Monet laundering and a new kind of market

You’ve probably read something about the latest crypto-craze. My good friend Lawrence Wintermeyer wrote a great piece about it here, describing how an anonymous guild of “art digitalists” bought an original Bansky and then set fire to it after digitizing the piece into a non-fungible token (NFT) they sold for $400,000.

NFTs really hit the headlines when the artist Mike Winkelmann (“Beeple”) sold an NFT of a JPEG he had created for $69m at Christies. It’s a lot to pay for nothing since, as my good friend David Gerard eloquently notes, Christie’s 33 page conditions of sale make it clear that the buyer did not obtain copyright or indeed any other rights to the file. The $69m is for nothing more than an albeit uncloneable receipt for the artwork. Not that the buyer minded, because he runs a crypto fund that invests in NFTs and issues tokens that are shares in the portfolio. Beeple owned 2% of these tokens, which went up in value from $0.36 per token to $23 after the Christie’s sale. Nice.

Now, you may think (as I did) that this is more interesting as a piece of performance art about the manipulation of cryptomarkets than a window into a new world that decentralises auction houses out of existence, but it is undeniably interesting. That’s because, trivially-copyable artworks to one side, NFTs could deliver radically more efficient markets.

Slugsy

Slugsy (CC-BY-ND 4.0)
NFT available direct from the artist at TheOfficeMuse (CC-BY-ND 4.0)

To see why, let’s first remind ourselves of what tokens are. Tokens are a cryptographically-secured digital asset (that is, they cannot be counterfeited or duplicated). As I explained in my book Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin a few years ago, although tokens are not specific to Ethereum they 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 using consensus applications on the Ethereum blockchain. Such tokens are a simply structured data exchanged between these applications, a practical implementation of digital bearer claims on assets with no clearing or settlement involved in their exchange (and hence a more efficient marketplace for their trading), thus creating a means to make the transfer of fungible value secure without a central authority.

I have written before that fungibility is a critical defining characteristic of money and one of the reasons why Bitcoin isn’t. Click To Tweet

All of the dollars in the world are the same, and any dollar can substitute for any other dollar. But all of the Bitcoins in the world are not the same. Similarly, my excellent stalls ticket to see the mighty Hawkwind play at the London Palladium is unique. So… how do you know that that ticket belongs to me? Right now there are event promoters, and ticketing agencies and credit card acquirers and databases and barcodes to try to figure that out. However, if I am a bad boy and sell a ticket that is nothing more than an e-mailed barcode to two other people and they both show up to watch a band, neither the venue nor the band nor other fans nor anyone else can tell which barcode is authentic and which is a copy.  But what if the ticket isn’t a barcode, but a non-fungible digital asset stored in my digital wallet? An NFT?

Now, non-fungible digital assets are fun and markets for them existed before Bitcoin, the blockchain and Enterprise Shared Ledgers (ESLs). Consider the obvious example of people playing massively-multiplayer games (MMGs) such as World of Warcraft and the like. People buy sell digital assets all the time (one of the first blog posts that I ever wrote was about the mining of digital gold in these games, and that was back in 2006!). If I want a magic sword or a laser cannon or a nicer hat for my avatar, I can buy it with real money. If you could copy magic swords to infinity, then they would have no value. So the number of magic swords is limited, and thus a market arises. So who says who the magic sword belongs to? If I pay you some real dollars for a non-existent virtual sword, who transfers title? Well, in the case of the games, it is obvious: it’s Blizzard or CCP Games or whoever else is in the middle, running the game.

New technology means that I can sell you the magic sword without having anyone in the middle. On Ethereum, for example, there are now a number of different ERC token standards, most notably ERC-721 that defines non-fungible digital assets. ERC-721 hit the headlines (well, for people like me anyway) back in 2017 when CryptoKitties took off. This is game on Ethereum that allows players to purchase, collect, breed and sell virtual cats and it became so popular that caused such congestion on the Ethereum network that is slowed in down significantly. The point is though that we can now exchange unique digital assets in a fully decentralised manner.

I remain unconvinced that buying digital receipts for trivially-cloneable artworks is a sound long-term investment strategy, although I am given to understand that much of the art market is more about money-laundering than Monet (Monet laundering! Why didn’t I think of this headline before!). However, that is not to say that there is no future for NFTs. On the contrary, some of these art market experiments are breaking ground for a new way of working that I think will indeed transform some markets.

