Over the last decade, crypto has weathered what feels like crisis after crisis. It’s time to think about what comes next.
Everyone knows the story. When the first block of Bitcoin (BTC) was mined, the protocol itself entered a world of grave economic uncertainty. Not long before the market would hit its lowest point of the 2009 recession, Bitcoin was quietly created, dropped like a life raft alongside a then-sinking economy. The now infamous phrase “Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks” was cribbed from the headlines, immortalized in code in the origin story of one of the most compelling, innovative, best-performing assets of the last decade.
But Bitcoin did not immediately take root beyond a small community of true believers. Bitcoin and digital assets, in general, have been a lot of things in their relatively short histories, from purely speculative investments and “magical internet money” to a crisis-time safe haven and an attractive hedge against “the great monetary inflation.”
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, an associated market meltdown and huge amounts of central bank stimulus, cryptocurrencies have proved themselves to be remarkably resilient.
But as we watch vaccines being distributed around the country, cautiously optimistic that the end of the pandemic is within reach, where will crypto fit in a post-pandemic world? If its history of resilience shows us anything, we expect crypto to adapt to whatever the next few years will bring — crisis or not.
Just three years ago, leaders of some of the largest banks in the world refused to even talk about Bitcoin in interviews, calling the asset itself a “fraud” and referring to those who would buy it as “stupid.”
Today, the general sentiment across banks is markedly different. On the heels of the United States Office of the Comptroller of the Currency’s Interpretive Letter #1170, which made explicitly clear that federally chartered banks can provide banking services to legally operated companies in the digital asset space and custody digital assets on behalf of their clients, banks have been looking for the best way to get their clients the crypto exposure they demand. We anticipate legacy financial players’ interest in crypto to only grow in the coming years, with crypto becoming a mainstream requirement of financial services.
In the short term, banks will almost certainly rely on subcustody relationships with digital asset specialists to safely and effectively get crypto into their clients’ hands. And this is because the complexity is easier to address from the crypto-native side than the other way around.
We also anticipate some number of acquisitions to occur, with some crypto service providers being swallowed up by banks with pockets deep enough to buy them. As demand for crypto services grows, and as regulatory clarity comes, more and more institutions will enter.
Proliferation of decentralized apps
Just as Bitcoin was built in response to the failings of a legacy system, decentralized finance has emerged as crypto’s answer to financial intermediaries. Until recently, though, entire portions of this ecosystem have been unavailable to institutions, mostly for lack of a secure means to participate.
Slowly but surely, institutional-grade DeFi tools are coming to market, and we anticipate this trend to continue. Not only will we see a continued proliferation of DeFi growth, but institutional-grade tools will make institutional participation far more accessible.
Despite its significant growth, the DeFi space is still very much fragmented. Cross-chain interoperability — or lack thereof — is still a problem. Institutions want to be able to put their assets to use across the DeFi ecosystem. We anticipate significant growth in this area, with more and more layer-one protocols being bridged to DeFi and the broader Ethereum ecosystem — a development that also has the potential to improve liquidity along with market stability and efficiency.
Corporate treasuries and lowered barriers to entry
Against a backdrop of seemingly endless monetary stimulus, a significant number of private companies are treating digital assets as an inflation hedge. Some of these, like Square and MicroStrategy, have taken significant positions in recent months. We’ve seen MassMutual buy up $100 million in Bitcoin. And with Tesla’s $1.5-billion dollar Bitcoin purchase this month, the trend shows no signs of slowing. In the coming years, we expect digital assets to become an instrumental part of private-company balance sheets.
Another factor at play is the lowered barrier to entry on the retail front. With tools like Celo’s Valora coming to market, Diem expected to launch in 2021 and firms like PayPal making it easy for their clients to buy crypto, we expect to see more of crypto as a tool for banking the unbanked — for putting financial tools into the hands of the millions without access to traditional banking services.
By virtue of being built in response to one economic crisis, crypto seems to be locked into a crisis narrative. In reality, digital assets have more than proved to be resilient in even the most challenging economic times. Just this past year, crypto proved itself in the grips of a once-in-a-century global emergency, earning a place in the portfolios of institutional and retail investors alike.
