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.


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, 25th October 2020.]

Davo Polo

I set off for Hangzhou  and Money2020 China as a modern-day Marco Polo, intent on coming back home to regale the subjects of Her Majesty with fanciful tales of a far-away place where people use their mobile phones to pay for things and nobody uses paper money any more, much as Marco Polo himself would have regaled the inhabitants of Venice with his tales of (as it happens, the same) far-away place where people used paper money to pay for things and nobody used copper bars, cowrie shells or coins any more.

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Hanging with Tracey Davies, the President of Money2020.

My travels were a lot easier than Marco’s because for one thing I was able to fly directly to Shanghai whereas it took him years to get there and for another thing because everyone (and I mean everyone) has a smartphone, and their smartphones all have translation applications that convert spoken English to written Chinese and spoken Chinese to written English. My first experience of this was at Shanghai airport when the driver meeting me spoke into his phone and then presented me with a screen saying “do you know this person?” and holding up a sign with “Chris Skinner” on it. Naturally, I took the phone and said into the microphone “no, I’ve never heard of him and I’ve never read any of his books either” but it was too late as the driver had just seen him in arrivals.

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Flying the flag for Brexit Britain

My first step on the road to amazing my peers back home was to get a working AliPay or WeChat account. I’d forgotten my AliPay password so I decided to sign up for a new account. Unfortunately you can’t get an AliPay account with a UK phone number. An American phone number, yes. An Australian phone number, no problem. A Burkina Faso phone number, Bob’s your uncle.

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Alipay options

As it seemed like a UK phone number was beyond the pale, I decided to get WeChat instead. I activated my WeChat money function by linking my account to a couple of my credit cards.

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Activiating WeChat Money

None of my cards worked in this context, but it didn’t matter because once the money function is activated you can just give people cash and ask them to send the same amount via WeChat, thus topping up via a system of human Qiwi terminals. One of the women that kindly agreed to do this for me, on being handed a couple of RMB 100 notes, told me that it was the first time she’d touched paper money for at least a year.

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Woot! You can pay me using WeChat right now if you want to.

(China was the first in to printed means of exchange and they are close to being first out, close to being the first nation-state where notes and coins are economically irrelevant and post-functional cash will be the only kind most people ever possess. It looks as if China’s 800 year experiment with paper money will soon be over.)

Actually, it turns out that my stories of mobile phone payments are almost completely uninteresting – I wish you’d told me before, frankly – because everyone has now heard about WeChat and AliPay, everyone understands the transformational nature of their payments platforms and everyone has seen the ubiquity of QR  codes. The one time we tried to use NFC, ApplePay and that totem of Western Civilisation, the iPhone (which is, of course, made in China) to pay for something, it didn’t work. App and pay, frankly, is beating tap and pay.

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A payment expert witnesses the failure of tap-and-pay

(China was early into NFC, with China Mobile doing plenty of experiments in the field. Further back, Hong Kong was the birthplace of the contactless mass transit card, the Octopus scheme. I note that the Hong Kong MTA has just awarded a contract for QR code ticketing. It looks as if China’s 25 year experiment with contactless will soon be over.)

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Ron Kalifa talking about value-added merchant services

As for the conference itself, I particularly enjoyed Worldpay vice-chairman Ron Kalifa’s fireside chat. He said that in general people were underestimating the impact of open banking and I am certain that he is right. He also presented Worldpay’s annual report on payment trends worldwide, which was very interesting as you might expect.

One of the factors central to the evolution of payments is security and so I always enjoy presentations around fraud. In China, these have scary large numbers attached to them, but you have to take into account the size of the Chinese economy. According to the back of my envelope, Chinese cybercrime losses are lower than in many other countries.

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Real, and scary, fraud numbers

Given the widespread use of scores of one form or another to determine trustworthiness it is no coincidence that China sees a rise in frauds relating to the manipulation of these scores. Without commenting on the benefits or otherwise of such models (most Brits, myself included, can only think of Black Mirror when social scores are discussed) it is worth making the point that preventing “gaming” of these scores while preserving individual privacy means dealing with paradoxes that might well be resolved through the use of cryptographic techniques that have no conventional analogues and are therefore difficult for policymakers to bear in mind.