Real Connections

These digital assets will very often be a means to control of things in the real world without having anyone in the middle either. Some years ago I asked if shared ledgers and such like might be a way to tackle the issue of “ID for the Internet of Things” (#IDIoT). I said at the time that I had a suspicion that there might be something there. My reason for thinking that was that there is a relationship between digital assets and things, because blockchains and tokens deliver a virtual representations of things in the mundane that, as with their physical counterparts, cannot be duplicated. If we can link the digital asset of a Rolex watch to a physical Rolex watch, we can do some very interesting things.

(As it happens, I am the non-executive Chairman of Digiseq, a UK startup that does this using tamper-resistant microchips).

What all of this means is that we can use the new technologies of cryptoasset trading (the world of decentralised finance, or “defi”) to develop efficient markets in scarce resources, markets that will hinge on the ability to maintain and prove the provenance of real-world objects, whether these are magic swords or designer handbags.

The opportunities for new and disruptive businesses here are real and substantial. Here’s an example, continuing the music theme. A band is going to play a concert. There are 10,000 seats in the venue and 100,000 members of their fan club. So the band randomly distribute the tickets to the members of the fan club who pay $50 each for them (this is all managed through smart contracts). And that’s it. Now, the members of the fan club can decide whether to go to the concert, whether to buy some more tickets for friends, whether to give their ticket to charity or whatever. They can put their tickets onto eBay and the market will clear itself. The tickets cannot be counterfeited or copied for the same reason that a Bitcoin cannot be counterfeited or copies: each of these cryptographic assets belongs to only one cryptographic key (“wallet”) at one time, and whoever has control of that key has control of the ticket.

Not your keys, not your Kings of Leon, as the kids might say.

(An edited version of this piece was first posted on Forbes, 7th March 2021.)

Tulips, steam and decentralised finance

When we are thinking about where the worlds of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies, “smart” “contracts” and decentralised finance (defi) will go, it can be helpful to find historical analogies that can provide a shared narrative to facilitate communications between stakeholders and provide foundations for strategic planning. But it’s important to find the right analogies and, even more importantly, to derive the right lessons from them.

For example: people discussing Bitcoin will often refer to the famous “tulip bubble” in 17th century Holland. But if you study this episode, what you discover is not a mass market mania but speculation by a small group of rich people who could well afford to lose money. And you will also see the creation of a regulated futures market that played a role in the financial revolution that contributed to a Dutch golden age which meant that balances at the Bank of Amsterdam became a pan-European currency and, as noted in an interesting paper from the Atlanta Fed last year, the florin (the unit of account for those balances) played a role “not unlike that of the U.S. dollar today”.

FOMO

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

As I am very interested in learning from a) history and b) smart people, I set up a room to discuss the topic on Clubhouse. (I have to say this transformed my view of Clubhouse, because I was blown away by the quality of the discussion that ensued and how much I learned in such a short time. Truly, arguing with smart people is by far and away the fastest way to acquire actual knowledge!)

Cryptocurrencies are more like railway shares in Victorian Britain than tulips in the Dutch Golden Age. Click To Tweet

Aside from tulips, another well-known “bubble”, Britain’s 19th century railway mania, was the subject of some discussion in the room. This particular example is worth studying because I agree with 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”. If you want to read more about this, I wrote a detailed article about it a couple of years ago and, in fact, noted the incredible scale of the mania in Financial World magazine a decade back: The first railway service in the world started running between Liverpool and Manchester in 1830 and less than twenty years later the London & North Western railway had become the Apple of its day, the biggest company in the world. This boom in turn led to a colossal crash in 1866, which then led to a revolution in accounting and auditing.

My good friend Maya Zahavi drew the parallel between railway mania driving the introduction of accounting standards that led to new global capital markets in Victorian times (which in turn led to new kinds of regulation and institutions) and that world of defi: The world of financial services, including lending, exchanges, investment and more that are built on shared ledgers and smart contracts. I think she is right. I have long held the view that while cryptocurrencies themselves may or may not have a future as money, the evolution of digital assets that are secured by the underlying networks (“tokens”) points towards new services, markets and institutions that may well lead to a better financial sector.

