CES 2023: Smell and Touch Coming Soon to Digital World

December 20, 2022 – Academics discussed the potential usefulness of crypto-related technologies and how they should be regulated at a web event hosted Tuesday by The Brookings Institution.

The prices of digital assets have fluctuated wildly in the last year, driving calls for the institution of a crypto-specific regulatory framework. The price of Bitcoin, for instance, plummeted from $64,400 in November 2021 to less than $17,000 early Tuesday afternoon. The downfall of prominent Crypto exchange FTX, allegedly due to massive fraud, has provided further rhetorical fodder to would-be regulators.

Some crypto skeptics say that regulating crypto is a mistake, however, since it would provide legitimacy to the industry. “Legitimizing [crypto] is simply going to drain creative resources from productive activities,” argued Stephen Cecchetti, Rosen Family Chair in International Finance at the Brandeis International Business School. “In economic terms, this would be like subsidizing a dead-weight loss.”

Cecchetti argued that a new regulatory regime would push crypto into the traditional financial world. “Imagine where we would be if leveraged financial intermediaries had been holding crypto in November of 2021, before the plunge in value,” Cecchetti. “So if we need any new rules, they’re rules to prohibit exposure of traditional leveraged intermediaries – prohibit banks, dealers, insurers, pension funds ­– from holding this stuff and from accepting it as collateral.”

Peter Conti-Brown, professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and nonresident fellow at The Brookings Institution, argued that crypto, even without a dedicated regulatory framework, has already been established a significant foothold. Policymakers should clarify how crypto assets fit into existing regulatory structures, Conti-Brown argued. Due to similarities of various types of crypto to elements of traditional finance, he said, the absence of crypto regulation is a “declaration of a prosecutorial non-enforcement of existing laws.”

Regulators should make clear that “if you’re going to act and smell and quack like a bank, you need to charter, and if you’re going to hawk securities, you need to register,” Conti-Brown argued later in the conversation.

Crypto: Useful or useless?

While crypto’s biggest proponents argue that it, along with its underlying technology, blockchain, are revolutionary innovations, many don’t agree. At a recent Senate hearing held Wednesday on the FTX collapse, a law professor from the American University Washington College of Law advocated banning crypto outright. One senator advocated instituting a “pause” on crypto at a hearing held two weeks prior.

Cecchetti voice skepticism as well. “I don’t think crypto is the future of anything” he said, adding that it is, in his opinion, “utterly without redeeming social value.”

Conti-Brown said some crypto-related innovations may prove useful. He further argued that the very possibility of blockchain-driven innovations threatens incumbent industry – e.g., traditional financial technology firms – and will likely drive innovation.

“Every major payments player is…following blockchain developments, and thinking about where this might represent both opportunity and challenge,” Conti-Brown said. Crypto solutions may be “inchoate, (but) are not non sequiturs,” he added.



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