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The future of money: It’s not in your hands

The future of money It’s not in your hands
It’s 4 pm on the droning exhibition floor of the Aria Convention Center; only my second day in Las Vegas, but already the sinuses are desiccated from recycled desert air. My head is pounding from last night’s martinis. I struggle to hold a recorder in the face of Patrick Carroll, a 54-year-old Irishman and founder of the next-generation fraud prevention firm ValidSoft, who is talking to me about voice authentication. Just behind him is a group of polished-looking men in black suits with lanyards that say “Money2020” where their ties should be. One of them is playing with a red light-up yo-yo. 

As Carroll launches into a speech about “invisible software solutions,” I see the men turn abruptly in near-unison with the rest of the Money2020 crowd and migrate out of the teeming exhibit room in which we’re standing. They zip pass towering booths for PayPal and Google Wallet and out the doors, leaving the place empty and almost quiet.

Suze Orman looks like a bloodthirsty pitbull as she paces the stage, staring straight at the crowd. Then she rips into them.

“Thanks so much for your time,” I say to Carroll, wrapping up the interview as quickly as courtesy allows, and find a copy of the conference schedule.

“General Session Power Panel: MCX Overview & Strategy – Room: Pinyon 4/5” is the only event listed in the 4 pm time slot, so I head there.

The Pinyon Room buzzes with something like anxiety, and I sit on the floor with the other sad latecomers. Under the glaring white lights, but elevated by a stage, sit big-money honchos of Best Buy, CVS, and Walmart – three members of the Orwellian-sounding Merchant Customer Exchange.

I skim my event schedule for the section on MCX and see that they are, “A group of the nation’s leading merchants … offering consumers a customer-focused, versatile and seamlessly integrated mobile-commerce platform … biggest constituent retailers … groundbreaking general session.”

Mike Cook, Vice President and Assistant Treasurer of Walmart, finishes explaining MCX’s goal of providing an “enhanced consumer relationship,” but the crowd doesn’t appear to be buying it. I’m surrounded by a sea of stiff, scowling faces. 

Then it hits me: MCX isn’t a teammate in this faux-future financial services game that the first-annual Money2020 conference is supposed to represent – and the conference attendees have just discovered this insurgent is about to toss a great big pipe bomb onto the pitch.

Future of Money

The concept of holding a convention about money in the least fiscally responsible city on the planet should have given the organizers pause. Approximately $25 billion in NFC (Near Field Communication) payments are made in the U.S. each year, with that number expected to soar to $75 billion by 2015. And 16.3 percent of all things sold on Black Friday were purchased with either a tablet or a smartphone. Digitally-enabled financial services is a growing industry, one that needs to earn skeptical users’ trust. Vegas casinos, conversely, tricked gamblers out of $6.07 billion in 2011 alone. This was not a place for sound financial thinking.

Then again, I was clued into this little boondoogle by an event PR flack with the last name “Crook,” and I still came. Who was I to judge?

Besides, this wasn’t some confab where junior partners at investment banks measure the size of each other’s MBAs. I was here to mix with the top brass of the financial services industry – little companies like MasterCard, Amex, Visa – and, for three days, these payment leaders would come together “to figure out what the future of money will look like.” That’s what Crook told me, anyway.

Thirty six hours prior to the MCX pipe bomb lighting, I find myself atop a mountainous escalator, descending slowly into the beige bowels of the Aria. A sea of black suits percolate 30 feet below and I feel my body grow hot before it douses itself with a cold sweat.

Historically speaking, I’m not what you would call “good with money.” Thanks to a shockingly ill-fated marriage to a British soft-core porn star some years before, my credit score has plunged into what I can only imagine is double digits. Could these sharks know that?

Frozen on the descending escalator, I imagine the convention check-in process ending with a manic horde of Money2020 goers, having smelled an aroma of oppressive debt emanating from beneath my sweat-cold collar, trapping me in a silk net, and tossing me into an overheated Aria hot tub to boil. I see my crimson body scooped from the water by a nine-foot ogre in a tuxedo, who serves me on a silver platter to a crowd ready to dip me in chalices of black truffle butter like some gold-flaked lobster. 

