PayPal’s Bitcoin strategy is about much more than bitcoin

Given that the people who are great supporters of bitcoin often talk about its key characteristic being that it is person-to-person, uncensorable value transfer you do have to wonder who will be using the new PayPal service that will allow them to pay merchants using the cryptocurrency. My good friend Ron Shevlin drew on a survey of 3,000 US consumers conducted by Cornerstone Advisors and FICO which found that around two-thirds of US smartphone users have the PayPal app installed (as I do), a seventh of all PayPal users already own some form of cryptocurrency and of those PayPal users, half of them used Bitcoin to buy products or services in the past year. So does this mean that the mass market use of cryptocurrency for payments is just around the corner?

I think not. The overwhelming majority of all cryptocurrency transactions are purely speculative and the people who think that bitcoin is a good investment* are never going to use it for payments. Bitcoin was originally billed as an elecronic cash system but most bitcoins aren’t used as currency in transactions for goods and services. Surveys have shown that the majority of bitcoin are held for speculative purposes and while some retailers accept Bitcoin, they see cryptocurrency purchases having a higher drop-out rate than cards and cash payments.

Paypalpassword

with kind permission of TheOfficeMuse (CC-BY-ND 4.0)

So this can’t be much of a payments play. Think about it. If you think that the bitcoin is going to the moon (and will be worth $1 million each within five years, as this former Goldman Sachs hedge fund person has just predicted) then why would you waste even a tiny fraction of a bitcoin buying the pizza or a Pez dispenser? No, the people who will use their PayPal wallet to exchange bank dollars for PayPal bitcoin are simply investing. If they choose to pay a merchant using bitcoin from their wallet, PayPal gives the merchant dollars anyway. Neither the consumer nor the merchant ever has any actual bitcoins in their possession.

When people do use bitcoin to buy things it tends to be things they can't buy using PayPal anyway. Click To Tweet

The amount of cryptocurrency spent on “dark markets” rose two-thirds to reach a new high in the final quarter of 2019, according to Chainalysis and the New York Times says that this data is likely to understate the number transactions for illegal purposes because the company cannot identify all activities relating to drugs, ransomware, tax evasion and money laundering. If I use bitcoin to buy illegal drugs, example, because of its “anonymity” and uncensorability, then I am hardly likely to start buying drugs using PayPal. The example of adult services makes this point rather well. Adult performers who are engaged in a perfectly legal business complain that PayPal refuses to allow payments to them and so they are forced to use third-parties who, according to the New York Times, take anywhere from a third to four-fifths of performers earnings in fees. Those people still won’t be able to use PayPal, whether in dollar or bitcoin, so the new service won’t make any difference to them.

PayPal’s Big Picture

Well, since the people who run PayPal are much richer and much smarter than I am, I am forced to conclude that they must have a plan that goes beyond earning some spreads from buying and selling cryptocurrency for retail speculators. I have no knowledge what PayPal are doing or why, but I do have some experience looking at strategies for financial institutions exploiting new technology, so I think I can make some informed guesses.

First of all, PayPal’s move is to be admired purely in marketing terms. The announcement put five percent on their stock price and garnered gazillions of column inches, links and commentary such as this. Even if they never turn a profit on bitcoin itself, their investment in software and licences has already paid off. I worked on a project for a global financial services financial services organisation a couple of years ago and I can remember the calculations around brand and exposure. To old-timers like me, PayPal is the grandparent of fintech, an upstart storming the walls of the entrenched incumbent financial services giants. But to youngsters, such as the son who I just asked about the company, PayPal are part of the establishment, no different to Wells Fargo or Barclaycard. A bit of cryptocurrency glitter does not hurt the brand, even if it is cosmetic.

Secondly, the technologies of cryptocurrency (shared ledgers, cryptographic proofs and so on) are going to be the foundations of a longer term shift to the trading of digital bearer instruments that are exchanged without clearing or settlement networks so building up institutional expertise is valuable. It’s reasonable to imagine that these instruments might well be implemented as tokens traded across decentralised networks, so exploring the trade-offs around infrastructures and interfaces is a good investment of time and effort.

Thirdly, and much more importantly though, I suspect that PayPal are making two much more strategic and long-term plays around the wallet and its contents. They are no doubt looking enviously across the water to the Asian “super apps” and thinking about the impending Alipay IPO. Turning PayPal from being a repository of balances to fund payments into a financial hub managing a number of different assets for a broad range of consumers is attractive to them. In their scenario planning, PayPal undoubtably started to think about the opportunities that will arise from the trading and management of digital assets (in the form of tokens) in the not-too-distant future. By gaining expertise in decentralised alternatives to commercial bank money and the regulation that does with them, PayPal is being very smart.

