Starbucks Stablecoins

I ignore almost all of the meaningless shilling masquerading as “news” that arrives via my cryptocurrency feeds, but a recent story about Bitcoin in the mass market caught my attention because it appeared to herald an unexpected and significant shift in the mass-market use of the digital gold. The announcement was that Starbucks is “working with Microsoft and a leading global exchange on a new digital platform that will allow consumers to use bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies at Starbucks”. Wow. That’s a pretty big deal. LiteCoin for latte would indeed be hugely significant. But…

That headline about Starbucks taking Bitcoin struck me as a little odd, since I distinctly remember that Howard Schultz, the executive chairman of Starbucks, said back in January that “I don’t believe that bitcoin is going to be a currency today or in the future”. Indeed when I looked at the actual story I realised that it was, as you probably suspected, not true. And, what’s more, just a couple of days later I read that “Starbucks has clarified that it will not be accepting Bitcoin (BTC) or other cryptocurrencies as payment”. As I suspected.

Reading further into the announcements we get down to the the brass tacks. Starbucks has no intention of accepting Bitcoin at retail point of sales (and nor, I imagine, does any other Main Street retailer). Starbucks said that they will play a “pivotal role” is developing applications “for consumers to convert their digital assets into US dollars”. Note the specifics: to convert cryptocurrencies into US dollars. What was actually being announced was, essentially, a plan to find a way of loading Starbucks wallets from Bitcoin accounts.

In other words, the conversion from Bitcoin into Starbucks private currency. Bitcoin to Starbucks Stablecoin, if you like, since Starbucks guarantees to redeem their private dollars at par with US dollars, so long as your redeeming them in order to buy coffee or a variety of other soft drinks, bottled waters and snacks.

Now, earlier in the year Jeremy Light, who knows what he is talking about, made the evolution of retailer wallets central to his predictions for change in the payment sector this year. He said that these wallets – for both online and in-store purchases, where I expect to see convergence – will spread “emulating the success of Starbucks and Walmart” by focusing on slick checkout. I think Jeremy is right about this and that’s what makes the Starbuck announcement mildly interesting, because a convenient mechanism to load retailer wallets from cryptocurrency accounts would actually make the use of them more attractive.

There is no point try to extend Bitcoin acceptance at point-of-sale. That’s not what is was designed for and it makes no sense from a strategic perspective for retailers to mess around with in-store systems, service and acceptance to accommodate Bitcoin, Ethereum, DogeCoin or anything else. However, having online mechanisms to load the retailer wallets is a different proposition, because the point-of-sale systems only need to be modified once (to accept the wallet) and the any number of back-end conversions can be explored without requiring further front-end modifications. That’s a win-win for the retailers and for the cryptocurrency users.

Bitcoin is going off the rails, but so what?

Number goes up, number goes down. Cryptocurrencies as a whole have been tumbling, and the original cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, is no different. It looks as if there was a bubble and it is bursting. The economist John Kay is unconvinced that this bubble will lead to anything. He wrote that “the underlying narrative of cryptocurrencies is, by the standards of historic bubbles, unusually weak; more akin to tulips than to ultimately transformational innovations such as railways or electricity” going on to observe that the “power of the current narrative is that it brings together so many features which make for an attractive and infectious story” which I think is congruent with some observers’ view of Bitcoin as a protest movement rather than a financial revolution.

I have a suspicion that John may be wrong though. I think Bitcoin will have an impact and that it will lead to the creation of new markets. His mention of the railways reminded me of Nouriel Roubini and Preston Byrne’s observation that that the cryptocurrency mania of today “is not unlike the railway mania at the dawn of the industrial revolution in the mid-19th century”. I’d put the dawn of the industrial revolution a little earlier than that, but The Black Swan and The Black Marmot are on to something here and to see why you need to know a little about that railway mania that they refer to.

Opening Liverpool and Manchester Railway.jpg
By A.B. Clayton, Public Domain.

I wrote about it some years ago for Financial World magazine (back December 2011 in fact) and made the point that Victorian Britain’s railway boom was truly colossal. The first railway service in the world started running between Liverpool and Manchester in 1830 and less than two decades later (by 1849), the London & North Western railway had become the Apple of its day, the biggest company in the world.