As the pandemic (hopefully) fades into the rearview, it’s exciting to think about what crypto can do without being forced into a defensive posture — without being defined against legacy assets like gold. It would be naive to say that crypto will never face another crisis — it almost certainly will. But from here, at what feels like the tail end of the pandemic, it’s exciting to think about what crypto can do in whatever “new normal” comes next.
The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.
Diogo Monica is a co-founder and the president of Anchorage. Before co-founding Anchorage, Diogo was the security lead at Docker — an open platform for building, shipping and running distributed applications. He has a B.Sc., an M.Sc. and a Ph.D. in computer science, has published several papers in peer-reviewed security conferences on the topic of distributed systems and information security, and is the author of several patents in secure communications, encrypted hardware and payment systems.
While Wyoming was luring crypto businesses, such as Ripple Labs, New York’s AG was bringing enforcement action against Bitfinex.
The United States is divided politically these days into red states and blue states, and increasingly, it seems to be fracturing into cryptocurrency-friendly and crypto-wary locales, too. On Feb. 21, it was revealed that San Francisco-based Ripple Labs had registered as a Wyoming business. Wyoming is arguably the most blockchain and cryptocurrency-welcoming state in the United States.
Meanwhile, several days later, New York State’s attorney general announced a settlement of the office’s long-standing investigation into crypto trading platform Bitfinex for illegal activities. As a result, Bitfinex and affiliated Tether must pay $18.5 million for damages to the state of New York and submit to periodic reporting of their reserves.
Wyoming and New York — poles apart on the crypto regulatory spectrum — were both making industry headlines in the same week in other words. The irony wasn’t lost on Timothy Massad, former chairman of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission and now a senior fellow at Harvard University at Kennedy School, who told Cointelegraph:
“Federal regulation of crypto assets is like swiss cheese — full of holes — and that has meant a smorgasbord at the state level, with Wyoming actively luring crypto businesses and the New York attorney general bringing aggressive enforcement actions as we saw this week with Tether and Bitfinex.”
Whether this “smorgasbord” is a good thing is a matter of some debate. Crypto havens like Wyoming can be centers of innovation, pushing a potentially revolutionary technology further forward, as Wyoming’s recently elected U.S. Senator Cynthia Lummis emphasized this week in a Chamber of Digital Commerce panel discussion with Miami’s Mayor Francis Suarez, another crypto enthusiast.
A complex fabric
But it also leads to regulatory uncertainty that gives entrepreneurs a case of hypertension. As Stephen McKeon, an associate professor of finance at the University of Oregon, told Cointelegraph: “Our regulatory system is a complex fabric of multiple agencies at both the state and federal level.” He further emphasized that “they need to coordinate on the topic of crypto assets because this asset class doesn’t map cleanly to the existing regulatory structure.”
Asked if, from a business standpoint, Ripple and others were making a smart business move registering in crypto-warm states like Wyoming with a higher degree of regulatory certainty and freedom — as well as lower taxes — McKeon added: “Businesses strive to reduce regulatory uncertainty. If moving to Wyoming helps to achieve that objective, then it’s a smart move.”
Others could follow Ripple. Zachary Kelman, managing partner at Kelman Law, told Cointelegraph: “Many crypto projects fled New York after the introduction of the onerous BitLicense back in 2015. I expect more projects to relocate in Wyoming, as well as other crypto-friendly states like New Hampshire.”
Wyoming created a stir in 2019 when its legislature authorized the chartering of special purpose depository institutions, or SPDIs, that can receive both deposits and custody assets, including cryptocurrency. The state’s banking division itself acknowledged that “it is likely that many SPDIs will focus heavily on digital assets, such as virtual currencies, digital securities and utility tokens,” though they could also deal with traditional assets. SPDIs can’t make loans like traditional banks, however.
Kraken Bank was the first business to receive a Wyoming SPDI bank charter in September 2020, followed by Avanti Bank and Trust in October, and there are “three more [SPDIs] in the pipeline” said Lummis at the Chamber of Digital Commerce’s Feb. 25 event. Avanti founder and CEO Caitlin Long had earlier suggested that Wyoming’s SPDIs potentially were “a solution to the #BitLicense problem” faced by crypto companies because “New York law exempts national banks from the BitLicense.”