I don’t think PayPal’s experiment with bitcoin is really much about bitcoin at all. I think this is a measured and intelligent step towards the transactional environments of the future where digital assets compete with digital fiat across a payments landscape that is utterly different to that of today. As Ajit Tripathi pointed out, crypto-believers might feel they have occupied Wall Street but the reverse is true. Banks (and their regulators) have won and some of these interesting new digital assets are on their way to becoming part of the financial mainstream.

There is one particular category of digital asset that is inevitable: Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC). In the run-up to the biggest IPO in history, Jack Ma talked about how digital currencies may play an important role in building the type of a financial system that will be needed for the coming generation and said that digital currency could “create value and we should think about how to establish a new type of financial system through digital currency”. Just as the Chinese government have begun to distribute their digital currency through third parties, including commercial banks and apps, so PayPal might reasonably expect to be an invaluable partner to the US government when it finally gets its act together to deliver some sort of digital dollar. If PayPal were to pivot away from the traditional infrastructure of banks and accounts, payments cards and interchange towards an infrastructure of wallets exchanging digital dollars (or perhaps, as Meltem Demirors speculates from a very well-informed perspective, their own alternative to Facebook’s Libra private currency) that would be a significant shift in the dynamics of the payments sector.

* I am not saying that I do or do not think cryptocurrency is a good investment. I am not making any comments that might be misconstrued as financial advice. Please note that any comments I make about cryptocurrencies as an asset class are for entertainment purposes only.

[This is an edited version of a piece that first appeared on Forbes.com, 25th October 2020.]

What is the point of the “travel rule”?

A couple of years ago, as you may have read in the Financial Times at the time, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) extended their recommendations to include cryptocurrency exchange and wallet providers and such like, referred to as Virtual Asset Service Providers (VASPs). This meant that all countries must supervise and monitor these, and that they should apply anti-money laundering and anti-terrorist financing controls: that is, customer due diligence (CDD), suspicious transaction reporting (STR) and the “travel rule”.

The decision to apply the same travel rule on VASPs as on traditional financial institutions was greeted with some dismay in the cryptocurrency world, because it means that the service providers must collect and exchange customer information during transactions. The technically non-binding guidance on how member jurisdictions should regulate their ‘virtual asset’ marketplace included the contentious detail that whenever a user of one exchange sends cryptocurrency worth more than 1,000 dollars or euros to a user of a different exchange, the originating exchange must send identifying information about both the sender and the intended recipient to the beneficiary exchange. The information must also be recorded and made available to “appropriate authorities on request”.

This identifying information, according to the FATF Interpretive Note to Recommendation 16, should include name and account number of the originator and benefactor, the originator’s (physical) address, national identity number (or something similar) or date and place of birth. In essence, this means that personal information will be smeared all over the interweb tubes. My good friend Simon Lelieveldt, who is very well-informed and level-headed about such things, said at the time that this is a “disproportional silly measure by regulators who don’t understand blockchain technology”, which may be a little harsh even if not too far from the truth.

Anyway, some folks from the land of crypto have put together a standard for implementing the travel rule in the hope of spurring interoperability and reducing the costs for all involved. The standard, known as IVMS101, defines a uniform model for data that must be exchanged by virtual asset service providers (VASPs) alongside cryptocurrency transactions. The standard (you can download it here) will identify the senders and receivers of crypto payments, with such information “traveling” alongside the cryptocurrency transactions but along a separate path (that is, the IVMS101 messages do not themselves need the blockchain or any other crypto infrastructure).

(If you are wondering why it’s called IVMS101, it’s because the SWIFT MT101 message is the global standard request for the electronic transfer of funds from one account to another. For those of us in the payments world, MT101 is mother’s milk: mandatory Tag 20 Sender Reference, optional Tag 21 Customer Specified Reference and so on and so on. The MT101 message is used throughout the business world to send bulk payment instructions (ie, a header and multiple payment instructions in a single message). There is also the MT103 message that instructs a single transfer but this is mainly used to move funds between banks and other financial institutions such as money transfer companies.)

IVMS101 is pretty thorough and it sets out in detail what messages should be passed from (eg) one Bitcoin exchange to another, along the lines of:

if the originator is a NaturalPerson then either (
     geographicAddress
          with an addressType value of GEOG or HOME or BIZZ 
     and/or customerNumber
     and/or nationalIdentification
     and/or dateAndPlaceOfBirth )
is required.

This sort of thing is needed because there’s no global standard digital identity that could be attached to messages so market participants have to make do with national solutions or proxies. Nevertheless, it’s a good standard (as you’d expect when you see who wrote it) but uncharitable persons might well be asking what the point of it is because law enforcement agencies can already get this information by presenting a warrant. What the travel rule does is to, essentially, automate mass surveillance without a warrant or any other oversight and force personal information on to marketplace intermediaries (where, in my opinion, it doesn’t belong – my date and place of birth is no business of either intermediary exchanges or, indeed, the destination exchange). What’s more, since the travel rule is for value transfers between exchanges, it seems rather unlikely that it will catch any criminal flows at all.

