Are You Ready for a Bitcoin ETF? (And Is It Ready for Your Money?)

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Whether you love them, hate them, or just learned that they actually exist outside of that movie about Facebook (FB), the Winklevoss twins are working twice as hard as everyone else to be relevant in the world of finance.

The almost-founders of the world's biggest social network are enthusiastic champions of Bitcoin -- the cryptographic, algorithmic currency of the future that you mine with computer programs and can use to anonymously purchase items online. And now the Winklevosses have submitted an SEC filing registering the $20 million "Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust."

If you're giving any thought to putting money into their exchange-traded fund -- or bitcoins in general -- the filing should top your summer reading list.

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The Bitcoin ETF?

Currency ETFs have existed for some time, and serve as a way for people to invest in a vehicle that mimics the movements of the currency markets without trading currency futures or buying physical foreign currency. So, technically, it makes sense for Bitcoins to have a seat in the ETF theater. In this case, a Bitcoin ETF may be the only halfway accessible vehicle for the average person to invest in this highly complex and somewhat rare asset.

An ETF allows an investor to trade assets relatively easily. It provides favorable tax considerations, and, in this case, offers a way to put cash into a digital currency that is immune to bank runs and geopolitical disasters.

So let's take a look at the just-filed registration document for the Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust.

Risk Factors

As the filing points out, would-be investors should have their eyes wide open before considering an investment in the Bitcoin Trust: "The loss or destruction of a private key required to access a Bitcoin may be irreversible. The Trust's loss of access to its private keys or its experience of a data loss relating to the Trust's Bitcoins could adversely affect an investment in the Shares."

Without getting too deep into the anatomy of a Bitcoin, the owner of each Bitcoin gets a super-secret password that allows them to spend it. If you lose this private key, your Bitcoins are gone. Where did they go? Don't ask.

So, if the Trust that holds your fractional Bitcoin investment loses private keys, then a portion of your investment instantly evaporates. It seems incredibly unlikely the trust would just lose those keys, but it does raise questions about theft.

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Given that Bitcoin transactions are absolutely irreversible, a highly skilled hacker could pull off a heist (it's already happened) and steal Bitcoins, leaving the original holder with pretty much no recourse. It is the exact opposite of the American Express traveler's check (for which, sadly, there is no ETF available).

In April 2011, a user lost 25,000 BTC -- roughly $500,000 at the time -- when a Bitcoin storage service, InstaWallet, was hacked and pillaged. While InstaWallet refunded the losses of account holders who'd held less than 50 BTC, the service said it would treat depositors who'd held more than 50 on a case-by-case basis.

Fact or Fiction, It's Rather Ridiculous

By investing in this ETF, you're handing over your government-supported currency to gamble on a currency the value of which is almost entirely determined by speculation to begin with.

Beyond the ETF itself, Bitcoins have many hoops to jump through before they resemble a sound investment. The currency's value needs to stabilize; its user base needs to expand significantly; more coins need to come into circulation; and investors need more assurance that the exchanges won't have their assets seized by governments concerned about money laundering.

Bitcoins themselves may be untraceable and the ultimate cryptocurrency, but if investors want to "cash out," it'll still come down to good old government-backed folding money from somewhere. Investing in this ETF, though simpler than the Bitcoin alternatives, is buying into a large number of risks that only a few people really understand.

Motley Fool contributor Michael Lewis has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends American Express and Facebook. The Motley Fool owns shares of Facebook.

Are You Ready for a Bitcoin ETF? (And Is It Ready for Your Money?)

We work for it. We wish for it. We save it. We spend it. We gain it. We lose it. Above all, we need it. Yes, money certainly does make the world go round.

In America, that money takes the form of paper bills (printed by the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing) and coins (produced by the U.S. Mint). However, the coins that jingle in your pocket and the bills you stuff in your wallet today are far different from the ones originally produced in the late 1700s.

As you would expect, over the last 200+ years our currency has seen many, many changes -- both big and small. That's a lot of U.S. money trivia to keep up with! So, WalletPop set out to uncover the most interesting tidbits about American currency and share our favorites with you.

Read our questions and answers to discover 10 fascinating facts about U.S. currency.

                               -By Vicki Passmore

That depends on the denomination of the note. Here are the average lifespans according to the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing (or the BEP):


$1 bill - 22 months
$5 bill - 16 months
$10 bill -18 months
$20 bill - 24 months
$50 bill - 55 months
$100 bill - 89 months


Bills that get worn out from everyday use are taken out of circulation and replaced. Coins usually survive in circulation for about 25 years.

Just under half of the notes printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing are $1 notes. In fiscal year 2009, the exact percentage was 42.3%.

Martha Washington is the only woman whose portrait has appeared on a U.S. currency note. It appeared on the face of the $1 Silver Certificate of 1886 and 1891, and the back of the $1 Silver Certificate of 1896.

No portraits of African Americans have appeared on paper money, but commemorative coins were issued in the 1940s bearing the images of George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington, followed more recently by the release of a Jackie Robinson coin. Paper money does bear the signatures of four African American men who served as Registers of the Treasury (Blanche K. Bruce, Judson W. Lyons, William T. Vernon, and James C. Napier) and one African American woman who served as Treasurer of the United States (Azie Taylor Morton).

The largest bill ever printed was the $100,000 bill; it was actually a Gold Certificate issued in 1934. These notes were used for transactions between Federal Reserve banks and were not circulated among the general public. President Woodrow Wilson was depicted on the bill.

A mile of pennies laid out is $844.80. By this standard, America is about $2.5 million wide, coast to coast.

The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco describes what this motto means and how it came into use:

"E Pluribus Unum" is used on many of our country's seals and most of our currency and coins. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress issued a three-dollar bill bearing the motto, "Exitus in Dubio Est," which translates to "The Outcome Is in Doubt." Despite congressional pessimism about the war, John Adams, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson proposed the more prophetic motto, "E Pluribus Unum" -- "One From Many." The motto first appeared on the Great Seal of the United States in 1782. The Great Seal, however, didn't appear on U.S. currency until 1902.

The so-called "all-seeing eye" that sits atop the pyramid on dollar bills was included as a reflection of divine providence. This was not the only option that was considered to fulfill that desired theme. A depiction of the Children of Israel in the Wilderness was also discussed as a possibility.

Surprise! Our so-called "paper currency" is actually not paper, but is made of cotton/linen material. It consists of a 75% cotton / 25% linen blend with silk fibers running through it. If it were made of paper, it would fall apart if you accidentally left it in your pants pocket and sent it for a whirl in your washing machine.

As we mentioned before, accidents happen. Fortunately, our "paper currency" is built to take quite a beating. The BEP says it would take 4,000 double folds (first forward, and then backwards) before a note will tear.

According to the BEP, it is. Its website explains: "The BEP redeems partially destroyed or badly damaged currency as a free public service. Every year the U.S. Treasury handles approximately 30,000 claims and redeems mutilated currency valued at over $30 million. Experts examine damaged currency and can approve the issuance of a Treasury check for the value of the currency determined to be redeemable."

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