(See Christian Wolmar’s fabulous Fire and Steam for a beautifully written history of the railways.)

This boom led to a colossal crash in 1866. The crash was caused (here’s a surprise) by the banking sector, but in that case it was because they had been lending money to railways companies who couldn’t pay it back rather than American homeowners who couldn’t pay it back. Still, then as in our very own crash of 2007, the government had to respond. It did so by suspending the Bank Act of 1844 to allow banks to pay out in paper money rather than gold, which kept them going, but they were not too big to fail and the famous Overend & Gurney bank went under. When it suspended payments after a run on 10th May 1866 (as frequently noted, the last run on a British bank until the Northern Rock debacle), it not only ruined its own shareholders but caused the collapse of about 200 other companies (including other banks).

(The directors of Overend and Gurney were, incidentally, charged with fraud but got off as the judge said that they were merely idiots, not criminals.)

The railway companies were enormous and many ordinary people had invested in them. When their Directors went to see the Prime Minister in 1867 to ask for the nationalisation of the railway companies to stop them from collapsing (with dread consequences for the whole of the British economy and in particular the widows and orphans who had invested in them) because they couldn’t pay back their loans or attract new capital, they didn’t get the Gordon Brown surrounded by advisers who happened to be bankers tea and sympathy followed by the suspension of competition law. Benjamin Disraeli told them to get stuffed: he didn’t see why the public should bail out badly run businesses, no matter how big they might be.

The Mallard, holder of the world speed record for steam locomotives, 126mph.

Needless to say, the economy didn’t collapse. As you may have noticed, we still have trains and tracks. A new railway industry was born from the ruins, just as new cryptomarkets will arise from the ruins of Bitcoin. The transport services kept running because the new industrial economy needed them and that economy kept on growing. The new post-industrial economy needs a new transport network, for bits rather than iron and coal, and Bitcoin’s heirs and descendants might well provide it. The impact of the railway crash was not restricted to rail transport and the industries that used it, just as the impact of the Bitcoin crash will spread far beyond online drug dealing and mad speculation.

As I noted in my book “Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin”, Andrew Odlyzko’s superb paper “The collapse of railway mania, the development of capital markets, and Robert Lucas Nash, a forgotten pioneer of financial analysis” argues convincingly that the introduction of basic corporate accounting standards following the collapse of the railway companies was a significant benefit to Britain and aided the development of Victorian capitalism. You can’t make an omlette, as the saying goes, without letting the bad eggs go to the wall. Hence, as I summarised more recently, the vital lesson of that crash is that letting the railways collapse not only led to a stronger railway industry but it also helped other industries as well, because it meant that new standards for accounting and reporting were put into place.

This is hardly a novel observation. History has repeatedly gone through this cyclic co-evolution of technology, business and regulation to end with something pervasive and fundamental to the way that society operates, which is why I think Nouriel and Preston are right to use the comparison. Benoît Cœuré, chair of the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures (BIS), and Jacqueline Loh, chair of the Markets Committee (BIS) made a very good point about this in the FT writing that “while bitcoin and its cousins are something of a mirage, they might be an early sign of change, just as Palm Pilots paved the way for today’s smartphones”.

This, I think, is the narrative that I find most plausible. But what are cryptocurrencies “paving the way” for? I think it is for cyryptomarkets that trade in cryptoassets: cryptocurrencies with an institutional link to real-world assets. These are markets made up from money-like digital bearer instruments or, for want of a better word, “tokens”. As I have written before, it is not the underlying cryptocurrencies that will be the money of the future but the “tokens” that they support. Assuming that the fallout from the Bitcoin bubble is better regulation of the platforms, then cryptomarkets based on tokens will aid the evolution of post-modern capitalism as much as the invention of auditing helped Victorian entrepreneurs a century and half ago.

Oh no, not “legal tender” again

Oh well. Just had another pointless argument about cryptocurrency and legal tender with someone in another context. The argument was pointless for a couple of reasons…

First of all, the argument was stupid because the person I was arguing with didn’t know what “legal tender” means anyway and, as I’ve already pointed out, it doesn’t mean what a lot of people think it means. Let’s just have a quick legal tender recap, using the United States as the case study. Section 31 U.S.C. 5103 “Legal tender” states that “United States coins and currency [including Federal reserve notes and circulating notes of Federal reserve banks and national banks] are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes, and dues”. Here is chapter and verse from The Man commenting on what that means: “This statute means that all United States money as identified above is a valid and legal offer of payment for debts when tendered to a creditor. There is, however, no Federal statute mandating that a private business, a person, or an organization must accept currency or coins as payment for goods or services. Private businesses are free to develop their own policies on whether to accept cash unless there is a state law which says otherwise”.

