher price. According to some within the industry, such coins can command as much as a 20% premium.
Given that there exists no distinct market on public exchanges for these coins the best way to realize this premium is by selling via an OTC desk, whereby the broker can advertise the coins appropriately.
Market participants should be aware that there are some notable drawbacks to using OTC services, although many of these can be mitigated by choosing a high- quality provider.
Since funds settle after trade execution, OTC trading can present counter-party risks. This threat is significantly greater when using an agency. In this scenario, there is a possibility that the other party fails to settle their side of the trade. If the agent has not done comprehensive background checks, the setup is vulnerable to nefarious parties attempting to commit fraud. Furthermore, there is a greater risk posed to the party receiving fiat currency.
While crypto asset transfers typically happen within less than one hour, wire transfers can take up to several days in the case of international wires. To compound this risk, there is no way to ensure that both parties settle at the same time. This discrepancy allows one party to walk away with the other’s funds. Overall, there is a high degree of risk associated with any direct peer-to-peer trade, although to the extent that a reputable agency can audit the trustworthiness of the counter- party, some risk can be reduced.
The optimal approach is to use an established and highly reputable dealership or OTC desk who have robust vetting processes and a secure escrow setup. Smaller dealerships who do not have strong industry reputations should generally be avoided. There is a higher threat posed by such firms in terms of their solvency and storage of funds.
Initially, the industry catered primarily to miners. These parties needed to liquidate large blocks of assets in relatively short periods and usually constituted the largest players in the space. Over time the type of clientele has broadened and now constitutes family offices, hedge funds, early adopters, individual retail traders, startups with ICO balances, college endowments and even larger investment banks.
Fidelity also recently announced that their new company Fidelity Digital Asset Services, a crypto asset custodial business would be sourcing their crypto assets via the OTC markets. Fidelity is initially focusing on acquiring Bitcoin and Ether, although it has plans to broaden its range of assets in due course. The parent company is the fifth-largest asset manager in the world and boasts a balance sheet of over $7.2 trillion. Given the reputation, network and custody offering of this new player, we expect to see it become one of the largest buyers on the OTC markets in the coming months and years. To add to this, other major institutional firms like ICE’s new Bakkt exchange are likely to start dominating OTC demand due to their sheer size.
The OTC markets, unlike public exchanges, provide minimal data. This opaqueness has led to speculation regarding their transaction volumes. To this date, not a single OTC desk publicly shares its trading volume nor any other metric aside from price. OTC price information is accessible from a limited number of companies. However, this data is typically only available in paid products such as trueDigital’s reference rates product which is aggregated from 12 different OTC desks.
There have been several attempts at estimating the size of the OTC markets, although all such approximations have been based on interviews rather than quantifiable data.
In April 2018, TABB research group calculated that OTC daily volumes stood at $12 billion at a global level and represented between two to three times the size of the volume on public markets.
Problematically, such high estimates as published by TABB cannot be verified by any blockchain metrics. One would expect that such high volumes would correlate with on-chain transaction values. At the time of that estimate though the data did not support such a high estimation. It is, of course, possible that some participants simply exchange private keys rather than exchanging on-chain transactions. Furthermore, with the development of sidechains such as Liquid which is intended for exchange usage, OTC flows may be off-chain. Those with access to Liquid’s data, however, claim that at this point it accounts for minimal flows relative to the Bitcoin blockchain.
Other researchers have concluded that OTC markets account for a mere fraction of TABB’s estimate. Digital Asset Research in October 2018 told Forbes that they estimated daily volumes at just $250 million.
Unsurprisingly, just like other marketplaces, volume is cyclical. During bear and non- trending markets, volumes are significantly lower than during bull cycles. In June, representatives from Genesis Trading and Coinbase Prime reported significantly increased volume. Genesis stated that they were seeing two to three times as much as 12 months prior. Much of this increase appears to be coming from smaller institutional clients.
The Major Players
Just like volume, quantifying the size of OTC desks is problematic. That being said, while volume levels, revenues and profit margins are near-impossible to source and verify, we can look to the history, reputation, and range of services provided to identify the major players in the space.
At a global level, it appears that Circle Trade is currently the dominant player. Last year, the company handled over $24 billion in volume across 60 different countries. The firm offers trading across 30 different crypto assets and parties can settle in most major fiat currencies, including CAD.
In terms of the range of assets, custodial solutions, and global reach, right now the other major leading companies would include Genesis Trading, Cumberland DRW, itBit, XBTO, and Enigma Securities. Beyond this, many of the public exchanges have opened successful OTC desks with Binance and Coinbase Prime reporting noteworthy results. In addition to these market leaders, there are at least another 50 OTC providers worldwide now in operation.
Within Canada specifically, there are currently nine different providers of OTC services including Bitbuy. The chart provided compares these operators according to the type of service, minimum trade size, MSB registration (FINTRAC) and compliance program, and fiat support.
Development of the OTC Industry
OTC crypto asset desks have existed for several years. It appears that that Genesis Trading was the first North American desk and subsequently followed by Circle, Itbit and Buttercoin.
At first, these services were aimed at miners as well as early adopters with large positions. Over time, as the asset class has matured, such services have increasingly catered to more traditional and institutional parties.
The latest reports suggest that the OTC market demand continues to be concentrated in North America and Asia. Indeed this correlates with the prevalence of OTC services in these two areas. East Asia and China, in particular, continue to dominate the mining of PoW assets. As such, miners and mining pool operators such as Antpool among others have a strong demand for OTC services that can transact in both Yuan and other fiat currencies. Conversely, in the USA and Canada, it seems that a much greater proportion of the demand is institutionally-driven.
Wrap Up: Current Trends and Future of the Industry
With the industry’s growth has come more intense competition leading to reduced spreads and profit margins. This has been a net positive for clients who now benefit from a greater choice of services and receive quotes closer to market prices.
Over the past 18 months, many public exchanges have opened OTC services. Given the lucrative business model of the exchanges, augmented by high automation capabilities, we should expect many boutique and smaller sized OTC desks to be absorbed. Added to this, as liquidity and order book depth at exchanges grows, parties currently preferring the OTC market may switch to exchanges.
Desks are still relatively manpower intense, and there is significant room for automation and integration of intelligent software for trade execution, price quotation, settlement, and even risk management.
Until 2018, OTC companies had to move crypto assets across their respective blockchains and use wire transfers for movement of fiat. These limitations introduced friction and reduced the flow of funds, in turn hampering business.
However, in recognition of the growing interest from major institutional players, there has been a push to introduce more sophisticated infrastructure. One such infrastructure company is OTCXN who have built a second layer network capable of moving any type of crypto asset at high speeds, similar to Blockstream’s Liquid network.
While we expect the trend towards automation to continue, it is worth remembering that the personalized customer service and human interaction of OTC services are key motivations for using them in the first place and this aspect is unlikely to disappear altogether.
If you are interested in learning more, reach out to Bitbuy’s OTC department.
More information on the Canadian OTC providers mentioned can be found on their websites. Information was requested and provided, or found on publicly available sources such as official company websites.