Stablecoins: Cop Out Or Compromise

I would call myself a cryptocurrency purist. The reasons why digital assets appealed to me in the first place are their decentralized nature and the fact that the blockchain is ‘trustless’. Furthermore, it is a riposte to the banking community, which for a very long time has controlled us all unchallenged. And then they caused a financial of the collapse of such proportions that stability was ripped away from the average citizen. People lost their jobs, their homes, and there were even worse tragedies.

So when the Bitcoin whitepaper was published in 2009, it felt like a way forward. One of the problems was that the early Bitcoin believers were perceived as being anarchic hackers and the techie equivalent of punk rockers. And yes, some of them were, but there were also technology entrepreneurs like myself who embraced its possibilities.

In the early days, the buzz suggested that the crypto revolution would be an easy process, but of course, we have discovered that it is a rocky road and we are nowhere near mass adoption a decade later. Much of this is attributed to the price volatility, the lack of opportunities to spend crypto and the opposition of regulatory bodies in numerous global jurisdictions.

Along Came Stablecoins

And then along came stablecoins. If cryptocurrency was a sport, the purists were all shouting ‘foul’ and ‘cheat’. What I want to consider in a calm way is this: are stablecoins a cop-out, because they are ‘fake’ crypto’ to some extent? Or are they a compromise that could ultimately open the floodgates to mass adoption of all forms of digital assets?

In respect of a compromise, I’d compare stablecoins to the trainer wheels on a child’s first bicycle. They help the child get used to the idea of balancing on two wheels. Eventually, these ‘stabilisers’ can be removed and the child can progress to the reality of riding a bike without them. Now, even as a purist, I can see the potential advantage of this. I recently met an economics student, a Generation Z crypto enthusiast, who is invested in a small way in digital assets. He happily extolled what he believed would be the benefits of Facebook’s Libra, as just that kind of ‘trainer crypto’ that would enable mass adoption. I don’t put this forward as a conclusive argument for this view of stablecoins, but only as anecdotal evidence about possible public feeling, especially amongst Millennials and Gen Zers.

How else might stablecoins benefit us? I looked up some expert opinion on the topic.

MakerDAO says,

“A successful stablecoin implementation would be a major catalyst for disruption to global financial infrastructure, challenging weak governments and mismanagement of national economies. Furthermore, stablecoins allow for decentralized insurance, prediction markets, transparent credit and debt markets, and create a level playing field between small and large businesses in global finance.”

If MakerDAO is correct in their assertion, then isn’t it the case that stablecoins are performing the same kind of disruptive element crypto purists believed Bitcoin would deliver?

Stablecoin As Cop Out

As you know, stablecoins are tied to fiat currencies such as USD, GBP, Euro, etc. And there are those who believe that is their fatal flaw. What they are saying is that stablecoins are only as good as the asset they are tied to, and the way in which the two assets are tethered. This is a more complex debate. But, if I can simplify it at all, I’d say this: the core problem purists see with stablecoins is that they are still centrally controlled, they can be manipulated by market forces, and they are certainly not ‘trustless’ in the same way that BTC, ETH or LTC are. Some, such as Ben Prentice argues that stablecoins will simply lead us into the same trap as the old order of fiat currencies. He writes, “I believe inflationary fiat currencies where monetary policy is decided by few individual humans is not a sound form of money.”

So, I ask you — what do you think? Do stablecoins have the potential to help people slowly adapt to the decentralized digital assets, or are they a cop out intended to ensure that fiat currencies, controlled by a global elite according to some, remain dominant in the way we make all of our financial transactions?

3 predictions for the digital financial future

The financial industry is going through a sea change. So many aspects of it are under scrutiny: from debates over cashless societies, to universal basic income, and the implications of digital currencies. Money has always been a hot topic, but it has become even hotter.

Blockchain changed the conversation

The advent of blockchain technology is in part a reason for this sudden increase in interest. As Lauren deLisa Coleman writes for Forbes, we are seeing financial giants like JP Morgan enter the digital currency space, alongside Facebook and IBM. And she points out, “But amidst such vast activity around digital currency overall, there is a specific and growing interest toward trend shifts pertaining particularly to token exchanges.

