In the summer of 2016, a group of central bankers from the American Federal Reserve left their Wall Street branch office, crossed the East River and headed to Bushwick. Their destination was a graffiti-covered warehouse on Bogart Street, home to a small company called ConsenSys.
Joseph “Joe” Lubin, a Canadian programmer in his mid-fifties and founder of the financial software-maker, waited as they walked down the street to a scrappy front door festooned in stickers. The besuited bankers looked out of place in Brooklyn. Lubin wondered if ConsenSys should be worried about them.
The Fed officials were there to fact-find. ConsenSys was quickly becoming influential in the world of cryptocurrency, and Lubin was turning his company into the world’s first crypto conglomerate, a network of for-profit projects tied into bitcoin’s biggest rival, ethereum.
As such, Lubin was not only an expert in blockchain technology — the databases underlying nearly all cryptocurrencies — but also an ardent proponent of decentralised finance.
David Mills, an economist in the Fed group, had plenty of questions for the ConsenSys team. Who could access these new financial platforms? How susceptible were they to hacking? What, if any, was the role of central banks in a financial world like the one crypto’s boosters imagined? “It was a very warm, thoughtful conversation,” Lubin recalls, even though he tried to explain that “the reality you all know and operate in is going to be totally turned on its head in a few years”.
The real topic of discussion was trust. The Fed and all central banks are the avatars of trust the world has been accustomed to for the past few centuries: people have faith in the financial system because these large, seemingly competent institutions appear to be in charge. Cryptocurrency proponents such as Lubin offer a different avatar: they want people to have faith in a financial system essentially guaranteed by computer code that normal people can inspect. “It’s a whole new foundation of trust for the world,” says Lubin. “And a new way to organise ourselves.”
In the five years since the Bogart Street meeting, financial elites who once sneered at the idea of crypto have come around. The New York Fed, for example, is about to unveil a new cryptocurrency research hub, bringing some of the ideas being championed by ConsenSys into its orbit.
The Boston Fed has been studying the viability of building a digital version of the US dollar, the world’s most important reserve currency. A host of central banks, particularly in Asia, are investigating similar ideas. And financial titans such as JPMorgan have created digital money of their own. Wall Street is starting to dance with Brooklyn.
If you met him casually, you might not guess that Lubin has been pivotal in this change. For one, he prefers to listen, not talk. And when he does speak, his intonation rises at the end of each sentence, making him sound oddly self-deprecating. (The exception is when he starts to discuss ethereum, which analysts estimate will host some $8tn worth of transactions this year.)
Until he hit his early fifties, there was little in his career to suggest he was about to play a crucial role in answering the most important economic question of this century: does crypto represent a revolution for global finance or merely a natural evolution?
Somewhere along the way, Lubin became a go-to guy for crypto-curious central bankers, not to mention a putative billionaire on paper. (In 2018, Forbes named him the second-richest person in crypto, worth an estimated $1bn-$5bn.) All of which means this mild-mannered Canadian with the no-flash profile increasingly holds sway over the staging area for the future of money.
Lubin was born in 1964 in Toronto to a dentist father and property agent mother. As a teenager, his main passions were squash and maths, a combination that helped him get into Princeton, where he studied engineering and computer science. He forged a tight-knit group of friends, including Michael Novogratz, now a billionaire hedge-funder. “Joe was one of the brightest among us, a forward thinker, but by 45 hadn’t done anything to stand out,” recalls Novogratz. “I don’t think any of our gang would have guessed how things would turn out.”
After graduating, Lubin got a job managing the Princeton robotics lab, where he became fascinated by artificial intelligence. As a software and AI consultant, he worked for two computer companies in New York, before landing a job at Goldman Sachs, where he stayed for almost two years. “I was never really a Wall Street person. I was a software person,” he says.
His growing disillusionment was catalysed during the 2008 financial crisis when, as he once told a ConsenSys summit, he realised “it was folly to trust all those structures that we implicitly felt had our best interests at heart. I felt we were living in a global society and economy that was figuratively, literally and morally bankrupt.” He was convinced “a slow, cascading collapse” was taking place.
