Is cryptocurrency now ready to go mainstream?
Friday’s announcement that the parent company of the New York Stock Exchange was joining forces with Microsoft, Starbucks and others to launch a was hailed as the “” for bitcoin () by Brian Kelly, the founder of BK Capital Management.
Starbucks’ involvement in the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) startup garnered the most attention, even though the coffee purveyor has long talked about creating its own currency. Investors also shrugged off the news because bitcoin and other currencies .
But if you put aside the short-term thinking, you’ll see the Bakkt announcement is another sign that cryptocurrency may finally be poised to make significant inroads into commerce including credit cards, mainstream investments, 401(k)s, and even your corner store.
Why would ICE get involved in cryptocurrency? Demographics.
“As three more goliaths enter the cryptoasset arena, 2018 seems to be shaping up as the year mainstream business woke up to crypto,” Iqbal Gandham, UK managing director of eToro, said in a recent about Bakkt. “Companies are rightly spotting the potential for real-world applications and want to get in on the action.”
Adding ‘Sizzle’ to Investments
ICE, Bakkt’s parent, has a large footprint in the world of stock exchanges and knows how to stay in the good graces of regulators. Beyond the NYSE, it owns another 11 global exchanges and six clearing houses. Bakkt’s CEO says the , to be launched in November, will address concerns about security and the speed of blockchain transactions by employing a combination of private and public keys and a parallel transaction infrastructure similar in approach to the off-chain .
Even the company’s name, a play on “backed,” according to CEO Kelly Loeffler, is intended to send the message the platform is a trusted medium of exchange.
Even though and other investment vehicles have stalled, a regulated platform that handles the clearing and custody infrastructure required for crypto transactions would likely encourage the creation of a wide range of these products, experts suggest.
“They’re talking about getting this into your 401(K). They’re talking about in your … Fidelity or TD Ameritrade account, you’re going to be able to buy a bitcoin ETF, a bitcoin mutual fund,” said BK Capital’s Kelly on CNBC. “It expands the universe.”
Nontraditional companies allowing crypto investments already are seeing dramatic growth. After Square added buying and selling crypto, its smartphone-based Cash App vaulted into the top 30 of all smartphone apps, according to company officials. “That’s rarified air, and that’s a good way to really monitor the growth that’s going on in the platform,” CFO Sarah Friar told . She called crypto “one of many pieces of utility that people want. It’s not the be all and end all that I think we hear a lot on financial news. Rather it’s just like any other form of investing that people are making.”
But why will traditional financial institutions begin offering crypto-focused products? In an interview with in which he echoed Square CEO Jack Dorsey’s earlier claim that bitcoin could become the “first worldwide currency,” Jeffrey Sprecher, the founder, chairman and CEO of ICE, made a case that can be boiled down to a single word: demographics.
“Millennials don’t trust traditional financial institutions,” Sprecher told Fortune. “To gain their trust, banks, brokerages, and asset managers can use a currency that millennials believe in, like bitcoin. Using digital currencies brings a lot of sizzle.”
Crypto at the Counter
While Starbucks has downplayed the potential of buying coffee directly with crypto since Friday’s announcement (instead saying it is helping develop solutions that would convert crypto into dollar-denominated payment methods), its active role in Bakkt and history of pioneering electronic transactions suggests that retail solutions are on their way. And while there’s no easy way to use crypto in brick-and-mortar stores today, another announcement made last week will likely speed online retail adoption.
Last week, Coinbase announced a plug-in that would allow online merchants using the WooCommerce platform, which nearly one in three online stores do, to accept payments in crypto. “This increased access will lead to more widespread adoption, and ultimately moves us closer to our goal of an open financial system,” the company said in its .
At the same time, there are signs customers are ready to make crypto a part of their daily lives. When McDonald’s celebrated the 50th anniversary of its signature Big Mac at the end of July, it did so by creating “a limited-edition global currency” called the . To be sure, it’s a physical, not virtual, token, good only for a second sandwich (“no cash value,” the company disclaimer states).