Talking about Token Exchanges

Coleman reports on the discussions at a New York event: Token Exchanges: The promise of liquidity, compliance and stability, where lawyers comprised the majority of the audience. Joel Telpner, partner and Chair Fintech & Blockchain Practice at Sullivan & Worcester LLP, addressed the issue of turbulence in the digital currency space: “We’re all collectively paying the price at the moment, but it’s important to keep in mind that this is not a bad thing. Most all new forms of technology have experienced a high level of unreasonable exuberance in the early days and after that period, business becomes much more stable.”

A more mature environment

Interestingly, he also suggested that now is the time to create a new ecosystem with new players: “”We’re at the end of the beginning,” he remarked. “This is about moving from the wild, wild, west to a more mature level of the digital currency space and tokens. Those that remain have to work hard and understand that success will come from fundamental principles in business and governance, and it will certainly pay off.”

3 key things to watch out for

He then identified what he believed are the three key regulatory areas to watch this year that could be game changers:

1. He believes the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) will make a statement about the status of digital currencies and tokens — which are tokens and which are not.

2. The CFTC (Commodity Future Trading Commission) will become more involved in the token space given that this collective regulates commodities.

3. Stablecoins will come under a regulatory spotlight and decisions will be made about how to regulate this particular type of digital currency.

The event also revealed that a consensus of opinion indicates the issue of custodianship will come under focus this year as well. In addition, there will also be an eye to how trade is conducted in this space and how securities are managed securities once they are issued.

But, one of the most hotly debated topics in the industry is which jurisdiction will establish itself as a leader in the space: Telpner’s response to this was: “”But this approach was wrong in 2017, 2018 and still wrong to think like this in 2019, because all countries are working hard to regulate this space. Stop chasing jurisdiction.”

JP Morgan surprises us with a stablecoin

When JP Morgan announced the launch of its very own stablecoin, the industry was somewhat shocked. Was this not the big bank that loathed cryptocurrencies? The move got people excited, both in traditional banking and in the crypto community. But is the JPM Coin really as big a deal as everyone seems to think it is.

Naturally, the industry pricks up its ears when JP Morgan speaks, and any of its previous explorations of the blockchain have produced similar interest. As Ben Jessel, head of enterprise blockchain at Kadena remarks, “In the last few weeks, blockchain innovation managers’ phones across Wall Street investment banks have been ringing with executives inquiring about JP Morgan’s stablecoin and how they should be responding.”

That’s because enterprise blockchain technology has been the way that big companies have sought to harness blockchain technology to meet their needs as large organisations. JP Morgan’s move has made others question what to do next — is this the time to jump in and be first in the fast-follower line?

Initially, the JPM Coin seems exciting, because it suggests that Wall Street is beginning to “blur the lines between institutional banking and the brave new world of cryptocurrency,” as Jessel suggests. But the reality is not so simple.

Faster, cheaper settlements

JP Morgan’s stablecoin seeks to solve two problems in financial markets today: the expensive and inefficient process of settlement and the volatility involved in holding money in cryptocurrency. Settlement is expensive for banks for a number of reasons: first, payments are rarely made in real-time, which means that in many cases funds that should be paid are not actually made available until the end of the day. For the banks, this means billions of dollars can be tied up and can’t be used.

Blockchain speeds the process up, making the process less expensive for banks and reducing the liquidity trap, i.e. funds being tied up in the process of settlement.

JP Morgan’s stablecoin neatly connects the dots between the aspects of settlement and volatility management by providing digital cash that can be used and enabling the ability to redeem the coin at a stable rate. This may sound like a big deal, but in fact all it means is that any counterparty would be paid by JP Morgan issuing a digital certificate. At its most fundamental, JP Morgan is promising to credit the account of a user when presented with a digital certificate that has a redemption value of a dollar.

Having said all this, JP Morgan’s new ‘Coin’ is not an insignificant development. Don’t forget, this is an industry where they still use fax machines, so in that context, the JPM Coin is actually a pretty big deal.