Lubin briefly toyed with the idea of moving to Latin America to build a survivalist bolt hole. Instead in 2012, he moved to Jamaica with a girlfriend who was trying to forge a career in dancehall music. For a couple of years he dabbled in music production, while also investing in bitcoin as a hedge against the collapse in traditional currencies he expected to see.
In late 2013, Lubin travelled to Toronto to visit his parents over the holidays. On New Year’s Day he headed to a meet-up for bitcoin devotees at a downtown warehouse and met a teenager named Vitalik Buterin. Buterin, now 27, is a legendary figure among crypto enthusiasts; his persona is the basis for the creation myth that binds the ethereum tribe.
A Russian-born wunderkind who emigrated to Canada as a child, Buterin grew up in Toronto and became so obsessed with bitcoin as a teenager that he dropped out of college and lived in anarchic computer coding communities in Spain and Israel. Then, in late 2013, aged 19, he wrote a white paper proposing ethereum and subsequently rallied eight software enthusiasts from around the world to build it. (For the differences between ethereum and bitcoin, see the panel below.)
Lubin and Buterin only talked for a few minutes the day they met. “But he told me about his paper, and I read it that night and was blown away,” Lubin says. So much so, he joined the band of geeks Buterin recently compared to Tolkien’s “fellowship of the ring” who were working to turn his vision into reality. Over the next few months, they slummed together, student-style, in a series of shared houses in Miami, Toronto and Zug, Switzerland, creating the computer code that would underpin ethereum.
Lubin always seemed an odd addition to the group. He was old; many of the others were in their twenties. Then there was his background at Goldman Sachs, as if Gandalf had shown up on the road to Mordor wearing a three-piece suit. “The people who are attracted to, and influential in, paradigm shifts tend to be out-of-the-box thinkers and on the fringes of society,” Lubin says, recalling the free-wheeling mood in the hackers’ houses. “I am an out-of-the-box thinker too, but I can speak different languages” — including that of Wall Street.
Many in the group had a strongly anti-establishment bent. There was endless tension between a camp that wanted to run ethereum as a commercial, for-profit venture and those who wanted to make it a mission-driven non-profit instead. Buterin was among the latter, but Lubin wanted to build a business. So did Charles Hoskinson, the first CEO, who was eventually expelled from the group. Gavin Wood, the chief technologist, also left after repeated disputes. (Both Hoskinson and Wood now run ethereum rivals.)
Lubin’s interests are not exactly aligned with Vitalik because he is more of a financial type pursuing commercial gains,” observes Alexander Lipton, a finance and maths professor, who recently published a book on blockchain. “Vitalik is a visionary and is pursuing the common good.”
Lubin survived the feuds and forged a close bond with Buterin. The middle-aged man respected the “genius” of the teenager’s vision. He “really doesn’t care about material things at all”, says Lubin. “It’s about wanting to change the world.” Buterin, in turn, seems to have valued getting some seasoned counsel on politics and high finance. Presciently, Lubin insisted the ethereum team consult with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) at an early stage, and that it hire high-priced lawyers from the Manhattan firm Pryor Cashman to minimise legal risks. “Joe is in the background,” says Novogratz, “but he is as important as Vitalik.”
That was Lubin’s other advantage in the run-up to ethereum’s launch: his ability to slide into the background and remain level-headed when personal vendettas exploded. “With Joe, you never actually know more than 5 per cent of what he is thinking,” says Hoskinson. Or, as Lubin observes, “I am not reactive in the way that most humans are. It’s just how I am wired.”
He also describes himself as “meta”, referring to an idea promoted by lifestyle guru Deepak Chopra. (In Greek, meta means “beyond”.) “You can take yourself out of the drama of reference and not react instantly and emotionally to things,” Lubin says. “So when other people are reactively bouncing off each other, I have a different perspective.” Meta-ness seems to shape not just Lubin’s dealings with colleagues, but his vision of how cryptocurrency could eventually remake finance and business.
In the summer of 2015, Buterin finally launched ethereum via a non-profit foundation. Lubin was at his side, but he had worked out a way to pursue his commercial dream too. His company ConsenSys was a for-profit venture offering the infrastructure to make the products and services around ethereum work. These days, he describes ConsenSys as “just a software company”. Mere “software” is not something the SEC normally regulates.