This view, that digital assets (“tokens”) are where the next generation of financial services will be forged, was reinforced in a new paper published in the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review. In it, Fabian Shar explores the evolution of markets based on tokens that sit on blockchains of one form or another. He looks at three models for “promise-based” tokens: off-chain collateral, on-chain collateral, and no collateral.

  • Off-chain collateral means that the underlying assets are stored with an escrow service, for example, a commercial bank. There are already several examples of off-chain collateralised stablecoins. The most popular ones are USDT and USDC which both USD-backed* ERC-20 tokens on the Ethereum blockchain.
  • On-chain collateral means that the assets are locked on the blockchain (in a smart contract).
  • Algorithmic tokens that are not backed by collateral at all, but whose value is maintained by algorithmic market interaction. This was, incidentally,  the original meaning of the word “stablecoins” that has now been hijacked by imprecision)

The trading of these tokens, if it were to take place in the existing market infrastructures, would be interesting enough. But to Maya’s point, this is not where we are going. We are heading into the defi era where there is an impending explosion of business models, institutional arrangements and transaction complexity which, when it settles, will leave us in a new financial world. I strongly agree with the view of Jay Clayton (when chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission) that “everything will be tokenised” and the obvious corollary to this that everything will be decentralised. It is not the underlying cryptocurrencies that will be the money of the future but the that they support. As the St. Louis Fed’s paper concludes, and as I wrote in Forbes back in January, defi may potentially contribute to a more robust and transparent financial infrastructure.

In the long run (and the lessons from history are clear), I think this will be much more important and lead to much greater structural change (and therefore opportunities) than cryptocurrencies. We can already see the world of tokens entering the mainstream: Dapper Labs (the company behind the famous token game CryptoKitties) is as I write raising $250 million at a $2 billion valuation and Celo, a defi alternative to Facebook’s Diem, has just raised $20 million from (amongst others) noted Silicon Valley investors Andreessen Horowitz.

There are good reasons to welcome these pointers to the emerging paradigm. While defi is now mainly used for speculation between tokens of many varieties, in the longer term it offers the promise of much reduced costs in financial intermediation by both removing middlemen and automating them, it opens up the possibilities for new financial instruments better suited to the new economy (instruments built for bots to trade, not for people to understand). It also, and most importantly (for reasons discussed before), offers a more transparent market with accountability as part of the infrastructure. Don’t be put off by the Wild West of defi as it stands now, begin your scenario planning for defi as it will (inevitably) become.

*Does not constitute financial advice.

[An edited version of this article was first posted at Forbes, 15th February 2021.]

Tokens, tokens everywhere

You don’t have to be a cryptocurrency believer to think that the underlying technology of cryptocurrencies (value transfer without an intermediary, with double-spending prevented through distributed consensus) is going to change the financial sector. Indeed, the use of that underlying technology may well mean that cryptocurrencies in their current form are never needed, because more general digital asset transfer platforms will supplant them. These platforms, which enable the exchange of digital assets without clearing or settlement (let’s call these digital assets “tokens” for short), have real potential.

I wrote in my book “Before Babylon, Beyond Blockchain” back in 2017 that tokens may make a real difference to the way the economy works and the subsequent evolution of the cryptocurrency world has reinforced my view. Not that my opinion counts for much. But the opinion of Jay Clayton, the chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), counts for a lot more and he is saying the same thing: in time, everything will be tokenised.

When the current craziness is past and digital asset tokens have become a well-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. 

It’s a view that is supported not only by wide-eyed techno-utopian hype-merchants (eg, me) but by the sensible, forward-looking and rational financial sector leaders. I remember interviewing Jonathan Larsen (chief innovation officer of Ping An Group and head of the Ping An Global Voyager Fund) on stage at Money20/20 Asia. He told me that “Tokenization is a really massive trend… a much bigger story that cryptocurrencies, initial coin offerings (ICOs), and even blockchain” and confirmed my suspicion that long-term planning in the financial services sector must include some radically different scenarios. Jonathan spoke eloquently about the characteristics of the new asset class (including fractionalisation, which fascinates me) but went on to talk about the key characteristics of a digital asset platform that can fundamentally change the way the world of finance works: “transparency and universal access and the ability to reduce frictional costs”. I see this as a way to more efficient and liquid markets, and I am hardly alone in this.

