In the field of emerging technology, we think in terms of “macro trends” — patterns of change that carry across multiple industries simultaneously. One macro trend is the trend toward disintermediation. It’s a big word, but the concept is simple: New technologies remove intermediaries or middlemen.
As a Silicon Valley veteran, I’ve observed firsthand the disruptive effect of this trend. Previously, content creation and distribution relied on numerous intermediaries, from studios to agents, publishers and broadcasters.
Platforms like YouTube and Patreon reduced the number of middlemen to one (themselves). New peer-to-peer content networks will eventually disintermediate even these newer incumbents, allowing creators to reach audiences directly.
Most people intuitively sense this trend, even if they can’t quite articulate it. They may not realize, however, that Bitcoin is part of this same phenomenon — in its case, it will disintermediate financial institutions to the benefit of the users of money. Grasping this bigger picture is crucial for interpreting the recent buzz about Bitcoin ETFs.
In the financial world, intermediaries are entrenched. They range from banks facilitating payments to companies like Visa that authorize and process transactions to government agencies like the Federal Reserve and the Treasury.
It doesn’t need to be that way; we know this intuitively. That’s why Mitch Hedberg’s old donut joke resonates: “I bought a donut, and they gave me a receipt for the donut. I don’t need a receipt for the donut. I give you money, and you give me the donut, end of transaction. We don’t need to bring ink and paper into this. I can’t imagine a scenario that I would have to prove that I bought a donut.”
In our absurd post-modern financial system, that joke borders on subversive. Since Mitch wrote it, the price of a donut at Dunkin’ Donuts has inflated to $1.86, and many people use a payment card to buy it. When a card is swiped, a transaction record is created, copied and sent to card networks, banks, transaction monitoring services and others.
Downstream, the donut purchase will be incorporated into a live model of the purchaser so that advertising may be better targeted to them. Can we sell them more junk food? How about health services and pharmaceutical products? Why not both?
The complex machinations that follow a donut purchase would make Leonard Read’s pencil builders blush.
None of this is normal. The institutions that track donut flows are intermediaries. They don’t add tangible value to either the donut producer or the consumer.
Thus far, their inclusion in the process has just been part of the deal for anyone wishing to benefit from the convenience of digital transactions. However, the Bitcoin protocol now enables peer-to-peer transactions, just as standardized protocols for information enabled the internet to take shape a quarter century ago.
Bitcoin’s invention marked the beginning of financial disintermediation. Unlike traditional hub-and-spoke financial networks, Bitcoin transactions occur directly between parties.
Since Bitcoin was invented, many other cryptocurrencies have vied to take its place, but they always fail because they go against the relentless march of disintermediation.
None have successfully recreated the simplicity and scale of the Bitcoin network, in which any transaction between two people takes the form of a short message that is immediately verified by thousands of computers across the planet.
Bitcoin cuts out the middlemen, and it plays that role beautifully in a world moving toward disintermediation in every respect.
Last week, brokerages made headlines when they sought permission from regulators to sell Bitcoin ETFs. This is exciting for the adoption of Bitcoin because if they are approved, a lot of “institutional capital” will flow into Bitcoin. That will onboard thousands of new people and raise Bitcoin’s exchange rate with the dollar, increasing the wealth of those who held Bitcoin before the ETF was offered.
However, this temporary benefit and the headlines it generates will overshadow the larger story: Any Bitcoin ETF can function only through intermediaries at various levels of government and the financial sector.
Over the long term, as people realize that these institutions are siphoning value unnecessarily, these financial constructs will fail. This happened to the centralized internet services before the web, like AOL. Once a technology that cuts out the middlemen is discovered, the genie cannot be put back in the bottle for long.
Bitcoin doesn’t merely ride the wave of disintermediation; it drives it. As information networks continue to reconfigure themselves to be simpler and more efficient, Bitcoin will manifest this macro trend in the financial sector, and the long era of money middlemen will come to a close.