I hit the bottom of the escalator, snap out of my hideous vision, and walk up to the check-in desk.

If this is a sign of what the future of money looks like, we might as well just all bow out right now.

“Hi, name’s Andrew Couts. I’m with Digital Trends.” 

Of course, nothing unusual happens. No net. No ogre. The very nice woman hands me my badge with a smile, and suggests I pick up a swag bag from a counter across the way.

I grab my bag and a cup of coffee, take a seat on an empty couch, and watch the Money2020 attendees fill in around me. They are almost entirely male, between the ages of 35 and 50, and stand unnaturally straight in jackets and shirts with no ties. The few women in attendance walk briskly back and forth in pale floral dresses and grey suits that accentuate their edges, chiseled sharp by years of slaps on the ass.

These aren’t the dreaded one percent; they’re the crumb collectors of the one percent, who run around picking up every little golden crumb they can get their manicured mitts on. The place smells of musky aftershave lotion. 

I focus my attention on the Money2020 schedule – a dizzying cluster of “track sessions,” five at a time, 45 minutes each. They all have names like “Creating a Single Voice for Mobile Payments,” “Innovations in Customer Acquisition,” and “Transactional & Specialty Credit.” I haven’t a clue what most of this gibberish means, so I just pick a few that sound like they’re my speed: apps, payment innovations, security, and NFC case studies.

The next two hours are a muddled mix of information bombardment and soul-sucking boredom. I learn about the “unbanked” and “innovative uses of existing infrastructure,” point of sale, traditional touchpoints, TSM, EBPP, EVM, CPG, FIs, BPO, and a billion other acronyms that no one bothers to explain. By the time the first “Networking Break” comes around, I’m about to collapse from a confusion-induced aneurism.

If this is a sign of what the future of money looks like, we might as well just bow out right now.

After a third cup of coffee, I meet Dan Meader, a tall Californian with a surfer’s sun-bleached hair. He created Allowance Manager, a free app that teaches kids basic money management skills using their real allowance. Meader worked for Apple and Adobe, but prior to that did some time in the financial services industry.

“I have to admit that I’m kind of frustrated by the whole thing,” he replies when I ask him about the conference so far. “They’re still having the same conversations today as they were seven or eight years ago.”

The financial industry, he explains, is nothing like the technology industry; it is purposefully designed to reject change, thanks to massive regulation that protects the biggest players – Amex, Visa, MasterCard, Discover – from having to bother with uppity startups in the space.

“There are some big players that have a lot of power. I mean, effectively, they’re monopolies. So, it’s really hard to combat that.”

Dan Meader

We leave the “media lounge” and make our way through the exhibition hall, where booths for MasterCard, Discover, Chase, Western Union, and dozens more are still under construction, and head toward the Pinyon room, where CNBC host Suze Orman is about to deliver her keynote address.

I say goodbye to Meader and find a single seat in the center of a row.

Orman takes the stage to a thunderous applause from the audience. Sharply adorned in one of her signature getups, a zebra-stripe dress with a giant collar, she looks like a bloodthirsty pitbull as she paces the stage, staring straight at the crowd. Then she rips into them. 

People “don’t want these digital wallets,” she barks. They’re “confused.” The financial industry needs to change, she scolds. But it needs to get simpler, not flooded with all the apps, and wallets, and tricks, and gizmos that litter the convention floor not 15 yards from where we all are sitting.

It won’t be, Orman claims, “… until every single one of you in this room can figure out how to pick them up, how to hold them up, for their own good, not for your bottom line,” that the assembled companies should expect to see the results in their own bottom line.

Hackles rise all around me.

“When you give them too many choices – this wallet, that wallet, this app, that app, ‘You’re going to pay your bills this way, this way, that way – or, that way, that way, this way.’ Do you know what they do? They do absolutely nothing.”

Anonymous. Digital. Unadulterated by politics. Mathematically pure. Bitcoin isn’t just unique; it’s punk rock – the antithesis of all the other mothballed nonsense I’d seen at Money2020.

