NFTs, digital wallets will become huge opportunities

Cathie Wood, chief executive officer and chief investment officer, Ark Invest, speaks during the Milken Institute Global Conference on May 2, 2022 in Beverly Hills, California.

Patrick T. Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

Ark Invest CEO Cathie Wood said Tuesday that digital property rights related to non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and decentralized finance (DeFi) that have underpinned the emergence of Web3 “are going to become incredibly important.”

“DeFi has taken off and we’re impressed at how robust the ecosystem has been,” Wood said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” adding that the “token revolution” surrounding NFTs is “most in its infancy.”

NFTs — unique digital assets, like artwork and sports trading cards, that are verified and stored using blockchain technology — exploded in popularity in 2021. People create, collect and trade NFTs for millions of dollars, some with the hopes to profit in the future. But experts are still skeptical that NFTs are a good investment.

Speaking at a TechCrunch talk on climate change last week, Bill Gates described the crypto and NFT phenomenon as something that’s “100% based on greater fool theory,” referring to the idea that overvalued assets will go up in price when there are enough investors willing to pay more for them.

The billionaire Microsoft co-founder joked that “expensive digital images of monkeys” would “improve the world immensely,” referring to the much-hyped Bored Apes.

The surge in NFTs is still fairly new, but massive amounts of money have already exchanged hands among collectors. Since 2017, for example, NFT collectibles have generated over $6.2 billion in sales while digital art has generated over $1.9 billion, according to NonFungible, which tracks historical sales data of NFTs.

“We do believe that digital property rights, which is what NFTs represent, are going to become incredibly important,” Wood said, adding that her economic background has taught her the value of property rights when it comes to lifting people out of poverty.

Creators in the NFT space have long made the same case, and investors, like Wood, have been quick to assert that long-term value in digital assets will come from their utility. It’s a message that’s been difficult for institutional investors to digest as collectible artwork, such as the prominent Bored Ape Yacht Club, has taken center stage in the early days of NFTs. These NFT collections have experienced a significant slide in value over the past few months. Bored Ape Yacht Club and the equally-hyped Crypto Punks recently saw prices fall precipitously.

Some tech icons think more pain is coming. Eric Schmidt, former Google executive chairman & CEO, and Schmidt Futures co-founder, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” from the Aspen Ideas Festival on Tuesday, “If you assume that Web3 was 10 times overhyped and it’s corrected 5 times, it’s got some more to go.”

But Wood’s comments suggest she is undeterred by the recent selloff.

“We’re believers and we think the ecosystem, if it consolidates, is not a bad thing. We do think that digital wallets are going to be one of the most important outcomes here. They are effectively bank branches in our pockets,” Wood said. “These are going to be huge opportunities.”

The innovation-focused investor has had a tough 2022 as her disruptive technology darlings have been among the biggest losers this year in the face of rising interest rates. Her flagship active fund Ark Innovation ETF (ARKK) is down a whopping 52% year to date, falling 66% from its record high set in February 2021.

Still, Wood said her clients are mostly sticking with her and new money is coming in as investors seek diversification in a down market. ARKK has had more than $180 million in inflows in June, according to FactSet.

Meanwhile, crypto investors also continue to grapple with aggressive rate hikes and a worsening liquidity crunch that has pushed major players into financial difficulty. The broader space is also still reeling from the fallout of the $60 billion collapse of two major tokens last month.

“A lot of people expected the Terra-Luna meltdown to cause a systemic chain reaction and we’re seeing a little bit of that, but so far the ethereum has held up very well,” Wood said of the debacle.

Adding to broader crypto concerns, Celsius, a crypto lending platform that promised high yields to users who deposited their cryptocurrency, paused withdrawals earlier this month. On Monday, high-profile crypto hedge fund Three Arrows Capital defaulted on a loan worth more than $670 million from Voyager Digital.

⁠— CNBC’s Yun Li contributed to this story.