That modest label conceals a bigger ambition. As the concept of crypto has gone from marginal to mainstream, the money-making proposition has shifted. To make an imperfect analogy, once it became clear in the 1990s that the internet was a useful way of storing information, the business contest quickly became a fight between companies trying to help people easily find stuff online. In some sense, ethereum is trying to be to blockchain what Google has been to the internet: a service provider that creates order in a digital mess.
But the early years of both ethereum and ConsenSys were rocky. Shortly after the platform launched, a hacker tried to steal about $60m worth of ethereum’s digital currency, ether. “The attacks were perpetuated with someone with a deep understanding and were designed to catch us off guard,” says Lubin.
The hack failed. But the saga, coupled with fundraising controversies in 2017 and 2018 at ventures launched using ethereum, caused ether’s value to wobble. Lubin had to let go of about a tenth of the people he had hired to work at ConsenSys when the price was soaring. By late 2018, a Forbes article declared that “Lubin’s ethereum experiment is a mess” with “cryptopia in crisis” and asked how long the venture, largely funded by Lubin’s vast stock of ether, could survive.
Lubin insists that ConsenSys was “almost intentionally decentralised”. It aims to seed and launch numerous ethereum projects, not control them all itself. This approach also created a sandbox in which mainstream companies could dabble in the hot new technology without much risk. Santander, the Spanish bank, started testing ethereum for payments. BHP Billiton experimented with it as a means of tracking mineral supply chains. John Hancock, the US investment company, explored creating a vaccine register.
Then there was JPMorgan. Since 2016, it had been running two rival experiments, building a proprietary version of a blockchain system, while working with ConsenSys to import ethereum technology into its operations. “We wanted to test all the different scenarios, to see which would work,” says Umar Farooq, head of the so-called Onyx project at JPMorgan.
The bank eventually settled on the ethereum system, and went on to work with the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), Temasek and the Singaporean bank DBS to create digital money. “We decided that the easiest way for us, as a central bank, to understand this new technology is to get involved in building a system ourselves,” says Sopnendu Mohanty, a senior MAS official. Lubin says Beijing’s central bank, the People’s Bank of China, has also been in contact with ConsenSys.
This behind-the-scenes activity was a striking twist, especially for long-time crypto boosters. When the mysterious person or group of people calling themselves Satoshi Nakamoto first described their vision for bitcoin in a 2008 white paper, the rallying cry was that it should remove all the middlemen and gatekeepers who control global business and finance, allowing everyone to participate in the financial system on an equal footing. That, incidentally, was also the young Buterin’s mantra for ethereum.
The idea of an open-to-all system is referred to as “permissionless” — a computing term meaning roughly that anyone can inspect or add code without permission from an authority figure. As institutions such as JPMorgan started to dive in, permissionless systems proved to have a few big problems. For one, the larger they are, the slower they tend to operate, since each new transaction recorded on the network requires computers to synchronise their records with each other. The more people involved in a platform, the greater the risk of hacks and leaks.
And while such systems are supposed to build trust through transparency, since anyone can check everyone else’s records, this flies in the face of how banks have historically operated: their clients usually want to keep their finances secret.
Last year, JPMorgan sold off its first, relatively open version of blockchain, called Quorum, to ConsenSys for an undisclosed amount and set about building a private system that would only be open to select clients, a quasi-crypto club. On paper, that seems like a betrayal of the whole blockchain ideal. But Lubin and Buterin admit that until a technological breakthrough occurs that can make permissionless systems run faster, private chains are a more practical solution for companies.
Indeed, these days many blockchains are so-called private chains or permissioned chains. Users’ trust in the system tends to derive as much from the organiser behind that chain — a brand name such as JPMorgan, say — as the computing code itself or the theory of decentralised finance. So, too, with the central bank experiments. “Distributed finance is not really DeFi [decentralised finance] today,” says Hoskinson. “It’s actually quite centralised.” Another way to put that is that the old avatars of trust, namely large central institutions, remain important.