In front of me, a middle-aged man with sun-spotted skin whispers into the ear of a man to his right. “Yeah, but confusion means there’s money to be made,” he says. Both their bodies shake with stifled laughter. I expect them to high-five.

Orman ends with an anecdote about how one of her friends doesn’t understand what Google Wallet is. The woman called her three times, Suze says, still perplexed by the technology.

“That woman’s an idiot,” I hear a female voice behind me say. She and her friend laugh heartily, as Suze leaves the stage. 

Poor Osama Bedier, Google’s VP in charge of Google Wallet, lumbers out to stunned applause. The Money2020 herd just spent the past 40 minutes listening to one of the consumer financial industry’s most beloved personalities tell them why most of their life’s work was stupid – no, not stupid, but bad for society. And here was Bedier about to heave himself head first into the bucket of sludge with talk of how “innovative” and “great” and “easy to use” Google Wallet is. 

Forty five minutes later, I roam around the hall, face-to-face with what ol’ Suze was hammering away at. Each one of these companies – around 65 in total – have their own “innovative” product to sell. Digital wallets, payment dongles, piles of pre-paid debits cards, ‘social banking,’ payment solutions, credit cards packed with gifting and “reward” schemes – a whole jumbled mess of jargon that some witless bastard dubbed “Banking 2.0.”

Banking has been around for 4,000 years, and we’re just now getting to version two.

I re-caffeinate and meander back toward the front of the room. Just then, I spot something interesting: A small Bitcoin booth, somehow hidden in the center of the room, surrounded by a crew of three guys who are clearly decades younger than anyone else at Money2020.

A hacker friend of mine clued me into Bitcoin a few years back. And I’d seen the random blog post about it since then. But I still don’t fully grasp the concept. A black-haired guy, about my height, dressed in a slightly wrinkled, blue button-down shirt and khaki pants turns my way as I approach the Bitcoin kiosk. The badge around his neck tells me his name is Roger Ver.

Roger Ver

Bitcoin, Ver explains, is the only truly new idea in the financial industry, and “the most important invention since the Internet!” Whereas credit cards and digital wallets are simply advanced ways to spend cash, Bitcoin is an entirely separate, digital currency, controlled by no nation. All purchases are entirely anonymous, and heavily encrypted.

“It’s more stable than the U.S. dollar. And because each new Bitcoin is produced by a complex algorithm, it’s impossible to just make new Bitcoins anytime you want, like the Fed does with dollars,” Ver concludes. “That’s probably why no country will ever adopt it.”

Now this is something I could get excited about: A rogue currency that flies in the face of the entire world financial system. Anonymous. Digital. Unadulterated by politics. Mathematically pure. Bitcoin isn’t just unique; it’s punk rock – the antithesis of all the other mothballed nonsense I’d seen at Money2020.

To my left stands the least likely Money2020 attendee I can imagine. He has scrapped the jacket-and-pants look for a gray hoodie, white t-shirt, and black Puma track pants with a neon green stripe down the leg. His chin-length blonde hair frames a prominent forehead that would better fit an ancient human ancestor, and eyes that glitter darkly in deep sockets, punctuated by massively dilated pupils that make him look like he’s tripping on acid. And who knows? I think. Maybe he is. 

I introduce myself. The guy’s name is Jesse Powell, and he hands me a card that says he’s the CEO of a company called Payward. He’s getting ready to launch his own Bitcoin exchange (a Bitcoin currency trading service), and tagged along with Roger for the event. He’s just as enthusiastic about Bitcoin as Roger is. I want to learn more, I tell him, so we agree to meet up later that night.

That’s his pitch?! Drugs and porn? I can’t believe it – this acid-soaked fool has blown his big chance in one sentence.

A few hours later, over a mountain of beef bulgogi and across a sea of pickled Korean side dishes, Powell explains his earlier business selling virtual goods from video games when he receives a text. “A guy” from the International Finance Corporation – the investment arm of the World Bank – wants to join up with him for some drinks.

