SAN FRANCISCO — Digital currency, once mocked as a tool for criminals and reckless speculators, is sliding into the mainstream.
Traditional banks are helping investors put their money into cryptocurrency funds. Companies like Tesla and Square are hoarding Bitcoin. And celebrities are leading the way in a digital-art spending spree using a technology called an NFT.
On Wednesday, digital or cryptocurrencies will take their biggest step yet toward wider acceptance when Coinbase, a start-up that allows people to buy and sell cryptocurrencies, goes public on Nasdaq. Coinbase shares received a reference price of $250 each on Tuesday evening, which would value the company at $65 billion based on all its outstanding shares.
Call it crypto’s coming-out party. Coinbase, founded in San Francisco, is the first major cryptocurrency start-up to go public on a U.S. stock market. It is doing so at a valuation that tops that of Capital One Financial Corporation or Moody’s, the ratings agency.
plan to “create an open financial system for the world” and “increase economic freedom.”
But so far, cryptocurrency is mostly a vehicle for financial speculation and trading. Few people want to use Bitcoin for everyday purchases like coffee because its price is so volatile. Many early buyers have become wildly rich by simply holding their crypto or “buying the dip” when prices fall. Others ruefully relay tales of the sushi dinner they bought with Bitcoin years ago that would be worth $200,000 today or the million-dollar pizza.
Coinbase eases that trading by acting as a central exchange. Before it and similar services were created, people had to set up their own digital wallets and wire money.
“Can it be anything more than an asset class?” Mr. Tusk asked. “That’s still very much up in the air.”
Silk Road, a marketplace for buying and selling drugs and weapons with Bitcoin until the federal authorities shut it down, and Mt. Gox, a crypto exchange that collapsed under accusations of theft and embezzlement, further tarnished the young industry.
Coinbase tried to change that. The company joined Y Combinator, a prestigious start-up program, and raised money from top venture capital firms including Union Square Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz.
Mr. Armstrong was one of the few people in the industry who seemed prepared to comply with inevitable regulations, rather than cut corners to avoid them, said Nick Tomaino, who dropped out of business school to join Coinbase in 2013.
Coinbase also persuaded well-known retailers to accept Bitcoin. “It was good for credibility when people saw you could actually use a Bitcoin to buy a mattress at Overstock,” Mr. Tomaino, who left in 2016, said. Coinbase earned money on transaction fees.
But Bitcoin’s wildly volatile price and a slow computer network that managed it made transactions difficult, and people began to see the currency as an investment. In 2015, Ethereum, a cryptocurrency network with more tech abilities, was introduced, enticing enthusiasts to build companies and funds around the technology.
Soon after, a flood of “initial coin offerings,” where companies sold tokens on the promise of the technology they planned to build, created a new boom in cryptocurrency trading. But it quickly deflated after many projects were found to be frauds and U.S. regulators deemed the offerings to be securities, requiring that they comply with financial rules.