Over the past few decades, the financial industry grew at the expense of its clients. Technology is beginning to change this – fast.
Technological finance, such as virtual currencies, is paving the way for the financial community to return to its original mission: helping consumers and business grow, which provide employment opportunities, stimulate economic activity, and promote prosperity.
A friend, who left a hedge fund to work at a major U.S. bank, recently informed me of his disillusionment when the bank wanted him to keep the good products for the bank and give the bad products to the client: He elected to resign.
As a share of the economy, finance grew 60 percent from 4.9 percent in 1980 to 7.9 percent in 2007 prior to the financial crisis, according to Harvard Business School professors Robin Greenwood and David Scharfstein, in a recent study.
Further, more than 20 percent of all corporate profit sits with the financial industry, according to The Federal Reserve. These data exclude the high levels of compensation received by financial employees in the form of salary, stock options, healthcare, and other benefits.
Intense political lobbying and rampant insider trading have distorted the competitiveness of the financial marketplace. Algorithmic trading is based on a model of receiving proprietary information ahead of others and manipulating the market accordingly to maximize profit at the expense of economic growth for the many. Similar sentiments were echoed this week to me by a friend, who is one of the chief economists for a global financial institution.
We are now witnessing the movement of Wall Street elites into this digital space at a quickening pace.
In the mid-1980s, Daniel Masters entered the oil trading market when it was volatile, relatively illiquid and lightly regulated. He had a successful career in this sector with Shell, Philbro and JP Morgan Chase – until 2013 when slow Chinese economic growth precipitated price declines in commodities and investor outflows. (I presaged the slowdown in this piece more than four years ago.)
Daniel Masters now sees the same opportunities in the virtual currency space that he saw with oil 30 years ago. New Jersey recently approved his Global Advisors fund, which trades bitcoin using an arbitrage strategy to leverage price volatility.
Initially driven by the libertarian-tech community, which favored anonymous, cross-border transactions that eliminated much unnecessary financial intermediation, high profile financial folks are now entering this market segment, despite the recent market turmoil: the collapse of Mt. Gox, the largest trading platform of bitcoin at the time; extreme price volatility; and a large price reduction, from nearly $1,200 at its peak in November 2013 to roughly $300 today.
Lawrence Summers, former treasury secretary, and John Reed, former Citibank chief executive, are now advisory board members of Xapo, a bitcoin startup. Barry Silbert, a former investment banker and founder of SecondMarket – a provider of liquidity for restricted securities – and a prolific angel investor in the bitcoin space, recently launched the Bitcoin Investment Trust that enables investors to trade its shares on an over-the-counter marketplace, though not registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Blythe Masters, former wife of Daniel Masters and former chief financial officer and head of Global Commodities at JP Morgan Chase, is now the chief executive officer at Digital Asset Holdings, a virtual currency start-up that plans on settling digital and financial assets using the bitcoin blockchain ledger technology.
She was instrumental in creating credit derivative products in the 1990s, including credit default swaps that ignited the global financial and economic collapse of the Great Recession.
Separately, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, who both had early involvement with Facebook, are now venture capitalists and await approval for their bitcoin exchange-traded fund.
The total market capitalization of bitcoin is slightly more than $4 billion, a pittance relative to the $5.3 trillion of daily turnover in the global foreign currency market, according to the Bank for International Settlements in 2013.
Daniel Masters suspects demand for bitcoin will continue to grow due to its convenient, low cost transaction model for small purchases that integrate more effectively and efficiently with our digital economy: a utility and opportunity unparalleled by today’s payment systems.
The key here: unlike many bitcoin aficionados, Daniel Masters believes the digital currency movement offers significant synergies to the legacy financial institutions, such as banks, and can prosper with proper transparency and regulation: views sympathetic to the financial community and government, which I, too, support.
Where I differ with Daniel Masters is the future pricing of the virtual currency market. Masters expects strong price appreciation for bitcoin. In my view, the purpose of this currency is to ensure more stable purchasing power over time. This suggests the price of bitcoin will rise commensurate with the general price level of goods and services, and offer little in terms of unearned capital appreciation.
Either way, the future is bright for bitcoin.
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