Happy Birthday Credit Card Industry

Today is a very important day for us payments nerds. It’s the 60th anniversary of the “Fresno Drop”, the birth of the modern credit card industry. On 18th September 1958, Bank of America officially launched its first 60,000 credit cards in Fresno, California, setting in motion an experiment that changed the American way of borrowing, paying and budgeting.

And, in time, changed everyone else’s way of doing those too.

If you want a good introduction to the history of the credit card, from the Fresno Drop up to the Internet, I’d recommend Joe Nocera’s “A Piece of the Action“, which I read many years ago and still pick up from time to time.

If you want to spend five minutes having a quick look at where the modern credit card business comes from, here’s the short version (courtesy of CNN Money)The most extraordinary episode in credit card history is the great Fresno Drop of 1958. The brainchild of a Bank of America middle manager named Joe Williams, the “drop” (which is marketing-speak for “mass mailing”) was an inventive tactic to give Americans their first highly addictive taste of credit card living. Keep in mind that charge cards in those days–like Diners Club or American Express–were mainly used by jet setters, businessmen on expense accounts, and ladies who lunched… Williams wanted to change that. In September 1958, he mailed out 60,000 credit cards, named BankAmericards, to nearly every household in Fresno. Mind you, these cards arrived in the mailboxes of people who had never seen–let alone applied for–a card like that. But now thousands of ordinary people suddenly found that thousands of dollars in credit had literally dropped into their laps…

There you go. Now you can go ahead and bore at least one person today with the story of the Fresno Drop. I know I will.

As you might expect, I cover this episode in my book Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin, where I point out that what is sometimes overlooked from our modern perspective is that the evolutionary trajectory of credit cards was not a simple, straight, onwards-and-upwards path. For the first decade or so, it was far from clear whether the credit card would continue to exist as a product at all, and as late as 1970 there were people predicting that banks would abandon the concept completely. What changed everything was a combination of regulation and technology: regulation that allowed banks to charge higher interest rates and the technology of the magnetic stripe and Visa’s BASE I online authorisation system. This changed the customer experience, transformed the risk management and cut costs dramatically while simultaneously allowing the banks to earn a profit from the business.

It looks more than a decade for the Fresno drop to turn into the mass market business, integral to the economy, that we know today. So what financial technology experiment of our days will be of similar magnitude a decade because of regulatory and technological change a year from now? My guess would be something to do with tokens, but I’d be curious to hear yours.

Tokens and Twincoins

For some time – since when I first began jotting down an outline for my last book, in fact – I have been boring clients, colleagues and carvings senseless with my mantra that while Bitcoin isn’t the future of money, tokens might well be. What’s more, as I have presented more than once, those tokens will have an institutional relationship with “real world” assets. Now I see that none other than noted cryptocurrency investors the Winklevii have launched just such as product. Gemini Trust, their cryptocurrency exchange, has won approval from New York finance regulators to launch Gemini Dollars.

These are tokens on the Ethereum blockchain that are pegged in value to the U.S. dollar (in other words, they are kind of digital currency board). State Street Bank will hold the reserve of one greenback for every token issued and, I assume, they will be redeemable on demand and at par.

Now, I know nothing about entrepreneurhip or venture investing or creating cryptoasset trading platforms, but I think they are on to something. Many people will want to hold dollars as digital bearer instruments rather than as a bank balances. When my smart contract sends a Gemini dollar to your smart contract, that’s pretty much that. It’s inexpensive and fast.

This idea of using cryptocurrencies to support tokens linked to something in the real world is hardly new. But it’s becoming something of a focus now. Kevin Werbach published a very good article about tokens on the Knowledge @ Wharton site recently. He set out a useful taxonomy to help with discussion and debate around the topic, saying that

  • There is cryptocurrency: the idea that networks can securely transfer value without central points of control;

  • There is blockchain: the idea that networks can collectively reach consensus about information across trust boundaries;

  • And there are cryptoassets: the idea that virtual currencies can be “financialized” into tradable assets.