I, for example, have a Coinbase hosted Bitcoin wallet and a Bitcoin wallet on a USB stick. If I want to send money to criminals, I will transfer it from my Coinbase wallet to my USB wallet and then from my USB wallet off via mixers to the criminal’s USB wallet and the travel rule is irrelevant. The uncharitable people mentioned earlier will undoubtedly observe that since the actual travel rule doesn’t seem to have stopped money laundering which is a massive global industry, there’s no obvious reason why the virtual travel rule will stop electronic money laundering on a similar grand scale.

The enforcement of a regulation (the travel rule) that was created over 20 years ago for a fast-evolving industry, may not be the best approach for cryptocurrency. Click To Tweet

Writing in this month’s Chartwell “Compass” magazine, Omar Magana hits the nail on the head with respect to the travel rule, asking if “the enforcement of a regulation that was created over 20 years ago for a fast-evolving industry, may not be the best approach”. Note that he is not arguing against regulation, he is arguing (as I do) for a form of regulation more appropriate for our age (for which I use the umbrella term “Digital Due Diligence”, or DDD) using artificial intelligence and machine learning to track, trace and connect the dots to find the bad actors.

I am genuinely curious to learn more about whether the travel rule will make the slightest difference to the money launderers, so please do let me know in the comments whether such scepticism is misguided or whether the travel rule will make the world a safer place.

Send lawyers, guns and Bitcoin passwords

One of the arguments about the transition to a cashless, less-cash or contact-free economy is that such an economy marginalises people who are trapped in the cash economy and is very bad for them. I’m not sure it’s bad for them, though. I don’t want people to be marginalised, of course, but the people who are trapped in the cash economy are the people who end up paying the highest costs. Just to pick one random news story this week (and I could have chosen many), here’s a case from China in which a man who didn’t trust banks buried his life savings underground five years ago. When he dug it up, a quarter of it was beyond repair and he lost 500,000 Yuan.

Of course, there are people who prefer to exist in a cash economy for reasons other than a fundamental lack of trust in the international financial and monetary system. Criminals and corrupt politicians, for example. Cash works rather well for them, but can sometime be quite inconvenient. For remote purchasing, for example. Only yesterday I read about two freelance pharmaceutical intermediaries who were arrested in California after police caught them dumping nearly $1 million in cash which was intended to buy marijuana some distance from their main place of residence.

(If you are wondering why they didn’t just Venmo or Square Cash the money along I-5, remember that the state of California imposes a 15% excise tax on licensed cannabis so the cash-based black market avoids tax. The state estimates the regulated market has captured less than one-third of activity, once again suggesting to me that the primary function of $100 bills is tax evasion.)

“Well, we’ll see how smart you are when the K9 come!” / I got 99 problems but the Bitcoin aint one.

California, incidentally, has a huge $100 bill problem right now. The coronavirus has disrupted supply chains so that drug dealers in the USA cannot use the normal trade-based cross-border money laundering pathways to pesos. Hence, Hugh quantities of dollars are piling up outside the financial system.

(In other news, the Fed reports that as of 8th April there are $1.84 TRILLION of Federal Reserve notes in circulation, around $200 billion more than this time last year.)

Now, I can understand why the disconnected, marginalised poor in remote parts of the world eschew the benefits of electronic payments for the currency of choice for the global criminal on the go, the $100 bill. But in California? Don’t they have Bitcoin there? Given the huge hassle of counting, bagging and transporting the Benjamins, why didn’t these entrepreneurs simply buy a few Bitcoins, drive to the drop zones and press the “send” button when the goods are in from of them. It only takes an hour or so for the half a dozen confirmations that the wholesale distributors would want to see, and then Bob’s your uncle. 

But no, they packed up the greenbacks and set off in their car.

Surely, I have to reflect, if drug dealers won’t use Bitcoin, then who will? There must be many people who don’t want to carry around huge wads of cash for such purchases. Why aren’t they in crypto? What about the millions of people who buy things that they would prefer not to show up on their credit card statements? Remember the newspaper story about noted England rugby player Lawrence Dallaglio’s credit card being used in a brothel in London? A police raid on the establishment uncovered burner phones, diaries, POS terminals, a bag filled with bank cards and receipts (what a well-run organisation!) showing that customers were were paying between £80 and £100 for a gram of coke and… no Bitcoin hard wallets or passwords written on Post-Its.

