Love it or loathe it, Bitcoin is everywhere.
Interest has reached a sufficiently feverish pitch that even Goldman Sachs Group Inc., (GS - Get Report) the legendary Wall Street investment bank, is considering how a trading desk dedicated to cryptocurrencies might work and what logistical and legal hurdles making markets in them might entail.
"In response to client interest in digital currencies, we are exploring how best to serve them in the space," the bank said in a statement on Monday, Oct. 2, that didn't provide further details.
The review is in its earliest stages, according to a person familiar with the matter, and ultimately it may lead nowhere. The bank doesn't disagree with JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon's assessment that Bitcoin is highly speculative, and trading in a currency originally valued for its anonymity would face significant regulatory hurdles in the U.S.
One of them is the Bank Secrecy Act, designed to prevent money laundering and terrorist financing, which requires U.S. firms to maintain a paper trail strong enough to reconstruct transactions of $10,000 or more if law enforcement deems it necessary.
At the same time, the Internal Revenue Service has refused to give virtual currency the status of legal tender in any jurisdiction, and the agency considers it property for tax purposes, a Goldman portfolio manager wrote in a report over the summer.
"Still thinking about #Bitcoin," Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein wrote on social media site Twitter on Tuesday. "No conclusion -- not endorsing/rejecting. Know that folks also were skeptical when paper money replaced gold."
Still thinking about #Bitcoin. No conclusion - not endorsing/rejecting. Know that folks also were skeptical when paper money displaced gold.— Lloyd Blankfein (@lloydblankfein) October 3, 2017
Only about a decade old and trading at about $4,300, Bitcoin is created when networked computers record and validate transactions in a secure shared ledger known as blockchain, which is accessible around the world.
It remains the largest of the more than 800 cryptocurrencies in existence, accounting for more than half of a combined value of $120 billion, the Goldman portfolio manager said. In the U.S., the currencies can be traded on online exchanges, and options are available on offshore exchanges.
In China, the world's second-largest economy, trading in the cryptocurrency and its rivals was banned last month, with regulators citing disruption "to the economic and financial order."
Many other governments -- which have, since ancient times, created currencies that they can control and monitor -- look at cryptocurrencies as a novelty, JPMorgan's (JPM - Get Report) Dimon said at the Delivering Alpha conference in New York earlier this month.
But "wait until someone gets hurt, or someone uses it for illicit purposes, -- and they're using it for some illicit purposes right now -- they'll shut it down," he added.
Payment in Bitcoin, for instance, is frequently demanded by hackers before they'll restore access to a computer system they have broken into and shut down.
Further, Dimon said, the runup in the currency's value this year is similar to the speculation in tulip prices in the Netherlands during the 17th century. One of the early bubbles studied by economists, it's getting heightened attention now because of its exploration in Paramount's "Tulip Fever," which opened in U.S. movie theaters in September.
When the run-up in tulip prices -- which became so frantic that some of the Dutch bought options using their homes as collateral -- collapsed in 1637, many investors were ruined, according to the Rijksmuseum, the national museum of the Netherlands.
Despite the caution and skepticism about Bitcoin itself, however, many finance companies are developing ways to deploy the underlying blockchain technology. The use of a single, secured ledger would let them pare back-office costs and avoid the duplication that occurs when many counterparties and regulators maintain individual ledgers to track transactions.
"That's a technology which is going to be rolled out," Dimon said last month, noting that JPMorgan is testing it.
"We think it's good," he added. "It could be built up over time and do things better, faster, quicker, and cheaper."
Updated from 5:36 p.m. ET on Monday, Oct. 2, 2017.
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