Blockchain’s Biggest Investor Conference Was Boring, but Not Panicky
11.28.2018

If there was one takeaway from Tuesday’s Consensus: Invest conference on Tuesday, it was chairs, most of them empty.

The annual conference, which started just last year, is targeted at professional investment players testing the waters of cryptocurrency and blockchain—people like financial advisors, hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, and the many tax lawyers and functionaries who trail behind. It’s organized by CoinDesk, and complements the larger, more general Consensus conference every spring.

This year’s Consensus proper, in May, was an absolute zoo, with registration lines stretching over multiple floors of the Manhattan Hilton Midtown, and costumed crypto mascots wandering the floor. At that point, the price of bitcoin had already fallen substantially from its December highs, down to around $8,000. But the giddy afterglow of a bull market was still palpable.

Though it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison in many ways, yesterday’s event had a fundamentally different feel. First, those chairs: This was the first crypto conference I’ve attended in years where I didn’t see even one panel crammed beyond capacity, leaving audience members to stand in the aisles. The bleakest moment may have come during this panel, featuring notable crypto investor Anthony Pompliano and Wall Street Journal crypto reporter Paul Vigna, as captured by The Block’s Larry Cermak:

Who was missing? Most importantly, new money, and potential new money. At last year’s C:I, and the last few years’ big crypto conferences in general, you could spot it: Over-tanned, over-middle aged men in slacks that didn’t quite reach their boat shoes, silently mouthing a thesaurus of confusing new crypto jargon. These tourists, with their family investment offices or vast sums of personal wealth, fantasized about 100x returns, their biggest question being whether they should buy Some of These Bit Coins or Some of Those Ripples.

Replacing those figures with empty chairs didn’t seem to feed any sense of impending doom or loss. Those who remained, including plenty of seasoned finance professionals who have seen the crypto-light, have been through punishing bear markets before, and in general there was a sense that this, too, shall pass. That was the clear message from no less a figure than former PIMCO CEO Mohamed El-Erian.

The death of hype did leave more space for serious discussions of regulation and long-term roadmaps. The most notable of these came from SEC Chair Jay Clayton, who signaled that a bitcoin ETF wouldn’t happen until shady global crypto exchanges cleaned up their acts.

There were notably fewer panels at this year’s conference (at least of the paid-spotlight sort), and most of them were predictably forgettable. As usual, the brunt of the real work and learning took place offstage; those who land microphone time are typically more interested in burnishing their image than having a real conversation.

One notable exception was a discussion among financial advisors helmed by Josh Brown of Ritholtz Wealth Management (also known as @reformedbroker). Brown’s gray hoodie and smashmouth New Yawk drawl lent some much-needed energy and grit to proceedings, while fellow advisor Tyrone Ross bucked the Wall Street dress code with a pair of orange sneakers and a “Satoshi is Female” T-shirt. Their discussion yielded two important points: First, that if you offer financial advice, you’d better be ready to talk about crypto to curious customers, whether you believe in it or not. And second, Ross reported that his own clients didn’t fit the stereotype of panicked retail investors that the crumbling charts would suggest.

A Wall Street-centric crypto conference was always a bit of a contradictory move, emblematic of the blockchain industry’s polarization between antiestablishment cypherpunks and mainstream investors with a lust for big profits. At a luxe afterparty, a top executive at one of the conference’s big sponsors vented on the subject, wondering why there weren’t more voices at C:I advocating radical agendas, and so much apparent obsession with reading regulators’ minds.

Consensus: Invest would undoubtedly be far more entertaining and interesting if it put crypto’s freebooters and iconoclasts in the same room as the bland financiers who are steadily taming it. If CoinDesk wants to keep its conferences both lucrative and relevant during what could be a prolonged downturn, it should consider a return to roots.