(If I was off to brothel and wanted to buy some cocaine while I was there, I would certainly be at the very least reticent to use my credit card, even if the establishment was PCI-DSS compliant, which I’m pretty sure a bag full of bank cards in a plastic bag in a toilet is not.)

Anyway, back to the point. How can it be more convenient to cart around great wodges of cash than to zip some magic internet money through the interweb tubes? That’s not to say that Bitcoin is the perfect solution for criminal on the go, though. For example, in a recent Irish case, a drug dealer who wisely decided to invest in cryptocurrency rather than the euro amassed a fortune of €54 million in digital loot. He hid the passwords to the digital wallets holding his ill-gotten gains with his fishing rod. Unfortunately, the fishing rod has “gone missing” so while the Irish Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) has in theory confiscated the 12 wallets (containing 6,000 bitcoin), in practice they cannot get hold of them.

(On the other hand, thanks to people such as Chainalysis, the Irish police can at least find out who sent money to the wallet and where money from the wallets was sent to, which ought to help them further their investigations.)

The noted software entrepreneur John Macafee said, on a recent episode of the Breaking Banks radio show that I was co-hosting, said something similar. He said that Bitcoin is no good for this sort of thing because it can be traced (he has previously called Bitcoin “ancient technology”) and he advised listeners to use Monero instead saying that it hs 99% of the “dark” market right now and also that he is launching a distributed exchange for Monero in the near future. A recently published Rand Corporation study shows that Bitcoin and Monero dominate the black market with Zcash (the other leading privacy coin) nowhere to be seen. 

(The price of Monero has roughly halved over the last year so I guess that there just aren’t that many criminals out there right now, but who knows. )

I should note, though, that the issue of more private versions of digital currencies is not of exclusive interest to criminals and corrupt politicians. There are many people who are engaged in perfectly legal businesses (eg, selling weed in Colorado, performing adult services in Nevada or trying to buy food in Venezuela) that are still excluded from the global financial system and are therefore driven to look for alternatives.

Venezuela is an interesting example. It used to crop up in talks by Bitcoin fans although restaurants, shops, supermarkets and even the street vendors today accept – and prefer – dollars in cash or by bank transfer. You can pay by Zelle in supermarkets there! A Columbian start up, Valiu, has just launched to provide a USD “stablecoin” for the Venezuelan market so perhaps that might eat into the bank transfer market but I wouldn’t bet on it.

What, no Bitcoin?

What’s the niche for cryptocurrency then? A quick investigation tells me that the market-leading porn site accepts four cryptocurrencies, three of which I’ve never heard of, and not Bitcoin, Monero or Zcash although that may change soon as a number of campaigners have sent letters to Visa, Mastercard, Amex and all demanding that they stop processing payments for porn. Mastercard said that they were investigating claims made the and would “terminate their connection to our network” if illegal activity was confirmed.

If the porn people won’t use Bitcoin, then who will? Maybe taking payment cards away from sites such as PornHub will stimulate evolution in user journey and ease of use for Monero et al and push them into the mainstream at last.

(It won’t, of course. What will actually happen is that the porn and gambling guys will get together and launch an over-18 version of Libra which, as it will be the only way to pay for these services, will soon become the currency of choice for adult services.  You read it here first. Pretty soon, the average person will have a digital wallet full of Facebucks and Buttbucks and precious little else.

Digital currency is getting serious

North Korea is, apparently, developing a digital currency of its own. According to Alejandro Cao de Benós, President of the Korean Friendship Association, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea intends to go down the Facebook route by creating an asset-backed digital currency rather than a digital fiat currency and then use some sort of blockchain with “Ethereum-style smart contracts” to do business and avoid sanctions.

Why use a blockchain? Well, the regime sees such “smart” “contracts” as a way to enforce deals it makes with foreign counterparties. Since it doesn’t trust the U.N., it relies on Chinese intermediaries to enforce deals abroad. But sometimes, so sources claim, those intermediaries cheat the North Koreans. Hence, they want to bypass intermediaries altogether by developing a  “token based on something with physical value” (eg, gold) in order to create a stable mechanism for payments in international trade between the regime and “other companies/individuals” (although it will not be available to individuals in the DPRK, who will be stuck with the Korean Won).

(This is not a new idea, by the way. A couple of years ago, the Venezuelans tried a similar idea “the petro”, a digital currency to be backed by the country’s natural resources — diamonds, gas, gold and oil — to beat the “financial blockade” imposed by the U.S. and others. I will check the world currency markets later on, but my general sense of the matter is that the petro is yet to topple the Swiss Franc. It, may, however have served as a useful input to other regime’s feasibility studies.)

