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.

Mo’ identity, mo’ money, mo’ book

In his book “Sapiens — A Brief History of Humankind”, the historian Yuval Noah Harari writes perceptively and entertainingly about things that are fundamental to our economy and indeed our society: money, trust, reputation and the like. I found his description of the “cognitive revolution” quite compelling, especially where he talks about human beings gaining the ability to communicate information about relationships and therefore reputation (or, as I might simplistically label the basket of concepts linked together here, “identity”). He talks about the ability of the neolithic clan to remember the mutual obligations that bind people together when they can grasp the idea of a future, and how memory does not scale into the settlements of the agricultural revolution, thus necessitating the invention of money. He writes that

When trust depends on anonymous coins and cowrie shells, it corrodes local traditions, intimate relations and human values.

Yet we needed them. The problem, as Harari framed it, is that trade cannot exist without trust, and it is hard to trust strangers (but easy to trust their money – indeed he later talks about this saying “if they run out of coins, we run out of trust”). As society scales beyond the ability of individuals the local (including the money) is given up to the global.

In short, then, when we cannot share memories about information about identity, relationships and reputation we have to come up with some other way of making payments to support trade and increase prosperity. Which leads me to speculate that if there is indeed an identity revolution, a new way of sharing memories, underway because of the transition to online-centric life then we might need to rethink the modus operandi founded on central banks, nation states and fiat currency. As Mervyn King, former governor of the Bank of England wrote in his End of Alchemy, banks and central banks “are man-made institutions that reflect the technology of their time”. 

Perhaps their time is coming to an end. The way that we think about identity today is simply not working (identity fraud in the UK is at an all-time high and still rising). We need some different ideas. The always fascinating Jan Chipchase pointed me to this section of a very thought-provoking Medium piece on identity by Dan Hill:

“How might we be able to think more richly of ‘both/and’ in terms of identity, of being part of nations, cities and the world, of respect for both the local and the global?”

For more identity, not less – Dark Matter and Trojan Horses – Medium 

Yes, yes, yes. More identity, not less. In my previous book “Identity is the New Money” I wrote how social media and mobile phones and cryptography restoring the reputation economy of the neolithic clan but at scale, making the point that while our ancestors lived in one community, we live in many. Community is no longer geography.

In my new book “Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin” I explore the intertwined evolution of technology and money, which I hope will provide the general business reader with some useful structure for thinking about the future of banks and Bitcoin, leading to an exploration of community and value. I finish by putting forward the idea that the multiple monies of the future will be linked to the multiple communities we will inhabit and, as the quote above makes clear, the multiple local and global identities of the future.

“Our identity is framed in terms of street, neighbourhood, region, nation, biome — all are meaningful, alongside various forms of communities of interest” 

For more identity, not less – Dark Matter and Trojan Horses – Medium 

My personal suspicion is that while this is certainly true and that these identities will all be meaningful, a generation from now the city identity will be the most important. Indeed, Dan Hill goes on to say that

“Europe has functioned via urban centres for millennia, rather longer than our modern understanding of states. In some respects, this is a more meaningful form of organisation than that relative latecomer, the nation state, for all the benefits that the latter has accrued.”

For more identity, not less – Dark Matter and Trojan Horses – Medium 

Dan makes the point that Manchester and Estonia are similar in population size and while we are all familiar with e-residency of the latter perhaps, rather as Gill Ringland suggests in her financial services scenarios for 2050, e-residency of desirable cities will become a valuable right and the basis for one of a number of demographic asset classes. He goes on to speculate, as I have done, on whether a new Hanseatic League or a new Mediterranean Economic Union might be viable structures. I’m not sure I agree with his views on EU e-residency (because the EU is rather an artificial structure) but it’s certainly an interesting position to discuss, not least because it forms a money-issuing community of the kind that I discuss.

My general view is that we are returning to Harari’s “local traditions, intimate relations and human values” as the basis for trade because those new technologies (mobile phones, social networks and so on) mean that we can recreate the clan, the widespread and diffuse memory of obligations, on a population scale. Hence it is not implausible to imagine that new forms of money will arise that map more closely to the values of the communities they serve.

One last thing. Those communities will not be limited to people. Much if not most trade will be between machines, between my car and your garage door, between my flying car and your Amazon drone. We might see communities of robots developing their own money to reflect their own values. Will we be allowed to use it? I don’t see anyone in Star Trek using money, but something must be going on in the background to allow my starship to use your scarce crystals for power. I don’t claim to have all, or indeed any, of the answers but I hope that my framing of the questions will help you to think more clearly about an inevitable future of more identities and more monies.