TL:DR; The Man says no-one can force you to take dollar, dollar bills. 

Secondly, the argument was stupid because the person I was arguing with hadn’t bothered to fact-check the story that they were arguing with me about in the first place. It was to do with this story, supposedly noting Bitcoin’s status in Japan saying that “in Japan bitcoin core (BTC) is ruled legal tender and is already used to buy everything from airline tickets to sushi”. This is, as you may suspect, is completely false because in Japan the Virtual Currency Act defines Bitcoin (and other virtual currencies) as a form of payment method and not as any kind of legally-recognized currency or legal tender.

TL:DR; Bitcoin is not legal tender in Japan, nor anywhere else for that matter.

Nor, I strongly suspect, will it ever be. So let’s put that to bed and ask the more interesting question as to whether a central bank digital currency (e$, for short) would be legal tender. Here, I think the answer is unequivocal: yes, and in unlimited amounts, because there is no credit risk attached. A transfer of e$ is full and final settlement in central bank money and in time Section 31 U.S.C. 5013 will undoubtedly be extended to say so.

The token Saga

As I explained to the Financial Services Club in London recently, I have a theory that while Bitcoin isn’t the future of money, tokens might well be. In case you are interested, here’s the deck I presented to them: it’s in three parts, first of all a high-level explanation of what tokens are, then a discussion about using tokens to implement money and finally a model to help facilitate discussion around these topics.

 

Of course, I’m not the only one who thinks that the financial services mainstream should be developing their token strategies. At Money2020 Asia in Singapore I had the privilege of interviewing Jonathan Larsen, Corporate Venture Capital Manager at Ping An and CEO of their Global Voyager Fund (which has a $billion or so under management). Jonathan has already forgotten more than I will ever know about financial markets and as he is also Chief Innovation Officer at Ping An (and a very nice guy too), I take his views very seriously. When I put to him that the tokenisation of assets will be a revolution, he said that “tokenisation is a really massive trend… a much bigger story than cryptocurrencies, initial coin offerings (ICOs), and even blockchain”.

Dave Birch and Jonathan Larsen

 

Photo courtesy of Fintechcowboys.cz

He went on to say that he had no doubt about the potential for tokenisation to “reduce friction across every asset class and to create fractionalization of assets where it does not exist today”. In fact, and I paraphrase only slightly here, he said that when the token market is properly regulated and the technology is stable then everything will be tokenised.

Wow.

Why do people like Jonathan (as opposed to techno-deterministic utopians such as myself) think that tokens are such a big deal? I think it’s because tokens are the first viable implementation of the 1990s dream of digital bearer instruments with the “code is law” (sort of) management infrastructure. They allow for the exchange of assets in an auto-DvP (delivery versus payment) mode with no clearing or settlement which means for efficient, liquid markets.

Now, one of the first steps towards a regulated token market has come the Swiss regulators (who are important because of the Zug “crypto valley” that has become the home of many token plays). The regulator there, FINMA, has developed an approach based on the underlying purpose of the tokens that are created. FINMA categorises tokens into three types: Payment tokens (ie, money), Utility tokens (tokens which are intended to provide digital access to an application or service) and Asset tokens (which represent assets such as stakes in companies or an entitlement to dividends). Of course, hybrid forms are possible and in practice there are likely to be a few different configurations. One good way to think about this, I think, is to think in terms of combinations of these token types as a means to implement the “digital bearer instrument” (DBI) that has long been seen as the basis of the post-internet, post-crypto financial marketplace.

DBI Schema

 

 

This is a realistic vision of the future. DBIs as a synthetic instrument comprising regulated tokens, DBI trading that operates without clearing and settlement on shared ledgers and shared ledgers with ambient accountability to create marketplaces that are not only more efficient but better for society as a whole. I touched on this in my talk at the FS Club but then went on to focus on the specific implications for digital money, as it is interesting to speculate what digital money created this way might look like.

