For the first time ever, we are publishing the Forbes Crypto Awards. Not everyone will be happy they’re on the list. Fed chairman Jerome Powell takes the honors as our person of the year: In a pandemic year when the Fed printed so much stimulus money that the central bank saw its balance sheet nearly double in size, our Forbes Awards judge Anthony Pompliano of Morgan Creek Digital credits Powell with running a “$3 trillion marketing campaign for bitcoin.”
Here are our picks for the best products, the most intriguing people and the most interesting trends in crypto this year.
The Forbes Person Of The Year In Crypto: Jerome Powell
In an attempt to prevent the U.S. economy from collapsing under pandemic pressure, Powell had the U.S. Federal Reserve buy up a record amount of treasuries, effectively printing more than $3 trillion in new money and nearly doubling the central bank’s balance sheet. Venture firm Pantera Capital called the infusion “two centuries of debt in one month,” creating an environment in which previously skeptical investors including Wall Street whales like Paul Tudor Jones and Stanley Druckenmiller started taking cryptocurrency seriously. “I think Jerome Powell did the things that he and his colleagues believed were the best things to do in the short term to mitigate pain from the pandemic and economic crisis,” says Pompliano. “But in the pursuit of mitigating short-term pain, they were highlighting for everyone, from retail investors to the largest institutions in the world, what was going to happen over the next decade or two.”
Best Product: Square’s Cash App
In August 2018, Jack Dorsey’s payments giant Square, now valued at $96 billion, was among the first mainstream enterprises to allow bitcoin purchases in all 50 states. Bitcoin has proved a real boon to the company, which generated $1.6 billion in revenue from the asset in the third quarter, an 11-fold increase year over year. “I tend to think that new users give a good signal for something that is usable,” says Pompliano. “Not just by the crypto enthusiasts but by the everyday person, the mainstream.”
Most Intriguing Newcomer: Michael Saylor
Among a slew of names that bought bitcoin for the first time this year, perhaps none were more surprising, or made a bigger impact, than the CEO of struggling MicroStrategy, a Tysons Corner, Virginia-based business software firm. Over the course of five months starting in August, Saylor revealed that his smallish outfit, which competes against giants like Oracle and SAP in data analytics, had bought $475 million worth of bitcoin. That made bitcoin the publicly traded company’s biggest treasury asset. While Citi recently downgraded MicroStrategy as a result of the extremely aggressive play, Pompliano thinks it’s exactly that audacity that makes Saylor so intriguing. “He came out of nowhere,” says Pompliano. “And he has not only lit the bitcoin and crypto world on fire, but he has very quickly ascended to be one of the top bulls in the way he talks about what he’s doing. There’s no hedging in the way he talks about it; there’s no surrender.”
Disruptive Innovator: Caitlin Long
This former head of Morgan Stanley’s pension advisory group was once a rising star in traditional finance. Then, after helping write cryptocurrency-friendly laws in her home state of Wyoming, she was unanimously approved for one of the state’s new bitcoin banking charters in October. “She is disrupting the traditional regulatory framework,” says Pompliano. “And obviously, she was very instrumental there. But then to go build a company, to leverage those rules? I look at that as disruptive in a unique way.”
Outstanding Firm: Ark Invest
After experimenting with many different crypto strategies over the years, Ark’s CEO and chief investment officer Catherine Wood has shuffled most of her ETF firm’s direct bitcoin exposure into a single fund dedicated to “innovative” assets. But a number of other Ark ETFs have indirect exposure in the form of stakes in Silvergate Bank, which banks cryptocurrency businesses; Square and PayPal, which let their customers use bitcoin; and Nvidia, the Santa Clara, California-based computer chip manufacturer whose hardware has long been favored by many bitcoin miners. It’s working: Wood’s flagship fund is up 150% this year, and Ark’s assets under management have skyrocketed to $15 billion. “Cathie is one of those people who she's not known just for bitcoin, so we kind of dilute her impact,” says Pompliano. “But she believed early; she was the first institution to really kind of go after the GBTC trade. She’s been right. She’s been right about a lot of stuff.”
Annus Horribilis: Libra
Libra exploded onto the cryptocurrency scene in June 2019 when Facebook announced the project would use the blockchain to create a single asset backed by a number of global currencies, including the dollar, the euro and the yen. The original idea was that the Libra would be managed by payments giants like Visa, PayPal, Mastercard and Stripe. But U.S. lawmakers pretty much immediately freaked out, calling Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to Capitol Hill to explain his work. Most of Facebook’s best-known payment partners quickly backed out. After many compromises to the original vision, a watered-down—although possibly still successful—version of the currency, now called Diem and backed one-to-one by the U.S. dollar, is scheduled to launch next year. “They, me and everyone else underestimated how swiftly and how powerful regulators and governments can be when they decide to attack,” says Pompliano, who worked at Facebook 15 years ago. “In terms of the absolute height of promise, possibility, etc. to the current state, that delta, I don’t think that we’ve seen anything fall as hard as Libra.”
Forbes Forecast: Bitcoin corporate treasuries
MicroStrategy purchased $475 million worth of bitcoin this year and now has plans to raise another $650 million to purchase more; Square invested about $50 million into the cryptocurrency; and New York City-based asset manager Stone Ridge revealed it owned $115 million worth of the asset. Now that financial giants like Northern Trust, managing $1 trillion worth of assets, have revealed plans to help institutional investors safely custody crypto, it’s a trend that is likely only going to continue. “I think that we will see very, very, very large companies—Fortune 100-, Fortune 500-type companies—putting bitcoin on their balance sheet in 2021,” says Pompliano.
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