Hank Paulson, former secretary of the U.S. Treasury, called it “an economic 9/11.”
Having loaded up on mortgage debt that went sour, then failed to find a savior in the government or private sector, the 158-year-old Wall Street investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy on Sept. 15, 2008.
The fallout over the following days, weeks and months would threaten to topple the entire financial system, necessitating trillions of dollars in rescue lending to banks and other firms by governments and central banks. The global financial system hadn’t looked more fragile at any point since 1929.
Worse, support for the system was undermined by the fact that Wall Street executives still collected multimillion-dollar bonuses – even as millions of the taxpayers, who helped fund those bonuses, lost their homes.
Within a couple of months of Lehman’s bankruptcy, though, a new piece of technology would debut – almost unnoticed – one that appeared to offer an alternative to this catastrophe-prone system. On October 31, 2008, an unidentified individual going by the name Satoshi Nakamoto published the Bitcoin white paper to a cryptography mailing list.
The paper described “a purely peer-to-peer version of electronic cash [that] would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution.”
Satoshi had almost certainly been working on the protocol for months or years prior to Lehman’s collapse but, according to Cornell computer science professor and blockchain researcher Emin Gun Sirer, there was a timely motive to the launch.
Sirer told CoinDesk:
“It’s very clear that Satoshi was affected by the events that led up to the financial crisis of 2008, and then it’s obviously recorded in the genesis block as well.”
As awareness of Bitcoin spread, different people saw different things in it, but for many, it represented an alternative to fiat currency issued by central banks (which had just fired up the proverbial printing presses again) and the fractional reserve banking system (which had nearly collapsed beneath a mountain of lending).
Most of all, it promised to bypass the financial institutions the crisis had cast such doubt on.
Laszlo Hanyecz, known as “Bitcoin Pizza Guy” for becoming the first person to use the cryptocurrency to purchase real-world goods (two pizzas for 10,000 BTC in May 2010), told CoinDesk that he believed Bitcoin could replace “the established system of banks and the endless line of middlemen all taking a cut.”
Yet over the past decade, the worlds of Bitcoin – and its cryptocurrency and blockchain offshoots – and traditional finance have begun to interact in ways almost no one would have predicted early on.
Wall Street veterans are decamping to work for firms focused on cryptocurrency. Major financial institutions are flirting with blockchain. And cryptocurrency investors are pushing for the creation of investment vehicles by industry incumbents.
Ten years after Bitcoin was born into the flames of the financial crisis, have the cryptocurrency community and Wall Street made nice?
Bitcoin versus the world?
Early on, the ethos around Bitcoin was undeniably subversive.
One early adopter and miner, who asked to remain anonymous, told CoinDesk that “in the very beginning” there was “a great deal of discussion about the anarcho-capitalist and/or libertarian ideals” that Bitcoin appeared to make possible.
He mentioned dark web markets such as Silk Road, which used Bitcoin, but noted that these rested on a misunderstanding of the protocol’s limited anonymity.
Even ignoring its illicit use cases, though, the creation of decentralized money appeared to pose a threat to the established order. It provided, the early adopter said, an escape from “the interpersonal and cultural damage and destruction done by the monetary monopolies” – meaning banks and governments.
Taariq Lewis, a long-time cryptocurrency developer whose most recent project is codenamed Lyra Protocols, agreed that “Bitcoin was always meant to bypass the financial system.”
As such, some early Bitcoiners worried that participating in such a project could be dangerous.
Stefan Thomas, who discovered Bitcoin through the random-browsing site StumbleUpon in 2010, and then went on to work as Ripple’s CTO before starting his own venture, told CoinDesk:
“A lot of people early on in the Bitcoin community were very worried that central banks would look at this as a fundamental threat to one of the key, key, pillars of power of the government, which is the ability to issue currency. And so a lot of people early on stayed anonymous, they did not reveal their real identities.”
As it turns out, he said, most of the supposed central bank “illuminati” were simply curious about the new…