This is why U.S. (and other countries) care whether the North Koreans launch an eWon that stops them from being cheated in international transactions. As the Financial Times points out, the U.S. has a genuine and well-founded concern that, the financial implications of a change to U.S. currency hegemony to one side, foreign countries will increasingly use digital currencies, “such as Facebook’s planned Libra coin“, to avoid sanctions. Indeed, this was one of the arguments that David Marcus uses. He says, for example, that a Chinese digital currency running on a Chinese permissioned blockchain could mean the potential for “a whole part of the world completely blocked from U.S. sanctions and protected from U.S. sanctions and having a new digital reserve currency”.

Sanctions are a serious thing and cryptocurrency doesn’t have a magic shield against them. An Ethereum developer was recently arrested for violating U.S. sanctions against North Korea. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, one Virgil Griffith was arrested at Los Angeles airport and charged with violating their International Emergency Economic Powers Act (“IEEPA”) by travelling to North Korea to give a presentation about using cryptocurrency to evade sanctions. As observers pointed out, Mr. Griffith may have evolved a sub-optimal communications strategy in connection with his travel plans.

A North Korean digital currency has every chance of succeeding under the stewardship of the Korean Worker’s Party and the divine tutelage of Kim Jong-Un, the Dear Leader. His father, the previous Dear Leader, most famous for being the greatest golfer in history, was responsible for an earlier experiment in radical transformation through money, when the DPRK fell into chaos after his government revalued the currency and restricted the trading in of the old money (thus wiping out the personal savings of counter-revolutionary running-dog lackeys of U.S. imperialism).

When the North Korean people were not eating tree bark to stay alive, they must surely have noticed that the revaluation of the unit of account didn’t make the slightest difference to the supply and demand for goods and services. It made a difference to the market, though. The revaluation and exchange limits triggered panic, particularly among market traders with substantial hoards of old North Korean won — much of which became worthless. Gresham’s Law took immediate effect: the KRW disappeared from the marketplace and people began to use whatever hard currencies they could get their hands on. The Dear Leader therefore launched an attack on this as well, banning everyone (including foreigners) from using foreign currencies such as euros or dollars. The authorities started a TV campaign asking good citizens to report anybody using dollars directly and I imagine that the same will apply to digital dollars or electronic euros.

So, if a North Korean digital currency based on gold or whatever does appear, would it help the regime and others to avoid sanctions? Well, it depends. It is certainly possible to design digital currencies that have unconditional anonymity that Bitcoin (for example) does not. Perhaps this is what Mr. Griffith was explaining to the North Koreans in Pyongyang, although to be honest they could have discovered this for themselves on the Internet without too much trouble. So let’s imagine that they do indeed create such a beast, a bastard child of ZCash and Quorum. What will happen? Well, in a recent “war-game” of this scenario hosted by the Economic Diplomacy Initiative and co-sponsored by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard (involving U.S. administration veterans, diplomats and academics), the rise of an encrypted digital currency attacked the dollar’s international position and ended up allowing North Korea to bypass sanctions and build an intercontinental ballistic missile. Ruh roh, as they say on the internet.

(The North Koreans have other options for disruption using digital currency, by the way. See John Cooley’s book on counterfeiting Currency Wars, which is about various attempts to destabilise countries by forging their currencies. He talks a lot about North Korea’s “superdollar” forgeries and the like. Now, think what the coming version of this might be: not counterfeiting physical money, but creating electronic money. I can’t help but wonder whether the shift to digital money for retail and person-to-person payments will make a modern-day Operation Bernhard — Hitler’s plan to undermine the British economy by forging £5 notes — easier or harder?)

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington think tank, summarise the situation quite well in their position paper “Crypto Rogues” observing that “blockchain technology may be the innovation that enables U.S. adversaries for the first time to operate entire economies outside the U.S.-led financial system”. Now, while this may be technically slightly inaccurate (there are ways to create anonymous transactions without a blockchain, but let’s take this use of “blockchain” to mean “third-party anonymous digital currency”) it does accurately flag up that the widespread availability of decentralised financial services threatens to bypass the existing infrastructure. The FDD are surely right to say that “blockchain sanctions resistance is a long-term strategy for U.S. adversaries”.

Now, whether using the blockchain to create an immutable record of sanctions-busting transactions is a good idea or not I couldn’t say, but as a general rule I’m someone who believes in the democratic process and therefore I’d prefer it if sanctions could not be so easily evaded. Especially when you consider why the sanctions are there in the first place.

(A recent U.N. report estimates that North Korea has generated some $2 billion for its weapons of mass destruction programs using “widespread and increasingly sophisticated” cyberattacks to steal from banks and cryptocurrency exchanges. It makes you nostalgic for the days when hackers were stealing credit card numbers to access porn.)

