The Occupy Wall Street movement, now that it has broadened in scope beyond the financial district of Manhattan to attain a truly national — even global — scale has the potential to lay the groundwork for a new generation of start-ups capable of reshaping the financial system in radically new ways. These tech start-ups, while officially unaffiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement, are nonetheless responding to the unmet needs of these protesters, individuals who feel abandoned by the current financial system.
The breakout company of the Occupy Wall Street movement thus far has been Palo Alto-based WePay, a start-up largely unknown until the protest movement began September 17. Over the past 45 days, WePay has become the de facto official way to send money to the “Occupy” protesters while simultaneously bypassing the largest financial institutions. At a time when many payment alternatives already exist, it’s more than a coincidence that an unknown technology player, free of any associations with the banking establishment, has emerged as the financial intermediary of choice. Just a few months ago, the obvious choice for sending money to an organization like Occupy Wall Street would have been PayPal, but that was before the company decided to cooperate with the financial embargo against WikiLeaks.
It was the Wikileaks imbroglio, in fact, which indirectly helped to crystalize the notion that citizens can take action against financial intermediaries and win. When hacktivist organizations like Anonymous and LulzSec launched attacks against the world’s largest financial institutions in retaliation — MasterCard, Visa, Bank of America — they did so to focus the attention of millions of people on the way that money moves from Point A to Point B. The world’s largest financial institutions, which profit from each transaction in our current system, proved surprisingly fragile: Web sites went down within hours of being hacked.
The largest financial institutions no longer have a monopoly on the way funds travel through the system. Take, for example, banking alternative BankSimple, which was co-founded by one of Twitter’s first employees, Alex Payne. The premise of BankSimple is this: Each consumer should only need one card and one account — and there should be no annoying transaction fees for ATM machines or penalties for bank overdrafts. BankSimple refers to its service as “banking online” not as “online banking” — the company is not a bank as much as it is a personal banking alternative. To top it all off, BankSimple has made customer service the very bedrock of its approach: When people call for information about their accounts, they shouldn’t have to wait 30 minutes for someone to talk to them.
The Occupy Wall Street mentality is not just limited to financial intermediaries and financial transactions. It extends even to the way we think about currencies and cash. The much-maligned Bitcoin movement to create an anonymous, decentralized, digital currency free of the oversight of the world’s central banks can be best understood as a precursor to the Occupy movement. Now that Bitcoin has demonstrated itself as a proof-of-concept and the daily stress and strain of the Euro continues to attract international headlines, there are alternative currency concepts based on Bitcoin waiting to be implemented by tech entrepreneurs.
If the global financial system is going to change, it will require new thinking about the transparency of a system that has become bloated, Byzantine and quite frankly, too complicated for just about anyone to grasp (even the rocket scientists Wall Street banks routinely hire). The recently released movie Margin Call (which can be viewed as a fictionalized account of the fall of Lehman) exposes the problems involved when the only person who seems to know what’s going on is a junior analyst, while the CEO is clueless as to how trillions of dollars of paper circulate around the world. A single equation to model risk that nobody remembers or understands suddenly has real-world consequences when it proves to be wrong. When the daily interactions of human traders on a physical trading floor is replaced by computers, how do you know what the market is really thinking?
Perhaps, with that in mind, the U.S. Federal Reserve recently announced that it would embrace new approaches to real-time sentiment analysis as a way to understand better the inner workings of the U.S. economy. Just as brands have embraced the brave, new world of Twitter, Facebook and Klout in order to understand what people are saying about them at any point in time, the Fed is now setting up its own listening post on the Web.
That the tens of millions of tweets coursing through the Web at any point in time may offer a better snapshot of the market than calling up the CEO of Goldman Sachs, is huge.
Moreover, some of the brightest minds in academia are already re-thinking the way macro-economic policy works. Consider that this year's Nobel Prize in Economics went to Princeton’s Christopher A. Sims and NYU’s Thomas J. Sargent for their groundbreaking work on the rational expectations of the market. Sims, with his Vector Auto Regression technique, attempts something very innovative: economic forecasting without economics. Without over-simplifying the brilliance of Sims, the future possibility is that policymakers will be able to understand the cause-and-effect of any economic policy decision simply by crunching enough data. When Big Data gets big enough, it leads to simplicity, not complexity.
The seeds of a technology-based revolution in finance have been planted. We have new intermediaries, new payment mechanisms, new ways of measuring market sentiment, new ways of thinking about macro-economic policy and new ways of modeling market risk. But, still, how far have we really come since the crash of 1987? Sure, floor traders at the leading exchanges may have been largely replaced with computerized trading programs, but as Jeremy Irons (playing a fictional Wall Street CEO) notes in the penultimate scene of Margin Call, the same types of players have been at work in the financial system for hundreds of years. However, there is one fundamental difference now: Those same 1’s and 0’s that transmit trillions of dollars around the world are the same 1’s and 0’s that can become the basis for a digital revolution in finance.
This time, one hopes, things will be different.
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