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Crypto is a virtual Vegas whose towers must fall

24 April 2021

9:00 AM

24 April 2021

9:00 AM

What should we make of the valuation of Coinbase, the cryptocurrency exchange listed on Nasdaq last week at $80 billion — three times the market value of Nasdaq itself? Coinbase’s stratospheric debut is clearly a reflection of the mania for bitcoin, currently trading at five times its price of six months ago. And that spike has in turn generated short-term profits for Coinbase, making it an attractive rarity among tech flotations that more often come to market long before they reach profit, which some never do.

But is there a deeper message? Some say this is crypto’s coming of age, coinciding as it does with Rishi Sunak’s announcement of a Treasury-Bank of England taskforce to explore potential for a ‘central bank digital currency’ harnessing crypto-technology. Akin to that, some crypto-maniacs deride Coinbase as a sell-out to the mainstream: an exchange that operates within Wall Street’s regulatory framework rather than shunning state-led financial systems in the libertarian spirit of bitcoin’s founding legend.

Cynics, meanwhile, watch the price graphs and predict an imminent bursting of the crypto-gambling bubble. To me, all this forms a vision of a virtual Las Vegas whose towers must one day fall, though perhaps not yet. The one thing to be said for investing in the likes of Coinbase is that it’s better to own a casino than to bet your savings on its tables and slot machines.

European Super farce

The European Super League proposal that imploded on Tuesday evening, with the withdrawal of all six English clubs involved, provoked fury from everyone in football who wasn’t set to gain from it, plus indignation from the Prime Minister and, reportedly, the Duke of Cambridge. But those of us who have long regarded the top end of the ‘beautiful game’ as a snake pit of grasping owners, overpaid players and dubious agents watched with wry amusement as this shameless money spinner fell apart.

At least the ESL debacle has offered a perfect case study of stakeholder theory: the idea (promoted by Will Hutton in the 1990s and lately enjoying a revival) that employees, customers, suppliers and communities have rights in companies akin to those of shareholders. How many times this week did we hear a pundit proclaim that ‘morally, these clubs are owned by their fans’ — the tycoons who hold the shares being no more than temporary stewards?

The stakeholder concept actually fits well with football clubs, where (unlike supermarkets or banks) customers feel deep emotional connections and are unlikely ever to shift their loyalty elsewhere. Manchester United’s withdrawal statement spoke of listening to ‘key stakeholders’ while Arsenal’s cited ‘the wider football community’. But the truth is that fans have been both exploited and shunned for 30 years since the formation of the Premier League, the rise of broadcasting rights as football’s prime revenue source and the emergence of remote billionaire owners motivated by profit, prestige and reputation management, but rarely by love of sport. The ESL would merely have taken all that to the next level.

Free thinker

Andy Haldane’s move from chief economist of the Bank of England to chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts is a loss to Threadneedle Street — where he was by a mile the most interesting thinker since Mervyn King — but a gain for public discourse because the RSA platform will give him far greater freedom than he was allowed at the Bank, particularly in Mark Carney’s era of media control.

‘More Warwick University than Goldman Sachs’, as I once described him, Haldane has been an acute observer of socio-economic trends, including the plight of the ‘left-behind’ — highlighted in his 2019 speech about the former mining town of Ashington. He’s also a closet radical who praised the City’s ‘Occupy’ protestors for highlighting faults in the global financial system, and obliquely supported Trades Union Congress calls for workers on company boards. I’ll disagree with much of what he says next, I’m sure, but it will be a pleasure to do so.

Urban revival

Strolling through Soho, I’m amazed (and a little apprehensive) to find its central streets converted to tented restaurant space and thronged by thousands of young people having an unrestrainedly good time. Elsewhere in the capital, traffic is still thin — deterred by insane numbers of roadworks as well as remaining Covid restrictions. So this first phase of the new normal feels, if anything, more pleasant than the old. But will the street parties be sustainable when summer turns to autumn and many city workplaces are still largely unoccupied? Boris Johnson was hooted down last month when he urged workers to return to their offices: it’s pretty clear that temporary emptiness will become a long-term trend.

Recent research by McKinsey found that ‘20 to 25 per cent of the workforces in advanced economies could work from home between three and five days a week’ without loss of productivity — representing up to five times more remote work than before the pandemic. Many large companies, we’re told, are looking at 30 per cent cuts in office space. Coinbase, this week’s clarion of the zeitgeist, used to be run from San Francisco but now calls itself a ‘remote-first company’ operating with ‘no physical headquarters’ in a ‘post-office world’.

And guess who recently spoke of home-working as a ‘potential boon to general wellbeing’ as we abandon low-productivity commuting while redundant offices are converted to flats to relieve the housing crisis? Yes, it was Andy Haldane — and who better, come to think of it, to lead a taskforce charged with making sure our great cities as well as our depressed provincial towns are not left behind. Name him your ‘urban revival tsar’, Prime Minister.

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