Crypto exchange FTX quietly shops for brokerage start-ups amid move into stock trading, sources say

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Sam Bankman-Fried, CEO of cryptocurrency exchange FTX, at the Bitcoin 2021 conference in Miami, Florida, on June 5, 2021.
Eva Marie Uzcategui | Bloomberg | Getty Images

FTX has been on the hunt to buy brokerage start-ups as the crypto exchange expands into stocks, and its CEO takes a major stake in Robinhood.

The Bahamas-based company has approached at least three privately held trading start-ups about an acquisition, according to sources familiar with those negotiations, who asked not to be named because the deal talks were confidential. The discussions were still early and did not result in a term sheet, one source said.

Webull, Apex Clearing and Public.com were among the companies FTX has spoken to in recent months, sources said. Webull, Apex and Public.com declined CNBC’s requests for comment. FTX didn’t respond to a comment request.

The move comes as investors increasingly hold crypto and stocks, and brokerage firms look to offer the assets under one roof. Robinhood has pivoted its business model away from just stocks and focused on cryptocurrencies, while SoFi, Block, and other fintechs now offer both.

Last week, FTX said it would make a move into equities. It plans to offer commission-free trading in the U.S. in an effort to acquire more customers.

“The U.S. has largest retail base in the world and you don’t want to have to split into two different apps to trade two different asset classes,” Brett Harrison, president of FTX U.S., told CNBC in a phone interview last week. “This is not a revenue generating model for us, it’s more of a user acquisition strategy.”

FTX has already made strategic investments in the space. It bought a stake in IEX group, one of the largest stock exchange operators, in April. Earlier in May, FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried took a 7.6% stake in Robinhood fueling speculation that the crypto company may be looking at an acquisition. Robinhood shares are down more than 85% since reaching their all-time high around the initial public offering last summer.

While a regulatory filing said Bankman-Fried sees Robinhood as an “attractive investment” with no plans to buy it or push changes at the company, the paperwork raised some eyebrows. The SEC filing was a 13D, is typically used by activist investors. Passive investors would normally file a 13G.

Still, a Robinhood takeover may be a tough without the founders’ blessing. Robinhood’s dual-class share structure gives CEO Vlad Tenev and co-founder Baiju Bhatt more than 60% of the voting power.

Analysts are expecting more consolidation in the space with fintech stocks plummeting from the all-time highs and some private valuations compressing.

“Many in the industry are flush with cash and strategic acquisitions can accelerate growth, so we expect demand will remain strong,” said Devin Ryan, director of financial technology research at JMP Securities. “We expect buyers will be looking for targets that add a product capability and expertise, broaden the customer footprint as customer acquisition costs have risen, or even simply add talent in a competitive hiring landscape.”

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