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Reputation fraud in action

Most of what I found thought-provoking, both in the presentations and the water cooler discussions, was to do with business models rather than new technologies. The new technology that fascinated me most was the toilet in my hotel room. The lid opens automatically when you walk into the smallest room and once you have settled onto the warmed and padded seat you are faced with a control panel (shown below) that gives access to a variety of functions, all of them wonderful. Next time someone tells you that a cashless economy is as likely as a paperless bathroom, tell them that I’ve experienced both, and they are both awesome.

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Toilet 2.0

The new business models emerging in a regulated, platform-centric, dynamic market are what we should be studying. We might choose to implement some of these models in a slightly different way taking into account the varying cultural norms around security and privacy, but the idea of separating payments from banking and then turning payments into platforms, and then using these platforms to acquire customers at scale for other businesses is certainly very interesting.

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This is what a smartphone-centric platform looks like

These new models, of course, centre on data and value-adding using that data. When people pay for everything with their mobile phone, they lay down a seam of data that is waiting to be mined. Despite this, the convenience of the mobile-centre platforms is so great that people are clearly willing to put privacy concerns to one side. I chaired a great session on privacy with CashShield, Symphony and eCreditPal with, I think, gave out a very comforting message: if you build services with privacy in the first place, then actually complying with GDPR and other global regulations is actually not that much of a problem.

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One more thing that struck me about the context for these developments that it seems to me that China is making its e-money regulation more like the EU’s. With an EU electronic money licence, the organisations holding the funds must keep them in Tier 1 capital and are not allowed to gamble the customer’s money, whereas in China there was no such restriction. Now the People’s Bank has said that from January 2019 the Chinese operators will have to hold a 100% reserve in non-interest bearing deposits at a commercial banks, a decision that will likely cost the main players (Tencent and Alipay) a billion dollars or so in revenue.

Anyway, a big thank you to the Money2020 for giving me the opportunity to take part in this event! It was lovely to meet so many new people and see so many new perspectives, even if I did have to spend some of the time in a jazz bar.

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All in all, I wouldn’t change my job for all the tea in China, much of which you can see in this picture of the plantations outside Hangzhou.

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Looking forward to next year already.

Signatures, Sergio and standardising the payment experience

According to The Daily Telegraph, “written signatures are dying out amid a digital revolution”. I’m going to miss them. Of course I know that when it comes to making a retail transaction, my signature is utterly unimportant. This is why transactions work perfectly well when I either do not give a signature (for contactless transactions up to £30 in the UK, for example, or for no-signature swipe transactions in the US) or give a completely pointless signature as I do for almost all US transactions.

“Fears are growing that this is potentially leaving people open to the risk of identity theft and fraud as their signatures are more easily imitated.”

From “Traditional signatures are dying out amid digital revolution”.

If I do have to provide a signature, then for security purposes I never give my own signature and for many years have always signed in the name of my favourite South American footballer who plays for Manchester City. Now it turns out that this is sound legal advice, since according to Gary Rycroft, a solicitor at  Joseph A. Jones & Co. it is an increasing problem that people people order things online but sometimes they do not show up so to acknowledge receiving something “I always sign my initials, for example, so I could prove if it wasn’t me” (because, presumably, a criminal would try to fake Gary’s signature).


Now the issue of signatures and the general use of them to authenticate customers for credit card transactions in the US has long been a source of amusement and anecdote. I am as guilty as everybody else is using the US retail purchasing experience to poke fun at the infrastructure there (with some justification, since as everybody knows the US is responsible for about a quarter of the world’s card transactions but half of the world’s card fraud) but I’ve also used it to illustrate some more general points about identity and authentication. My old friend Brett King wrote a great piece about signatures a few years ago in which he also made a more general point about authentication mechanisms for the 21st-century, referring to a UN/ICAO commissioned survey on the use of signatures in passports. A number of countries (including the UK) recommended phasing out theme-honoured practice because it was no longer deemed of practical use.

Well, signatures have gone the way of all things. In April, the US schemes stopped requiring signatures.

They were sort of defunct anyway. According to the New York Times, Walmart considers signatures “worthless” and has already stopped recording them on most transactions. Target has stopped using them too. I completely understand why, but to be honest I think I’ll miss signing for purchases in America.

