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Weekly Column

Electric Money: 3,184 Words About Bob's New Show, Which Airs Next Week

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

This may be the first time in history that the names J.P. Morgan and Max Levchin have been used in the same sentence. On the surface, the two men don't seem to have much in common. Morgan died in 1913. Levchin was born in 1975. Morgan was an American-born financier, scion of an international banking family and stalwart of the Episcopal Church. Levchin is a Ukrainian-born computer programmer, a Jew who immigrated to Chicago with his parents when he was 16 years old. Morgan was one of the world's great art collectors. Levchin's art collection, at the moment I am writing this, consists of a couple posters and an electric wall clock that has plastic sushi in place of numbers. Yet J.P. Morgan and Max Levchin stand like bookends around the story I will be trying to tell next week in my new show, "Electric Money," which is supposed to air generally around 9 p.m. on October 3rd. Check your local listings. If, like me, you have only satellite TV, the show plays on October 4th.

From its founding in 1871 until the death of its founder in 1913, J.P. Morgan & Co. came to dominate investment banking in America. This was a time of little regulation or taxation, a time of dramatic booms and busts, and a time when the center of the financial world was moved from London to New York. Morgan did that. He financed America's railroads, its steel industry, its electric and telephone industries. Twice — in 1895 and 1907 — Morgan interceded to stabilize the U.S. financial markets at times when the federal government was powerless to do so. At the time of his death, he was without question the world's most powerful financier.

Behind his diffident nature and enormous nose, Morgan was an intuitive risk taker and a natural mathematician — a man who made the right moves generally because they felt right, not because of any empirical understanding of the situation. Morgan was the leader because he knew where and how to lead. Though many of his tactics would be illegal today, they weren't at the time he used them, and they built much of the world that we know today. Americans do things like that. They build slap-dash empires, then consolidate them by outlawing both the slap and the dash, closing the door behind them.

Morgan was a master of three terms that will recur over and over in this show — information, liquidity, and security. His moves were based on information carefully gathered by agents around the world. Nobody knew was happening in business and government better than J.P. Morgan. He had quick access to funds — at first from Europe and later in the U.S. — to finance his deals. Morgan was far from the richest man in America, but he could raise more money more quickly than any financier of his time. That's liquidity, and it came to Morgan primarily because of his reputation. People trusted him with their money. And in exchange for all those funds, he issued a variety of securities that defined ownership in the deal, and gave investors a way to diversify or bail out if need be.

Morgan's leadership of the financial community was a benevolent despotism. He used brutal financial force where necessary, but his goal was always steady growth and a minimum of bloodshed. This was a technique that built the U.S. from an agrarian former colony to an industrial giant in only 40 years. Then, only a few months before his death at age 75, testifying before a Senate committee, Morgan made what would appear to be a surprising statement. "It will never do," he testified, "to say that unchecked power is a good thing because it is in the hands of good men."

Why did he say that? Surely this man, who created the financial oligarchy that was so successful building industrial America, would defend the methods of that oligarchy. Or was he an old rake, gone repentant in the twilight of his career? Or maybe he was a narcissist, determined that nobody who followed would do the job of minding the money half so well?

The truth lies behind door number three. By 1913, the U.S. financial model was too complex to be managed by even a J.P. Morgan. Soon it would be too complex to even comprehend. This is, after all, a show about information technology, about computers, and the truth of the matter is that for several decades, a somewhat successful model of the U.S. economy was held in the computer that was J.P. Morgan's brain. Following some algorithm that not even he understood, he processed the information, made the decisions, and doled out the liquidity as needed, all without missing his annual archaeology trip to Egypt. Morgan was a human neural net. He was successful because the times and the model were simple, and because people with money came to trust him. But there are limits to such neural nets, and J.P, Morgan instinctively knew that. From 1913 on, there ceased to be any concerted attempt to control the economy as the dictatorial influence of a Morgan was replaced by government organizations that could only hope to influence or guide. The engine of finance lost its engineer, replacing him with a conductor. And that's how it was for 80 years.

Jump to Palo Alto, California, in the present day.

Max Levchin, both guns blazing, was killing people left and right while Max Levchin's PR man rolled his eyes. We were in the lunchroom at, and Max was playing a shoot 'em up arcade game called Area 51. Max loves Area 51. He is very good at it, standing calmly, blowing to bits anything thrown at him, his eyes half closed as in a homicidal trance. "What are people going to think?" groaned the PR man. "People trust us with their money here. When people think of money, they think of banks built of marble and cherry wood, not Max Levchin in parachute pants killing people."

