With the recent surge in value of cryptocurrencies, ordinary people and traditional investment firms are paying more attention to the space. The market cap of cryptocurrencies has grown from less than $30 billion in March 2017 to over $110 billion in June 2017, and this is just the beginning. Cryptocurrencies are quickly becoming a new global market for assets, similar to stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and government backed-currencies.
But the immediate settlement of currency transfer on blockchains (such as Bitcoin and Etherium) is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s incredibly efficient at money movement; on the other, it allows bad players to transfer your cryotcurrency with the same speed. And if the wrong person gets unauthorized access to your cryptocurrency holdings and transfers the currencies to their own wallet, there will be no getting it back.
As a result, among new investors in the space, there is a concern about giving money to new, unproven, and non-regulated online-only cryptocurrency wallet providers. And that opens up an opportunity for traditional banks. You already trust them with your life savings, so you will likely trust them with your cryptocurrency holdings.
It would take an enormous investment for banks to move into this space. But here are some reasons they should consider it:
They can address a real pain point for their customers: Cryptocurrency investors are concerned about trusting recently established organizations to hold their assets. Banks are reliable alternatives because people trust them. Banks entering this space will solve a real financial problem for their customers and will deepen and reinforce their relationship.
They will stay relevant: Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin might become more popular than government backed currencies one day. The only way for a bank to stay relevant in that future is to secure their relationship with the cryptocurrency holder today. As time goes on, new players will slowly earn a reputation for safety and security and will present a threat to existing financial institutions. Now is the time for banks to secure those relationships while they still have an advantage over existing and entering players.
They will start learning by doing: Cryptocurrencies are here to stay. Banks must start learning how these markets operate and discover the right business models for their organizations before fintech companies make them irrelevant. A great way to do so is to get their feet wet by getting involved and forcing themselves to start learning.
What exactly can banks offer in this ecosystem? Will ordinary people just want a cryptocurrency wallet from a trusted name? Will they want a cryptocurrency checking or savings account to pay for their daily purchases? Will they treat cryptocurrencies as a long-term asset similar to gold? No one knows the answers to these questions, but banks will get closer to the right answers by getting involved today and offering a solution that allows them to monitor the behavior of customers who hold cryptocurrencies.
They can help shape the future of cryptocurrency regulations: Banks can influence the future of cryptocurrencies by putting more pressure on governments to regulate the industry. While the lack of regulation in the industry creates concerns for banks looking to enter this space, the sooner they get into the cryptocurrency holding business, the sooner they can start pressing regulators and government for more guidance on how cryptocurrencies should be treated and the sooner they can develop their own policies if needed.
Banks have a small window of opportunity to jump into the cryptocurrency space. In a few years, cryptocurrency wallet providers will have gained enough trust and credibility that they will make banks that did not reinvent themselves irrelevant. Now is the time that banks have a competitive advantage over cryptocurrency wallet and trading companies to solve a real problem for their customers. The good news is that the number of individuals and organizations in this space is limited today so banks can test various business models and learn from their customers while cryptocurrencies evolve to become a reliable asset.
Bijan Shahrokhi is a senior product manager in the financial industry. He previously was cofounder and CEO of Virtual Next.