Digital assets that are bound to “real world” value by regulated institution present not only the mechanism for a different financial sector but an innovative approach to a better financial sector. A sector that serves wider society more effectively and attacks the stubbornly high cost of financial intermediation in a modern economy. In a speech, Banque de France first deputy governor Denis Beau touched on inefficiencies in the sector and said that tokenisation could be a way to “answer the market’s demands”. I agree, obviously.

At the World Economic Forum this year, there was a discussion about what assets might be tokenised, with examples ranging from property to owning a fraction of a piece of art by Andy Warhol, although the ones that attracted the most discussion were enabling farmers in emerging markets to raise finance by selling future crop yields and sports stars selling the rights to their future income. I can foresee a rich and varied marketplace. Some tokens will be assets, and fractional ownership of assets. Some tokens will be claims on future products and services. Some tokens will be the currencies of communities.Who knows which of these might become a real markets, but one candidate for a successful token class (for which there appears to be real demand) is central bank digital currency (CBDC).

Monalistatidied

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

Don’t Listen to Me

Now, when people like me or the head of Ping An VC fund or a deputy governor of the French central bank talk about the inevitability of tokenisation, that’s one thing. But when Jay Clayton said at the beginning of October that while there were once stock certificates, today there are database entries representing stocks and “it may be very well the case that those all become tokenized” (my italics), I think it’s time to begin some serious planning for a reformed financial sector that is more efficient, more effective in serving the wider economy and more resistant to bad behaviour of all kinds.

That last point is important. Jonathan’s mention of transparency highlights one of the key reasons that we should all want to see this kind of financial sector. Look at some of the recent problems in the world of finance, such as the collapse of Wirecard. Corporate accounts included assets that simply did not exist. Since auditors and the regulators and the board were unable to prevent criminality on a grand scale here, it is reasonable to ask whether technology might be able to do better job. Well, I think the answer is yes, and I think tokenisation is part of consistent vision of just how it might do so: if I claim to own one-thousandth of the Mona Lisa it is easy for you to check on the digital asset platform to see that the token representing one-thousandth of the Mona Lisa is in my wallet.

Thus, while the tokenisation of financial assets and the creation of what I heard Jeremy Allaire of Circle call the “long tail” of capital markets is a much broader topic than CBDC its apparent inevitability means we should begin to explore this concept of CBDC as simply one kind of a more generalised digital asset, albeit one that is bound to risk-free central bank money. Even that most conservative of organisations, the Association of German Banks, says that in order to “maintain Europe’s competitiveness, satisfy customers’ needs and reduce transaction costs, the introduction of euro-based, programmable digital money should be considered”.

What they refer to a programmable digital money, and what I call smart money, is money built on tokens. In this model of the world, one might imagine using a platform built from cryptocurrency technologies to trade thousands or millions of different tokens, with one form of these tokens being digital currency and one category of token issuers being central banks. This is no crazy cryptomaximalist conjecture but a reasoned and reasonable projection of capitalism’s use of the new technology of value transfer.

Huw van Steenis of UBS, who I take very seriously on these matters because of his work at the Bank of England, says that there will be a “three-horse race” around the future of money with private tokens and CBDCs developing in parallel with efforts to improve the current system (see, for example, SWIFT gpi and the UK’s new payments architecture). This is wise counsel, and there is indeed every possibility of competition between these approaches stimulating innovation in the short-term but then a longer-term convergence as the platforms for exchanging digital asset tokens are used to implement both private tokens and public tokens (including CBDCs).

In this appealing vision of the future, there will be nothing technological to distinguish central bank digital currency from other digital assets that will be functionally equivalent to money, such as corporate currencies. Dollar bills from Bill’s dollars (I never get tired of this trope): one will be tokens backed by risk-free central bank money, the other tokens backed by Microsoft revenues. But they will both be tokens, exchanged without clearing or settlement through the same secure global digital asset platform.

[This is an edited version of a piece that first appeared on Forbes.com, 2nd November 2020.]

Tokens and Twincoins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Universally accessible (anyone can hold it);

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital and Crypto Layers

 

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

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

The token Saga

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

 

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

Dave Birch and Jonathan Larsen

 

Photo courtesy of Fintechcowboys.cz

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

Wow.

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

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

DBI Schema

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

Values, Tokens, Accounts

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

Seamless Sydney

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

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.

tokens may make a real difference to the way the economy works Click To Tweet

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.