Sat 02-Mar-2019

Some assorted reflections on cryptocurrencies a little more than a year since the peak (Dec-2017). Hindsight is always 20/20, but I never was on the crypto bandwagon (and there are timestamped records to prove it…), so I believe I have the right to a little bit of “told you so” smugness.

A number of friends and colleagues have in recent days mentioned the FCA cryptocurrency assets consultation paper, which made me reflect. That FCA is on top of fintech developments is in itself great; regulators haven’t historically always been known for being ahead of the curve, but in recent years there has been marked improvement (nb. FCA isn’t the only regulator proactively looking into cryptocurrencies – regulators in many jurisdictions including USA, German, France, China, Australia, Japan and EU (ESMA) published guidelines, consultation papers, or cautions pertaining to investing in coins and tokens).

Reading the FCA paper I recalled an article in Wired magazine (UK edition) published more or less exactly a year ago, at a time when bitcoin was only beginning the precipitous slide off its all-time peak of nearly USD 20,000 (which happened in Dec-2018), all things crypto were still the hottest topic in fintech, utilities and services were meant to become a better and less-centralized, and nothing could have possibly gone wrong. And there was plenty of money being thrown at crypto. PLEN-TY.

While the article was measured and not too hype’y, it still struck me as a little less critical than I’d expect from Wired. But that in itself is probably a reflection of the time it was written in: it was such a frenzied and insane period, even measured journalism would still reflect a little bit of that insanity, it had to (my favourite quote: “<<We had all the money we needed to build the software,>> CEO Brendan Blumer told me. <<All the money that comes from the token sale will be’s profit.>>” – I mean, that level of crazy puts the “AAA” CDO’s of the aughts to shame).

One thing that stood out factually in the article is that coins and tokens were referenced synonymously, while they shouldn’t be. I would have never picked up on it had it not been for a very useful session at Clifford Chance in Jun-2018, and that difference is useful to know: while the entire ecosystem is ultra-fluid (as you’d expect given that it’s entirely digital), coins are generally a medium of exchange native to given chain and do not represent any claims or assets, while tokens tend to represent claims against the issuer or some sort of rights. So it’s really not the same thing, with tokens falling quite closely under the definition of a security.

What was symbolic to me in this “what a difference a year makes” story is that *the* crypto investor extraordinaire, Brock Pierce featured in the Wired story has been a subject of a super-scathing expose by John Oliver (a part of entire episode-length scathing expose of crypto in general and bitcoin in particular) and the 2 ventures he’s been associated with are yet to revolutionise the world (I’m not saying they can’t or won’t, I’m saying that they haven’t as yet), while the other, seemingly much more measured crypto venture from the same article, Dovu, appears to still be out there, but (see above) is yet to deliver anything I would want to use.

More broadly one can’t help but notice that despite the hype, the interest, the obscene amounts of money, and genuinely innovative technology there hasn’t been a genuine game-changing disruption use case as yet; JP Morgan and its blockchain-based cross-country payment project may be one exception, the Japanese project of improving efficiency of the power grid may be another, but even those are still pilots / POC’s – definitely not verified success stories (at least not yet).