Banks Remain Hesitant to Join the Bitcoin Movement

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Banks will listen carefully to what regulators say next about virtual currency in the U.S., but in the meantime many financial institutions view Bitcoin as far too risky to touch.

The payments industry would prefer a clear regulatory roadmap for virtual currency, likely sooner rather than later, said Duncan B. Douglass, partner for Alston & Bird LLP.

“Can existing frameworks be used for faster payments and virtual currencies or does it require totally new rules of the road?” Douglass asked. It was a question others in the industry are contemplating, Douglass said, as the Federal Reserve Banks' financial services unit has been studying the potential for a faster payments system in the U.S. at the same time virtual currencies are making inroads.

The Fed banks and top retail bank officials listened to virtual currency providers make their points at the Chicago Payments Symposium last week. Virtual currency supporters encouraged banks to develop a new financial services paradigm, even before regulations fall into place.  

The financial payments and transactions operating model is under attack from alternative payment options, and banks have to focus more about what has become a new consumer, said Andrew Tarver, founder and CEO of Bold Rocket. Bold Rocket helps organizations and individuals get access to the latest payment technologies and financial products.

“Everyone in financial services makes everything complicated, and they view payment transactions as something that comes at the end of a process, not at the start,” Tarver said.

Today’s consumer is more influenced by his social network than a bank's marketing, Tarver said. The companies developing alternative payments understand what makes those new consumers tick, he said.

Banks are ignoring money services businesses that are seeking relationships with banks and want to establish bank accounts, said Megan Burton, CEO and founder of CoinX, an exchange for trading virtual currency in real-time and mainstreaming online digital currency.

“MSBs are highly regulated, but they are asking for clarity from the state and federal levels and to be more consistent,” Burton said. Such uncertainty is making it “nearly impossible” for a money services business to open a bank account in the U.S., but they are welcome in other countries, Burton added.

Regardless of the difficulties virtual currency operators encounter, the bottom line for banks is that they are too risky, said Dave Fortney, senior vice president for The Clearing House.

“When 61 banks say no, it means they don’t want to take the risk,” Fortney said of the drawn-out efforts virtual-currency companies have undergone to find a bank to work with.

Banks already have plenty of regulations to consider with anti-money laundering rules, Fortney said.

“And this [virtual currency], it is too uncertain as to who is in charge of it,” Fortney said. “If it ends up the currency was used to fund terrorists, that’s a big problem for a bank.”

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