Close-Up: Virtual currencies challenging traditional banking system

Could virtual currencies disrupt the big banks and provide people with their own banking system? The race is on to find out.

  • Feb. 5, 2016 7:00 p.m.

For the past 20 years, Derrick Nicholson has been working in currency markets, as a strategist and a trader.

He works with companies to purchase products around the world.

He moves money and he hedges, making investments as a way of insuring against future losses.

But the Kelowna man says the future of currency as we know it is changing, and everyday people stand to suffer the most.

“I think we’re heading for a currency crisis,” Nicholson said this week. “Change is coming and I’ve looked at this for years. It’s not pretty but life is about change and hopefully some good comes of it.

“I think there is a massive transfer of wealth coming. I look at the markets today and there is so much volatility. I’ve been a trader for 20 years and I’ve never seen markets like this. It isn’t normal and the volatility is increasing.”

According to Nicholson, many of the problems he sees coming are directly related to the way governments around the world are in control of currency.

Historically, most currencies were based on physical commodities such as gold or silver.

However, those days are gone, replaced with what’s now called fiat money, currency that a government has declared to be legal tender but is not backed by a physical commodity.

“All currencies today are managed by governments and the movements that are made are not always in the best economic interests,” said Nicholson.

“Currencies are constantly devalued by governments and central banks and what that means is inflation.

“As human beings, we think inflation is the natural order of things but it’s not. It’s a tax by government because the purchasing power of currencies is constantly devalued.

“You can buy less today with your currency than you could 10 years ago and that’s because governments are (creating) money out of thin air.”

But as governments around the world try to deal with economies that appear to be failing, there is a counter-movement underway that is providing an alternative currency.

In 2008, an invention known as Bitcoin first came to light. In 2009, it was released as an open-source, peer-to-peer computer software.

One of many different virtual currencies available today, Bitcoin has the largest market share and uses a technology called blockchain.

The blockchain is a public ledger that records Bitcoin transactions.

Thousands of computers work together to record every transaction using a mathematical algorithm, recalculating as many as 200,000 times in a single day.

Users are able to make transactions without the use of an intermediary or a banking system, and in a way, become a banking system without the banks.

One Bitcoin is currently valued at over $380 US and there are more and more companies accepting Bitcoin for services every day.

In Kelowna, businesses such as Rollingdale Winery, Duke and Duchess Clothing, Pawsitive Veterinarian Care, Hemp City and Kelowna Instaprint all accept Bitcoin.

“The positives I see with Bitcoin is it’s not controlled or owned by any government therefore it can’t be manipulated,” said Nicholson.

“It’s a step in the right direction. It’s probably not the final product but it’s a move away from government manufactured currencies to a more free market way of trading which is how commerce should take place.”

•••

Bitcoin as a virtual currency has had wild swings since it was first made available for public use. It has traded all over the map, from $11 US to its current status above $380 US for one Bitcoin.

If you want to buy or use Bitcoin in Kelowna it’s easy. On the corner of Bernard and Gordon, Steve Merrill sits in his office at Sovereign Silver & Gold Exchange and will convert Canadian money into Bitcoin using what looks like a traditional debit machine.

Lots of companies are in the Bitcoin business, with names like Coinkite and Coinbase. More are offering debit cards that use Bitcoin, with names like Xapo and e-Coin.

Kelowna was actually home to one of the first Bitcoin ATMs back in 2013 and there are reportedly now more than 500 ATMs worldwide.

That first ATM is gone from Kelowna, but Merrill has partnered with a Vancouver company called Netcoins—two brothers who have created a virtual ATM using a smartphone app.

“A customer can walk in and buy 100 dollars worth of Bitcoin,” said Netcoins founder and CEO Michael Vogel. “We facilitate the heavy lifting to get that Bitcoin from us to the customer’s digital wallet where Bitcoins are stored. You can then open up your Bitcoin wallet on your phone.”

Despite the increase in businesses using Bitcoin, walk down the street and ask people if they know about Bitcoin and the responses will range from zero knowledge or others who have heard about it, to those who thought it was a passing fad that went away.

“It’s a common reaction we get from a lot of people we talk to: ‘I thought Bitcoin died,’” said Vogel. “But the reality is Bitcoin’s adoption rate is about six times faster than the early days of the Internet.

“We’re not that far removed from when the Internet was coming of age. Bitcoin is at the same kind of point in its lifecycle.

“It’s mostly early adopters and tech-savvy people who are interested in it today.”

Vogel said the technology is ramping up and becoming more in the mainstream, as evidenced by the investment now being made in blockchain technology by major financial institutions.

“The funny thing is, a year ago all the American banks didn’t want anything to do with Bitcoin, they thought it was ridiculous,” said Vogel.

“But since August every major American bank and about 30 major financial institutions have invested in or started their own blockchain. Visa has started a pilot project in Europe to use an internal mechanism to move money around. Microsoft, Dell, Expedia are now all actively accepting Bitcoin.”

At Sovereign Silver & Gold, Merrill says Bitcoin is a move away from the way things are done today as people heavily finance purchases using credit cards, lines of credit and mortgages, increasing debt and paying interest on their purchases.

At the same time, countries like Canada continue to go further into debt, borrowing money from the international banking system, creating money from bonds and continuing a cycle of debt that he said is out of control.

