The financial industry crash in 2008 severely damaged faith in the traditional banks. But even before then, banking and financial transactions had been moving into new digital realms. PayPal had already been around for 10 years, and other virtual wallet systems had begun to pop up too.
Enter Bitcoin in 2009. Developed by an unknown individual or group using the name Satoshi Nakamoto, it is an asset/payment system that uses no intermediary (i.e., a bank) – a peer-to-peer transaction platform that is be fully secure and almost without fees. The concept is that “value” can be virtually exchanged all over the world in a digital environment that does not transmit any sensitive information (e.g., credit card numbers) that could be subject to cybercrime. That “value” can then be converted into any fiat currency on the receiving end, although the value of a Bitcoin would be subject to market volatility, just as currency exchanges can be.
Slow to Catch On
The disruption of cryptocurrency has not been rapid. It’s tough to get individuals and businesses to make a paradigm shift to virtual currency and to understand such things as blockchain technology. But there are many who predict that Bitcoin, and perhaps some other cryptocurrency platforms, will replace the traditional bank card payment system.
We are not there yet – not by a long shot – and there are many “wrinkles” to iron out if this is to happen. But the question is certainly out there. Can Bitcoin replace traditional payment systems? Some say “yes;” others say “no.”
There are certainly arguments to be made that Bitcoin will ultimately replace the fee-based transactions that consumers and merchants use today. Among those are the following:
Government-backed currencies have no limit on the amount of money that can be minted. This can create havoc among monetary systems. Currently Bitcoin has a limit of 21 million, although each coin can be divided in much smaller pieces.
Bitcoin transactions are secure, through blockchain technology which produces an irreversible distributed ledger. Transactions cannot be changed in any way once they have been executed, because the ledger is public.
Some third-party payment processors are “stepping up to the plate” to assist with reducing the volatility of exchange rates and locking in value at the time of transaction and providing for instant processing at that locked-in rate.
Merchants will find it too attractive not to get “on board,” considering the drastically reduced transaction fees, and business-to-business transactions will be far more efficient and streamlined.
There are some hurdles, such as too much power in the hands of a relatively few number of “miners” (individuals who maintain the ledgers) and inevitable regulations, but these can be navigated and resolved in time.
In looking at those hurdles, along with some other factors that keep legacy payment processing the preferred transaction methodology, many believe that bitcoin will take its place for certain demographics but will not replace the use of bank cards, money transfers, and letters of credit that still constitute the vast majority of transactions. Here are their arguments.
The average merchant would have to develop a technical savviness that he is probably not prone to want to do. Bitcoin transactions do not have the support structure that bank card processing has, and merchants would have to create and manage their own digital Bitcoin wallets, in order to accept funds and convert them to fiat currencies.
Traditional payment processors are getting much better with what they do, especially considering the competition out there. Most payment gateway services are providing the streamlining, the lowered transaction fees, and the support that merchants want and need. And they are beefing up security measures by leaps and bounds today.
Merchants who use Bitcoin will still need some processing support, from providers such as Stripe, PayPal, or others that are now in the business – processors who are able to lock in exchange rates at the point of transaction. For example, if a merchant were to accept Bitcoin that is currently worth $1500 U.S., but the value had dropped to $1200 by the time he exchanges that Bitcoin for USD, then he is out $300. The lowered transaction fee is worthless at that point. Using a processor to convert the Bitcoin to a fiat currency at the time of payment processing will be essential, and that actually adds another step to the whole process. It’s just not the maximum efficiency that most merchants want.
There are also problems on the consumer side of Bitcoin transactions. Online purchases using credit cards come with certain risks. The merchant could be fraudulent; ordered products may not be received. Exchanges and refund requests are commonplace transactions. These are currently handled pretty well when normal bank cards are used for purchasing. Refunds can be directly credited to a personal credit card account. And, if there is a dispute, the credit card company acts to resolve it.
Bitcoin transactions are irreversible. There is no process for disputing a charge or getting a refund, except directly through the merchant. And these are not always successful, particularly if the merchant is unprincipled or simply disputes the consumer’s claim. Where is the consumer recourse? Currently, it is non-existent. There are no consumer protections in place. Even if they were to be put into place, they would have to be managed by a processor divorced from Bitcoin itself. In this case, that processor is still in business, not replaced.
It’s still out, obviously. Predictions as early as 2014 stated that bitcoin would replace legacy financial transactions, for merchants and even for individual consumers. That has not happened.
For the near term, fiat currency exchanges, traditional bankcard transactions and processing, and consumer purchasing protections are strongly in place with legacy systems. People are comfortable with their systems, and Bitcoin still holds a mystique that is difficult for both merchants and consumers to fully grasp. It still seems a little bit like “fake money” to many. And change comes slowly.
But no one should discount the ability of Bitcoin to evolve and to take its place within the payment processing industry. The security it offers, as well blockchain technology and lower fees, all provide an attractive alternative to traditional processing through banks and legacy payment processors.
On the other hand, in its current environment, Bitcoin will have to rely on traditional processors that have the ability to lock in exchange rates and to ensure that both merchants and consumers are afforded the protections they need. Only time will tell. For the moment, traditional payment processors are still in business.