We might, for example, imagine that for tokens to be used as money in the mass market they should be much less volatile than cryptocurrencies have been to date. Hence the notion of “stablecoins” that are linked to something off-ledger. An example of this category is the “Saga” coin (SGA). SGA has some pretty heavyweight backers, including Jacob Frenkel, chairman of JPMorgan Chase International, Nobel prize winner Myron Scholes and Emin Gün Sirer, co-director at the Initiative for Cryptocurrencies and Smart Contracts at Cornell University, so it deserves a look. This is a non-anonymous payment token that is backed by a variable fractional reserve anchored in the IMF’s special drawing right (SDR) basket of currencies which, as the FT pointed out, is heavily weighted in US dollars. These reserves will be deposited with regulated banks through algorithms in the underlying smart contract system.

It seems to me that initiatives such as Saga are more representative of the future of money than cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, but even they represent only part of the spectrum of possibilities that will extend across many forms of tokens. As I wrote last year, in “Bitcoin isn’t the future of money, but tokens might well be”, tokens won’t only be issued by companies, of course. It seems to me that tokens that implement the values of communities (and, because they are “smart”, can enforce them) may come to dominate the transactional space (think of the Islamic e-Dinar and the London Groat). 

The Bitcoin rule of thirds, and what Bitcoin tells us about the future of money

In my presentation to Seamless Payments in Australia, I made reference in passing to the nature of the Bitcoin universe and how informs thinking, so I thought I’d take the time to explore that thinking in a little more detail to explain my comments.

I don’t have the exact figures to hand, but as I understand it the Bitcoin coinbase breaks down roughly into thirds…

 A third of them are lost (well, last year 23% but I think it will get worse as more people forget their passwords). This is because (like me) someone wiped their old phone wallet away and forgot to transfer it over to their new phone wallet first or because they accidentally threw away the old hard disk with all the Bitcoins on them or because the dog ate the Bicoin cold wallet or because they died or whatever. As Jonathan Levin of Chainalysis, who I regard as the “go to guy” for tracing Bitcoins, told NPR in January: “For the people that have lost their bitcoins, I say tough luck”.

(These lost Bitcoins, as my good friend Steve Bowbrick rather eloquently observed, are like treasure in sunken galleons waiting to be discovered by an intrepid explorer in the very latest kind of submarine. Which, in this instance, would be a quantum computer. It’s not only Bitcoin tucked away in these sunken galleons, by the way. There’s half a billion dollars in Ethereum stuck in just one Ethereum address: it’s the address “0”, essentially. In July 2016 someone accidentally sent ETH 1,493, currently worth more than a million dollars to that address. And thanks to the magic of the cryptography, it will stay there until the quantum submarine can uncover it.)

Another third of the Bitcoins are in the hands of the .0001%, the cryptoscenti. Bloomberg estimated that a few hundred people at most own these Bitcoins, but I’ve heard estimates that fewer than 50 people have the lion’s share. These are the people who have every interest in driving the value of Bitcoin higher so that they can cash out at a steady rate. If they dump their coins, that will drive the price down (a row has just been going on about the sale of the Mt. Gox assets for this very reason), so they need a rising market where they can convert Bitcoin to one Lambourghini at a time.

Meanwhile the other millions of Bitcoin peasants scrabble for their share of the remaining third. This distribution makes America look like a kibbutz in comparison and stands testimony to the deranged nature of utopian projections around this “digital gold” for the masses. So, to get to the question that I was asked on Sky News a few weeks ago, what does the Bitcoin market tell us about the future of money?

Nothing.

I’m not sure that the state of Bitcoin, or indeed the history of Bitcoin, tells us very much about the future of Bitcoin or money. It’s not anonymous enough for criminal enterprise on a large scale (and there is every evidence that criminals are turning to crypto alternatives) and it’s not functional enough to be a mass-market medium of exchange. If it is to remain a store of value beyond speculation then it must be useful for something and I’m at a loss as to what that something might be, although I’m perfectly prepared to believe that it’s because I grew up in an era of chip and PIN cards and ApplePay.

