TheStreet

Congress hates it. Regulators don't know what to do with it.

But cryptocurrencies like bitcoin are drawing increasing interest from investors, and they want to trade it, said Tim Hockey, the outgoing CEO of the online brokerage firm TD Ameritrade (AMTD - Get Report) .

"Clients are asking for it," Hockey, 56, said in an interview. 

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are created by computer programmers instead of central banks like the Federal Reserve, and the digital tokens theoretically can be used as a form of online payment or a store of value.

But they've drawn increasing scrutiny from U.S. lawmakers in Washington since Facebook  (FB - Get Report) last month unveiled plans to start its own digital currency, Libra, as soon as next year. During two days of hearings in Washington last week, top lawmakers overseeing the financial industry grilled a top executive over the social-network company's plans.

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat who heads the House of Representatives' Financial Services Committee, went so far as to accuse Facebook of trying to create a new global financial system that could rival and potentially undermine the U.S. dollar.

Yet such consternation appears lacking among active investors who are constantly looking for new asset classes to profit from, according to TD Ameritrade's Hockey. 

While prices for bitcoin, currently the most popular cryptocurrency, have swung wildly in recent years there's profit to be had for investors who can get the timing right. Bitcoin prices have nearly tripled this year to about $9,970 each, according to the website CoinDesk.

"Especially given the discussions around Libra and the rebound in bitcoin, there's heightened interest again," Hockey said. He spoke about the cryptocurrency market in an interview after the Omaha, Nebraska-based company announced late Monday that Hockey plans to step down as CEO in February 2020. 

TD Ameritrade customers can buy bitcoin futures contracts on the CME exchange in Chicago, and it's easy for investors to buy the stocks of companies that specialize in cryptocurrencies.

So far, the brokerage firm hasn't provided customers with the ability to trade cryptocurrencies directly, as it does for central-bank-issued currencies like the U.S. dollar, British pound and Mexican peso.      

The company is taking a "crawl, walk, run approach" to the nascent market, Hockey said. 

"There is a lot of regulatory scrutiny, whether it be for Libra or crypto generally," the CEO said. "We would like to be able to participate, but we want to be comfortable with the risk to our clients and ourselves in a world where crypto has still got lots of debate about a number of items that we're all hearing about." 

Last year, TD Ameritrade bought a stake in ErisX, a trading platform for digital assets. And earlier this month, ErisX announced that it had won a license from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to become a derivatives clearing organization, in addition to the contract-market license it has held since 2011.    

"Our investment in ErisX at some point may allow us" to enable direct trading in cryptocurrencies, Hockey said. 

For a growing number of TD Ameritrade's customers, that some point can't come soon enough.  

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