In the middle of a global pandemic, and the peculiar detachment of the financial markets from the economy, another oddity occurred: a sudden explosion in cryptocurrency investment. In 2020 and into 2021, trading volumes hit record daily highs and Bitcoin quadrupled as new investors flooded into the market. According to a recent study from Cornerstone Advisors, 15 percent of Americans now own cryptocurrency, half of whom invested for the first time last year.
Are digital coins the new gold bar? Or the next bubble? And is it wise to invest in cryptocurrency if you aren’t both financially and digitally literate? Which raises a bigger question: Are we on a path to an even greater divide, in which the rich and tech-savvy get richer and the poor and less educated are left behind? Likely we are, but not for the reasons you might think.
A decade in, Bitcoin is reaching maturity, aided by broader acceptance from prominent fintech companies, such as a $50 million investment by Square and PayPal allowing users to buy and sell Bitcoin on the platform. Alternative cryptocurrencies are proliferating—there are now more than 4,000 (or 7,000, depending who you ask) digital currencies in the market. And a number of nations are piloting their own national cryptocurrencies, including Ecuador, China, Senegal, Singapore and Tunisia, among others.
And yet, financial literacy remains rudimentary. In the United States, only 17 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds can correctly answer four of five basic financial literacy questions, and 53 percent feel anxious when thinking about their personal finances, according to FINRA’s State of U.S. Financial Capability study. And yet, Americans tend to think they are much more financially savvy than they are, with 71 percent giving themselves a high score when assessing their financial literacy. Meanwhile, less than half of states require high schools to offer financial literacy coursework.
Add advanced technology and security considerations—knowing how to navigate fraud risks and how to protect your digital currency from hackers, which trading platforms are legit and even whether to store digital coins in a “hot” or “cold” wallet—and it seems as though we’re heading for a collision course for the financially vulnerable and technologically naive.
Most cryptocurrency buyers share a predictable profile: high income, well-educated, male, millennial or Gen X and highly financially literate. This group consists of what might be considered the “crypto elite”—interested in the underlying technology, the merits of a decentralized currency and the future of digital monetary policy. But there is a secondary segment that is less affluent, less educated, both younger and older and much less financially literate. This group approaches the cryptocurrency market with a gambler’s mindset, drawn to the high-stakes risk and reward of the surging price.
The volatility that a speculative mindset introduces to a financial market creates levels of risk that the more financially literate investors generally steer clear from. And unlike an individual stock—the value of which is based on real-world economic factors—the value of cryptocurrency is not anchored to anything beyond the price the market is willing to buy and sell it for. As the groundswell of buzz around cryptocurrency increases, drawing in new investors both savvy and not, should we be concerned that a growing number of Americans are becoming exposed to levels of risk they don’t understand? Further, are these financially unsophisticated traders turning what could be the future of money into a freewheeling game?
The problems with an unregulated, decentralized marketplace are many (as are the merits). It’s the responsibility of policy makers, economists and systems designers together to create solutions that ensure equity, access, stability and just plain usability through all of these systems. We’ve done an undeniably poor job designing for financial literacy. Can we use this moment of flux as an opportunity? As systems, products and services increase in complexity, it becomes increasingly important that the people who use money understand what it is and what they have.
A few ways we might approach this:
What if we were to build upon the gambler mindset that is drawing in this next wave of cryptocurrency enthusiasts to gamify financial literacy? A cryptocurrency exchange sandbox could be built as a learning environment that allows users to move through a series of levels to learn fundamentals of financial risk and return in a “safe” environment.
As greater numbers of unsophisticated users enter financial markets alongside sophisticated traders, designing new interfaces and infographics that visualize relative risk could make it easier for novice users to avoid trades that exceed their individual risk tolerance.
Even the most financially savvy are sometimes prone to impulse and emotion. Designing interfaces for outcome, instead of transaction, could help alleviate errors in judgment. For example, adding interactive forward paths and prompts, such as pulling in a user’s financial data together with recommendations for achieving a stated outcome and adding advice (e.g., “You have 2.5 months of savings out of the six months recommended for this level of risk”).
It’s always simpler to design something new than to retrofit an existing system. As we embark on a new era of money, we’re in a unique moment. Cryptocurrency trading has attracted the interest of a whole new swath of the population. If we use this moment well, we have the opportunity to design a new financial literacy.
Hunter Sunrise is Head of Strategy at Modernist Studio.
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