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In what seems like the early innings of a crypto revolution, many people wonder what’s the best way to get exposure to the segment. Buying Bitcoin (CRYPTO:BTC) directly may seem like a hassle to some amid the various decisions — how to buy it, where to buy it, and how to store it. Buying a proxy company — a company that’s essentially in the business of Bitcoin — is often seen as a reasonable solution.  

Enter Coinbase (NASDAQ:COIN). The company went public only a few months ago, initially jumping to over $400 a share before plunging down to around $250 where it currently trades. It’s worth considering whether Coinbase is a long-term buy and hold or if you’re better off simply buying the Nasdaq stock market index as a whole. For simplicity, we’ll use the Nasdaq 100 ETF (NASDAQ:QQQ) for comparison in hopes of finding the better buy. 

A brief look at Coinbase

Coinbase occupies a unique position within the cryptocurrency ecosystem: It’s a centralized exchange for Bitcoin transactions. While continued adoption of Bitcoin and other cryptos will undoubtedly help drive revenue, Coinbase will make money as long as people are trading — which tends to happen more when Bitcoin surges. This method of extracting value from the crypto economy makes sense when you consider the stability of its revenue stream, especially if you’re bullish on Bitcoin. 

Coinbase is attractive if you want exposure to cryptocurrency without having to buy it directly — it’s seen as a “proxy bet” on cryptocurrency. Further, there are still big questions about wallet and password security, and many investors feel more comfortable buying a listed stock than they do buying digital currency. 

But as with any single stock purchase, you’ll be exposed to idiosyncratic risk, or company-specific risk. Anything adverse that could happen to Coinbase is your risk to bear — lawsuits, accounting scandals, currency failures, you name it. Unsystematic risk is something you should definitely consider before buying any individual stock, but particularly one with a highly speculative future dependent on emerging technology. 

Image Source: Getty Images.

The Nasdaq as a whole

The Nasdaq exchange has a high concentration of technology stocks and includes Coinbase as one of the 2,500 stocks in its cap-weighted population.  The clear benefit to investing in a Nasdaq-mimicking exchange-traded fund (ETF), like the Invesco QQQ Trust, for example, is that you’re investing with far less risk. If something unfortunate happens to one of the portfolio constituents, you’re insulated by virtue of holding many other great companies at the same time. 

Let’s look at what you get when you invest in the Nasdaq index:

Company Five-Year Return
Apple
+455%
Microsoft
+424%
Amazon
+379%
Facebook
+203%
Alphabet (Class C) +267%

Note: Data current as of May 27, 2021.

While you’ll note that the five-year performance numbers of top Nasdaq stocks have been pretty stellar, we aren’t interested in past performance when deciding to buy — we’re interested in the potential for consistent future performance. The good news is that many of the same competitive advantages that got these companies to where they are still exist today. By buying the index as a whole, you’ll have access to all of the top dogs. 

The verdict

Any time you pit a single stock against an index, almost anyone can make the case that the single stock has greater upside potential because you probably won’t see an index double or triple in a single year. Coinbase may very well double its value by 2022, minting new crypto-millionaires.

But what if that doesn’t happen? You need to consider the downside risk present when investing in an innovative technology (like cryptocurrency) that already has significant earnings growth priced in. Given the quality of the companies leading the Nasdaq, it’s a more prudent bet to go for the basket of tried-and-true winners as opposed to a potentially volatile wild card

With all of that said, a small allocation to Coinbase can make sense if you have interest in the crypto space but don’t feel the need or desire to own digital currency directly. For a long-term investor who’s serious about keeping their retirement savings, however, the more diversified nature of the Nasdaq index makes it a better buy. 

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis — even one of our own — helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.