Does that mean that we should ignore it? No, of course not. There are many different ways to look at Bitcoin and it deserves study as a much as a social and political phenomenon as it does as a technological and economic one. What’s more, it does tell us something about the future. In yesterday’s Financial Times, Benoît Cœuré and Jacqueline Loh from the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) said that “while bitcoin and its cousins are something of a mirage, they might be an early sign of change, just as Palm Pilots paved the way for today’s smartphones“.

Values, Tokens, Accounts

I agree, but in a slightly different way. I see Bitcoin and its cousins not as prototypes but as a base layer — as shown in this “thinking out loud” picture that I’ve been using to explore these ideas — that will be used by some, but not by most, people to make real transactions in the future. I think most transactions will take place at the token layer, exchanging bearer assets over an efficient (no clearing or settlement) transaction layer. And most of those transactions will be pseudonymous, but some will be linked through accounts to people and organisations. 

Seamless Sydney

So what can we guess about the future of money, given what we have learned so far? Well, as I said in my Seamless Payments presentation what we may have learned is that the token economy is a more accurate pointer toward the future of money than the underlying cryptocurrencies are, because the tokens link the values managed on shared ledgers to the “real world”. There’s a logic to this model of “the blockchain” as the security infrastructure for a token economy and I really enjoyed engaging with the good people of Sydney on this view of the emerging cryptoeconomy.

Digital != crypto != virtual

According to The Daily Telegraph, the Bank of England “could green light its own Bitcoin-style digital currency”. I’m pretty sure that the Bank of England would never use “green light” as verb in any context, but putting that to one side, I was left wondering what they mean by a “Bitcoin-style” digital currency since this is not made clear in the article.  “Bitcoin-style” means what? Uncensorable? Mined in China? 7 transactions per second? High transactions fees? Using more electricity than Poland? Oh wait…

What that article actually says is that a research unit set up by the Bank was investigating the possible introduction of “a crypto-currency linked to sterling”. So not a digital currency, a crypto-currency. That presumably means that the value will be determined by mathematics, not by the Bank of England. Now it all makes sense, except that I cannot imagine why the Bank of England would want to give-up control of Sterling. Oh wait…

Further down, the article says that “a virtual currency issued by the bank” might lead to a revolutionary shake up of high street banking. Ah, now I get it. It will be a virtual currency only used in the internet tubes and not for mundane transactions. This could make sense – a sort of Bank of England “stablecoin” used to reduce friction in online transactions.

Hhmmmm….

It’s all a bit confusing this future of currency stuff, so here’s a handy table I made last year to clarify the differences.

dnb slide

 

I suspect that the Telegraph’s confusion may have arisen because of the tendency amongst management consultants (and others) to conflate the two entirely different kinds of electronic money: a cryptocurrency and a digital currency are very different things. If Mr. Carney were genuinely suggesting that one of the scenarios under consideration by the Bank of England is that it abandons its responsibility for managing the creation of money and instead turns to a cryptocurrency, even if it is a cryptocurrency that is produced as a by-product of a double-permissionless shared ledger spawned by the Bank of England itself, then the value of that currency would not only be beyond political control it would be beyond the Bank’s control and one might imagine the Bank to be somewhat redundant in such circumstances.

On the other hand if Mr. Carney were genuinely suggesting that one of the scenarios under consideration by the Bank of England is that it creates a digital currency, then I say more power to him. A digital currency platform with right APIs in place (providing risk-free, genuinely instant and zero-cost transfers between accounts with final settlement in central bank balances) would be an amazing platform for a Digital Britain. I’d trust the Bank to maintain a Sterling reserve against the digital currency.

Right now, money reaches the public through commercial banks, a practical structure that stems from the retail banks role in providing payment services, but that privileged role is under attack. I might further observe that not only is there no fundamental economic reason why banks should be the dominant providers of payment services, there is no fundamental economic reason why they provide them at all — see, for example, Radecki, L., “Banks’ Payments-Driven Revenues” in “Federal Reserve Bank of New York Economic Policy Review”, no.62, p.53-70 (Jul. 1999) — and there are many very good reasons for separating the crucial economic function of running a payment system to support a modern economy and other banking functions that may involve systemic risk (eg, providing credit).

