Mainstream Banks Dabble in Bitcoin Outside the U.S.

Mainstream banks outside the U.S. are sampling cryptocurrencies, offering customers ways to invest and store bitcoin and other digital assets. 

Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA BBVA 1.36% —Spain’s second-largest lender by assets, with operations in Latin America and Turkey—allows customers to hold, buy and sell bitcoin and ether through a digital account. Australia’s largest bank, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, has also launched a pilot program to offer similar services.

In Germany, a group of savings banks, which together serve 50 million of the country’s 80 million people, said it is considering offering cryptocurrency wallets. If the group proceeds, the move would be a significant step toward acceptance for crypto in a country that is ultraconservative with money. 

One in 10 customers of German savings banks has owned cryptocurrency assets, according to Alexander Hartberg, a spokesman for the group of savings banks. “Considering their expectations, [the group] has to look into crypto assets, too,” he said.

The moves come during a crypto-trading boom that has surprised regulators and banks that for years sat on the sidelines, expecting that interest in cryptocurrencies would go away. Traditional banks have resisted offering retail customers anything other than assets linked to government-issued currencies because of concerns about money laundering; the products’ high volatility, which could hurt investors; and possible requirements that are still being developed by regulators.

Trading of cryptocurrencies has surged, along with their value. In 2021, the combined market value of all cryptocurrencies more than doubled to over $2 trillion. 

Almost all cryptocurrency trading takes place at exchanges such as Binance and Coinbase Global Inc. More recently, nonbank payments companies such as PayPal Holdings Inc., or online broker Robinhood Markets Inc., have begun to offer customers access to owning cryptocurrencies. 

Custody banks and financial firms such as Bank of New York Mellon Corp. and Fidelity Investments announced plans to provide crypto services for institutional clients such as asset managers and hedge funds. 

But traditional banks, including in the U.S., have been more wary. In many ways, cryptocurrencies were invented to obviate the need for banks. Their distributed ledger technology, known as the blockchain, is meant to replace the traditional functions of a bank, including providing a trustworthy record of transactions, balances and payments.

Many are calling decentralized finance, or DeFi, the ‘Wild West of finance.’ This fast-growing industry aims to provide automated banking services for cryptocurrencies to everyone, without middlemen. But DeFi is still in its early stages, which means there are risks. WSJ explains. Photo illustration: Tammy Lian/WSJ

Last year, the Basel Committee for Banking Supervision, which sets global standards for banking regulation, laid out a proposal that would require lenders to set aside a dollar in capital for every dollar of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies they own, considering them among the riskiest assets a bank could own. 

An association representing large banks said the rules would prevent them from holding cryptocurrencies. The committee said the proposal is still in development.

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BBVA says its crypto offering wouldn’t be affected by these rules because the lender isn’t holding any cryptocurrency for itself. 

“Financial institutions can play a role in facilitating the access to digital assets to different client segments, and bundling digital assets with traditional investments as well,” said Alicia Pertusa, BBVA’s head of client-solutions strategy. 

The bank is offering its crypto services through a subsidiary in crypto-friendly Switzerland. BBVA said the country has clear regulation and a high level of adoption of digital assets.

Bank of New York Mellon plans to offer crypto services for clients such as asset managers and hedge funds.

Photo: Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg News

Private-bank customers of BBVA Switzerland and holders of a digital account with deposits of more than €10,000—the equivalent of about $11,000—can invest in bitcoin and ether. Wallets to deposit the coins are automatically associated with the account, BBVA said. 

BBVA didn’t disclose how many customers are using the service, but said the greatest demand comes from investors seeking to diversify their investments. The service is offered to most of its customers globally outside the U.S., and is particularly popular among customers from Latin America. 

In Australia, Commonwealth Bank provides a similar service, but funnels customers through crypto exchange Gemini to execute trades and store the underlying investments. Through the bank’s app, clients will have access to prices of crypto tokens and will be able to make orders to buy and sell. It charges a transaction fee of 2% of the amount invested. 

Matt Comyn is the chief executive of Commonwealth Bank of Australia, which offers a pilot crypto service.

Photo: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg News

The bank is first testing the service through a pilot program using a limited number of customers and offering as many as 10 types of cryptocurrencies. It said the plan is to increase the offerings and the customer reach through this year. 

Commonwealth and BBVA aren’t offering more sophisticated products such as cryptocurrency derivatives that are popular on exchanges such as Binance. They are also restricting the movement of cryptocurrencies between wallets to better track the origin of the holdings and avoid money-laundering risks. 

Commonwealth posted 69 pages of terms and conditions for crypto on its website, urging customers to read them all, talk to a financial adviser and only invest money they can afford to lose.

—Caitlin Ostroff contributed to this article.

Write to patricia.kowsmann@wsj.com

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