I might use a slightly different,  more generalised approach (because a blockchain is only one kind of shared ledger that could be used to transfer digital values around), but Kevin summarises the situation exceedingly well. His perspective is that cryptocurrency is a revolutionary concept but the jury is still out on whether the revolution will succeed, whereas the shared ledger and the assets that might be managed using those shared ledgers are game-changing innovations but essentially evolutionary. The idea of such assets, which I will label digital bearer instruments, goes back to the long-ago days of DigiCash and Mondex, but the idea of implementing them using technology that is (in principle) available to every single person on the planet is wholly new. 

This combination of the revolutionary but unproven and the evolutionary but nevertheless game changing fascinates me and I’ve been exploring it in a number of different areas. One such area is money, of course, and more particularly the notion of central bank digital currency. I feel this is often discussed in a confusing way (not by me). I see articles on the topic that almost randomly switch between “digital currency”, “cryptocurrency” and “digital fiat” to the point that they are essentially meaningless. So I thought it might be useful to build on my work and Kevin’s perspectives to create a worthwhile framework for exploring the topic.

Let’s begin by exploring what the central concept is all about. Ben Dyson and Jack Meaning from the Bank of England discuss a particular kind of central bank digital currency (what some would call  “digital fiat”) with quite specific characteristics.

  1. Universally accessible (anyone can hold it);

  2. Interest-bearing (with a variable rate of interest);

  3. Exchangeable for banknotes and central bank reserves at par (i.e. one-for-one);

  4. Based on accounts linked to real-world identities (not anonymous tokens);

  5. Withdrawable from your bank accounts (in the same way that you can withdraw banknotes).

This seems to me to be quite sensible definition to work with. So, digital fiat is a particular kind of digital money with these specific characteristics. We can now start to fill in the blanks about how such a system might work. For example, should it be centralised, distributed or decentralised? Given that, as The Economist noted in an article about given access to central bank money to everybody, “administrative costs should be low, given the no-frills nature of the accounts”, and given that a centralised system has the lowest cost, that would seem to point toward something like M-PESA but run by the government.

There are, however, other arguments in favour of using newer and more radical technological solutions., not least of which is our old friend privacy. Again, as The Economist notes, people might well be “uncomfortable with accounts that give governments detailed information about transactions, particularly if they hasten the decline of good old anonymous cash”. However, as I have often written, I think there are ways to deliver appropriate levels of privacy into this kind of transactional system and the pseudonymity is an obvious way to do this efficiently within a democratic framework.

Aside from privacy, there’s another argument for moving to new technology rather than a centralised database, and it has come to the fore in the light of the recent Visa Europe systems collapse, which is what to do to make such a digital money system, 99.999% available. Here is where new technologies might be able to deliver the step change that takes us into the realm of practical digital fiat. Such a payment system would be an element of critical national infrastructure, which is why it might be worth looking at some form of shared ledger technology, possibly even a blockchain of some kind, in this context.

Here’s my take on the situation, then, with a diagram that I’ll be showing at Future Tense in Zagreb on 2nd October. It is congruent with Kevin’s taxonomy but adds the “digital identity” layer to show that the token trading might be pseudonymous in most practical circumstances within specified limits. 

Digital and Crypto Layers

 

In this formulation, we have a digital value layer that may or may not be implemented using a blockchain to create the bearer instruments, then a cryptoasset layer built on top of that (let’s put one side what the different kinds of cryptoassets might be as for this discussion I’m only interested in digital money) and then a digital identity layer on top. My assumption is that cryptoassets will be implemented using what some people call “smart contracts” (I prefer the term “consensus applications”) and the general term for these vehicle used to move these assets is the “token”. So I hope you can now see how the world of Bitcoins and tokens and Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) and blockchains and digital identity all come together here.

So. If this is sensible way to implement money, as the Winklevii and others seems to think, who will manage the assets that are linked to these tokens? The first and most obvious possibility is commercial banks, as in the case of Gemini Coin. But there are others, as I set out in my most recent paper, and I’ll be exploring all of them in Zagreb. See you there.