Marilyne Tolle made this point very clearly a couple of years ago, writing in the Bank of England’s “Bank Underground” that  “the conflation of broad and base money, and the separation of credit and money, would allow the [central bank] to control the money supply directly and independently of credit creation”. You can’t ignore that impact that such a digital currency would have on the commercial banks. Back in 2016, the management consultancy McKinsey said that global payment revenues would be $2 trillion in 2020 and that these payment revenues account for around 40% of global bank revenues! So if payments go away because the central bank provides free, instant transfers between personal accounts, then banks would have to think of something else to do instead.

There’s a good reason why this won’t happen, though, irrespective of bank executives lobbying power and that is that the central bank doesn’t want to do KYC on millions of people, run authentication platforms, perform AML checks, manage black lists and all the rest of it. So here’s a practical suggestion to suit both. Maybe, just like Bitcoin, the central bank could manage accounts that are pseudonymous. The central bank would know that account no. 123456789 belongs to a retail consumer, but not which consumer. It would know that account no. 987654321 belongs to a retailer, but not which retailer. This way the central bank could generate a dashboard of economic activity for the Chancellor to look at when he wakes up in the morning, but not routinely monitor what you or I are up to.

It would be the commercial banks who provide the services linking the pseudonymous accounts to the “real” world (and get paid for doing so). In this construct, your Sterling bank account would just be a pass-through API to a central bank digital currency account (what Marilyne calls the “CBCoin Account”) because my Barclays current account and your Lloyds current account are just skins on the Bank of England instant, free, no-risk Sterling platform (I suggest “BritCoin” as the brand) and the commercial banks can chuck away their legacy retail payment systems and focus on delivering services that add real value instead.

Commercial banks will then have an important, useful and distinct function in society as the vaults that look after identity, not money. I wasn’t the first person to say that identity is the new money, although I may have been the most persistent and annoying, but as time passes it seems to be a more and more accurate description of the future. I imagine that most forward-looking banks already have a digital identity strategy in place and are already developing new products and services to take advantage of this new era, but for those who don’t I’ll post a few ideas on the topic here.

Bitcoin isn’t the future of money, but tokens might well be

The noted cryptocurrency investor Brock Pierce was responsible for the first Initial Coin Offering (ICO) of its kind (which was MasterCoin) back in 2013 and he is an investor in a great many companies in the space via Blockchain Capital. He’s a serial entrepreneur with a track record going back many years. He knows about investing in a way that I very much do not. Listen to what he says about the impact of ICOs.

I think what I’ve done is the end of all VC, all private equity, all rates because these are industries that are illiquid… I think the Sequoias of the world will go out of business. I think all the big VCs are done.

From The Wizard Behind the ICO’s Transforming VC

Wow. That sounds like a pretty astonishing claim, hubris verging on the delusional. But the thing is… I think he may be right. To see why, you need to think about the money of the future. In his book “The Money Trap”, Robert Pringle (a former editor of that well-known revolutionary pamphlet “The Banker“) writes that at the turn of the millenium “globalization reached the limits compatible with existing international monetary arrangements”. I could not agree more. There is pressure for change and I think the current cryptomania gives us a window into the future of money. But as I have written many times before, the future of money is not Bitcoin and Bitcoin is not the future of money.

Now I accept that with the price of Bitcoin around $4000 and still climbing, that seems like a brave statement. But Bitcoin $4000 doesn’t mean anything. How do you figure out what Bitcoin is worth? From the market? On the one hand I read that this opaque marketplace is being manipulated but on the other hand I read that Bitcoins will be worth like $1 billion each or something (which makes it all the more puzzling why merchants bother with Bitcoin acceptance, since no sane shopper would spend Bitcoins instead dollars if they are going to go up a thousandfold in the next few years). In the long term, for Bitcoins to be worth something, someone has to want them for some reason. What will they want them for? Shopping? It’s too slow, it was never designed for real time payments. Money laundering? Bitcoin isn’t anonymous enough for mass market criminals (as the FBI guys who stole coins during the “Silk Road” investigation and that BTC-e guy who got arrested in Greece have discovered).  No, I don’t think uncensorability is going to be a good enough business to sustain Bitcoin. The Wannacry ransomware scallywags swapped their Bitcoins for anonymous Monero as soon as they could get them out of their wallets. Bitcoin will, in time, be superseded in these markets by truly anonymous digital money.

