Wall Street’s Crypto Embrace Shows in Crowd at Miami Conference
At the massive Bitcoin conference in Miami this past weekend, artists peddled frightening anti-establishment paintings, including portraits of Janet Yellen and Steve Mnuchin with blood running down their faces. The Winklevoss brothers -– of “The Social Network” fame –- explored the utility of Bitcoin on Mars. And Tony Hawk, the legendary skateboarder and crypto booster, gave a halfpipe demonstration.
But for all the eccentricities and counter-culture overtones, the most distinguishing new feature of the event -– supposedly Bitcoin’s largest ever with at least 12,000 tickets sold -– may have been the subtle proliferation of business casual. Across the venue, men -– yes, still mostly men -– could be found with carefully-parted hair, partially tucked-in polo shirts and even a few button-downs. These were Wall Street types trying to fit in, some more convincingly than others.
It’s the latest sign of main-stream finance’s increasing involvement with an asset class known for its rebel beginnings, in which conferences were filled with twenty-somethings in crypto t-shirts and shorts, wild hair and over-the-top hats. There’s still plenty of that, but there were also former pit traders from the Chicago Board of Trade, private equity-backed entrepreneurs and sundry C-suite types.
“It’s disproportionately now traditional finance people, enterprise people as opposed to the old guard crypto native-type people,” said Ava Labs President John Wu, an alumnus of funds including Tiger Management and Kingdon Capital, whose firm operates the open-source Avalanche platform for decentralized financial applications.
It’s not the first time that Wall Streeters have attended crypto conferences. But as Wu noted, they were “tourists” at the conferences a couple years ago, mostly trying to get a crash course. “This time around, there are even more and they’re more engaged and they’re actually participants.”
In the 15 months since much of the U.S. first went into lockdown, Bitcoin has been on another wild ride, staging an incredible bull run followed by a devastating crash. Despite the volatility, digital currencies have become an increasing part of boardroom discussions. Wall Street firms are expanding their sellside crypto research; venture capitalists have poured more and more money into blockchain technology; and everyone is waiting for crypto exchange-traded funds to open the floodgates for institutional money.
The two-day event lured long lines wrapping several city blocks around the warehouse-style complex in Miami’s Wynwood arts district. Almost nobody wore masks inside or out, despite the lingering pandemic and a vaccination rate that’s still well short of the U.S.’s goal of 70%. Bitcoiners also attended countless after-parties, including one on Thursday night for so-called “whale pass” holders, who mingled on the roof deck of the Kimpton Epic hotel to music from DJ Diplo. One attendee, who said he’d gone to his first Bitcoin conference in 2013, said he didn’t see anyone he recognized and called the dress-shirt clad attendees poseurs. One man nearby was wearing a Goldman Sachs vest.
“Given what we’ve seen over the last year, crypto has turned from begging other asset classes for support to other asset classes begging their bosses to start getting access” to crypto investments, said Sam Bankman-Fried, chief executive officer of FTX cryptocurrency exchange. “So I think huge, huge shift in sentiment.”
In some ways, Bankman-Fried is himself a walking embodiment of the mainstreaming of crypto. During his visit to the Sunshine State last week, the Miami Heat’s National Basketball Association stadium officially became FTX Arena, the first NBA stadium deal from a crypto firm. It was the result of a $135 million deal the exchange struck earlier this year. Bankman-Fried also appeared at the conference wearing a jersey advertising FTX’s new partnership with e-sports organization TSM.
But the crypto scene still has major obstacles to professionalization – among others, the glaring lack of gender diversity, which was laid bare in Miami over the weekend. About 85% of the speakers on the main Nakamoto stage -- so named for the supposed Bitcoin developer Satoshi Nakamoto -- were men, and the split wasn’t a whole lot more balanced among the attendees.
In addition to the Winklevoss twins, the Nakamoto stage featured such headliners as Twitter Inc. Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey; famed central bank critic and former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul; and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who has become an unabashed fan of the cryptocurrency and even proposed paying city workers in Bitcoin.
At one cocktail party on Thursday hosted by Bit Digital, Bitcoin Foundation Chairman Brock Pierce -– a prominent early crypto investor who ran for president last year -– told the group that blockchain technology was coming for the world, whether the world was ready or not.
“Remember, the future is going to happen to you or with you,” said Pierce, wearing a T-shirt version of the Satoshi Nakamoto white paper while preaching to a group that included button-down clad former commodities traders. “Thank you for showing up, thank you for choosing to play the game.”
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