More than 200 years ago the most important stock exchange in the world was founded by 24 brokers, who gathered outside 68 Wall Street under a buttonwood tree. They established the rules for buying and selling bonds and shares of companies, and so they organized what would become the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). Just a few steps from the spot where that tree used to be, or next door to NYSE, nowadays other would-be brokers are gathering and dreaming to create the first exchange in the world that trades bitcoins.
They do not meet under a tree, but in a space on 40 Broad Street that is provided by the Bitcoin evangelist Nick Spanos, a tech entrepreneur and the owner of the New York City real estate brokerage firm Bapple. The space is called Bitcoin Center NYC and it’s open to anybody who is curious about this digital currency: twice a week it hosts events where people can learn about Bitcoin and can also trade in person, exchanging bitcoins with cash (US dollars). It happens every Monday night from 6 to 10 pm and every Saturday afternoon from 3 to 6 pm. Saturdays are more educational and attract even tourists; Mondays are more for “serious” traders who used to meet in Starbucks shops or in Whole Food supermarkets in the City and then moved to this center, giving life to “The World’s Largest Direct Sellers-to-Buyers Trading Pit” for Bitcoins, as they claim on their Meetup Page. The Bitcoin Center NYC wants also to be an incubator for Bitcoin-related startups.
On a recent Saturday afternoon I went to visit the center and check what’s going on there. On schedule there was a presentation by Mark Anthony, a former future derivative trader, now working with an investment firm. Anthony was wearing a blue jacket like a regular trader in the pit. «I’m intellectually interested in Bitcoin – he explained. – The cat is out of the bag: a digital currency is here to stay, but Bitcoin is more than that, it’s also a payment system and it’s a kind of a commodity like gold». Anthony pointed out that there is already an investment trust available to sophisticated investors, the Bitcoin Investment Trust that was launched in 2013 by of SecondMarket, the online platform to exchange non liquid securities such as pre-IPO stocks.
After Anthony’s presentation, the Bitcoin Center’s organizers opened the “exchange”: a guy went around collecting intentions to buy or sell by the 30 or so people attending the event; and another guy, standing on a pedestal and wearing himself a trader jacket, every now and then cried the price offered by buyers or sellers (that day Bitcoins were exchanged for something between $422-$434). The latter works as a real trader of natural gas at the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX). «I’m here as a volunteer and I’m also an investor in Bitcoins – he said. – I believe there is value here».
But what’s the point of exchanging Bitcoins with cash if you can do it online? «Online it takes at least four days to complete the transaction and you must go through a bank, here it’s faster», answered another young Bitcoin fan. He said he was a software programmer originally from Belarus, now a New Yorker. He used his Bitcoin wallet (the app on his smartphone) to tip the girl who was serving free drinks in the Center.
In a corner, a 19 year old student was sitting with his laptop and checking Bitcoin prices. He said he was from the Philippines and he had dropped out of college to be a full time Bitcoin trader, hoping to gain enough money to be able to enroll in a NYC college next year.
There was also a businessman from Serbia: he had arrived two weeks earlier to New York in order to attend a conference about Bitcoin. «I think this is a very profound and powerful technology and nobody can stop it!», he exclaimed. He doesn’t know yet what he’ll do about Bitcoin, but he was enthusiastic about new business opportunities opened by the digital currency.
«Actually Bitcoin is not a currency but it works better than a currency, it’s not a bank but it works better than a bank, it’s not a commodity but it works better than a commodity», pointed out Spanos, who arrived to the Center after a while. Spanos can write code so he understands how the Bitcoin protocol works. «All the other monetary systems are dinosaurs», he declared. He’s talking with the New York State Department of Finance in order to obtain a license to trade Bitcoins so that the Bitcoin Center NYC can become a real trading market. In the meantime he’s building an audience and liquidity, not at all concerned about the ups and downs of Bitcoin, from $1,200 last November to just over $400 now. «Everything is transparent and the result of free exchanges», Spanos assures. Next to him there was a Danish guy who said he had just founded a Bitcoin Center in Copenhagen and he was here in NYC to learnt the best practices of this kind of market.
Are we going to have soon also a Bitcoin Center in “Piazza degli Affari” (the Milanese square where the Italian Stock Exchange operates)?