SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) — Wall Street’s greatest threat isn’t from regulation or another meltdown. As we’ve seen over the past few years, governments and central banks will enable and protect the status quo at any cost.
No, the threat isn’t from traditional sources — it’s from technology. So-called cryptocurrencies, including the best known one, bitcoin, will eventually dislodge the power banks, brokerages and other financial institutions have over the system. Digital currencies circumvent the fees and roadblocks to access that come with traditional financial services.
The possibilities, especially in the underdeveloped world, are enormous. As much as $9.6 trillion in assets locked out of the global economy could be freed up, according to the International Monetary Fund.
And on a bigger scale, the centralized power of these institutions will diminish. That was a key message at the Future of Money, a summit of forward-thinking pioneers in the digital-currency space in San Francisco on Tuesday. Bitcoin is community-based; there is no central bank.
Someday a winner will emerge, whether it be bitcoin, a rival or some yet-crafted currency.
There’s just one problem: It isn’t going to happen anytime soon. This stuff is not ready for prime time. It’s not even usable for people and organizations that want to use it. One attendee who was trying to use bitcoin to help finance power projects in underdeveloped nations complained of the currency’s wild valuation swings, the lack of trust and, well, the fact that no one uses it.
Said another enthusiast: “When and how do I get my mother to use bitcoin?”
That’s why cryptocurrencies may be the biggest end-game threat, but not the biggest immediate threat. That distinction goes to a new breed of banking that isn’t really technology focused at all. It’s called peer-to-peer lending. Simply put, it’s a platform where people who want to invest money lend it to people who want to borrow.
The biggest and most well-known of these new companies, LendingClub Corp., on Monday provided details on its planned initial public offering to raise roughly $512 million at the top of the range. LendingClub’s business has nearly doubled. It has facilitated $6.2 billion in loans in 2014, up from $3.2 billion in 2013, according to the filing.
Companies such as LendingClub and Prosper Marketplace Inc. connect investors and borrowers the way Uber and Lyft connect riders and drivers. It really is that simple. The platforms check borrower credit histories and assign them an interest rate. Investors get paid for the risk they take on. Call it what you want: P2P lending, money-sharing, whatever. It’s really just taking deposits and making loans with both parties having a little more transparency in the process.
In other words, it’s old-fashioned banking.
Because borrowers often get better rates than they can from banks, and because investors get better rates of return, P2P lending is on a path to rapid growth. Because there aren’t brick-and-mortar branches to support, there aren’t massive overhead costs and middle management to pay. P2P lenders operate like Amazon.com Inc. AMZN, +0.14% but even better, actually, because there are no logistics issues.
P2P lending is the most disruptive platform to challenge Wall Street. How far and fast the business grows is up to regulators. Ultimately they will have a big say in whether these new models survive, much in the way many cities are deciding whether they embrace the cost-and-convenience benefits of Uber and Lyft or protect the established taxi and limousine industries.
My guess is that these anti-bank movements are inevitable. There are already rumblings that P2P financial services will come to the corporate world in a way that cuts out Wall Street middlemen. Crowd funding as an alternative to venture capital in Silicon Valley is already happening. And isn’t that ironic: VCs have created their own end.
And looking out into the future, it’s not hard to imagine this short-term assault being linked with the ultimate killer: cryptocurrencies that cut banks out altogether.
Along with this shift will come a new way of doing business. Many of these companies in the cryptocurrency space operate more like cooperatives. There aren’t really any chief executives, no specific duties. Workers gather to solve problems. Consider the management flow chart at MaidSafe, a cryptocurrency security company. It looks like noodle soup.
Time will tell how the future of finance will shake out. But, right now, banking is already being displaced. Currency is next. How we work and how we interact will be next.
When will it happen? Not just when your mom can do it. But when the benefits are so compelling, she doesn’t have the choice not to do it.