At Davos, Crypto Is No Longer on the Outside

Cryptocurrencies have taken a prominent role at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, despite the mainstream finance world’s apparent contempt for the sector.

AccessTimeIconMay 23, 2022 at 11:29 p.m. UTC
Updated May 24, 2022 at 1:50 p.m. UTC

Sandali Handagama is a CoinDesk reporter with a focus on crypto regulation and policy. She does not own any crypto.

Helene is a U.S. markets reporter at CoinDesk, covering the US economy, the Fed, and bitcoin. She is a recent graduate of New York University's business and economic reporting program.

DAVOS, Switzerland — Even on the trains, you can’t get away from crypto.

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual meeting – canceled in 2021, delayed earlier in 2022 – formally kicks off Tuesday in Davos, Switzerland. Cryptocurrency advocates opened the parties up on Sunday with bitcoin (BTC) pizza stalls and blockchain pavilions with flashy banners lining the famed promenade.

WEF attendees were bombarded with signs advertising stablecoin issuer Circle and crypto brokerage Bitcoin Suisse as they got off their planes in Zurich or trains in Davos. Casual passers-by talked about owning shiba inu (SHIB) and ADA. At the end of the day, the crypteratti dispersed to one of the nearby Airbnbs.

“Five years ago, we were the only crypto company on Promenade,” said Sandra Ro, CEO of the Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC) at a kickoff party at a local church (dubbed “The Sanctuary”) right outside the closed-off conference venue. “And look at it now,” she added.

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Bitcoin pizza on the promenade at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. (Sandali Handagama/CoinDesk)

Perhaps nothing announced the turbulent crypto industry’s arrival at the world’s biggest business table more than the fact that the WEF itself is holding serious discussions about digital money, with industry participants as key players.

Jeremy Allaire, chairman and CEO at Circle Pay, and Brad Garlinghouse, CEO of Ripple, sat side by side on Monday to discuss remittances and digital money at an issue briefing at the WEF media village. The panel, titled “Remittances for Recovery: A New Era of Digital Money,” also included Asif Saleh, executive director of the BRAC, a developmental non-governmental organization based in Bangladesh.

The forum also hosted a discussion on the future of the global economy, the U.S. economy and central bank digital currencies (CBDC) themselves. That’s not to say the forum’s global leaders accept cryptocurrencies just yet – but they aren’t ignoring it.

Creeping in

A panel featuring Nasdaq CEO Adena Friedman, PayPal (PYPL) CEO Dan Schulman, U.S. Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and economist Jason Furman that purportedly focused on the future of the U.S. economy continued the discussion on crypto.

“For a lot of countries around the world, digital central bank currencies (CBDC) might make sense, I don’t think the United States needs to do them,” said Furman, an economics professor at Harvard University.

All of the panelists quickly became very enthusiastic about sharing their thoughts on stablecoins and the like, despite the best efforts of New York Times Deputy Managing Editor Rebecca Blumenstein, who moderated the panel, to put a stop to it.

Toomey mentioned a bill he introduced to regulate stablecoins, asking about the role of a CBDC in a world where private stablecoins flourish.

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The Blockchain Hub by Casper Labs at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland (Sandali Handagama/CoinDesk)

“I think we ought to have a framework that allows privately issued stablecoins to thrive in a rational framework and if that happens, I’m not sure how much we need a digital dollar,” he said.

Another panel focused on the global economy also brought up the value proposition of bitcoin and some other cryptocurrencies.

“The younger generation says the older generation has devalued the dollar or the value of other currencies, so maybe something new isn’t so bad,” said David M. Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group, in a panel discussing the future of the global economy amid slower economic growth and the fallout from sanctions.

Official presence

The panels officially intended to discuss cryptocurrencies went far deeper.

Garlinghouse and Allaire commented on the future of finance broadly and the urgent need for regulatory clarity in the crypto world during their remittances panel.

According to Allaire, whose company issues USD coin (USDC), a crypto asset pegged to the value of the U.S. dollar, the world is moving to a place where the concept of a cross-border payment will be as ”crazy sounding” as the concept of a cross-border email.

”We don’t think about cross-border emails. We don’t think about having a cross-border web browsing session, it’s absurd to think about that. And I believe we’re on the cusp of that with money. And I think when it comes to remittances, I believe the concept of a remittance will also disappear,” Allaire said.

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Sara Pantuliano, Asif Saleh, Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse and Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire speak at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland (Nikhilesh De/CoinDesk)

Garlinghouse, whose company Ripple is currently embroiled in a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Committee over the sale of the digital token XRP in 2013, warned that governments control financial systems and said that it's unlikely to change in his lifetime.

“The thing to think about I think is if you approach the regulators with ‘You need to adapt to us’ that is dead on arrival,” Garlinghouse said.

Responding to a question on the lack of regulatory certainty in the crypto sector, Garlinghouse said that regulatory clarity is a problem that needs to be solved, adding that the U.S. is lagging behind in setting up clear rules for the crypto sector.

“I say don’t incorporate in the U.S. because that’s where some are being hostile and uncertain, and there’s much better clarity in Japan and Singapore, or go here in Switzerland to invest globally having more clarity, more certainty will help [drive innovation]. It’ll help remittances because of that,” Garlinghouse said.

Allaire, who has been attending the Davos conference since 2008, told CoinDesk that crypto had reached a new level of prominence at the WEF and hopes for next year are already high.

Allaire closed the panel by saying that a year from now, he hopes the crypto sector would come to the table with more examples of solutions that work for the people.

That’s not to say central bankers and finance regulators are enamored with the idea of digital assets.

On a WEF congress main stage, Kristalina Georgieva, managing director at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), said cryptocurrencies like bitcoin are not money but assets.

“A prerequisite for something that would be money is to be a stable store of value,” Georgieva said.

She was joined by Axel P. Lehmann, chairman of the board at Credit Suisse, Sethaput Suthiwartnarueput, governor of Bank of Thailand and François Villeroy de Galhau, governor of the central bank of France to discuss CBDCs.

A recent report by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), also known as the central bank for central banks, found that nine out of 10 central banks around the world are exploring the design and issuance of CBDCs.

Outside, looking out

Promenade, the main street that leads to the Congress where the official WEF panels take place, is dominated by crypto companies. Filecoin, which hosted a crowded welcome party on Sunday, resides in a sanctuary at the beginning of the street, followed by Circle just a few hundred feet down.

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Circle set up its own "house" on the Promenade. (Nikhilesh De/CoinDesk)

Among other big crypto names with lounges and their own programming are Polkadot, Securrency, GBBC and Casper Labs, among others. One thing that all of them have in common: big ads.

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Polkadot has its own "house" on the Promenade, the road leading to the official World Economic Forum's meeting place – but also took out a massive banner ad further down the road. (Nikhilesh De/CoinDesk)

In “2018 it was all crypto castles and now it’s all about branding,” said Sheila Warren, CEO of the Crypto Council for Innovation. “It’s established companies coming to Davos as an industry.”

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Sandali Handagama is a CoinDesk reporter with a focus on crypto regulation and policy. She does not own any crypto.

CoinDesk - Unknown

Helene is a U.S. markets reporter at CoinDesk, covering the US economy, the Fed, and bitcoin. She is a recent graduate of New York University's business and economic reporting program.

CoinDesk - Unknown

Sandali Handagama is a CoinDesk reporter with a focus on crypto regulation and policy. She does not own any crypto.

CoinDesk - Unknown

Helene is a U.S. markets reporter at CoinDesk, covering the US economy, the Fed, and bitcoin. She is a recent graduate of New York University's business and economic reporting program.