Lubin argues that, in history, “We see these moments of revelation, when someone brings the tablets down the mountain and there is something profound and beautiful there. Then everyone starts to bicker about what the correct interpretation is, and we are in that moment now.” Rhetoric has collided with reality. “We were always really interested in this convergence strategy where revolutionaries build out this infrastructure and then meet the evolutionaries in their comfort zone,” he says. He thinks these private blockchains will eventually be interlinked. “We have always been pragmatic,” Lubin notes. Not to mention commercial.
In the late summer, I found myself staying a few miles away from Lubin out on Long Island. So on a glorious sunny day, as we paced down a vast sandy beach, I quizzed him about where crypto is headed next.
In many ways, the future seemed almost as bright as the summer skies: activity in ethereum is exploding. Last year ConsenSys restructured itself with $65m investment from JPMorgan, UBS and Mastercard, and is now engaged in a proliferating set of projects with financial institutions and central banks. It is developing new tests with non-financial companies too. Artists such as Damien Hirst are starting to use the platform to sell unique, time-stamped digital creations. Hollywood is looking into doing the same.
“We are making a lot of money,” says Lubin, which is impossible to verify in detail, since ConsenSys is private. Nor would you know it from his scruffy jeans and T-shirts. Lubin shuns the glitzy toys of most Wall Street financiers and says that, on the rare occasions when he is not working, he hangs out with his fashion-designer girlfriend, cooking and engaging in simple pleasures such as caring for their pet tortoises. He doesn’t even own a car. “People like me have lots of houses,” says Novogratz. “Joe doesn’t do any of that.”
Lubin says, by way of explanation, that he “never did ethereum or anything in my life for money” but because “I had an opportunity to build something profound that I think will transform life on the planet for a pretty long time”. Maybe. He also knows that the vision that drives him and Buterin is still in its infancy, and the sands could shift again. For one thing, regulators are increasing their scrutiny. For another, ethereum still faces unresolved technical challenges limiting how many transactions it can process at speed.
Proponents argue this will be resolved when an important technological upgrade takes place early next year (the move from a “proof of work” system to “proof of stake”, which is far less energy-intensive). But the maths professor Lipton retorts that it will be hard to “fix” ethereum.
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“Ethereum [introduced] this brilliant idea of smart contracts. But I don’t think that ethereum is the last word in this,” Lipton says. “Other [blockchain] systems, like Cardano and Polkadot, use more advanced payment systems, are cheaper and they are going to win.” Cardano and Polkadot are rival platforms launched by Hoskinson and Wood, former members of Buterin’s “fellowship”.
Lubin insists he is unruffled by his colleagues-turned-rivals or the doubts about ethereum’s long-term viability. “When people say ethereum won’t scale, that is pretty naive. You should never say that about technologies,” he says, arguing that history shows that people always overestimate how quickly new innovations will catch on and underestimate the scale and speed of disruption that can occur when those ideas are finally embraced. “Just look at the internet,” Lubin continues. “A few decades ago, nobody could imagine that. But it scaled to support all the economically viable use cases. Blockchain will do the same thing.”
As I listen to him speak, part of me remains sceptical. No matter how much I read about cryptocurrency and blockchain technology, something always remains opaque. Possibly sensing my doubt, Lubin asks, “Why am I doing this, rather than just hanging out in nightclubs? We are building a new organising principle for the planet and a new foundation of trust. Don’t you think it would be a good thing for humanity?” I wonder. Then I remember how many central bankers seem to think Lubin is on to something.
What Makes Ethereum Different?
Launched in 2009, bitcoin promised a form of online currency secured without a central authority, as opposed to government-issued currencies.
Over time, one of the innovations underlying bitcoin — the blockchain — appeared to be useful for other purposes.
The blockchain is a database that stores information in a way that decentralises control.
Ethereum uses blockchain technology not just for maintaining a payment network, but also for storing computer code that can be employed for financial applications such as contracts.
Ether is the currency used by applications and contracts on the ethereum network.
Although it was supposed to complement bitcoin, ethereum has become a competitor on cryptocurrency exchanges.
Gillian Tett is the FT’s US editor-at-large
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