The Future of Digital Currency
The recent announcement by Tesla (TSLA) that it would begin accepting Bitcoin as payment for its cars – and that it was buying $1.5 billion of the cryptocurrency – put digital finance under the spotlight like never before. The price of Bitcoin soared to new highs, hitting just under $47,700.
Digital currencies are certainly poised to impact financial systems. According to the World Economic Forum, roughly 86% of the world’s central banks are exploring the benefits and drawbacks of central bank digital currency.
Cryptocurrencies were a hot topic at this year’s Davos Agenda, hosted by the World Economic Forum. Leaders in the blockchain industry gathered virtually to discuss issues like regulation and which elements were critical for its continued growth.
The discussions came on the heels of a Bank for International Settlements (BIS) survey on the feelings of central banks about digital currency. According to that report, some 86% of central banks are now exploring the benefits and drawbacks of a cryptocurrency, though in virtually all cases, it’s no more than exploratory research and examination – and not anything close to a commitment to act.
The primary concern, not surprisingly, is that there’s nothing backing the value of Bitcoin.
“We have not landed on the design governance and arrangements for a lasting digital currency,” said Andrew Bailey, Governor of the Bank of England at Davos. “Cryptocurrencies as originally formulated are not it because people need assurance that their payments are made in something with stable value.”
That hasn’t stopped some major corporations from embracing Bitcoin and other digital currencies. Software firm Microstrategy made a big bet on Bitcoin in August 2020, sinking $250 million into the currency. As of Feb. 11, that investment was worth just under $1 billion.
It didn’t stop there, though. The company kept buying – and now owns over 71,000 Bitcoin, valued at over $3.3 billion, nearly twice Tesla’s estimated holdings. Other public companies that have notable Bitcoin investments include Mass Mutual, Square and Marathon Patent.
“Our philosophy on cryptocurrencies is straightforward: It’s about choice,” said Raj Dhamodharan, executive vice president of digital asset and blockchain products and partnerships, in a blog post. “Mastercard isn’t here to recommend you start using cryptocurrencies. But we are here to enable customers, merchants and businesses to move digital value – traditional or crypto – however they want.”
Tesla might be the most notable company to give full-throated support to Bitcoin to date. At least one analyst, though, says there’s a strong case for others to pile on. Mitch Steves of RBC Capital Markets issued a note saying the Canadian investment bank saw the potential for Apple (AAPL) to add Bitcoin to its balance sheet as part of a broader strategy.
Specifically, RBC suggested building a cryptocurrency exchange directly into Apple Wallet, potentially boosting its quarterly revenue by billions. In addition, the analyst wrote, Apple could fund the expansion by buying Bitcoin.
“If the firm decides to enter into the crypto exchange business, we think the firm could immediately gain market share and disrupt the industry (while simultaneously making the USA a leader in crypto for the next 10-20 years),” wrote Steves. “To put some numbers around this, Square generates ~$1.6B per quarter in Bitcoin. … Apple's install base is 1.5B and even if we assume only 200M users would transact, this is 6.66x larger than Square. Therefore, the potential revenue opportunity would be in excess of $40 billion a year.”
Apple doesn’t seem eager to jump into Bitcoin just yet, though. The company does not allow mining for cryptocurrencies on iPhones and does not allow its Apple Card credit card to be used to purchase cryptocurrencies.
Part of the larger problem with cryptocurrencies globally is access. Bitcoin and other cryptos require Internet access to be bought, spent or traded. That limits access in low- and middle-income families – and even rural parts of America. And only about one-half of the adults in the world have access to a smart phone today, according to the WEF.
Even when those numbers increase, there’s a lot of education that has to take place, so people will understand and trust digital currency technology – and know how to safely use it if they choose to do so.
“Digital currency is often hailed as a solution for long-standing challenges within the currency and payments ecosystem, yet little rigorous evaluation of its fitness for purpose and viability has been conducted,” said the World Economic Forum Digital Currency Governance Consortium in a 2021 briefing paper. “Critical issues related to digital currencies remain unresolved, ranging from consumer protection, education and privacy to technical and regulatory interoperability. The opportunities and risks for digital financial inclusion have yet to be fully evaluated.”
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