bitcoin regulation

SecondMarket CEO Barry Silbert: Banks can't ignore bitcoin anymore

April 2, 2014: 2:28 PM ET

At a debate Tuesday night, Silbert described his vision for a world increasingly accepting of and reliant on bitcoin.

SecondMarket CEO Barry Silbert

SecondMarket CEO Barry Silbert

FORTUNE -- The skeptics continue to outnumber the true believers.

At least that was the case at a bitcoin forum Thursday night in New York City, where SecondMarket CEO and self-proclaimed "most active" bitcoin angel investor Barry Silbert took the pro side of a debate over the virtual currency against Reuters columnist, Felix Salmon. Roughly 60% of the audience at the Core Club labeled themselves bitcoin skeptics at the beginning of the debate, and while the hour-long discussion did little to convert doubters into devotees, it did give an excellent window into the logic of the bitcoin faithful.

Silbert, like fellow bitcoin evangelist Marc Andreessen, is fond of likening the present state of bitcoin to the early stages of the PC and Internet revolutions, when those in tech circles were excited by the technologies while the broader public was unable to perceive their potentials.

MORE: Bitcoin: Both Buffett and Andreessen are right

Using this metaphor as a foundation, Silbert outlined what he thinks are the five stages of bitcoin's development, beginning with the initial stage of its invention and the "early adopter" phase which began in 2011 and ended with that year's crash in bitcoin's dollar price. Silbert sees bitcoin currently in the "venture capital stage" during which successful investors like Silbert and Andreessen deploy significant capital in companies that will create the infrastructure necessary for the virtual currency to blossom.

He sees bitcoin entering its fourth stage of development sometime in 2014, when established Wall Street banks begin to position themselves to take advantage of bitcoin's rise. "We're probably just a few months away from Wall Street banks starting to trade bitcoin, starting to invest in bitcoin, and starting to create investment products for bitcoin," Silbert said.

While he admitted that there might be institutional resistance to helping bitcoin succeed within banks that profit from the incumbent payments system, Silbert argued that the banks, "can't ignore [bitcoin] anymore ... the conversation I'm having with banks is that [they] believe that this is here to stay and [they're] just figuring out what the strategy is."

It's certainly not inconceivable that Wall Street will start experimenting with bitcoin products in the near future. One must only look to how the financial industry has used technology over the past 10 years to help people invest in precious metals like gold to see how this might work. But Silbert was less convincing regarding his predicted fifth stage of bitcoin's development, otherwise known as the "mass consumer adoption phase," which he says will begin as early as 2015.

MORE: The real reason Bitcoin is doomed

One could sense from the question-and-answer session that followed that this is where Silbert loses most of us. What, exactly, will be the catalyst that nudges us toward buying stuff with bitcoin rather than dollars? Perhaps it is a lack of imagination on the parts of bitcoin skeptics that prevents them from seeing how this brilliant and efficient means of transmitting money will make their lives easier, and this is why the Internet and PC analogies are so seductive. Nobody wants to be on the wrong side of history, to be the person who was unable to see how a novel invention will transform the world.

But the fact remains that most inventions, even brilliant ones, don't change the world. And by definition most people are not going to be able to predict a revolution -- if most believe that a piece of technology is going to go mainstream, then they will very soon thereafter just adopt it. And when pressed, even Silbert admitted that bitcoin's apotheosis is no sure thing. "Bitcoin as a concept likely has a binary outcome," he said. "It is either going to change the way people think about money, the way they spend money, the way they use money, or it will flame out and be the betamax to VHS, or it will just go away."

And this admission shows why, when debating bitcoin, one must clearly define the proposition one is debating. Skeptics of bitcoin mostly don't argue that there's no chance bitcoin changes the world, just that the chance is remote. Meanwhile, boosters like Silbert admit that bitcoin isn't a sure bet. He's just arguing that investing in bitcoin makes a whole lot of sense because the technology is so brilliant, and because if bitcoin does end up having the potential he sees in it, you're going to make a ton of money. "If I'm right," Silbert said, "Investing in bitcoin will be one of the highest returning investments you'll probably ever see."

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