Paris in the middle of winter can be brutal, but one year ago, attendees at the Paris Fintech Forum were hot with crypto fever. When one of Europe's biggest annual gatherings of its kind convened this year in the City of Light, over 3,000 entrepreneurs, investors, bankers, and regulators braved the cold once again, but as far as crypto-related discussions went, it was obvious that the fever had truly broken.
One year ago, cryptocurrencies were the rage. Valuations had soared to unbelievable heights at asymptotic rates that were clearly unsustainable, but no one seemed to care that an asset bubble was about to burst. Every attendee then, however, did care about learning what the latest craze was all about and jammed every discussion hall that had anything remotely to do with cryptocurrencies or blockchain technology.
Will Andrich, the CEO of Switzerland's Thaler.One, which creates real estate-backed digital securities, noted that, "I nearly lost my whole team to cryptocurrencies". Times have changed. The crypto bubble burst. The "Top Ten" cryptos lost 80% of their value in what has been called "Crypto Winter", and the cold weather refuses to break. One reporter with Bloomberg quipped:
No such problem this year. With skepticism mounting, many fintech pros concluded that the technology may not be ready for prime time, especially in an industry this heavily regulated.
Several private jets that had recently departed Davos airspace had also found their way to Paris, the next stop on the global conference tour. Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, participated in a rather bland panel discussion, as did Francois Villeroy de Galhau, the governor of the Bank of France, and Olivier Guersent, the director-general of financial stability at the European Commission, who chatted about the potential ramifications of artificial intelligence.
The forum's attention had shifted back to basic banking issues, including lending and payment topics. Many attendees attributed the shift to a change in Europe payment regulations that will not only allow, but also require, banks to share customer account data with fintech firms. In that vein, the "Hot topic" of the week that drew the biggest crowds was aptly termed in fintech jargon as "Banking-as-a-Service". If you can imagine digitizing every individual service that a bank performs and "white-labeling" each bit of software for independent bank branding within its own shop, then you get the picture.
There was, however, one major face off between "old school" thinking versus the new evolving paradigm that played to a packed house. Gottfried Leibbrandt, the chief executive officer of Swift, and Brad Garlinghouse, the CEO of San Francisco's Ripple Labs Inc., squared off in a verbal skirmish over how the future of cross-border payments might adapt to new technology. Swift currently has a monopoly over cross-border payment flows through the global banking system. Cryptocurrencies offer a way to circumvent the centralized control maintained by Swift.
Garlinghouse, who has repeatedly claimed in public that his firm will "leapfrog Swift's 1970s-conceived system with a faster, cheaper blockchain-like one", fired the first salvo: "I look at the dynamic between Ripple and Swift, and I liken it to Amazon and Wal-Mart." The packed auditorium cheered and jeered, depending upon their appetite for change.
Leibbrandt's retort focused on the enhancements that Swift had incorporated over the past few years that indeed made it faster and cheaper. The crowd commenced their cheering and jeering once more, after he said:
Banks are not ready for a model where you convert into a crypto and then convert back again. It's not clear to us that blockchain is better than what we have today.
Yes, cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology "may not be ready for prime time" just yet, although there are several nations, including Iran, Venezuela, and Russia, that are presently developing national stablecoins that will allow them to circumvent the monopolistic control of Swift when it blocks access for sanctioned countries. Banks, regulators, and government officials are notoriously centralized in their perception of the world, but the very essence of cryptos and blockchain is decentralized, a paradigm shift that may be difficult to swallow in the present tense, but inevitable in future.