“We’re talking big league dudes here,” says Powell. “I met the guy earlier today. He seemed interested in Bitcoin. Want to go?”

We pay the bill, grab a cab, and head to the Social House, an absurdly upscale sushi restaurant next door to the Aria.

When we arrive, the four-man IFC crew is seated around a giant dark wood table, closed menus in front of them. Powell and I wave at the group and they slide over to make room for us. We take seats on either side of the table.

“Hey guys, this is Jesse,” says one of the men in a German accent, extending his arm in Powell’s direction. “He does Bitcoin.” Everyone nods to Powell. “Hello.” “Hi.” “Hello.”

“And you are?” asks the German. The whole mean crew looks at me.

“This is Andrew,” Powell says. I waved at everyone, awkwardly.

“And what do you do, Andrew?” asks the German. 

“I’m a journalist,” I say. Someone mumbles something about “off the record” as I dive into the cocktail list, avoiding the group’s prying gazes. 

The German is Kai Martin Schmitz, a dapper “senior investment officer” for the IFC. Sitting to my left is Andi Dervishi, a soft-spoken Albanian and a member of the IFC’s Global Information and Communication Technologies Department. To Schmitz’s right sits Paul Jozefak, managing director of Liquid Labs GmbH, a Hamburg, Germany-based venture capital firm. The guy across from Paul doesn’t say his name. 

“Jesse, tell us about Bitcoin,” says Schmitz, taking his McCallan 12 from our waiter. 

Now is Powell’s big chance, I think. These guys have the power to throw money at the thing he cares about most. I hold my breath, curious how he’ll spin it.

“Well,” says Powell, “it’s an entirely digital currency. Right now, people mostly use it to buy drugs on this site called Silk Road – that and porn. I think it has a lot of potential.”

That’s his pitch?! Drugs and porn? I can’t believe it – this acid-soaked fool has blown his big chance in one sentence. Who would invest in a thing like that? I look up to see the whole table recoil, their faces blank, not knowing how to react. Suddenly, Paul laughs. “Tell us more!” he says, and the rest of the crew nods in giddy agreement.

Unshaken, Powell goes on to exalt the benefits of Bitcoin while admitting the pitfalls of a small, volatile market that is regularly targeted by hackers. The money men around the table appear entirely undeterred by the risks. I can see dollar signs in their eyes. 

Weeks later, Powell tells me that the IFC guys decided not to invest, though they are “very interested in Bitcoin.” That was, however, before WordPress began to accept Bitcoin as payment for website hosting, before Europe gave a French Bitcoin exchange the same status as a real-money bank

FreeMonee is brilliant and wicked, a real life example of the Future Of Money at work, and it makes me want to start burning things down.

A few rounds later, things get hazy. My mind drowned in the cool glow of extra-dirty vodka martinis, I begin to lose track of the conversation. After a final round, I slur my goodbyes to the IFC crew. Powell, still stone-cold sober – he’s been drinking water all night– leaves with the rest of the group, his Bitcoin pitch still holding their attention.

I do manage to scribble down a few notes that, in retrospect, make little sense: “DINNER: Almost killed, werewolves, Cancun & someone dies.”

The next morning, battling a vicious hangover, I attend dull “Power Sessions” with names like “Digital Wallets – The Battle for Consumer Mindshare.” All I learn is how committed the financial services industry is to solving the non-problem of credit cards. 

“Digital wallets are the future,” I hear over, and over, and over. But why? There’s no reason. Sure, NFC is nifty. But do we really need to make it easier to spend money, and less difficult to keep track of the money we’ve spent? Maybe it’s my own sordid financial past, but – other than ol’ Suze – I seem to be the only one at Money2020 who feels the answer is no.

After lunch, I meet with Jim Taschetta, CMO of a company called FreeMonee, the sole purpose of which is to trick you into shopping when you might otherwise not. Jim is short, with a balding head of greying, dark brown hair, deep-set eyes, a young boxer’s nose, and a big, lying smile. 