No-one would imagine that a digital currency by itself would render sanctions ineffective. When the Iranian regime, for example, set up a venture to explore Bitcoin payments with a Swedish startup, the Swedish banks refused it a bank account because they themselves did not want to become subject to secondary sanctions. As US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin said at the G7 in July (talking about Iran), “If you want to participate in the dollar system you abide by US sanctions”. There is no doubt, though, that moving transactions outside of the international monetary and finance system could help to make other sanctions-evading tactics more effective by making it more difficult to track, trace and monitor transactions.

Stablecoins and stable coins

I notice that in the considerable press comment concerning the possible introduction of a Facebook payment system and perhaps even a Facebook currency of some kind, commentators continually refer to a Facebook “stablecoin”. I am certain that they are wrong to use this term, because it does not mean what they think it means. I may well be facing a losing battle about this, but I am stickler for correct currency terminology.

So. Stablecoin. What?

In the Bank of England’s excellent “Bank Underground” blog, there was a post on this topic that said “The chances of a stablecoin keeping a stable price depends on its design. There are generally two designs of stablecoin: those backed by assets, and those that are unbacked or ‘algorithmic’”. They are right, of course, but I would like to present slightly more granular classification of stablecoin currencies. I think there are three kinds:

  1. Algorithmic Currencies, in which algorithms manage supply and demand to obtain stability of the digital currency. This is what a stable cryptocurrency is: since a cryptocurrency is backed by nothing other than mathematics, it is mathematics that manages the money supply to hold the value of the steady against some external benchmark. This is what is meant by stablecoin in the original crypto use of the term.

  2. Assetbacked Currencies, in which an asset or basket of assets are used to back the digital currency. I don’t know why people refer to these a stablecoins, since they are stable only against the specific assets that back them. An asset that is backed by, say, crude oil is stable against crude oil but nothing else.

  3. Fiat-backed (aka Currency Boards), which are similar to a asset-backed currencies but where the assets backing the digital currency are fiat currencies only. There are mundane versions of these already: in Bulgaria, for example, where the local currency (the Lev) is backed by a 100% reserve of Euros

As for that last category, it is effectively what is currently defined as electronic money under the existing EU directives, and therefore already regulated. Those coins backed by fiat currency, such as JPM Coin, simply provide a convenient way to transfer value around the internet without going through banking networks. Now, this may well be an advantage in cost and convenience for some uses cases but it is a long way from an algorithmic currency. If this is indeed what Facebucks turn out to be (ie, actual bucks that you can send around on Facebook, something along the lines of Apple Cash), then I have written before why I think they will be successful.

So will any or all of these catch on?

Predictions are of course difficult, but my general feeling is that it is the asset-backed currencies that are most interesting and most likely to succeed in causing an actual revolution in finance and banking. Algorithmic stablecoins and fiat “stablecoins” exist to serve a demand for value transfer, but this is increasingly served well by conventional means. I notice this week, for example, that Transferwise can now send money from the UK to Hong Kong in 11 seconds, a feat made possible by their direct connection to the payments networks of both countries. Why would I use a fiat token when I can send fiat money faster and cheaper?

Of course, you might argue that a digital currency board might allow people who are excluded from the global financial system to hold and transfer value but I am unconvinced. There plenty of ways to hold and transfer electronic value (eg, M-PESA) without using bank accounts. Generally speaking, people around the world are excluded because of regulation (eg, KYC) and if we want to do something about inclusion we should probably start here. If you are going to require KYC for the electronic wallet needed to hold your digital currency they customers may as well open a bank account, right?

(I’ve written before about how the need for an account hampered Mondex. When it was first launched, I went to a bank branch with £50 expecting to walk out with a Mondex card with £50 on it. What I actually walked out with was a multi-page form to open a bank account so that I could get a Mondex card which arrived some time later. And since I had to put my debit card into the ATM in order to load the Mondex card, I did what most other people did and drew out cash instead.)

I suppose there are some people who think that the anonymity and pseduonymity of cryptocurrencies might make them an attractive alternative to certain sectors, but this is probably a window. If cryptocurrencies were used for crime on a large scale then efforts would be made to police them. Bitcoin, in particular, is not a good choice for criminals since it leaves a public and immutable record of their actions but you can imagine a future in which the mere possession of an anonymous cryptocurrency becomes a prima facie cash of money laundering.

Looking at the “stable” stable, then, I’ll put my money on the middle way. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there is a real marketplace logic to the trading of asset-backed currencies in the form of tokens and I expect to see an explosion of different kinds.

Not a cryptocurrency. End of.

The media recently reported, somewhat breathlessly (eg, CNBC), that JP Morgan Chase (JPMC)is launching a “cryptocurrency to transform the payments business”. This sounded amazing so I was very excited to learn more about this great leap forward in the future history of money.

