With the wild journey that is bitcoin price swings so far this year, you might have missed the accelerating rhythm of companies announcing services to support bitcoin for payments.
We’re not talking about small idealistic startups, either.
A week ago, on Visa’s Q1 earnings call, CEO Al Kelly said the company may add cryptocurrencies to its payments network. He acknowledged that bitcoin is “not used as a form of payment in a significant way at this point,” but went on to discuss a strategy to “enable users to purchase these currencies using their Visa credentials or to cash out onto our Visa credential to make a fiat purchase at any of the 70 million merchants where Visa is accepted globally.”
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Visa also currently provides credit card infrastructure for 35 crypto companies, with the aim of making it easier for users to pay with bitcoin.
In PayPal’s Q4 earnings call this week, the first since the company started allowing the purchase and sale of a handful of cryptocurrencies via their PayPal account, the company revealed that it was planning to start allowing customers to use their crypto balances to pay for goods and services at any of the approximately 29 million merchants on the network, and that it was “significantly investing” in the crypto business unit.
Large crypto companies are also moving into payments. Last month, crypto exchange and custodian Gemini launched a credit card with a 3% reward on purchases. In December, crypto lender BlockFi announced that it would launch a similar product in early 2021.
This is just scratching the surface. Binance, Coinbase, Paxful and BitPanda are just some of the crypto exchanges that over the past few months have introduced crypto debit cards for retail spending. This week, crypto platform Uphold announced the acquisition of card issuer Optimus Cards U.K.
Also this week, Binance, the largest cryptocurrency exchange in the world in terms of volume, announced the launch of a payments system called Binance Pay, aimed at encouraging the use of crypto in cross-border payments. Binance CEO and founder Changpeng “CZ” Zhao said: “We think that payments is one of the most obvious use cases for crypto.”
Not so fast
Obviously “crypto” encompasses a range of assets, but let’s focus on Bitcoin for a moment.
The white paper that introduced Bitcoin to the world in 2008 opens with:
“A purely peer-to-peer version of electronic cash would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution.”
Whether Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous writer of the paper, meant for payments to be the main use case or not (this is a point of contention, as he* also wrote elsewhere about its potential role as a store of value), over the years it became clear that scaling limitations inherent in the protocol design made the network impractical for high transaction volumes.
(*I am not assuming Satoshi is a he, but I am using this pronoun to avoid linguistic clutter.)
Another critique of Bitcoin-as-a-payments rail is its relative lack of speed, although this can be misleading. A bitcoin payment will take around 10 minutes on average, and up to an hour for assumed settlement finality. Credit card and contactless payments are faster, but they usually don’t have settlement finality until days later. And data gathered in electronic transactions removes any financial privacy. Cash, on the other hand, is instantaneous and private, but you need to be physically present.
What’s more, bitcoin transactions are relatively expensive. This week the average fee reached its highest point since January 2018.
Solutions such as the Lightning Network aim to solve for these barriers by offering fast and cheap throughput on a transaction layer that anchors to the Bitcoin blockchain at certain intervals. Adoption of this technology is growing, but is still in its early stages.
The existential question
Then again, most of those that complain that Bitcoin doesn’t work for payments have access to other mechanisms that work well. That’s not the case for much of the world. Some jurisdictions have strict capital…