The weeks of speculation about whether JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon would be forced to give up one of his titles has ended. I didn't take a side in the battle, if only because I couldn't get beyond the threshold questions: “Why does anyone even care, and why do we believe we are still beholden to people like this?”
Since the 2008 financial crisis, we have seen a massive decline in trust in the financial services industry: Lehman Brother, Bear Stearns, American International Group, the "London Whale," Cyprus and a host of lesser scandals have prompted consumers to say one thing loud and clear: “I don’t trust you.” Or "You're only in it for yourself.” Or “Who made you king?” Or some very reasonable variant thereof. It seems the financial services industry’s best response is, “Trust me, I went to Harvard Business School.”
The point is that this fundamental trust no longer exists; in its place, rises Bitcoin.
Bitcoin was launched in 2008 during the depths of the financial crisis. It is a growing phenomenon that you can find out more about here, here and here. In short, it’s a crypto-currency that is completely electronic, peer-to-peer, unregulated (or unregulate-able) and uncontrolled (or uncontrollable) by any government or agency. Each Bitcoin is simply a long string of numbers and letters that can identify itself within the Bitcoin economy to be unique and legitimate. Bitcoins can’t be copied or tampered with; they don’t exist in the real world -- only on your phone, computer or tablet -- but they have the same value as physical currency.
There are 11 million of these coins in existence today, and there will only be 21 million ever created. Similar to gold, Bitcoins are made by mining. But while gold is mined from the ground by bulldozers, Bitcoins are mined by computers solving complex mathematical equations. Each time you get a correct answer, you unlock a coin which can then enter the Bitcoin economy. These quirky characteristics may all seem like reasons to question, dislike or fear this new currency. Instead these are a few of the reasons why everyone should hope it becomes a lasting part of the fabric of financial services.
When the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency first implemented a working version of the Internet in the 1960s it seemed like a fringe experiment not dissimilar to Bitcoin today. It wasn’t until a protocol called TCP/IP emerged in the 1970s and was commercialized that the Internet was positioned to take off. In short, this protocol allowed every website and service built on it to have its own “address” and a way to communicate information. This averted chaos, allowing users to find what they were looking for, allowing websites to work together and enabling networks to do the hard lifting of directing traffic in an orderly and predictable way. Without TCP/IP, the Internet as we know it would not exist.
Bitcoin today is in roughly the same development phase that TCP/IP was back then. Instead of IP addresses and websites, Bitcoin has unique strings that represent money and a mechanism to send these strings securely and safely wherever you want. It is a protocol that is allowing money to flow around the world much like TCP/IP allows information to flow -- in an orderly, predictable way.
This is not a theory; it happens every day. The Bitcoin economy, while still in its infancy, is about $2 billion (meaning, the value of all Bitcoins) and rising. New services appear daily -- exchanges, digital wallets, payment processors, along with companies that accept Bitcoin alongside dollars, euros and yen for traditional services. In addition, a small and growing group of technologists are getting behind the currency, allocating time and capital to building a robust ecosystem.
Bitcoin is being used all over the world in a wide range of ways already: to avoid the high fees of using a Visa card in San Paulo; to settle the purchase of a million dollar home in Buenos Aires; to pay a mechanic for services in Lagos; to provide Egyptians access to a liquid currency. The list goes on.
Bitcoin provides a safe way for anyone, anywhere to send, receive or store his or her money. By contrast, consumers are realizing that the traditional banking system shouldn’t be trusted. Why store my money with strangers who may make crazy bets on derivatives (JPMorgan)? Why keep my money in a bank that could threaten to seize it (Cyprus)? Why keep my hard-earned savings in a currency that could be devalued because of an incompetent government (Argentina)?
All of this said, the emergence of a robust Bitcoin economy won’t all be positive. Bad actors will use Bitcoin for drug dealing, porn and financing terrorism. However, this already happens every day with gold, dollars and other currencies; it's not a reason to shut Bitcoin down. Which -- did I mention this? -- is not actually possible anyway.
There is no central server, no central authority and no owner. Bitcoin can be slowed but not shuttered. And even if the U.S. Government decides it is anti-Bitcoin, many other countries will either tacitly or explicitly support it. China. Russia. Switzerland. Iceland. Singapore. Suffice it to say that the geopolitical ramifications of a robust Bitcoin economy are mind-boggling, beginning with a completely peer-to-peer banking system that works by and between people and ending with a world that no longer relies on the U.S. dollar as the reserve currency of all assets.
The opportunity here is to think constructively about a world in which money flows are more transparent (Bitcoin), easy (Bitcoin), cheap (Bitcoin) and secure (Bitcoin). Does the Bitcoin economy need regulation? Possibly. Much like virtual guardrails enabled the Internet to thrive, the Bitcoin ecosystem may need something similar to begin rebalancing the financial services landscape.
The current price of Bitcoin is about $130. Some people think that Bitcoin will never become a useful currency but rather a better version of gold or a replacement to gold entirely (Gold 2.0). If this is all Bitcoin becomes, a good question is: “What would that make each Bitcoin worth?” Well, the value of all of the gold in the world is roughly $8 trillion. Assuming that Bitcoin can replace gold as a more useful store of value, then the upper bound of each Bitcoin would be almost $400,000 ($8 trillion/21 million bitcoins).
If Bitcoin grows into something bigger -- a useful reserve currency, then watch out: Its value will far exceed $400,000. I personally think that Bitcoin is already superior to gold. Its role as currency is yet to be determined, but over the next decade, being Gold 2.0 will suffice considering that it would represent a more than 3,000 times return.
I’ve told my friends that it is entirely rational to allocate one percent of your assets to Bitcoin -- as I have. Call it schmuck insurance. As the 2008 crisis proved, schmucks can cause a world of damage.
There is a famous scene in the Matrix where Morpheus asks Neo if he wants to take the blue pill and go back to life as he knows it or take the red pill and see life as it is. Neo takes the red pill and begins a period of exploration about humanity, hierarchy, rules, etc. Bitcoin is a red pill. There will be some bad and awkward moments, but lots of good, useful and powerful things will also ensue. It will reallocate financial strength and power to the people versus keeping it within a few centralized authorities.
I am hopeful that Bitcoin prevails. The world needs more red pills.
(Chamath Palihapitiya is an entrepreneur, investor, early Facebook executive and co-owner of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. He is the founder and managing partner of the venture firm the Social Capital Partnership. Follow him on Twitter.)