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Disrupting the Dollar, Gold vs Bitcoin, Marvelous Montauk—The Ledger

Robert Hackett

On the shores of foggy Montauk, tech and finance executives gathered last week at Fortune’s Brainstorm Finance to talk about big ideas. Notably, they explored how the ethos of Silicon Valley is seeping into Wall Street, and asked whether big banks will be displaced—or if the old guard of the financial world will simply appropriate new tech tools to stay in control for decades to come. One of many delightful surprises: Citi CEO Michael Corbat took up the counter-cultural mantle, labeling himself a “true believer” in cryptocurrency.

Meanwhile, some currents of the conversation raised an even deeper question: Will new technology, notably cryptocurrency, end the dominance of the U.S. dollar? At a breakfast panel, TrustToken co-founder Tory Reiss noted how merchants in China and Ukraine are using digital money called Tether to arrange import deals, while thousands of brokers in Hong Kong are using WhatsApp and Bitcoin to subvert currency controls. In the past, it would have been U.S. dollars—namely suitcases full of cash—enabling such transactions.

Others predicted that the next phase of finance will see nation states issuing cryptocurrencies of their own. For Alex Mashinsky of Celsius Network, this will further hasten the decline of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, and cause America to lose one of its most powerful geopolitical assets. “The monopoly of the U.S. dollar will be disrupted like AT&T before it,” he said, referring to the 1980s breakup of what was once America’s most powerful communications monopoly.

It’s not just countries, of course, getting into the digital currency game. On the Brainstorm Finance main stage, Kathryn Haun of Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz discussed Project Libra, the Facebook-led initiative to create a new type of money for billions of users. As Haun explained it, her firm is just one of dozens that will hammer out the details of Libra, likening the process to a “Constitutional convention…you have all these different states coming in trying to form this union.”

Not everyone is cheering on this process—and some are downright hostile. Ledger reader Michele Clarke sent us an acerbic email to say, “So a quick fact check – these are corporations, not ‘states’. And wouldn’t holding a ‘Constitutional convention’ fall under the literal definition of treason?”

Meanwhile, others questioned if the financial future we are creating is part of the larger surveillance state arising all around us. In the words of Amber Baldet, Clovyr CEO and former JPMorgan Chase executive, there is a real risk of a “William Gibsonian corporate dystopia” if we turn away from decentralization, which was the original promise of blockchain technology. Finally, Gem CEO Micah Winkelspecht—a long time blockchain builder—made an impassioned plea to treat the ability to tinker with new financial technologies as a human right. As I said, lots of big ideas on the shores of Montauk.


If Ledger readers will indulge us in a victory lap, we were absolutely thrilled with the inaugural edition of Brainstorm Finance. We received rave reviews—including one delegate who described it as a “conference without annoying conference people.” Jen, Robert, Adam, and I want to thank everyone who came, read our coverage, and contributed to the discussions. We can’t wait to do it all over again next year.


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Jeff Roberts @jeffjohnrobertsjeff.roberts@fortune.com