Apr 14, 2021 - Economy

Cryptocurrency giant Coinbase heads to Wall Street

Illustration of the Coinbase logo being lifted by a stock trend line

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Coinbase, the country's largest cryptocurrency exchange, is expected to go public today at what could be a valuation north of $100 billion.

Why it matters: This gives crypto a Wall Street seal of legitimacy, after an early existence marred by ties to illicit goods.

Details: Coinbase is going public via a direct listing, rather than through an initial public offering (IPO) or special purpose acquisition company (SPAC). This means that early investors and employees will sell shares directly, with Coinbase itself not receiving any proceeds.

  • "It's exactly in the spirit and ethos of crypto," Coinbase president and COO Emile Choi tells the Axios Re:Cap podcast, in an episode posting later this morning. "Let the market determine what the price should be without intermediaries."
  • Coinbase was valued at over $100 billion in private stock sales earlier this year, which the company launched to help determine a reference price for today's trades.
  • The Nasdaq last night gave Coinbase a $250 per share reference price, which would work out to a $65 billion valuation, but direct listing reference prices are rarely close to initial trades. Slack, for example, began trading 48% higher than its reference price.

The big picture: Coinbase is going public in the midst of a Bitcoin price boom that's lasted for more than a year.

  • The San Francisco-based company reports between $730 million and $800 million of net income for the first quarter of 2021, on a whopping $1.8 billion of revenue.
  • It had reported a $322 million profit on $1.28 billion in revenue for 2020, compared to a $30 million net loss on $534 million in revenue for 2019.

A bull case is that if crypto investing continues to grow in popularity among both retail and institutional investors, Coinbase is best positioned to capture the lion's share of that growth.

A bear case is that if crypto investing continues to grow in popularity, it commoditizes the trading process, potentially rendering Coinbase as just another player.

  • Choi argues that Coinbase would offset commoditization by continuing to offer a wider range of cryptocurrencies than rivals. Plus, it is building a business whereby corporate treasuries can add large amounts of crypto assets to their balance sheets.
  • An alternate bear case is that Bitcoin prices plummet, creating what industry insiders refer to as a "Bitcoin winter."

The bottom line: This is the stock that every tech and finance insider will be watching today.

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