Big tech companies prefer the Federal Reserve over blockchain

Better luck next year.
Better luck next year.
Image: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic
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A funny thing happened on the way to bitcoin replacing fiat currencies. Speculative crypto mania collapsed (again) this year, and the original stateless digital token shed some 70% of its value. And then tech companies rubbed salt in the crypto bros’ wounds by appealing to the US Federal Reserve for help in upgrading digital payments.

As electronic transactions have become more popular, now would seem like a time for budding, new-age decentralized systems to get implemented. Instead, the opposite is happening.

Big tech firms including Amazon, Apple, and PayPal are urging the US Federal Reserve to build the infrastructure for a real-time transactions, according to a trade group letter reported on by American Banker. Google, Square, and Stripe also signed on. The letter was in response to a request for comment from policymakers, who are debating whether to build a real-time system or leave it up to the private sector to handle. In payments, the US is already well behind places like the UK and China, while the European Central Bank launched a round-the-clock instant payment system last month.

Blockchain tech offers the promise of transactions away from centralized systems like those of a central bank. But many of the world’s biggest tech companies apparently want the government to have a role in money, even as it becomes increasingly digitized.

Large US banks have their own real-time system, but smaller lenders are wary of being beholden to them, according to the report. The big financial institutions counter that having two separate systems would be inefficient and counter productive. Tech companies brushed aside interoperability worries and said the bigger concern was falling further behind—something they said only the Fed can prevent.

Not all big tech has given up on crypto, however. Facebook is working on a token for money transfers in its WhatApp messaging service, according to Bloomberg. It will be interesting to see if Facebook discovers something that money-transfer specialist TransferWise has missed. The latter’s CEO is aiming to charge essentially zero to send money and hasn’t found benefits to using blockchain-style systems so far.

And to be fair, some people are using crypto for transactions. It’s de rigueur on the dark web for hackers and criminals, according to Andrei Barysevich, who works for the online investigation firm Recorded Future. But those who don’t value utmost discretion seem fine with money that flows through banks, big tech companies, or government systems.

As paper cash is used less often, this trend could paradoxically give governments more power and control over their currencies than they’ve ever had before. (Paper cash is out of sight once printed, but governments have more control and visibility of the digital version.) Crypto’s greatest strength is the relative privacy that comes from operating outside of the government’s grasp, but, for better or worse, there doesn’t seem to be much demand for that right now.

The future of finance on Quartz

  • As part of Quartz’s Rewiring Small Business series, reporters asked store owners around the world whether they were excited about bitcoin. Some were open minded, but most haven’t embraced digital tokens.
  • As the US tries to catch up on digital payments, the UK is worried about going cashless too quickly. The elderly, people in rural areas, as well as poor people are at risk of being left behind.
  • Goldman Sachs is leading the drop in US bank stocks this year. Malaysia filed criminal charges against the New York bank in connection to the 1MDB scandal.
  • Check out Quartz’s three-part series about the remaking of economics. From the reinvention of macro models after the great 2008 crash, to the costly lack of diversity in the field, Eshe Nelson delves into the dismal science’s post-crisis soul-searching.

The future of finance elsewhere

  • US lawmakers are worried that startups are being sneaky, after Robinhood botched the rollout of “checking and saving” services that weren’t traditional checking and saving services. Senators asked regulators for information on how they monitor fintechs.
  • Gartner claims a shocking 80% of legacy financial services firms will go out of business, become commoditized, or barely exist by 2030. Gartner’s analysts think fintechs will finally disrupt the industry.
  • The UK is looking to overhaul how banks charge for overdrafts. Historically, lenders have derived more than 50% of unarranged overdraft fees from just 1.5% of customers.
  • Experian now allows users to input a wider range of variables into their credit scores. The additional information, like utility and telephone payments, could help more people get access to credit.
  • The Financial Times published a long read (paywall) on the rise of passive investing. Concerns for the future still include their handling of corporate governance and whether they are “lazy owners.”

Previously, in Future of Finance Friday

Dec. 14: Amazon could learn from the Chinese tech giants

Dec. 7: An Indian entrepreneur aims to rid Japan of paper money, then repeat the trick in the US

Nov. 16: Americans are splurging on all flavors of subprime debt