This note provides a foundational perspective on why CFOs should care about bitcoin. We focus on nontechnical concepts, finance executive expectations and current concerns regarding bitcoin, rather than explaining the technical details of bitcoin and broader blockchain technology.
Eighty-four percent of finance executives say holding bitcoin poses a financial risk due to its volatility.
Sixteen percent of finance executives are willing to hold bitcoin in the future as part of their organization’s financial strategy. A similar proportion of cross-industry finance employees anticipate their organization holding bitcoin in the future.
Finance executives are most interested in learning more about what other organizations are doing with bitcoin as well as the associated risks with holding bitcoin and the latest information from regulators related to bitcoin.
Blockchain technology can help CFOs reduce operational costs across several corporate activities although hard ROI numbers from increased efficiencies are hard to come by, given the early stage of adoption.
CFOs who are trying to make sense of recent high-profile corporate acquisitions of bitcoin should:
Use their limited time to explore practical business blockchain applications before exploring capital allocation strategies related to cryptocurrencies.
Refrain from holding bitcoin on their balance sheets if they are using their working capital solely to fund operations.
Explore stablecoins pegged to fiat currencies, like the U.S. dollar, if you are interested in using digital dollars for more efficient payments.
Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, based on a 2008 white paper by the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakomoto. Bitcoin is a peer-to-peer version of electronic cash that allows online payments to be sent in real time from party to counterparty without a financial institution as intermediary and without a central bank as a clearing house. The system of bitcoin payments leverages a cryptographic algorithm known as ‘proof of work’, and distributed ledger technology. Together, they enable “any two willing parties to transact directly with each other without the need for a trusted third party.”The design also precludes double spending by supporting unique transactions. Bitcoin is “mined,” traded, distributed and stored on an immutable distributed ledger. Bitcoin is the first application to use a blockchain. Transactions are recorded in a public history.
Bitcoin shares attributes with various traditional financial instruments. Bitcoin behaves like commodity money: Its scarcity is guaranteed by the fact that only 21 million bitcoins can ever exist. Once bitcoin miners have unlocked all the bitcoins, the planet’s supply will be exhausted. As of 24 February 2021, 18.638 million bitcoin have been mined, which leaves 2.362 million yet to be introduced into circulation. Bitcoin has been likened to digital gold and is the first mainstream digital asset.
Bitcoin also behaves like fiat money and acts as a medium of exchange; businesses or individuals can use it to buy goods and services although its price is too volatile to make it a practical medium of exchange, especially for small purchases. But unlike fiat currency, usually you cannot pay taxes to a sovereign government directly with bitcoin. Also, where money supply depends on central bank decisions, bitcoin’s supply is capped. Bitcoin also behaves like a financial asset; it can be bought and sold on exchanges. Given bitcoin’s relatively short performance history, it’s likely still too early to understand its fundamental patterns and correlation with other asset classes with confidence.
Many cryptocurrencies exist, but by market capitalization, bitcoin is the world’s largest cryptocurrency (over $950 billion at time of writing). This is over four times the market capitalization of the next largest cryptocurrency, Ethereum ($220 billion at time of writing). Most traditional financial services that exist for cash (including savings accounts, borrowing, lending and asset management) now also exist for this digital currency.Similar to fiat currency, bitcoin has no intrinsic value. Fiat currency value fundamentally depends on the supply and demand for the currency. Bitcoin has value for several reasons:
Scarcity — The number of total bitcoin by design is capped at 21 million.
Durability — Bitcoin can be used over and over again.
Portability — You can carry around wealth on a physical storage device or transfer it instantly online.
Divisibility — Bitcoin can be divided into smaller denominations, up to eight decimal places. For example, 100,000 satoshis “sats’’ equals one bitcoin.
Fungibility — One bitcoin is the same inherently as another bitcoin. In this way, the cryptocurrency is uniform and interchangeable
Acceptability — Bitcoin is recognized and accepted as payment for goods and services by businesses. You can buy and sell bitcoin on exchanges.
On 8 February 2021 Tesla announced it had purchased $1.5 billion worth of bitcoin. In its Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Tesla noted it purchased bitcoin for “more flexibility to further diversify and maximize returns on our cash.” Tesla treats its cryptocurrency holdings as intangible assets, meaning it must be regularly tested for impairment by management.
Despite much coverage in the financial media over Tesla’s decision to hold bitcoin on its balance sheet, only a small number of public firms (mostly Canadian and U.S.) hold bitcoin. A few public firms who have chosen to hold bitcoin on their balance sheet believe it may be a better store of value than fiat currency, such as the U.S. dollar (USD), in the long term. This belief is mostly driven by accommodative monetary policy by the Federal Reserve Bank during the pandemic and expectations of low interest rates for the future. These firms believe bitcoin may act ultimately as a hedge against inflation. The near-term driver for these organizations to hold bitcoin was a speculative capital allocation decision. They are not holding bitcoin to reap operational efficiencies or improve margins from adjusted business processes.
Bitcoin and blockchain technology are often incorrectly conflated as the same thing. A blockchain is an expanding list of cryptographically signed, irrevocable transactional records shared by all participants in a network. Each record contains a time stamp and reference links to previous transactions. With this information, anyone with access rights can trace back a transactional event at any point in its history, belonging to any participant. A blockchain is one architectural design of the broader concept of distributed ledgers. Both private and public blockchain networks exist.
Blockchain is used to manage all bitcoin transactions that have ever been executed securely and without the help of a third party. Bitcoin uses blockchain technology, but it’s only one use case for blockchain. Blockchain can also transfer digital assets, proprietary information and rights among other use cases. With blockchain, traditional intermediaries or middlemen become less necessary as transactional friction is reduced.
