Overstock.com’s share price has surged more than 200% this year, propelled by a heady mix of online retailing, cryptocurrency mania, and a CEO who is openly considering offers for the business. CEO Patrick Byrne told the Financial Times (paywall) that selling Overstock would provide enough capital to fund a non-profit enterprise, called De Soto Inc., that would use blockchain technology to protect informal ownership records. “I feel a great moral obligation to refocus my life around this,” he told the FT.
Byrne is probably best known for his fierce campaigns against investors who sell stocks short (bet on them to decline) and for his enthusiasm for cryptoassets like bitcoin and initial coin offerings, which blend aspects of crowdfunding with digital tokens. Overstock’s Medici Ventures division invests in blockchain companies, including a trading platform for ICO tokens called tZERO.
Byrne’s latest project is with Peruvian development economist Hernando de Soto, who has argued that protecting informal land rights is a key to reducing poverty. De Soto has said people in mineral-rich parts of Peru, for example, have seen their property transferred away (paywall) to mining companies without proper compensation. Blockchain, the cryptographically protected ledger that underpins digital assets like bitcoin, could be used to help legitimize and protect their claims.
Byrne, meanwhile, has ridden the wave of euphoria for cryptoassets—Overstock was among the first retailers to accept bitcoin, in 2014. It now has a market capitalization of $1.3 billion, up around $1 billion from the beginning of the year.