“All money today is debt,” he said. “If the money is always charging you rent to the point where the rent—the interest—exceeds the money supply, the system fails. Talk to the people in Greece or in Venezuela where their currency has collapsed.

“In the 1970s, the federal government had almost no debt. Now the interest on Canada’s debt is $50 billion annually.

“Historically this kind of financing and borrowing has never worked.”

•••

One of the current buzz-phrases in technology is ‘disruptive innovation’—advances in technology that change the way industries operate.

As an example, Netflix was disruptive to video stores like Blockbuster as online movie watching supplanted the way we watch movies at home.

Gone are the days when you strolled through a video store to rent a movie.

Another example is a company like Uber, which has disrupted the taxi industry or Airbnb which has changed the landscape of the hotel industry.

Matt Crowell is the CEO of Kelowna-based tech company GetInTheLoop. He has a master’s degree in innovation and entrepreneurship.

When it comes to advancements in technology, Crowell said there are two types of innovations.

One is incremental where something is constantly improved such as the television, which over the years has gone from black and white, to colour to high definition.

The other type of innovation is radical or disruptive, where something changes an industry entirely and creates a new market.

“The two biggest trends in technology and innovation are FinTech, which is financial technology, and mobile,” said Crowell

“Bitcoin is trying to play a role in FinTech but the banks are moving into the technology space very quickly. Mobile is changing everything because everything is happening on our phone and its disrupting every single industry.”

Crowell said major companies are now fully researching ways to radically innovate and change themselves by creating divisions that are tasked with thinking outside of the box, trying to find the innovation before they are disrupted by an outside company.

“To radically innovate, some of the really big companies actually create divisions within their own company and have them work on projects that are separate from what they do,” he said.

“To radically innovate, you need to be thinking so far outside of the box and sometimes in these large companies it’s very hard to change.”

Some of the big banks have taken on this philosophy.

Scotiabank announced in October what it called a “significant milestone” with the development of a Digital Factory designed to deliver digital innovations and solutions for the bank’s customers.

The factory will house more than 350 jobs for top technology talent that the bank says “will play a leading role in redefining banking for the digital age.”

Still, people who believe in Bitcoin feel that change is coming in the world of currency.

“Bitcoin has the power to disrupt the banking system,” said Merrill. “It’s a powerful idea and a fascinating technology. As a currency it’s a big idea.

“One-third of the world’s population is what’s called unbanked: People who don’t use banks. But Bitcoin can deliver payments to everyone’s phone.”

•••

There is conspiracy theory in this story as well.

Several people contacted to discuss Bitcoin or blockchain technology wouldn’t talk on the record about it.

One financial adviser with knowledge of virtual currency, called blockchain technology important but Bitcoin a bit too flaky to put his name behind.

“There is so much noise around this subject right now,” he said.

“What’s really interesting is how this is going to impact the conventional players.

“Visa and MasterCard have spent tons of money on this. Major (financial) clearing houses are now taking and receiving payments using blockchain. The potential to reduce costs is huge.”

A Kelowna man who was looking to purchase Bitcoin and send it overseas, avoiding the large fees normally associated with having to send money through Western Union or PayPal, also didn’t want to give his name when speaking about Bitcoin and why he was looking to use virtual currency.

“I just don’t want my name associated with this,” he said.

Several Kelowna banks contacted for comment couldn’t provide clarity on the future of virtual currency vs. traditional banking, with one vice-president of finance saying he didn’t know enough about the issue to comment.

Scotiabank was able to provide comment on the blockchain technology after the request went to its communications department in Toronto.

“Scotiabank believes that distributed ledger technology including blockchain is a powerful and exciting platform that can be leveraged to improve the customer experience,” the statement read.

“We have a dedicated team focused on exploring the technology and how it can be used within the bank as well as with our customers. As part of this exploration, we have joined the r3CEV consortium and are working with others in the industry on if and how banks can change the way they operate and interoperate.”

Proponents of Bitcoin say the technology could allow people to cut ties with the current, mainstream financial system and lead to so much more individual power.

“Bitcoin leads to a freedom movement, like the ‘Anonymous’ movement,” said Merrill.

“Bitcoin gives everybody the ability to be their own bank. There’s no third party. There’s no banker, no bureaucrat, no government. If we take those three out of the  equation, how much money would we save?”

•••

In the end, Bitcoin proponents say it’s a viable alternative to the traditional banking system.

As a way to send money overseas it gives users an option with low fees compared to what’s out there now.

For merchants who can suffer great losses in charge-backs from credit card companies if they happen to process a stolen credit card without knowing, Bitcoin eliminates that.

It has a finite supply with only 21 million Bitcoin ever to be released, meaning more Bitcoin can’t be manufactured out of thin air. Could it disrupt the banking industry as we know it, or will the banks adapt and find uses for the blockchain and keep the majority of its customers? And where the heck is all this debt going to end?

At this point there seems like more questions than answers.

“We’ve seen this through history, when you create money out of nothing, the value eventually goes to zero,” said foreign exchange trader Derrick Nicholson.

“Every currency in the world that didn’t have some sort of backing behind it, not just paper assets, has gone to zero.

“Whether it’s Bitcoin backed by gold or we go back to the gold standard, I’m not sure. But what we have today is just not working.”

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