When little boys and girls grow up to be bankers, they still get to visit Disneyland. Their Disneyland is a conference called Money 20/20: The Future of Money, and the event is held four times a year: in Las Vegas, China, Singapore, and Amsterdam.
For the three-day event in Amsterdam, tickets cost 3,000 euros. Some of this money has gone to a unicyclist, who pedals through the conference with a pretty woman standing on his shoulders, both of them dressed in circus-attire. High above the banking booths, a trapeze artist puts on a show as the song “Rich Man’s World” blares in the background. A guy walks by on stilts. Champagne is served, and copies of Fintech Finance magazine are casually strewn about on the lunch tables.
It’s almost a taunt from the financial industry, a flex: We’re still the boss. The entire scene is what Bernie Sanders might view as the 10th circle of hell.
Just in case the point isn’t yet clear, they repeatedly play Abba’s “Money, Money, Money.” It’s something of a circus, and the organizers have warmly embraced the metaphor, branding the event with a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey vibe; the main stages are called The Big Top, The Lion’s Den, and The High Wire. It’s almost a taunt from the financial industry, a flex: We’re still the boss. The entire scene is what Bernie Sanders might view as the 10th circle of hell.
Why Amsterdam? The city has always been a good place to talk about money and commerce. “The Dutch, who may justly be allowed a preeminence in the knowledge of trade, have ever made it an essential object of state,” a financial expert once wrote. “They have been able to extend their traffic to a degree so much beyond their natural and comparative advantages.” This was written in 1782; the expert was Alexander Hamilton. Our first Treasury Secretary modeled much of his banking schema after the Dutch. (Before New York was New York, after all, it was New Amsterdam.)
This financial lineage, which stretches back to 1600’s Dutch East India Company—perhaps the first corporation in history—now includes a strong presence in fintech and blockchain. In June, for example, the Amsterdam airport installed an ATM that lets you swap your annoying loose change for bitcoin or ethereum. Amsterdam has an active blockchain and crypto meet-up scene, complete with niche groups like Food Integrity Blockchained, Banking of Things: the Future of IoT Payments, and events like a “Crypto Currency Canal Cruise.”
Yet this time I’m not here to explore the crypto meet-up scene. I’m at the Money 20/20 conference to get some perspective. In the blockchain community, whenever you attend crypto events and hear the chants of blockchain! blockchain! blockchain!, it’s easy to convince yourself that the future of finance, and perhaps the future of all civilization, will be painted by the brush of blockchain. The space can be an echo chamber, just as Alt-Right Twitter and Progressive Twitter tend to cement political views. Money 20/20 is a way to zoom out the lens. If blockchain is the future of money, then what are the money-people saying about it? Do they believe?
On the first night of the conference, my new 3,000 banker buddies and I are treated to the “Taste of Amsterdam” festival, an outdoor foodie’s paradise of twenty gourmet restaurants that offer things like wilde gamba, Kalfstartaar, and oyster shucking stations. As always in this scene, 80 percent of the crowd is men. Most are in blazers, with a few wearing summer scarves. (We are in Europe.) It’s the kind of party where rich, paunchy old white men are the belles of the ball; people look at name badges before faces, their heads bent down at 30 degree angles, trying to determine who’s important enough to warrant a conversation.
Two young women, wearing smiles and little else, invite the crowd of bankers into an “Ibiza Secret Garden,” a VIP-type party-within-a-party. In the garden, a few I-bankers take turns buying each other free beers, I join them, and quickly I ask their thoughts on cryptocurrencies. (I’ve become That Guy.) Most say that on a personal level they are curious, but they’re hesitant to actually do any deals in the blockchain space. “We started a sub-team to explore,” one says, “but it’s still early days.”
I ask another banking VP, “So what’s the future of money?”
“Biometrics, within the next five years.” he says. “I mean, you can already use your thumb for Apple Pay.”
Later, in the wine bar (or “Wijnbar”), a vice president at Visa tells me, “It will only get adopted when there’s trust—and that will require government backing. Not before then.”
That’s the refrain I get again and again. It’s still too early. There are other things we’re focused on. Back in the circus of the conference, Money 20/20 does a real-time survey asking for the topics that people are most interested in. “Rise of Tech Platforms” grabs the lead at 46 percent, then “Bank to Fintech collaboration” at 33 percent, AI at 14 percent, and blockchain is tied for dead-last, at 4 percent, along with “Conversational Commerce.” (I still don’t know the exact meaning of “Conversational Commerce.”)
Banks are not idiots. They’re eager for an edge. To get a jump on the Next Big Thing, companies like Mastercard are partnering with small, scrappy companies who are more natural sparks of innovation. I speak with Amy Neal, a Vice President of Mastercard, who heads up the company’s “Start Path” program. Her team scours the globe for worthy start-ups, and then partners with the chosen ones to help them scale. Neal is always on the prowl for emerging technologies that could have massive upside; blockchain would seem a natural fit. She tells me that in the past five years, her team has worked with 170 start-ups.
