In two weeks a nonprofit less than a year old is going to raise tens of millions of dollars to help homeless people. Alongside its more established partner nonprofits, it will fight the opioid crisis, house LGBT teens that are homeless, and give away technology and training to those below the poverty line.
Cryptocurrencies — or to name them more accurately, crypto assets — are the only reason this can happen.
Last year crypto assets had a total market value of about $45 billion. Now they’re worth more than $150 billion. Startups are raising funds in initial coin offerings (ICOs) where they make a “coin” and sell it – like an IPO but without the equity. Startups have raised more from ICOs than from venture capital so far in 2017. Where a company used to raise $1 million, it might now raise $20 million, and where an investor might have had to wait five years to get her money back from a purchase of illiquid startup equity, she can now sell her crypto asset an hour after buying it.
Like derivatives, it is important to ask what crypto assets do in the context of current institutions, not in some social vacuum. Derivatives like mortgage-backed securities are a great idea. In the context of institutions full of ideological regulators, that great idea caused the Great Recession.
And this is where we get back to the nonprofit-crypto asset connection. The thing that will change the world isn’t crypto assets, it’s crypto asset-issuing institutions. If you want to think seriously about crypto assets, you have to think about what new institutional capacities they create.
Traditionally, profits and markets go hand in hand. Markets only exist where there is profit to be made.
Derivatives-based financial innovation has tinkered with that relationship for many years. Shorting a stock, for instance, creates profit when the company’s stock goes down. Short sales are an example of a market that is profitable primarily when the opposite of profit exists in the underlying real-world activity. It therefore shouldn’t be hard to conceive of a market where the underlying activity is profit-neutral.
Publications like Nonprofit Quarterly have long covered financial innovation in the nonprofit world. The real but limited progress they’ve made is incomplete for three reasons.
First, exotic financial products violate investor and donor norms. A nonprofit has to convince a group of donor-investors of both the underlying idea and the complex legal structure of a new derivative. This dissuades investment and, second, makes the underlying product illiquid, because other investors won’t buy it from the original investor. Illiquidity greatly decreases value and increases risk.
Third, constructing that type of financial product is expensive — usually (between the lawyers drafting and the lawyers reviewing it) in the six figures. This effectively divorces financial innovation from the innovators: young, startup-like nonprofits.
Crypto assets solve all three of these problems.
A large, growing body of investors understand crypto assets. Anyone of them can take a large risk on a worthwhile project and sell her position an hour later. And the cost of creation is a couple of days’ wages for a developer, or less.
Sometimes, what feels like a small change in financial detail is actually a change in how the world works. This is one of those times.
When political economists get serious about crypto assets and crypto asset-issuing institutions get serious about political economy, here’s what will happen: The power of markets and investors will be brought to the world of nonprofits. That’s a fundamental change in the institutional economics of the modern world.
If we shepherd in that change correctly, it will balance the pursuit of profit and the pursuit of social good in our society in our lifetimes. That requires establishing the right private market norms and public rules.
Non-U.S. regulators generally deserve praise. Japan has adjusted policy appropriately, as has Switzerland. The UK has taken important steps in the right direction. Only China, as is typical, has departed from international consensus.
U.S. regulators have thus far behaved in a manner that, without exaggeration, has been a paragon of responsible, sophisticated governance. The SEC, the CFTC, and other regulators have sought to let the market foster innovation and to harmonize regulatory response to the blockchain-based revolution. They are hamstrung, however, by their legal mandates.
Congress should act to foster crypto asset innovation. Legislation must have at its core two central objectives.
First, strong legal failsafes that change the regulatory framework when crypto assets grow to the point that they create systemic risks. Until then, facilitating institutional and technological innovation should be the central policy objective.
Second, investor protections should not be purchased at the cost of divorcing financial innovation from the innovators – brand new startups. The regulatory burden must not hinder a truly new startup from taking advantage of “liquid venture capital.”
If this is done, the bridge between ideas and reality will be much shorter; and markets – of all things – will let social good stop playing second fiddle to profit.
Nicholas Adams Judge, a political economist, is a cofounder of RootProject, the nonprofit alluded to at the beginning of this post.