The most important economic story of this century will likely be the rise of cryptocurrency, the digital open ledger exchange system where users, rather than government treasury officials or bankers, determine value and collectively maintain system integrity.
Recent developments, including a Long Island beverage company’s announcement that it would become a blockchain miner, have roiled the market, which tanked early last month. Network pundits, TV financial gurus, big banks and government officials have increasingly raised questions about the dangers of cryptocurrency.
For a few days around Christmas, a struggling Farmingdale beverage manufacturer named Long Island Iced Tea Corp. seized national attention when it changed its name to Long Blockchain Corp. and saw its stock value nearly triple before sinking back to earth.
It was apparently too much for CNN. Declaring “Bitcoin Mania Has Reached a New Level of Insanity,” Money writer Paul R. La Monica compared “the hype surrounding bitcoin and blockchain” with the dotcom boom and bust of the late ’90s.
“Madness,” he railed. “Pure and simple. Long Island Iced Tea is just the latest small company to change its business model in an attempt to latch onto the … cryptocurrency wave.”
The New York Times labeled the move “the most notorious example” of struggling companies who slap “blockchain” to their names and announce improbable cryptocurrency plans.
The actual story is more complicated. It’s also a little juicier. Involved are such names as Jonathan Ledecky, the New York Islanders principal owner; Heidi Klum, the supermodel; Eric Watson, a polo-playing New Zealand playboy rancher; and Kerry Kennedy, one of the late Robert F. Kennedy’s daughters and ex-wife of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Long Island Iced Tea’s transformation from beverage company to bitcoin miner began last December. Having reported latest-quarter sales of just $1.6 million, the company’s stock had dropped more than 40 percent, dragging valuation below $35 million. The drop precipitated a Nasdaq delisting warning. A second warning came last month.
The cash-strapped drink maker, which had funded operations primarily through equity sales and borrowing, apparently heeded the warning. Philip Thomas, the company’s hitherto low-profile CEO, decided to raise revenues by going blockchain before he was replaced last month. The company plans to spin off its iced tea subsidiary and focus on blockchain solutions.
The odd saga began in October 2007 when Mr. Ledecky and Mr. Watson, his business partner, raised $550 million in an initial public offering for a financial shell company, Triplecrown Acquisition Corp. The shell then acquired Mr. Watson’s New Zealand dairy farm business, CullenAgricultural Technologies, taking that company public. Six years later the
partners acquired Mr.Thomas’s Long Island Brand Beverages. At this point they changed the company name to Long Island Iced Tea.
Mr. Watson, who’s reported to have a fondness for dating supermodels and throwing extravagant parties, also runs Cullen Investments. As Bloomberg Business News reported,
Cullen is a majority shareholder in Bendon Ltd., a lingerie and swimwear company which employs Heidi Klum as spokesmodel. As for Kerry Kennedy, Bloomberg reported she was a board member of Long Island Iced Tea before resigning in September.
While bitcoin transactions remain unfamiliar processes for most Long Islanders, a number of e-retailers around the world have been accepting cryptocurrency for years. One is Tyler Roye, a veteran Long Island tech entrepreneur and co-founder/CEO of eGifter, an online gift-card market that began accepting bitcoin in 2014.
While opponents raise fears that cryptocurrency transactions are vulnerable to hackers, their advocates insist the opposite is true. Mr. Roye made the cryptocurrency case in an August blog post:
“The low margins and fraud challenges in our business had us looking to add more affordable and secure payment options,” he wrote. “Bitcoin was a great addition as it both reduced transaction costs and delivered sales free of the type of fraud we see in credit card sales.”
Cryptocurrency is not a perfect system; neither is the government-and banker-controlled system that’s prevailed for centuries. What’s certain is that cryptocurrency is not bound by national borders, not restricted by sovereign monetary policies and defiantly not shackled to the demands and fee structures of the banking industry. Governments will likely increase their efforts to regulate, control and tax its usage, and bankers will step up their efforts to maintain their lucrative hold on the world’s transactions.
How successful they will be depends largely on how vocal we are today in support of economic freedom of choice. You can take that to the bank.
Warren Strugatch is a partner at Inflection Point Associates, a consulting firm in Stony Brook. Reach him at Warren@InflectionPointAssoc.com