Funny, I hadn't noticed the parachute pants, but it was a good detail. And Max Levchin killed on. It's hard to think of him as the founder of the next CitiCorp, but that's what I believe he is. Levchin's invention is PayPal, the quintessential Internet money site that makes its living by enabling anyone to send money electronically to anyone else. With PayPal, liquidity is universal and transactions are instantaneous.

This temporal jump from J.P. Morgan to Max Levchin has seen the financial world cycle from one with concentrated power and almost no regulatory control, through a 75-year period of rigorous regulatory control, to today's relaxed climate of deregulation. PayPal isn't even a bank, yet it does bank-like things. And PayPal can make a profit on a 10-cent transaction — something J.P. Morgan couldn't do even with 1913 pennies.

We know what led to the decline of the financial oligarchy and the rise or regulation. It was increasing complexity, a financial world that was too complicated to predict, much less control. So the best that could be hoped for was to prevent abuse and try to keep people from hurting themselves. That was then. The world Gross Domestic Product in 1900 was approximately $1.1 trillion, which was a lot to even hope to manage. Today's world GDP stands at $41.06 trillion (both figures are in 1990 dollars), which is a lot more, but if you are getting my drift, is a number that maybe isn't so daunting after all. We are starting to understand this economy of ours in ways we never could before, and the way we do that is through information technology. That's where I come in.

Money is in the middle of a revolution. Technology is the cause. In the last 30 years, computers have changed money more profoundly than at any other time in history. This revolution is transforming the way we live and work. Today, with a stroke on a keyboard, a swipe of a card, or a touch of a mouse, money can be created, dissolved, spent, invested, or transferred across the world, without ever materializing into something you can touch or handle. Money is literally being turned from coins and paper into electronic bits.

Computers have made finance a near-instantaneous business based more on statistics than on the firm handshake of a borrower and lender. Vast quantities of money now sweep around the world, searching for the quickest return, turning our global economies into roller-coasters and our financial system into a casino. The result: Economies from Asia to Latin America have been subverted, traditional institutions utterly transformed and the financial world turned on its head. How did this come about? What are the underlying principles and forces? Where are they taking us? Have we gained anything along the way?This story is not so much about business or government or even economics as it is about information, which is exactly (and almost the only reason) why I am qualified to write it. The economic history of the latter half of the 20th century is nearly all about information technology, only the experts don't realize it. And the underlying trend of information expansion is the greatest social and economic force going, yet our leaders not only don't understand it, they don't control it, either.

Out of Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in 1944 came the shape of a new world economic order. The soon-to-be-victorious Allied powers settled on new institutions for world lending — the World Bank and International Monetary Fund — intended to promote growth, liberalism, and financial stability all on the premise that the price of gold would somehow never budge from $35 per ounce. Those institutions survive today, yet the world of money is so different. Where there were banks and brokers and customers, and those customers had passbooks or stock certificates, today there are banks and brokers and funds and partnerships and a thousand incarnations of debt and equity, none of which would be even recognizable to your mother or mine back in 1944. Where back then, it was hard to send a telegram overseas, today we send our money — sometimes all our money — in a flash halfway around the world. Our attention and our money go where the returns are highest and the risk seems lowest, no matter where that is. And what make it all possible are computers.

Computers at the time of Bretton Woods were used to break German codes and calculate artillery trajectories, and that was about it. Today the world's largest stock market — NASDAQ — exists entirely inside a single computer and not anywhere in the physical world. Today, most of the world's investment decisions (in terms of total share volume) are made by computers. Today, the worth and financial reliability of any individual (even you!) is quantified and analyzed and available for instant purchase online. Credit cards, home mortgages, mutual funds and every other investment vehicle short of lending your brother money to buy a car comes down to a transaction either made possible or made allowable by a computer.

How did we get this way?

My show is the story of the decline of the state balanced by the rise of the digital bit. The new ideas of Bretton Woods — just the first example — were nearly all about variations on the word "management." Either managers were managing businesses, or government managers were managing citizens and their expectations. Or superpowers-as-managers were attempting to set policy for the rest of the world (look at IMF austerity policies for just a recent example that doesn't involve the use of force). But if we look closely, what we'll see in history is a back-and-forth struggle between the managers and the entrepreneurs, essentially the farmers and the hunters. From this context, Reagan and Thatcher were the revolutionaries, not Clinton and Blair. And this back-and-forth is driven more by advancing information technology than anything else.

During the last half century, we have moved most financial transactions from wallets and ledgers literally into computers, making it possible over time to take complete snapshots of what the world of money looks like — something that could never be done before. The advent of networks and the Internet have broadened access to these snapshots with mind-bending effect. Information that used to be available only to governments, then only to governments and big business, is now becoming available to everyone. And the everyones who will take advantage of this information are the entrepreneurs — the hunters — changing forever what it means to manage an economy.