As CNBC reported, it seems to herald new forms of business. Umar Farooq, the head of JPMC’s blockchain projects, sets put this vision clearly, saying that the applications for this innovative use of new transaction technology “are frankly quite endless; anything where you have a distributed ledger which involves corporations or institutions can use this.

Wow.

Now, many people took a look at this and pointed out that it is simply JPMC deposits by another name, and uncharitable persons (of whom I am not one) therefore dismissed it as a marketing gimmick. But it is more interesting than that. Here is the problem that it is trying to solve…

Suppose I am running apps (referred to by less well-informed media commentators as “smart” “contracts” when they are neither) on JPMC’s Quorum blockchain. Quorum is, in the terminology that I developed along with Richard Brown (CTO of R3) and my colleague Salome Parulava, their double-permissioned Ethereum fork (that is, it requires permission to access it and a further permission to take part in the consensus-forming process). I’m quite partial to Quorum (this is what I wrote about it back in 2017) and am always interested to see how it is developing and helping to define what I call the Enterprise Shared Ledger (ESL) software category.

Now suppose my Quorum app wants to make a payment – not in imaginary internet play money, but in US dollars – in return for some service. How can it do this? Remember that our apps can’t send a wire transfer or use a credit card because they can only access data on the blockchain. If the app has to pay using a credit card, and that app could be executing on a thousand nodes in the blockchain network, then you would have a thousand credit card payments all being fired off within a few seconds! You can see why this can’t work.

One way to solve this problem would be to have “oracles” reporting on the state of bank accounts to the blockchain and “watchers”  (or “custom executors” as Darius calls them here) looking for state changes in the blockchain bank accounts that they could then instruct in the actual bank accounts. But that would mean putting the safe-to-spend limits for millions of bank accounts on to the blockchain. Another more practical solution would be to add tokens to Quorum and allow the apps to send these tokens to one another. This is, as far as I can tell from a distance, is what JPM Coins are for.

I have to say that this is a fairly standard way of approaching this problem. A couple of months ago, Signature Bank of New York, launched just such a service for corporate customers — with a minimum $250,000 balance — using another permissioned Ethereum fork, similarly converting Uncle Sam’s dollars into ERC-20 tokens. If you’re interested, I gave a presentation to the Dutch Blockchain Innovation Conference last year on this approach and why I think it will grow and the video is online [23 minutes].)

Animal, vegetable or mineral?

These JPM Coins (I simply cannot resist calling them Dimon Dollars, or $Dimon, for obvious reasons) have attracted considerable discussion but I thought I might contribute something different to the debate by trying to reason my way through to a categorisation. I talked about this on the panel in the “Blockchain and Cryptocurrencies” session at Merchant Payments Ecosystem in Berlin today, and you can see my slides here:

 

On the panel, I said that the $Dimon is e-money. Here’s why…

Is it “money”? No it isn’t. It is certainly a cryptoasset – a digital asset that has an institutional binding to a real-world asset – that in certain circumstances exhibits money-like behaviour. Personally, I am happy to classify such assets as forms of digital money, the logical reason that they are bearer instruments that can be traded without clearing or settlement. 

Is it a “cryptocurrency”? No, it isn’t. A cryptocurrency has a value determined, essentially, by mathematics in that the algorithm to produce the currency is known and the value of the cryptocurrency depends only that known supply and the unknown demand (and, of course, market manipulation of various kinds). It is not set by an institution, government or otherwise.

Is it a “stablecoin”? No, it is isn’t. A stablecoin has its value maintained at a certain level with reference to a fiat currency by managing the supply of the coins. But the value of the $Dimon is maintained by the institution of JP Morgan irrespective of the demand for it.

Is it a “currency board”? No, it isn’t. A currency board maintains the value of one currency using a reserve in another currency. So, for example, you might have a Zimbabwean currency board that issues Zim Dollars against a 100% reserve of South African Rand.

In fact, as far as I can tell, the $Dimon is e-money, which is one particular kind of digital money. There are two main reasons for this:

First, according to the EU Directive 2009/110/EC, “Electronic money” is defined as “electronically, including magnetically, stored monetary value as represented by a claim on the issuer which is issued on receipt of funds for the purpose of making payment transactions […], and which is accepted by a natural or legal person other than the electronic money issuer”. This sounds awfully like, as Bloomberg put it, the $Dimon is “a digital coin representing United States Dollars held in designated accounts at JPMorgan Chase N.A.”. It is a bearer instrument (so “coin” is a reasonable appellation) that entitles the holder to obtain a US dollar from that bank and therefore seems to fall within that EU definition since people other than JPMC, albeit customers of JPMC, accept it in payment. (I would pull back from calling it digital cash because of this need to establish an account with JPMC in order to hold it.)

Second, because my good friend Simon Lelieveldt, who knows more about electronic money than almost anyone else, says so. Simon and I have long agreed that the trading of digital assets in the form of tokens is the most interesting aspect of current developments in cryptocurrency, a point I made more than once in my MPE talk.