But even though the Wyoming SPDI’s are state-chartered institutions, not national banks, “federal law protects parity of national banks and state-chartered banks,” continued Long, and following that logic, she concluded that SPDIs represented “a passport into some 42 U.S. states without the need for additional state [crypto] licenses.”
An accident waiting to happen?
Not all are enthralled by Wyoming’s new special-purpose banks, though. The Bank Policy Institute suggested that Wyoming’s SPDIs could be an “accident waiting to happen.” The BPI noted in September that Kraken was “the first digital asset company in U.S. history to receive a bank charter recognized under federal and state law” but warned that its business model “is inherently unstable under stress” because the new bank is funded by uninsured, demandable retail deposits “and relies on a pool of assets such as corporate bonds, munis and longer-term Treasuries to fund redemptions under stress.”
David Kinitsky, CEO of Kraken Bank, in a conversation with Cointelegraph, said that he believes the BPI blog post “comes from a lobbyist group funded by, and working on behalf of, the world’s biggest banks” and rests “on a slew of faulty assumptions,” adding further:
“[It’s] comical and hypocritical that they think their fractional reserve model along with its total reliance on asset exposure and interest rate environment is somehow less risky than a full reserve custodian bank that won’t do any lending and has a diverse set of adjacent revenue streams.”
Others have opined that innovation centers like Wyoming were merely filling the void left by the federal government, which has yet to take a coherent stance vis-a-vis the burgeoning crypto market. Benjamin Sauter, a lawyer at Kobre & Kim LLP, told Cointelegraph: “Wyoming is showing that individual states can play a meaningful role in crafting a coherent legal framework for the crypto/blockchain industry — particularly when it comes to state taxation as well as commercial and some banking issues.”
By comparison, according to him, the U.S. federal government “hasn’t really made an effort to create such a framework, and this has led to a lot of regulatory inefficiencies and general confusion.”
Innovator or loophole?
So, what about the notion that Wyoming merely created a means for its new banks to lure firms and investors based in more regulated states like New York? Kelman told Cointelegraph on the matter: “Many institutions operate entities all over the world, not just the United States. New York has jurisdiction over New Yorkers — but not any company related to a company that has had operations there.”
“Wyoming can and is becoming a center for crypto business and innovation,” Kinitsky told Cointelegraph, adding: “Certainly, there are ready similar examples within financial services like the credit card industry in South Dakota and ILC banks in Utah….SPDI banks have similar frameworks for being able to operate across the country and indeed internationally.”
McKeon agreed that Wyoming was following the South Dakota playbook: “South Dakota created favorable legislation for banks around interest rates and fees in the 1980s and now has one of the highest concentrations of bank assets in the U.S.,” adding further:
“By creating an environment that allows crypto projects to operate with a higher degree of regulatory certainty and freedom, Wyoming is likely to attract similar relocation within crypto.”
Will others join in?
Of course, other states could follow Wyoming’s lead. Kelman said: “I also expect larger states, like Florida, to follow suit with more crypto-friendly guidance, especially after Miami Mayor Francis Suarez’s overtures to the crypto community.” However, he further stressed that “given Wyoming’s small size and relative obscurity, I don’t know if it will remain a haven for an entire industry in the way Delaware has been for incorporations and corporate governance.”
As reported, Mayor Suarez is looking to develop some of “the most progressive crypto laws” and proposing within his jurisdiction innovations like paying city workers’ wages in Bitcoin (BTC) and purchasing BTC for the municipality’s treasury. Senator Lummis applauded the mayor’s initiatives at the Chamber of Digital Commerce’s panel, inviting him to “look at Wyoming’s legislative framework as a template and then build on it” by developing new Bitcoin “components,” including a pension plan for Miami workers that includes Bitcoin — something Suarez is looking into.
Multiple innovative centers like Miami and Wyoming, among others, could advance technological progress generally, she suggested. Suarez, for his part, said: “One of the things that we want to do is imitate Wyoming’s very successful integration of crypto into their community.”