If not Bitcoin, then what? Of course, it’s entirely possible that while Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies may not be the money of the future, they may be the platform for money of the future and I think can erect an intellectual scaffolding to support this claim even if I cannot architect the financial institution of the future that it will be used to build. In my book “Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin”, I explore the notion of private money set out by the noted Maltese “lateral thinker” Dr. Edward de Bono. He wrote a pamphlet called “The IBM Dollar” for the Centre for the Study of Financial Innovation (CSFI) back in the early 1990s, in which he rather memorably remarked that he looked forward to a time when “the successors to Bill Gates will have put the successors to Alan Greenspan out of business”. (It was reprinted in David Boyle’s superb book “The Money Changers” in 2002 and you can read it online here at Google Books.)

Dr. de Bono was arguing that companies could raise money just as governments now do — by creating it from thin air. Now, if that notion seems to have resonance Mr. Pierce and his ICOs then, well… yes, that’s my point. Lots of companies are doing just that and they are raising literacy billions of dollars doing so.

WOULD you like to invest in Filecoin, a marketplace for digital storage services? Or Indorse, a professional social network where members own their data? How about Lust, a service “to enable all human beings on Earth to find their perfect sexual partner anonymously?” These are just three of a wave of what are called initial coin offerings (ICOs)… What are they and why are they so successful?

From What are initial coin offerings? in The Economist (22nd August 2017).

The idea of private currency as a claim on products or services produced by the issuer caught my attention two decades back when I first worked on digital money and continues to inform my thinking. For one thing, it makes economic sense. IBM, in de Bono’s example, might issue “IBM Dollars” that would be redeemable for IBM products and services, but are also tradable for other companies’ monies or for other assets in a liquid market. Now, to make such a scheme work IBM would have to learn to manage the supply of money to ensure that the monetary base and its capacity to deliver are matched and that inflation does not destroy the value of their creations, but I’m sure they could get Watson to do that, so it is easy to imagine that such a system could work.

To Mr. Pierce’s point, this would mean a new kind of financial market. A start-up launches, and instead of issuing equity, it issues money that is redeemable against future services. So, for example, a distibuted file storage start-up might offer money in the form of megabyte days that are redeemable five years from now. In the early days, this money would trade at a significant discount to take account of the risks inherent in the venture. But once the file system is up and running and people like using it, then the value of the money will rise. With tens of millions such currencies in circulation, constantly being traded on futures, options and foreign exchange markets, it might sound as if the “money” would be unusable because transactions would be unbearably complex for people to deal with. But as I wrote in “The Financial Times“, that’s not the world that we will be living in. This is not about transactions between people but transactions between what Jaron Lanier called “economic avatars“. This is a world of transactions between my virtual me and your virtual me, the virtual Waitrose and the virtual HMRC. This is my machine-learning AI supercomputer robo-advisor, or more likely my mobile phone front end to such, communicating with your machine-learning AI supercomputer robo-advisor.

These robo-advisors will be entirely capable of negotiating between themselves to work out the deal. Dr. de Bono foresaw this in his pamphlet, writing that pre-agreed algorithms would determine which financial assets were sold by the purchaser of the good or service depending on the value of the transaction… the same system could match demands and supplies of financial assets, determine prices and make settlements. He also wrote that the key to any such a system would be “the ability of computers to communicate in real time to permit instantaneous verification of the creditworthiness of counterparties”, an early vision of what we might now call the reputation economy that I explored in my previous book “Identity is the New Money”. Now, 

Now, two decades on from this description, we have a technology to implement and while the idea using cryptocurrencies as tokens linked to something in the real world  is hardly new (from the earliest days of Bitcoin people were using “coloured coins” to do this), token technology really took off with the development of the ERC-20 standard back in 2015. ERC-20 defined a way to create a standard form of token in a “smart contact” on the Ethereum blockchain. (Ignore the language here :  they are not smart and they are certainly not legal contracts, they are a special kind of application that executes on the blockchain). The use of these ERC-20 tokens to implement ICOs has exploded in recent months. Filecoin, the company that plans to monetise unused computer storage noted in the Economist article above, has just raised $50m+ in token pre-sales to Silicon Valley investors (including Sequoia Capital and Andreesen Horowitz) and another $200m in a public token sale. That came not long after Tezos, which is developing a blockchain competitor to Ethereum, raised $232 million and Bancor raised $153 million in three hours.