Following my logic then, in European regulatory terms then, the $Dimon is “e-money” and I think that is a quite reasonable definition. Case closed.

Ten more years

We’ve just had Bitcoin’s tenth birthday, so like most other electronic payment aficionados I’ve been mulling over the trajectory of the noted peer-to-peer electronic cash system. My interest in it goes back long way. I was  invited to speak to the first European Bitcoin conference in Prague back in 2011 having previously given perspectives on the project — in blogs, magazines and even on BBC radio — that were not especially enthusiastic. As an example, in Prospect Magazine back in 2011 I wrote “while many of us would like currency management taken away from governments, that doesn’t mean an unmanaged solution will be any better”.

That Prague conference was therefore an opportunity for me to learn more about Bitcoin and the Bitcoin community as well as to test my arguments with an informed crowd. My views didn’t change – I still didn’t think Bitcoin would crack the mass market – but looking back on it now is a fascinating slice of early Bitcoin life.

In the first presentation, Sergey Kurtsev from IMCEX said that anonymity is misunderstood and that the public don’t need it. I was upset about this, not because he was absolutely correct about it, but because it was going to be the subject of my talk in the afternoon. So it led to some emergency last-minute Keynote acrobatics on my part!

Amir Taaki from the Bitcoin Consultancy gave a presentation that was quite wide-ranging so I will use that presentation as a peg to hang a few comments on. He said, essentially, that there were three problems with Bitcoin: the marketplace, the technology and finance.

  1. Marketplace. Amir said that consumers had no reason to use Bitcoin because attributes that Bitcoin projects (such as that anonymity) are not valued by consumers and the merchants obviously don’t see enough value to drive consumers towards it. I don’t see that anything has changed in the last decade. As I pointed out in 2015, if there’s no demand for Bitcoin for porn, then there’s no future for it as a means of exchange!

  2. Technology. There were scale issues, as people much cleverer than me (e.g., Ben Laurie) pointed out at the very beginning, but the key technology issue was that it was hard to use. Now it’s a bit easier because you have a variety of Bitcoin wallets to choose from.

  3. Finance. Amir made a point about “compromising events”. He said that if you want people to hold Bitcoins instead of dollars or gold, they have to have real faith. Every time they read about exchanges crashing and money vanishing that becomes more unlikely. As I have posted with wearying repetition on Twitter across the last decade “help I want my anonymous, untraceable digital cash back!”.

When it came to my talk (which you can see below), I did try to make constructive criticism. I tried to highlight some areas of commerce where the existing mass market solutions might be vulnerable to well-crafted alternatives (e.g., social networking, games, kids) or where a significant improvement in security would generate value.

 

( I also emphasis, as I recall, that any realistic mass-market solution must be mobile-centric.)

Overall, as I’d previously written, I was unconvinced that Bitcoin would make a good currency or scale into the mainstream economy, mainly because the anonymity that was the attractive feature to the early-adopting bitcoiners was not attractive to the mass market. I still don’t see any traction for Bitcoin in the mass market. Back in 2015, I set off to visit Swindon on the 20th anniversary of the launch of the UK Mondex scheme (an offline, smartcard-based form of electronic cash) and discovered a shop advertising that they accepted Bitcoin. But when I attempted to pay with Mr. Nakamoto’s peer-to-peer electronic cash system, no-one could remember the password and when I asked to speak to the manager, he told me that no customer had ever asked to pay with Bitcoin anyway. 

Bitcoin at POS in Swindon

 

(Swindon, once twinned with Disney World, is the epicentre and bellwether of the transition to new forms of money. In two decades it went from a place where no-one used Mondex to a place where no-one used Bitcoin.)

More interestingly, with the perspective of hindsight, a couple of the speakers at the event suggested creating a scheme on top of Bitcoin rather than use Bitcoin itself, which to my mind adumbrates the evolution of the token, which I do think has more chance of success. I wrote about this last year, saying that I see Bitcoin and its cousins not as prototypes but as a base layer 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.

So the blockchain is new and so on… and yet… the idea of a trading “money like” instruments without clearing and settlement is hugely appealing. This not on idealogical grounds but on economic ones: it’s cheaper.

Whether the transaction layer underneath will be Bitcoin or not is anyone’s guess, although I suspect it will not. If the function of the transaction layer is to be a global, shared resource for security infrastructure then the protocol will surely need to be optimised in that direction and the operations will surely need to be organised in such a way as to prevent any well-funded (at the National State level) attacker from being able to control sufficient of the necessary resources to subvert or disrupt that infrastructure. No-one is going to move their stock market over to a platform where trading might be disrupted by crypto-kitties.

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.