An online transaction is one of the most fundamental of all forms of financial activity.
With it, a merchant can sell a product, charge a fee and then withdraw money from a bank account.
In most cases, the merchant’s credit or debit card will be used to make the transaction.
But, as the value of bitcoin has risen, it has become a powerful form of payment, which is why banks are grappling with the challenge of maintaining their digital balance sheets.
Bitcoin is not only used to buy and sell goods and services, but also is used as a means of remittances, which are the world’s second-largest form of financial transfer after the value added tax.
This is a significant problem for banks because remittancing is the main source of funding for many countries’ public education programmes.
“Banks have been very worried about bitcoin because it’s a virtual currency and it’s very new, so they have a very limited amount of cash they can get out of it,” says Stephen Miska, director of the University of Sussex’s Bitcoin Centre.
The new currency has attracted the attention of regulators.
It is regulated as a digital currency, meaning that banks must have access to a centralised database of transactions and a central authority to ensure that they are not using it for illegal purposes.
The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) last week issued an advisory on bitcoin, warning that the cryptocurrency is a potential money laundering conduit.
The advisory said: “Bitcoin could facilitate the laundering of money, including for illicit purposes, or provide an anonymous, decentralized method for anonymous payments and transfers.”
The SEC warned that it was “very concerned” about bitcoin’s potential use as a “virtual currency” and noted that the technology could be used by criminal groups.
Banks and financial institutions have a responsibility to be on guard against money laundering, says Miskanis research associate Matthew Lee.
But the SEC does not have authority to regulate virtual currencies.
It also said that “it’s difficult to gauge the impact of the technology because it may be years before it is used for anything other than legitimate financial transactions”.
As a result, regulators have largely limited their focus on bitcoin to financial institutions that hold a US$100bn-a-year in assets.
That’s a fraction of the value that banks hold.
But they are increasingly looking at bitcoin as a payment method for remittance.
Banks are now exploring ways to provide the payment option for businesses, like online shops or in-store stores.
The technology also has applications for healthcare.
“It’s an incredibly powerful way to move money, and it may allow us to make it easier to pay for things like dental or prescription drugs or just provide an alternative payment method,” says Lee.
This shift to bitcoin is also having an impact on other digital currencies, including ethereum, a blockchain-based digital currency.
Ethereum is a cryptocurrency that was created in 2014, but its value has skyrocketed in the last two years.
The currency is not backed by any government or central bank, but it has a highly distributed network of computers that can process transactions and exchange value.
The value of a single token in the network is pegged to a specific number of transactions, which can be used for payments.
In 2018, the value per token was estimated at $2.4bn.
In 2019, it rose to $1.8bn.
“Ethereum is now worth over $100bn, but we’re still at the point where it’s still an idea and a technology that’s still relatively new,” says Minskas research associate.
“So we’re just starting to really get to grips with it and see how it might change our way of doing business.”
But it may take some time before the technology becomes mainstream.
Some companies and individuals have been reluctant to accept payments with cryptocurrencies, fearing that they will be hacked.
The SEC said in its advisory that “some companies may not want to invest in and use the technology”.
But it also pointed out that the vast majority of the bitcoin network is not owned by any single party, and that the platform is “considered secure by many of the world of cryptocurrencies”.
As with traditional currencies, the SEC recommends that banks and financial institution hold “a high degree of confidence” in the cryptocurrency and the security of the underlying infrastructure.
“The blockchain technology is an important addition to our existing financial infrastructure, which provides a secure way for users to transact in digital assets,” said the SEC in a statement.
Banks, however, have a bigger problem to solve.
They are struggling to find ways to secure their digital systems and are also struggling to keep up with the exponential growth in demand for bitcoin.
“Bitcoin has taken off in a way that many of us have never seen before.
It’s kind of like a snowball going down a hill,” says David Rizk, co-founder of the Bitcoin Foundation.
“But it’s also a snowball rolling downhill, and if it goes