Meanwhile, Avanti’s Long remains an ardent booster for her state: “Why should crypto companies redomicile to Wyoming?” she asked rhetorically on Feb. 21 following the news that Ripple Labs had registered as a Wyoming limited liability company, adding:
“No state corp tax, no franchise tax, crypto exempt from property & sales tax, our commercial laws clarify crypto legal status, crypto-friendly banks opening soon, access to crypto-open gov/legislators/US senator — all laws open-source.”
Is Wyoming good for BTC adoption?
What exactly do these tech-friendly states and cities mean for cryptocurrency adoption? Sauter was cautiously optimistic: “It’s possible that Wyoming’s efforts will have some trickle-up effects, should the federal government ever get its act together.” He stated further that there is also a major risk as businesses may be “lulled into a false sense of security and potentially conflating Wyoming’s regime for compliance at the federal level.”
Kinitsky told Cointelegraph that the convergence between crypto and banking, as is happening in Wyoming, “portends an important step toward mainstream adoption,” while McKeon added that crypto users “are primarily concerned with access to products and features. Better products translate to increased adoption.” Therefore, if Wyoming-type legislation enables crypto projects “to provide new and desirable features by mitigating regulatory risk for the providers, then it will be a positive force for general public adoption.”
Many, though, still seem to be treading water until the federal government acts to provide some legislative/regulatory structure to the nascent blockchain and cryptocurrency industry. According to Sauter, “as great and encouraging Wyoming’s recent actions are, there is only so much one state can do.” Massad also told Cointelegraph:
“This regulatory confusion creates higher costs and uncertainty. There’s still plenty of money and talent in this country flowing into crypto innovation, but we need greater regulatory clarity to ensure investor protection, financial stability and responsible innovation.”
In order for DeFi to have access to institutional actors, it will need to adapt. But by adapting, it might lose some of its core tenets.
The last few months’ frenzy of institutional money flowing into Bitcoin (BTC) has seen crypto hitting the headlines — at the least as a novelty asset, at the most as a must-have. There is undoubtedly a trend in the market toward greater awareness and acceptance of digital assets as a new investable asset class.
A June 2020 report by Fidelity Digital Assets found that 80% of institutions in the United States and Europe have at least an interest in investing in crypto, while more than a third have already invested in some form of digital asset, with Bitcoin being the most popular choice of investment.
A good starting point for institutional investors would be to differentiate between crypto (Bitcoin, in particular) and decentralized finance products. To date, most institutional interest has involved simply holding Bitcoin (or Bitcoin futures), with few players dipping into more exotic DeFi products.
There are a plethora of reasons for the recent Bitcoin rage. Some would cite the relative maturity of the market and increased liquidity, which means sizable trades can now take place without resulting in excessive market movement. Others would cite the unusual high volatility, high return and positive excess kurtosis (meaning a greater probability of extreme values compared with the stock market) of the asset class. Bitcoin’s backstory and its limited supply that makes it akin to digital gold have also been highlighted, making it more and more attractive in a world of inflated asset prices and unruly monetary and fiscal policies.
However, the main reason for the recent institutional interest in crypto is much less philosophical, much more practical and has to do with regulations and legacy infrastructure.
Financial institutions are old behemoths, managing billions of dollars’ worth of other people’s money, and are therefore required by law to fulfill an overabundance of rules regarding the type of assets they are holding, where they are holding them and how they are holding them.
On the one hand, in the past two years, the blockchain and crypto industry has made leaps forward in terms of regulatory clarity, at least in most developed markets. On the other hand, the development of the high-standard infrastructure that provides institutional actors with an operating model similar to that offered in the traditional world of securities now allows them to invest directly in digital assets by taking custody or indirectly through derivatives and funds. Each of these represents the real drivers in giving institutional investors enough confidence to finally dip their toes into crypto.
Keeping institutional interest alive: What about other DeFi products?
With U.S. 10-year Treasurys yielding a little higher than 1%, the next big thing would be for institutions to look at investing in decentralized yield products. It might seem like a no-brainer when rates are in the doldrums and DeFi protocols on U.S. dollar stablecoins are yielding between 2% and 12% per annum — not to mention more exotic protocols yielding north of 250% per annum.