“What we tripped upon three years ago was this notion that gift cards are really, really effective at bringing consumers in the door,” Taschetta tells me. “When retailers use gift cards as an incentive to drive people in the door, they’re 10 times more effective – 10 times more effective – than anything else they can do. Any advertising, promotion, couponing – 10 times more effective. “

FreeMonee works by sending people “virtual gift cards,” which are attached to their credit or debit cards from financial institutions like US Bank or Discover. The gift cards are, as Jim explains, “free money – no strings attached.” Each person receives cards based on their spending history, which is run through the FreeMonee algorithm – the “gift underwriting engine” – to calculate how much a person is likely to spend at a particular store just by walking through the door.

So if, for example, you generally spend $75 on average at Barnes & Noble, you might receive a $10 FreeMonee-B&N gift card that expires in seven days. You could, with the right kind of will power, walk into the bookstore and spend only the $10 gift card. Based on your spending habits, however, chances are high that you will actually spend $75 or more when you might not otherwise have visited the store at all. 

It is brilliant and wicked, a real-life example of the Future Of Money at work, and it makes me want to start burning things down.

A few hours later, the MCX pipe bomb explodes in the Pinyon room. Rather than support any of the digital wallets being waved in their face by Money2020 presenters, MCX member companies are threatening to launch their own digital wallet – one that would keep the precious payment data so central to the Future Of Money all to themselves.

Best Buy … Target … Walmart … Bed Bath and Beyond … Shell … Sears … Gap Inc. … 7Eleven … Just a few moments ago, everyone at Money2020 planned to make millions from sales at these stores, and they intended to topple the Big Money monopoly that fortified the financial industry in the process. But MCX is launching a coup of its own, and where will these small scrappy upstarts and start ups who really believe in the Future Of Money fit in their new financial order?

No wonder everyone in the Pinyon room looks like they just ate a shit sandwich.

That evening, at a small party thrown by loyalty rewards provider called Truaxis, I ask a payments and security researcher named Aaron McPherson about the MCX announcement.

He thinks MCX is just posturing; flexing its merchant might in order to scare the money establishment into a position of weakness.

“They aren’t really going to launch a digital wallet,” says McPherson. “They’re just threatening to, so they can negotiate better interchange fees.”

Retailers currently have to pay these interchange fees every time someone buys something with a credit card. With the impending shift toward digital wallets, MCX member companies see their chance to shift the balance of power: Lower our fees, or we’ll lock you out.

In other words, the Immediate Future Of Money looks like this: the four largest credit card companies in the world battling with 21 of the largest retailers in the world over a few percentage points on the way we’ve all been doing business for the last 50 years.

As for the real Future Of Money, it comes to me the next morning over a bloody Mary, surrounded by the infernal racket of the McCarran Airport slot machines. 

We are about to be bombarded with a staggering array of new payment choices, none of which need to exist, but that the Money2020 crew – from Google on down – are hell-bent on forcing upon us. There will be a hundred different wallets, a thousand pre-paid cards, a billion loyalty rewards programs, and a whole layer of other services offering condensed versions of everything, which claim to be easier to understand. They aren’t. It’s a mystifying mess, and there’s absolutely nothing new on the horizon, besides Bitcoin.

You know, the one used for drug purchases and porn.

Las Vegas, I realize, is the ideal place to hold a conference about the financial industry. In fact, Vegas is more than just a place – it is the perfect physical recreation of the financial industry itself: purposefully confusing, potentially life ruining, and filled with a million bells and whistles meant to lure us suckers in. Las Vegas, like the financial industry, is a soulless husk of a thing, built by greedy hands, for greedy ends. It is a place that has managed to bend the rules so that its particular vein of villainy can flow freely, without obstruction from anything or anyone.

As I sip the gritty last bits from my glass, the bartender arrives and asks if I want anything else. No, I say, my flight is leaving in less than half an hour.

“How would you like to pay?” he asks. “Cash or credit?”

“Can I pay with my phone?” I ask, with a smirk. He doesn’t have a clue what the hell I am talking about.

*This article has been updated to reflect a disputed quote.

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