The Rise of Private Money: Cayman Financial Review

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6th Feb 2012

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The internet has a funny way of producing outcomes that disrupt traditional businesses, a fact widely seen in fields as diverse as communications, retail, journalism, supply chain management and increasingly, finance.

Disruption happens by the internet because it fosters transparency and shortens pathways between economic actors – cutting out middlemen and margins along the way. As a result, profits become razor sharp and transparency increases. Over the 15 year life of the internet to date, we can see that these changes also tend to concentrate power into the hands of a few winners while simultaneously providing wider access to resources, capital and expertise to everyone else.

The business of money is ripe for disruption. Here we have a 600 year old institution that has changed little in terms of general architecture, remains highly centralised and is not actively growing in productive output to society. In fact, increasing numbers feel that the way our monetary system is organised actually fosters both inefficiency and inequality.

Until recently, our money has been taken for granted – a sacred cow construct that no one would dare to question because it is a central organising tenet of all modern societies. But as the financial crisis has deepened its grip, new questions are bubbling up: How can we preserve wealth? Is the value of money eroding? Can money be more sustainable? Is interest killing us? What if we adapted the money we use to serve us better?

Again, the internet is delivering answers and disruption. The world is now witnessing the birth of new digital monetary systems, which serve new roles for a digital, global society and disrupt older systems. In five years, we have moved from a handful of digital currencies to over 5,000. Most large companies – from Starbucks to British Airways to Starwood to American Express – are evolving their reward and point loyalty systems into digital micro-economies, complete with redemption and exchange between systems. New digital Internet currencies like Ven and Bitcoin are even shifting the identity of money into new territory.

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To understand this, it helps to think of money as language. When societies assign value to something it is as a function of language to label and value exchange. If this is true, then it means money is really just information, and information is ripe for digitisation in all its forms.

Ven is a digital currency launched by the Hub Culture social network (the company I work for) in July of 2007. It began as a reward and exchange mechanism for members of the social network, and has since evolved into a truly global currency, becoming the first to float its pricing in a basket of currencies, commodities and carbon, in 2009.

In September 2011, Ven became the first private currency listed on Thomson Reuters, with FX pricing and cross rates available to over 500,000+ traders worldwide. Ven blazes new ground in the field of currency, with a value base that is based partially on liquidity (currencies), hard assets (commodities like gold, silver, brent crude) and carbon, which embed carbon offsets into the DNA of the currency. Together these factors make the Ven up to 50 per cent more stable than single currencies, and provide a stable alternative to pricing assets in our economies.

The carbon angle helps to make Ven greener because invested reserves of the currency include carbon assets, providing upward pressure on these markets, and help to pay for protection of forests, oceans, and natural habitats. Including carbon in the basket makes the Ven "language" for finance slightly different and puts emphasis on sustainability in a way old currencies can not. Ven is transparent, and due to some exchange controls, entirely within the bounds of regulation.

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Bitcoin has a different approach, focused on decentralised authority and anonymity, with a structure that benefits early adopters. Here the base unit of value is CPUs, or computer processing power, which is distributed between users of the currency, who provide computing power that helps to power the exchange processing system and architecture for Bitcoin. The currency met with early success, became a target for criticism and experienced some growing pains, but appears to be here for the long term with secondary financial markets developing to foster global exchange of the currency.

In the technology world, a major battle is heating up between established players, who are seeking to control the digital wallet, from incumbents like Visa, Paypal and Mastercard to tech titans like Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook. Each has a different strategy, but all centre on the idea of "stored value systems" – networks of exchange and value accounts that can store financial value to be used for goods and services, purchases and peer to peer exchange. Combined with large audiences and inventories, each has the potential to be as powerful as any state-based currency.

It is very likely that in the near future we will have many new choices about how to pay for things we want, from a network of private currencies issued by companies to entirely digital currencies that flow between network currencies and provide exchange counterpoint services. Together this ecosystem of virtual currencies will intersect and interact with the traditional world of money and banks.

Over time, however, it is apparent that there can only be one system for financial value and that all these 'currency languages' are speaking about the same thing: Singular value. Singular value is a way of describing the absolute value of anything in this highly comparative system. Whether priced in euro, US dollar, Avio or Ven, goods and services find a parity in digital economies regardless of the label used.

Once value can be compared the use of different currencies becomes slightly redundant for those who are shopping in that economy. But the choice of currency does matter, because the currencies we choose to use will imply different sets of underlying values that can be enormously important and potentially transformative for society.

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Going back to the Ven as an example, Hub Culture's goal is to work with banks and financial institutions to use Ven for 0.5 per cent of global commodity trades, a small fraction of the total daily volume of trades, which totals over $2 trillion. Relative to the reserve ratio of carbon in the Ven pricing basket, such usage would imply floating reserve investments in carbon related projects of over $700 million, which would have a huge impact on the financing and development of clean energy, forest protection and more.

Because these investments come from the reserve float and can be theoretically invested back into the reserve basket, this investment financing would not affect the net price of goods in the Ven economy, creating a windfall for the environment without taxing our trading economies. Hence, the choices we make around these emerging currencies can generate enormous societal benefits, if we let them.

From another angle, the development and support of alternate currencies in the global financial system can lead to greater wealth protection for those seeking to preserve the value of assets. Because private currencies can invest 100 per cent of their reserves into hard assets, the likelihood their value will be eroded faster than that of traditional currency is low, and in fact they may preserve value relative to state currencies more efficiently.

Ven offers liquidity exits to hard assets, which can be purchased via the platform and include gold, diamonds, property, investment grade wines and more.

Today, over $100 million in assets are available for purchase in 130 hubs worldwide using Ven, and the value of assets available in the Ven economy is set to hit over $800 million by the end of 2012.

Virtual economies account for over $2 billion in transactions daily and are set to expand their influence in both online and traditional finance worlds.

How long will it be before we are measuring wealth in a variety of ways, using a combination of digital and physical markers to measure value? Once upon a time we used rocks, then gold, then cocoa beans, then paper, then binary bits. All were means of communication suited to the economy and the society that chose to value them. As a society, the ways we determine, hold and distribute value determine our fates. In light of recent financial events, there's no better time to consider how such decisions could be better made.  

Published January 2012 for The Cayman Financial Review.