Despite these huge sums, there is a lot of uncertainty in the space. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) ruled in July 2017 that certain kinds of tokens are in fact securities and that transactions must regulated. This was hardly unexpected and I certainly think that the ruling was good news. Yes it is causing some disruption right now (one of the largest exchanges, Bitfinex, has just suspended ERC-20 token used for ICOs from trading for US citizens) and yes some people will lose a lot of money and yes some people will end up in jail, but that’s what happens as we move from a Wild West to regulated growth and prosperity. The regulation of ICOs is important because ICOs are more of a picture of the money of the future than Bitcoin is.

As I said in Before Babylon, Beyond Blockchain, tokens may make a real difference to the way the economy works. When the current craziness is past and tokens become a regulated but wholly new kind of digital asset, a cross between corporate paper and a loyalty scheme, they will present an opportunity to remake markets in a new and better way. One might imagine a new version of London Alternative Investment Market (AIM) where start-ups launch but instead of issuing money they create claims on their future in the form of tokens. The trading of these tokens is indistinguishable from the trading of electronic cash (because they are bearer instruments with no clearing or settlement) but there will be an additional transparency in corporate affairs because aspects of the transactions are public. And while the company and observers may not know the beneficial owner of the tokens (because the wallets are identified only by keys), the market will be set up to issue wallets after appropriate KYC. In the general run of things, transactions are private but where there is suspicion of wrongdoing the ownership can be exposed under appropriate legal conditions. With reputations established as an immutable history of participation in transactions, good behaviour will not be gamed and bad behaviour will be on display. Market participants will be able to assess and manage risk, regulators will be able to look for patterns and connections. I’ll be able to see that your assets exceed your liabilities without necessarily being able to see what those assets or liabilities are.

The transparency obtained from using modern cryptography (e.g. homomorphic encryption and zero-knowledge proofs) in interesting ways, as an aside, is one of the reasons why I tend to think of the blockchain as a regtech, not a fintech. As Salome Parulava and I wrote in “Ambient Accountability: Shared Ledgers, Glass Banks and Radical Transparency in Financial Services” in just-published “Handbook of Blockchain, Digital Finance and Inclusion”, these “translucent transactions” mean that we will find ourselves in an era of ambient accountability, where the technological architecture means constant verification and validation instead of periodic auditing long after the trades and exchanges have taken place.  

This is a far more efficient way to manage a marketplace. There won’t be some giant IMF database that manages the new kinds of money. In this market, company perfomance rewards private money holders by improving the exchange rate against other private monies. No coupons and dividends, no clearing and settlement, no hiding the number of tokens out there. The cost of trading these tokens will be a fraction the cost of trading stocks and bonds, which is why liquidity will seep out of existing markets and into these new and more efficient structures. Stephen McKeon, a finance professor at the University of Oregon, summarises this imperative by saying that assets of all kinds will tokenise because they will lose the “liquidity premium” if they do not.

Tokens won’t only be issued by companies, of course. It seems to me that tokens that implement the values of communities (and, because they are “smart”, can enforce them) may come to dominate the transactional space (think of the Islamic e-Dinar and the London Groat). One such community might well be the nation state. In fact, at least one nation state is already thinking along these lines. Kaspar Korjus, the director of Estonia’s e-Residency program, has already floated the idea of issuing tokens instead of sovereign bonds.

Korjus said that the money raised in the offering could be used for a fund jointly managed by the government and outside private companies. This fund would be used to invest in new technologies for the public sector as well as invest venture capital into Estonian companies founded by both natives and e-Residents. Eventually Korjus sees the tokens holding value and being used as a payment method for public and private services both within the country and globally, which would provide a return on investment to ICO participants.

From This European country may hold an ICO and issue its own cryptocurrency – TechCrunch

This is, to my mind, the ultimate answer to “what is money”. Money is something that you can pay your taxes with! If Estonia were to go ahead in this way — merging, essentially, currency and bonds into a single, liquid, circulating digital asset —we will have gone full circle back to the days when government tally sticks were circulating in England. Every day, in every way, the future of money looks very much more like its past.