The barbarians, it seems, are still pretty hostile when it comes to Bitcoin and its brethren, with some good reason.
At the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, this week, the outlook on pretty much everything - from the stock market to the future of humankind - was rosy. One reporter noted that if Michael Milken, the former banker who once provided the debt for the biggest takeovers of the late 1980s, had painted rainbows on the walls of the Hilton, where the conference has long been held, they would have fit right in.
But the universally bullish outlook for pretty much every asset class didn’t extend to cryptocurrencies. New York University economist Nouriel Roubini, speaking at the conference, repeatedly questioned the digital currencies, and their promise, in colorful language. Charles Noyer, a cryptocurrency investor and believer who also spoke at the conference, said that he tactically plays down his personal enthusiasm for digital currencies there because he knows the crowd is skeptical. Alex Mashinsky, CEO of Celsius Network, which lets customers lend and borrow cryptocurrencies and raised money from 1,500 in an initial coin offering earlier this month, said that while some conference participants had expressed interest, finding investors there was difficult. “In the cryptospace, investors are throwing money at everything, here you have to prove a lot more to line up investors,” he said.
There were some signs of a big money thaw on crypto, however. Two panels during the three-day conference were devoted to digital currencies and blockchain. And on a panel on regulation, the chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, J. Christopher Giancarlo, said he thought regulators should be more open to allowing the trading of cryptocurrencies. But a panel titled “The Future of Finance” did not include a representative from the digital currency industry. Representatives from the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Treasury Department, who also spoke at the conference, suggested more regulation was needed.
One thing that was often repeated at the conference was that like the internet and the dot-com bubble in the 1990s, there were going to be a lot of failures. But that means for investors to play along they have to believe the ones that succeed will produce high returns. One hedge funder whose firm has raised money to invest in digital currencies said at least some of his fund’s interest was in shorting, or betting against, certain cryptocurrencies as well as trying to put money in eventual winners.
Nonetheless, Erick Miller, the CEO of CoinCircle, which helps businesses create their own digital tokens for loyalty programs and other uses, hosted a dinner on Wednesday night that was attended by private equity and hedge fund investors, along with his fellow speakers from the blockchain panel. “We were impressed with the significant interest from large financial institutions, which could lead to the introduction of hundreds of billions of dollars into the ecosystem,” he said.
It’s fair to ask how much of the skepticism stems from legitimate questions about the viability of cryptocurrencies and how much stems from their threat to the existing financial order. In part, digital currencies, and the initial coin offerings that raise money for them, as well as the capital framework, where investors put money into a so-called coin instead a traditional corporate capital structure, differ from Wall Street’s normal way of doing business. Nearly 30 years after the close of Milken’s Drexel Burnham Lambert, and nearly 10 years after the financial crisis, the current order still works pretty well for many of those at the Milken conference. They’re wary of finding themselves on the other side of the gate.