J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon thinks bitcoin is a “fraud.” Investor Mark Cuban called it “a bubble.” Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein is still undecided. But whether or not executives believe in the potential of bitcoin, ethereum or blockchain technology, they and their companies can’t avoid talking about cryptocurrencies.
Mentions of “cryptocurrency” (digital currencies not tied to any country’s legal tender) and related terms including “bitcoin” and “ethereum” (the two most popular cryptocurrencies), “blockchain” (the technology underlying these currencies), and “initial coin offering” (or ICO, which lets companies raise capital through the creation of a new cryptocurrency) have skyrocketed over the last seven years, according to data from Sentieo, a financial research firm.
In total, 1,200 publicly traded companies have generated over 12,000 mentions of digital currency during the past 14 years.
With another month left to go in 2017, references to cryptocurrency in corporate communications are already double what they were in all of 2016, according to a Fortune analysis of the Sentieo data. And they’re up more than 7,000% since 2010, when admittedly only a handful of companies had talked about “digital currency” during earnings calls or presentations.
It began with ‘digital currency’ … and getting bitcoin’s name wrong
From 2009 through 2012, most of the mentions only referenced “digital currency,” which includes cryptocurrencies, along with other money recorded electronically or stored in another device. Players in the digital currency space, like PayPal and Square, had to address cryptocurrencies earlier than most.
Amusingly enough, bitcoin was actually misidentified in its first actual mention by name during Discover’s 2013 annual meeting.
“One of the questions I’ve put down, the subject is bio coin,” a shareholder began to say.
Discover CEO David Nelms course-corrected. “You mean bitcoins?”
“Yes, bitcoins. You’re a good listener,” the shareholder said. “You picked it up. ”
Fortune analyzed Sentieo data from earnings call transcripts, press releases, presentations, and SEC filings — 8Ks and 10Ks. Cryptocurrency and related terms pop up in press releases most often, followed by SEC filings and presentations. And that’s to be expected. Most companies publish press releases a lot more frequently than they submit SEC filings or hold earnings calls.
A lot of financial institutions mention it only to say it’s irrelevant, or deny its ability to disrupt their industry
Less than 20% of the S&P 500 appear among the 1,200 companies talking about cryptocurrencies, and only 65 hail from the 2017 Fortune 500 list. Information technology and finance companies, unsurprisingly, have discussed the topic more fervently than other industries.
Many times, large financial institutions have brought up cryptocurrency because they’re denying its importance or expressing disinterest in bitcoin. But some companies in the consumer-facing fintech subset have been talking about it because they’re planning to adopt parts of the new technology.
“Cryptocurrency will be almost a gimmick at first,” Benjamin Jessel, managing principal at Capco, told Fortune. “Institutional investment will come later.”
He leads a variety of digital risk, compliance and strategy projects and programs for financial services clients.
It’ll be a while before anyone can say cryptocurrencies have truly disrupted financial institutions, he said. But there’s signs it could come to pass. Companies like Square and American Express have been working on allowing consumers the option to pay with cryptocurrencies.
Overstock.com has embraced cryptocurrencies more than any of its peers
Of the 1,200 companies that Fortune analyzed, Overstock.com stood out. It has talked about cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology more than any other firm.
“We think that at some point there will be … Bitcoin will hit a tipping point and like it took time for people to adopt PCs and the Internet, at some point there is a tipping point and this could become … Bitcoin could become as ubiquitous as PCs and the Internet are now,” said Jonathan Johnson, Overstock.com executive Vice Chairman Jonathan in January 2014.
Overstock.com’s CEO Patrick Byrne was an early believer in the importance of cryptocurrencies, too. It doesn’t just show in earnings calls and SEC filings. One of Overstock’s subsidiaries, tZero, has made it possible to trade tokens using blockchain technology in a regulatory-free environment.
“Three years ago I stood up in front of an audience for the opening keynote speech at Bitcoin 2014, in Amsterdam, and told the world that the main event of Bitcoin is not Bitcoin, it is the Blockchain, and it would change the world,” Byrne said at the Money 20/20 conference last month.
But Overstock.com executives were the outliers. There’s been heated debate about whether there is a bitcoin bubble.
“We’re certainly in something that resembles a bubble,” Jessel said.
He points to the sheer amount of capital invested in a short time period — more than $2 billion in initial coin offerings (ICOs) in 2017— along with the low sophistication of investors. More and more people are buying tokens like Bitcoin and Ethereum, but very few are using them for anything other than trading.
The infrastructure for cryptocurrencies is growing very rapidly and generating lots of conversation, like what’s been captured in the Sentieo data. But the truth is very few companies are making money from using the technology.
“It’s like a whole industry building roads,” Jessel said, “and they haven’t discovered cars yet.”