Money 2020 Signature

No more signing Sergio Aquero for US credit card transactions, hello to signing Sergio Aquero for the Amazon lady who calls at my house with monotonous regularity.

If you are interested in the topic of signatures at all, there was a brilliant NPR Planet Money Podcast (Episode number 564) on the topic of signatures for payment card transactions a couple of years ago, in which the presenters asked why were we still using this pointless authentication technique.

Ronald Mann (the Colombia law professor interviewed for the show) noted that card signatures are not really about security at all but about distributing liabilities for fraudulent transactions and called signatures “eccentric relics”, a phrase I love. His point was that the system doesn’t really care whether I sign my transaction Dave Birch or Sergio Aquero: all it cares is that it can send the chargeback the right way (bank or merchant, essentially) when it comes in.

In addition to the law professor, NPR also asked a Talmudic scholar about signatures.

(The Talmud is the written version of the Jewish oral law and the rabbinic commentary on it that was completed in its current form some time in the fifth century. There are two parts to it: the oral law itself, which is known as the Mishnah, and the record of the rabbis arguing about it and what it meant, which is known as the Gemara.)

The scholar made a very interesting point about the use of these eccentric relics when he was talking about the signatures that are attached to the Jewish marriage contract, the Ketubah. He pointed out that it is the signatures of the witnesses that have the critical function, not the signatures of the participants, because of their role in dispute resolution. In the event of dispute, the signatures were used to track down the witnesses so that they can attest as to the ceremony taking place and as to who the participants were. This is echoed in that Telegraph article, where it notes that the use of signatures will continue for important documents such as wills, where a witness is required.

(The NPR show narrator made a good point about this, which is that it might make more sense for the coffee shop to get the signature of the person behind you in the line than yours, since yours is essentially ceremonial whereas the one of the person behind you has that Talmudic forensic function.)

The Talmudic scholar also mentioned in passing that according to the commentaries on the text, the wise men from 20 centuries ago also decided that all transactions deserved the same protection. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a penny or £1000, the transaction should still be witnessed in such a way as to provide the appropriate levels of protection to the participants. Predating PSD2 by some time, the Talmud says that every purchase is important and requires strong authentication.

So, my interpretation of the Talmud is that it is goodbye to contactless and goodbye to stripe and goodbye to chip and PIN and hello to strong authentication (which may be passive or active) and secure elements: we have the prospect of a common payment experience in store, on the web and in-app: you click “pay” and if it’s for a couple of quid the phone will just figure hey it’s you and authenticate, if it’s for a few quid your phone will ask you to confirm and can use your finger or your face and then if it’s for a few million quid you’ll get a callback for voice recognition and a retinal scan. The same purchase experience for everything: the cup of coffee and the pair of shoes and the plane ticket. It turns out that once again we can go back to the future in the design of our next retail payments system.

Which emergency service? Digital Champion please.

Yet more speed camera misery in our house. 50 in a 40 at 12.30pm on a deserted stretch of well-lit road near Guildford. But hurrah! A form arrives saying that as a means to rachet up middle-class motoring taxation a notch further, my good lady wife can opt to go to on speed awareness course and thus get off of the points. We fill out the form — name, address, driving licence number and so on (every single field on the form was something that they already knew) — and send it back.

A couple of weeks later, we get another letter, saying that they have not yet heard from us and that if they don’t hear from us then my good lady wife will be fined and “pointed”. So I set about filling in the same form yet again. Why can’t I do this online? The missive from the “Safety Camera Partnership” has a unique reference number, after all. There’s no phone number on either the form or the covering letter, so they clearly don’t want us to phone up, but there is a URL at the bottom of the letter so, hurrah, I assume I can deal with the issue online.

But, of course, there is nothing remotely transactional about the site. You can’t fill out the form online (and I’ll bet a pound to a penny that on the twentieth anniversary of the founding of Netscape on 4th April 2014, you still won’t be able to) although you can, in a nod to the 21st century, download the forms to fill out. Digital Britain at its finest: a pretty web site that cost zillions to build and but unable to execute any useful work at all. Isn’t this the sort of thing our Digital Champion is supposed to be doing when she’s finished teaching a fifth of the population to read so that they can use websites?


In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes