Bitcoin was the investing story of 2017, with prices of the cryptocurrency soaring into the stratosphere. That success lured many bitcoin investors into the market at what proved to be a short-term top, and since the beginning of the year, bitcoin has lost about half its value and is down more than 65% from its highest levels. Some see bitcoin's pullback as proof that the cryptocurrency craze is over, while others think it could represent yet another in a long line of buying opportunities following major pullbacks.

Many investors are nervous about trying to invest directly in bitcoin, given the high-profile hackings of several major bitcoin exchanges over the years. The Bitcoin Investment Trust (OTC:GBTC) offers an alternative method of investing in cryptocurrency, making it possible to buy shares of an entity that itself holds a substantial amount of bitcoin. Here, we'll take a closer look at Bitcoin Investment Trust to see if it's worth adding to your portfolio.

Piles of gold coins with Bitcoin symbol on them.

Image source: Getty Images.

What is Bitcoin Investment Trust?

Bitcoin Investment Trust is an entity that was established to give investors a way to get exposure to the bitcoin market without actually buying their own bitcoin. The trust itself owns a substantial amount of the cryptocurrency -- roughly 200,000 bitcoin currently. Each share of the trust works out to just under 0.001 bitcoin, meaning an equivalent net asset value of roughly $6.50 with bitcoin prices near $6,500 per token.

Grayscale Investment Trust is the sponsor of the Bitcoin Investment Trust, and it charges shareholders an annual expense ratio in order to manage the fund. The current charge is 2% of assets, and because the trust's bitcoin holdings don't generate regular income for trust shareholders, Grayscale has the ability to liquidate bitcoin in order to pay itself its fee. That's the reason why over time, each share of the trust will be equivalent to a decreasing amount of bitcoin, as fees eat into the trust's principal assets.

The benefits of Bitcoin Investment Trust

For many investors, being able to invest in bitcoin through the Bitcoin Investment Trust is worth paying a fairly expensive fee. The trust sponsor deals with all of the mechanics of investing in bitcoin, including obtaining cryptocurrency tokens, holding them in safekeeping, and then making any future transactions as necessary. Investing in the trust is as easy as buying or selling shares when the stock market is open, and that has real advantages over the lengthening processing times involved in handling actual changes of ownership in bitcoin tokens themselves.

In addition, investing in Bitcoin Investment Trust allows investors to keep their holdings in both bitcoin and stocks together in one brokerage account. If you buy bitcoin directly, you typically have to use cryptocurrency exchanges that don't offer regular stock trading, forcing you to have two accounts and deal with the challenges involved in moving money between them.

The main downside of Bitcoin Investment Trust

The primary disadvantage of Bitcoin Investment Trust is that the share price of the trust doesn't necessarily mirror what the actual bitcoin market is doing. For instance, shares of the trust right now trade at between $8.50 and $9. That price is more than 30% higher than the actual value of the bitcoin within the trust that each share represents. In essence, for every $1.30 you invest in the trust right now, you're only getting $1 worth of bitcoin.

Believe it or not, this actually isn't unusual for the Bitcoin Investment Trust. Trust shares traded at more than double the price of the trust's underlying bitcoin at times, although occasionally, they've fallen close to parity between share prices and bitcoin value. There's simply no guarantee that on any given day, prevailing prices for the shares will be anywhere close to what the bitcoin market would suggest they should be worth.

Give Bitcoin Investment Trust a pass

Even with the greater convenience that a trust whose shares are tradable has over actual bitcoin token ownership, paying a more than 30% premium to own Bitcoin Investment Trust shares is excessive. With it increasingly apparent that bitcoin ETFs are on the horizon, you'll likely have a better opportunity in the near future from them than you'd get from Bitcoin Investment Trust.