Blockchain technology can manage transactions related to trade, compliance and finance (known as business blockchain applications). Business blockchains are usually private blockchains within a firm or between a group of firms where participants are known, not anonymized. Business blockchains may present CFOs with several opportunities to directly lower operational costs or gain process efficiencies:
Reduce Transactional Finance Costs — Streamline flows of payments to and from customers and suppliers (order-to-cash and procure-to-pay).
Reduce Payroll Costs — Employees over time may request compensation in bitcoin. Compensation payments to employees may become more seamless.
Reduce Legal Costs — Smart contracts could automate payments once an obligation is fulfilled, including providing legal proof of deed or rights.
Audit Supply Chain — Manage complex, fragmented, distributed supply chains across organizational and geographic boundaries, especially for fraud prevention. Verify the veracity of the origin and path of product components.
Managing Physical or Digital Assets — Permissioning, access and identity verification related to control of physical or digital assets.
Recording Internal Transactions — Help large complex organizations reconcile multiple databases intracompany and track cross-charges, providing a single source of truth.
Reduce Audit Costs — Used as an automated and standardized way of audit, which can minimize and mitigate the chances of any biases affecting the audit’s outcome.
Holding bitcoin is not necessary to achieve these benefits and has nothing to do with them at this point. Lower operational costs are derived from more efficient processes, such as elimination of waste in supply chains or reduced headcount associated with the audits or reconciling information in siloed systems across business partners. For a basic framework to understand whether a distributed ledger technology, including blockchain, is suitable for your organization, see and .
Renewed interest in bitcoin was generated by Tesla’s and Microstrategy’s announcements, but has nothing to do with enterprise blockchain — which can achieve lower costs in several functional areas. Based on our February 2021 polling of 77 finance executives (including 50 CFOs), 16% of finance executives said “yes, our company will hold bitcoin.” Five percent indicated they would begin to hold bitcoin in 2021; 1% will begin to hold bitcoin in 2022 through 2023; and 9% said they will hold bitcoin in 2024 or later (see Figure 1).
CFOs may use the following justifications for holding bitcoin on the balance sheet:
Bitcoin is or will be a better store of value than fiat currency such as USD.
Bitcoin is, or will act as, a hedge against inflation.
Participating in cryptoecosystems may lead to deeper customer engagement.
For public firms, holding bitcoin may lead to a greater net demand for company shares.
For public firms, holding bitcoin may represent a better use of cash for the organization than reducing debt, stock buybacks or dividend payments or strategic acquisitions.
Large firms who are holding bitcoin on their balance sheet accept the cryptocurrency’s price volatility. They tend to have an abundance of cash on their balance sheets. In Tesla’s case, the purchase used cash not allocated for running its operations. Some public firms may be acquiring bitcoin to boost the supposed idiosyncratic diversification benefits of purchasing their stock. Large enterprises (more than $1 billion annual revenue) and small enterprises (less than $1 billion annual revenue) indicated almost identical rates of holding bitcoin in the future.
Pivoting to nonpublic organizations, private company CFOs were more unanimous in anticipating that their organization would never hold any bitcoin, with only 7% saying they would hold bitcoin in the future. Some evidence indicates publicly traded firms are better positioned to take advantage of growth opportunities than unlisted firms and do so by adjusting their capital allocation. Put simply, there may be greater risk aversion in capital allocation from private CFOs compared to public CFOs.
Bitcoin has several associated risks: regulatory, insurance, fraud and market risk. For finance executives, the dominant concern for holding bitcoin is the financial risk due to its volatility (84% of respondents). Financial risk due to bitcoin volatility is cited as a concern twice as often as anything else. Other concerns include board risk aversion (39%), slow adoption of bitcoin as an accepted form of payment or exchange (38%), regulatory concerns (32%) or not having skills/knowledge to hold bitcoin(30%) (see Figure 2).
We also asked CFOs and finance executives to select the top questions they have about bitcoin (see Figure 3).
Seventy-one percent of respondents would like to know what others are actually doing when it comes to bitcoin.
Sixty-nine percent of respondents would also like to know more about the associated risks with holding bitcoin.
Fifty-three percent of respondents would like to know more about the latest information from regulators when it comes to bitcoin.
Bitcoin is here to stay. It has the first-mover advantage and represents the largest cryptocurrency market capitalization in the world. However, bitcoin’s use and usefulness on the balance sheet is still an open question, especially for nonpublic organizations.
Smaller and private firms would be more productive investigating incremental business use cases unlocked by blockchain for their organization rather than focus on bitcoin. Firms not in technology or financial services have been reluctant to hold bitcoin. Tighter working capital and illiquid balance sheets represent real barriers toward using available cash to speculatively purchase bitcoin.
Despite the hype around bitcoin by investors, companies are more hesitant to hold bitcoin, noting a number of risks that cryptocurrency poses to their organization — chiefly financial risk. Nevertheless, 16% of finance executives told us their organization would likely hold bitcoin in the future.
The 2021 Gartner Cryptocurrency Poll was conducted online from 11 February 2021 through 12 February 2021 with 77 CFOs and senior finance leaders. The survey was developed collaboratively by a team of Gartner analysts and was reviewed, tested and administered by Gartner’s research data analytics team.
Technology and Telecom: 16%
Banking, Finance and Insurance: 9%
Retail and Wholesale: 5%
Energy and Utilities: 3%
Media and Entertainment: 1%
Less than $500 million: 24%
$500 million to $999 million: 28%
$1 billion to $2.99 billion: 20%
$3 billion to $4.99 billion: 12%
$5 billion to $9.99 billion: 9%
$10 billion to $19.99 billion: 7%
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