However, DeFi is in its infancy, and liquidity is still too thin in comparison with more established asset classes for institutions to bother upgrading their knowledge, let alone their IT systems to deploy capital into it. Additionally, there are real, serious operational and regulatory risks when it comes to the transparency, rules and governance of these products.
There are many things that need to be developed — most of which are already underway — to ensure institutional interest in DeFi products, whether on the settlement layer, asset layer, application layer or aggregation layer.
Institutions’ primary concern is to ensure the legitimacy and compliance of their DeFi counterparts at both the protocol level and the sale execution level.
One solution is a protocol that recognizes the status of a wallet owner or of another protocol and advises the counterparty as to whether or not it fits its requirements in terms of compliance, governance, accountability and also code auditing, as the potential for malicious actors to exploit the system has been proved over and over.
This solution will need to go hand in hand with an insurance process to transfer the risk of an error, for example, in validation to a third party. We are starting to see the emergence of a few insurance protocols and mutualized insurance products, and adoption and liquidity in DeFi need to be large enough to caution the investments in time, money and expertise to fully develop viable institutional insurance products.
Another venue to be enhanced is the quality and integrity of data through trustful oracles and the need to increase the confidence in oracles to achieve compliant levels of reporting. This goes hand in hand with the need for sophisticated analytics to monitor investments and on-chain activity. And it goes without saying that more clarity on accounting and taxes is needed from certain regulators who haven’t emitted an opinion yet.
Another obvious issue concerns network fees and throughput, with requests taking from a few seconds to double-digit minutes depending on network congestion, and fees twirling between a few cents and 20 bucks. This is, however, being resolved with plans for the development of Ethereum 2.0 in the next two years and also the emergence of blockchains more adapted to faster transactions and more stable fees.
A final, somewhat funny point would be the need for improvement in user experience/user interfaces in order to turn complex protocols and code into a more user-friendly, familiar interface.
People like to compare the blockchain revolution to the internet revolution. What they fail to remember is that the internet disrupted the flow of information and data, both of which were not regulated and had no existing infrastructure, and it is only in the last few years that such regulations were adopted.
The financial industry, however, is heavily regulated — even more so since 2008. In the United States, finance is three times more regulated than the healthcare industry. Finance has a legacy operational system and infrastructure that makes it extremely hard to disrupt and tedious to transform.
It’s likely that in the next 10 years, we will see a fork between instruments and protocols that are fully decentralized, fully open source and fully anonymous and instruments that will need to fit in the tight framework of the heavy regulation and archaic infrastructure of financial markets, resulting in a loss of some of the above characteristics along the way.
This will by no means slow down the fantastic rate of creativity and the relentless, fast-paced innovation in the sector, as a large number of new products in the DeFi space — products we haven’t even predicted — are anticipated. And within a quarter of a century, once DeFi will have first adapted to and then absorbed capital markets, its full potential will be unleashed, leading to a frictionless, decentralized, self-governing system.
The revolution is here, and it is here to stay. New technologies have undeniably shifted the financial industry from a sociotechnical system — controlled through social relations — to a technosocial system — controlled through autonomous technical mechanisms.
There is a fine equilibrium to be reached between tech-based, fast-paced crypto and antiquated, regulated fiat systems. Building a bridge between the two will only benefit the system as a whole.
This article does not contain investment advice or recommendations. Every investment and trading move involves risk, and readers should conduct their own research when making a decision.
The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.
Amber Ghaddar is the founder of AllianceBlock, a globally compliant decentralized capital market. With a vast amount of experience across the capital markets industry over the last decade, Amber began her career at investment banking giant Goldman Sachs, before moving to JPMorgan Chase where she held a number of different roles in structured solutions, macro systematic trading strategies and fixed income trading. Amber obtained a B.Sc. in science and technology before graduating with three master’s degrees (neurosciences, microelectronics and nanotechnologies, and international risk management) and a Ph.D. She’s a graduate of McGill University and HEC Paris.