Bretton Woods could be managed on the back of an envelope. But the rise of management required centralized information, whether it was at the World Bank or Ford. The rise of entrepreneurism required that kind of information be made available to individuals with access to resources and a willingness to take risks. What made a Peter Lynch better than you or me was not so much his intelligence as the quality of his information, combined with his resources and willingness to use them. If you already have a lot of money or (like Lynch) work for someone who shares with you the tools of traditional companies, then you can be a mainframe entrepreneur. That was the 70s. But then came the PC revolution, which made it possible for almost anyone not to access that same information, but to estimate it: Visicalc substituted accurate and fast guesswork for real knowledge. That was the 80s. And in the 90s, the Internet has given us all access to the real information that we were just estimating before.

Bretton Woods presaged the era of management, but mainframes made the era of management possible. Minicomputers in the 1960s made possible corporate entrepreneurism of folks like Peter Lynch, who had wrested information from the guys in white coats and got it on finally right there in a terminal on his desk. The PC made the 80s possible — an era of economic cowboys where we substituted fast guessing for hard facts. With hard facts, Reaganism and Thatcherism wouldn't have stood. And in the 90s, we've combined the fast thinking of desktops with real data and global communications. What's the result? The decline of the state. George Soros can, for a moment, be more powerful than the Bank of England. And today, a million people on E*Trade can counteract the efforts of any central bank, any national policy, anywhere.

So how do the governments react to this erosion of their power? They consolidate to reduce the effect of that erosion. Hence, the Euro. Another version of the same thing is Equador's decision to give-up its own currency in favor of the U.S. dollar. Didn't Russia effectively do that too, years ago?

So now let's look at the new state through the old economic filters. What, for example, does the huge U.S. balance of trade deficit actually mean? I don't think it means a damn thing, and that's one of the problems: We tend to look at our fast-changing economy through glasses bought at some earlier time.

The 80s brought the downfall of communism, increasingly powerful computers and the spread of telecommunications. As a result, money went completely global, flying from Thailand to Brazil to Russia in a single day. The impact was staggering. The sums traded in the world currency markets are now too vast to contemplate. Trillions change hands every day — the equivalent of the world's total output for an entire year. And technology is now truly revolutionizing the markets.

The massive funds generated by these markets are not passive. They are a potent force in their own right, racing round the world to wherever the best deal is. Their impact can be devastating. Ask the governments of Thailand, Korea and Indonesia, whose economies have felt the full brunt of this tidal wave of rootless money. The world's money is now dominated by giant financial corporations. These corporations are spending billions of dollars on the latest technology, creating worldwide networks where stocks, bonds and every kind of financial product can be traded 24 hours a day. Increasingly, no one holds anything for very long — weeks at most, usually days, sometimes only hours. The aim is to make money on the transaction, and a tiny fraction on millions of dollars results in big profits. But it makes the financial world a volatile place. Once rises or falls of 20 or 30 points on the Dow Jones, Footsie or Hang Seng share indexes were headline news. Now a drop of 200 points barely raises an eyebrow.

In the 90s, banks also embraced the information revolution. Now a global network of networks connects nearly everyone in this world to everyone else whenever money is involved. Go to an automatic teller machine today, press a button, and you are in the middle of a global network of incredible complexity and even elegance. Paper monetary instruments are quickly becoming a thing of the past, thanks to computers. You can now write checks, pay bills, invest, apply for a loan, buy or sell stock, send or receive money anywhere in the world, all electronically. The days of the neighborhood bank with a friendly manager have vanished forever in most countries. Some banks now even penalize their clients for using a human teller. Who would have thought that a bank teller would become like a psychiatrist, someone you had to pay for his or her services?

And the pace of change is constantly increasing. The Internet is altering the way individuals handle their money. Millions have now begun to speculate directly for themselves in buying and selling stocks. The role of intermediaries, like brokers — for generations the backbone of the financial industries — is under threat.

Cash itself is heading for a new dimension. It's remaking itself in the form of magnetic blips that can reside anywhere: on a chip in your pocket, on a laptop or in a card. Almost everyone has a smart card in France. In Japan, you can't make a telephone call without one. Someday soon, money may even exist on a chip implanted under your skin. Then money really will talk.

In this relentless transformation of money, there are some casualties. Those who do not have bank accounts and have no access to the world of electronic money must rely on cash to live. But in a universe where bits are king, cash is an expensive commodity — and having to depend on it will increasingly trap people in a ghetto. So the money revolution is likely to widen the already large gap between the rich and poor in the developed countries, and between the First and the Third Worlds. But this money revolution also has some surprising winners. There are new markets in Shanghai, China, and homemakers who have made a fortune in small town America.

Revolutions are rarely fair, often unpredictable, but usually irresistible. The rise of electric money is no exception.

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