By the way, you can buy an advance copy of the new book (which will be launched officially at Money2020 in Copenhagen next month) for the giveaway price of £17.50 if you can put up with having a copy signed by me. The pristine, signature-free copies are £22.50. Run, don’t walk, over to London Publishing Partnership and reserve your copy now.

After the euro, the digital euro

Hello. It looks as if the number of currencies in the world is set to go up again. Across the English Channel, satisfaction with supra-national monetary arrangements is waning.

[Marine le Pen] said she could see the EU setting up another currency like the ECU, or European Currency Unit, which the bloc used for internal accounting purposes before the euro was introduced in 1999.

From China Media Warn Trump of ‘Big Sticks’ If He Seeks Trade War

Now, younger readers may be unfamiliar with the ECU, but I’ve written about it more than once on this blog. The idea of restoring the Franc while simultaneously creating a new pan-European currency actually makes sense and I’m rather in favour of it. Which makes we wonder how she got hold of the draft manuscript for my forthcoming book “Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin: From Money We Understand to Money That Understands Us” that the good people at the London Publishing Partnership have agreed to publish in June? Oh well, since the cat is out of the bag, I may as well give you a sneak preview…

I remember hearing the Chancellor of the Exchequer talking on the radio during the great financial crisis. He referred to the difficulties of currency union and spoke about the problems in Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Cyprus. He spoke about the problems of maintaining monetary policy across currency unions between economies with different fundamentals. All true. But he didn’t explain why this is different for the UK. How is the insanity of trying to maintain a currency union between Germany, Luxembourg and Greece any different to the insanity of trying to maintain a currency union between England, Wales and Scotland? The fact that they are in a political union does not alter the facts on the ground: they have fundamentally different economies. The Chancellor was arguing that if Scotland opted for independence, it would be impossible to maintain a currency union between England and Scotland. But surely that is true now! The best monetary policy for England is not necessarily the best monetary policy for Scotland, and technology means that what was optimal for commerce at the time of the Napoleonic Wars may no longer best for the modern economy.

If the argument for currency union is only about transaction costs within economic zones, then former Chancellor of the Exchequer John Major set out a potential way forward in 1990 (although the idea dates from 1983) with his alternative to the euro, which was at the time was labelled the “hard ECU”. The ECU was the “European Currency Unit”, a unit of account set using a basket of currencies, that was intended to help international business by minimising foreign exchange fluctuations. Major’s idea for the hard ECU was a fully-fledged currency with a “no devaluation” guarantee (Hasse and Koch 1991). Whereas the ECU reflected the weighted average of inflation rates in the countries concerned, the hard ECU would be linked to the strongest currency (which would have been the Deutschmark, of course). This guarantee would be backed by a commitment from participating central to buy back their own currency or make good exchange losses in the event of devaluations.

Imagine what that kind of parallel currency might look like today. It would be an electronic currency that would never exist in physical form but still be legal tender (put to one side what that means in practice) in all EU member states. Thus, businesses could keep accounts in hard ECUs, even in a post-EU England, and trade them cross-border with minimal transaction costs. Tourists could have hard ECU payment cards that they could use through the Union without penalty and so on. But each state would continue with its own national currency (you would still able use Sterling notes and coins in British shops) and the cost of replacing them would have been saved.

The reason for doing this is to minimise the costs of doing business across Europe while giving each country control over its own currency. But the more general point that I want to make is that the advance of technology gives us new choices in the way that money works. The way that money works now is not a law of physics: it is a set of institutional arrangements that could be changed at any time. Thus, if anything, Ms. le Pen is not being radical at all. Why have nation-state control over money? Why not allow regions to have their own currencies? Why not use Google Money? Or Islamic e-Dinars?

I’m not the only one who thinks this, by the way. Check this out from “The Futurist Magazine” in September 2012, where as part of a compilation of pieces envisioning life in 2100, the article asks if we will still have money in 2100, and speculates on what form it may take if we do:

It is quite likely that we will still have money in 2100, but it may not be issued by governments any longer.

[From European Futures Observatory]

I couldn’t agree more. But if not governments, then who? One of the things I discuss in my book is my “5Cs” model for thinking about future issuers: central banks, commercial banks, companies, cryptography and communities. My good friend Rob Allen from PwC was kind enough to use this model in Sydney this week and, frankly, if people like Rob are taking it seriously then I know I’m on the right track.

It’s time to start thinking about the future of money and not just because I have a book about it coming out in June (did I mention that before?) but because the current industrial age monetary arrangements do not support the post-industrial economy.