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JPMorgan Chase Moves to Be First Big U.S. Bank With Its Own Cryptocurrency
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JPMorgan Chase Moves to Be First Big U.S. Bank With Its Own Cryptocurrency

In 2017, Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase’s chief executive, declared Bitcoin a “fraud” and said that any employee caught trading it would be fired for being “stupid.”

On Thursday, JPMorgan became the first major United States bank to introduce its own digital token for real-world use, the latest step in Wall Street’s evolving approach to the blockchain technology that underpins cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ether.

Despite questioning Bitcoin’s legitimacy, Mr. Dimon has said he recognizes blockchain’s potential in the future of the global financial system. And JPMorgan has already released a blockchain platform, Quorum, that several institutions are using to keep track of financial data.

With the announcement of its coin, JPMorgan is widening its experiment and moving to make the idea of digital currencies more palatable to its typically risk-averse corporate customers.

“Clients engaged us, saying they need a way to move money onto the blockchain,” Umar Farooq, who leads JPMorgan’s blockchain efforts, said in a telephone interview.

The bank’s token is unlikely to shake up the financial system anytime soon. Because it will be run by JPMorgan, it lacks the fundamental qualities that have made cryptocurrencies so radical: the freedom from middlemen and from regulatory oversight.

JPMorgan will control the JPM Coin ledger, and each coin will be backed by a dollar in JPMorgan accounts, giving the coins a stable value. That means JPM Coin will not be subject to the wild price volatility that has drawn speculators to other cryptocurrencies.

The bank is following in the footsteps of several smaller players that have introduced similar digital coins tied to the dollar. A consortium of European banks has been finalizing a similar product, Utility Settlement Coin, that would make it possible to move money between banks more quickly. Several cryptocurrency exchanges already have their own so-called stablecoins.

JPMorgan’s version will be less useful than other similar products because it will not be possible to move it outside the firm’s own systems, at least initially. What’s more, it is still just being tested and is not available to clients yet.

But the entry of a major Wall Street bank into the market shows the mundane ways in which cryptocurrency technology has begun to gain traction in the traditional financial system a year after the prices of Bitcoin and other digital tokens crashed in spectacular fashion.

The firm said it began working last year on what became JPM Coin to help its big customers, including major corporations and other banks, move money quickly and securely. (JPMorgan says it provides banking services for about 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies.)

Essentially, when customers want to move dollars using the bank’s blockchain system, money in their JPMorgan accounts will be converted into JPM Coins, each one backed by a dollar in JPMorgan’s accounts.

The token will be able to move nearly instantaneously on the coin’s ledger, which will initially be based on JPMorgan’s Quorum blockchain. Once transfers are competed, the coins can be converted back to dollars.

The advantage of such a token, Mr. Farooq said, is speed. Clients that want to move huge sums of money would traditionally need to do so via wire transfer, a process that could take hours or even days. With international transfers, changes in currency exchange rates during the long lag times could end up adding to customers’ costs.

Mr. Farooq said JPMorgan’s offering would be useful for big clients, but not for the smaller speculators who have typically taken an interest in cryptocurrencies.

“This is designed specifically for institutional use cases on blockchain,” he said. “It’s not created to be for public investment.”

Skeptics questioned why a blockchain ledger was necessary to move money between JPMorgan bank accounts.

“JPMorgan’s choice to issue a stablecoin on a closed blockchain is not a new concept,” said Lawson Baker, the founder of Relay Zero, a fund that invests in blockchain projects. “It is very similar to corporations’ desires to launch intranets as competition to the open internet system in the 1990s.”

Generally, blockchains are employed when companies want to move data or money between institutions that might otherwise have trouble reconciling accounts. Blockchain technology allows multiple computers to keep a shared set of records.

Barclays, Credit Suisse and several other banks have been developing the Utility Settlement Coin, which uses blockchain technology, to make it easier to transfer money between financial institutions.

JPMorgan said it hoped to increase its coin’s versatility. Over time, for instance, it could be expanded to represent currencies beyond the dollar. First, though, the testing phase must be competed.

After that, JPMorgan plans to work with regulators to gain permission for broader uses of JPM Coin. That process could take at least several months, Mr. Farooq said.

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