Blockchain and the cryptocurrencies are the new, new thing at Davos but its hype has also drawn the attention of regulators.
Sandwiched between the more familiar showcases for big accountancy firms, the technology giants, financial data suppliers and banking groups are some new players. There are pop-up pavilions with baristas flown in from London and a club-like atmosphere to entice those wanting to know more about blockchain and its derivatives.
‘Crypto24’ is where the cool kids appear to hang out. It’s a nightspot as much as a place to promote the virtues of virtual currencies and push that idea out of your head that the whole thing is a bubble (The Economist) on the scale of the tulip mania.
Along icy road lined with head height snow drift is the altogether more mature-sounding Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC). The GBBC seems to be where the grown ups of the “crypto” movement hang out. It’s where government ministers and officials are literally queuing to talk about their ideas — like using blockchain to give peasant farmers title to their land, or counterfeit-proof of livestock ownership.
Jamie Smith, the chief executive officer of the council, said a big part of its role was to promote education about blockchain among government officials and regulators to help allay fears associated with the cryptocurrencies boom.
“It’s dangerous to suggest you can regulate this when you don’t know what this is,” she told WikiTribune.
DLT and other TLAs
The blockchain concept is also known as Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) and allows any partner to a transaction to keep and share absolutely secure versions of a contract in a ledger held across a network.
That’s where the hype of some of the cryptocurrency world suddenly gets real.
The excitement of spiraling and then plummeting Bitcoin valuations makes the news, however, the real business of using cryptographic blockchain to create potentially vast networks of verification. This is the focus in Davos — not just of enthusiasts but of almost every businessperson, media executive and government leader.
One media executive told me he’s looking at it to verify ownership of his content. Kodak took a step (Bloomberg) in that direction with a groundbreaking plan to offer so-called “smart contracts” on blockchain to verify photographic copyright and create a network for frictionless payments to content owners.
It seems nearly every company at Davos is looking at blockchain technology — whether its banks that stand to be bypassed by payments linked to blockchain, or insurance companies which could create smart contracts for any risk, or even food companies which could secure their supply chains.
At Davos, prime ministers, central bankers and regulators have left no doubt that they’re not going to let the bubble go on without regulation. They have used the most important gathering of financial and government leaders in the world to send a big message — the Wild West-era of cryptocurrencies is over.
“We do not want them to get too big and too widely traded in China,” Fang Xinghai, vice-chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission told a session titled “The Next Financial Crisis.” He said he supported “wholeheartedly” the prospect of the Chinese central bank shutting down bitcoin exchanges.
Risks for the unwary
Central bankers and regulators have a visceral fear that unofficial, unregulated cryptocurrencies and the related concept of Initial Coin Offerings (ICO) pose major risks for unwary investors. They could be used for laundering money and can act like a Ponzi scheme in creating a cycle in which investors pile in seeing gains made by others who in turn get out in time by selling to the next person in line.
There’s also the issue with the ICO market of whether the “coins” issued by those raising money actually represent some sort of equity in those businesses, hence becoming a “security.” Fans have so far argued that they are just stores of value or tokens, without inherent value or equity rights.
However, in an opinion article (may be behind a paywall) in the Wall Street Journal, the leaders of the Securities Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, signaled that the party was over. They said they would not allow the new technology to “disrupt our commitment to fair and sound markets.”
The article warned lawyers, bankers and anyone else involved in cryptocurrencies not to imagine they were exempt from regulation or legal action to protect consumers and the financial system.
Alongside that warning, French President Emmanuel Macron called for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to gain the power to regulate cryptocurrencies. Earlier, IMF chief economist Maurice Obstfeld told reporters the IMF was well aware of the opportunities blockchain might offer but was also clear: “We also see cryptocurrencies could also offer risks and it’s important for regulators to be watching carefully.”
There were dozens of workshops, conference sessions and talks on the whole field — from how to govern the creation of cryptocurrencies to how to use blockchain. One which suggested the scale of change to come was called “Blockchain: A New Operating System for Society.” Another was entitled “Towards a Universal Digital Identity.”
That’s the sort of scale ideas in Davos tend to take on.