“Of those 170, what percent would you say are involved with blockchain?”
She pauses. “I would say a fairly small percentage.”
“Like, less than 10 percent?”
“I think it’s probably less than 10 percent today.” She clarifies that Mastercard’s focus is on start-ups that can deliver value in the short-term—the ones almost ready for prime-time—and most blockchain projects simply aren’t there yet. (One blockchain start-up she’s working with is Everledger, which uses the blockchain to authenticate diamonds.)
“It’s almost a cliché that ‘banks are scared of crypto,’” I say, bringing up the elephant in the room. “That they don’t want to go anywhere near the cryptocurrency side of blockchain. How true is that?”
“So I think that blockchain is a super interesting technology,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “Outside of that, in the crypto space, there’s a huge amount of unknowns. That’s why we, as an organization, have been focused on a blockchain point of view.” (This is another version of the familiar stance of blockchain, not bitcoin.)
Meanwhile, another wing of Mastercard is developing their own in-house blockchain, focusing on things like cross-border business-to-business settlements, which the company describes as “experimental and available for selected testing with partners.”) Other banks are doing similar things. “We’ve got [around] 50 patents in the blockchain/distributed ledger space,” Bank of America’s CTO, Catherine Bessant, said in June, but then, in the next breath, admitted that what they’re actually doing with these patents is still a bit fuzzy. “While we’ve not found large-scale opportunities, we want to be ahead of it, we want to be prepared,” she clarified. The investment in blockchain seems to be a hedge—a way to not get left behind.
On the conference floor, Mastercard’s booth sits in an ocean of similar displays, many of which showcase new technology—biometric face recognition, new interfaces, different types of ID verification. (Neal is particularly bullish on AI, new ways of using data, virtual reality, and augmented reality.) The slogans blur together and include taglines like “New Age Banking Platforms,” “One API to Rule Them All,” “Software Solutions for the Credit Lifestyle,” and the tautological “Banking Beyond Banking.” Over 100 panels are spread out over three days, with titles like “Biometrics 2.0,” “Frustration-Free and Ethical AI,” “How to exploit data under new regulatory frameworks,” “So fresh and so clean—data in the back office,” and “Core Banking is not sexy, but it is hot.”
Yet blockchain has elbowed its way into Banking Disneyland. There are booths for companies like Kraken and Blocktrade, along with panels such as “Leveraging blockchain technology for trade finance,” “Cryptocurrency, the central (bank) question,” and an AMA from Erik Voorhees on “The Future of Bitcoin, Blockchain, and Cryptocurrency.” Two women walk by holding “Satoshi is Female” tote bags.
All in all, Blockchain seems to represent around 15 percent to 20 percent of the conference’s energy; that initially struck me as low, but maybe I’ve been looking at it wrong. Maybe the glass is 15 percent to 20 percent full? “I went to the second Money 20/20 in Vegas a few years ago, and we were the only crypto-company there,” Erik Voorhees tells me after his panel. “No one knew what bitcoin was. It was just a joke to some people. And now there are a couple dozen panels here. Money 20/20 is about the banks, but even here, crypto is making a big impact.”
Since my goal was to get a sense of what non-crypto finance and tech people are thinking about crypto, I’m curious about the mindset of Money 20/20’s keynote speaker: Steve Wozniak. After getting a rock-star introduction on the massive “Big Top” stage—it’s a room as wide as a football field—Wozniak, like many, compares the current state of blockchain to the internet in its early days. (Incidentally, many blockchain-people refer to the early-or-mid-’90s internet as a comp; Wozniak uses the year 2000.) “I see blockchain as being in the same sort of place right now. It might be a bubble, but it’s on the right track.”
Unlike the blockchain-not-bitcoin crowd, The Woz seems drawn to bitcoin, in particular. Bitcoin “set such incredibly high standards,” he says “Bitcoin’s there and nobody runs it and owns it, and yet it works so well.” Wozniak, who would later join a blockchain investment fund as an advisor, reminds the crowd of Satoshi Nakamoto’s original design. “Bitcoin is limited to how many bitcoin can ever be produced, unlike real currency, which governments can just create as much as they ever want to. We’re getting down to something that’s more realistic, and defined by nature. Things defined by nature mean a lot more to me than things defined by human beings.”
Whether bitcoin counts as being “defined by nature” will be continue to be debated. Yet that endorsement from a mainstream guy like Wozniak, who’s not known for peddling or shilling, feels like it has weight. And it’s a reminder that blockchain is in the mainstream conversation… it’s simply not the only conversation. That’s a start.
Jeff Wilser is the author of The Book of Joe: The Life, Wit, and (Sometimes Accidental) Wisdom of Joe Biden. All photos by Jeff Wilser. Follow him on Twitter.