ART: PETE REYNOLDS
Money has transformed human society, enabling commerce and trade even between widely dispersed geographic locations. It allows the transfer of wealth and resources across space and over time. But for much of human history, it has also been the object of rapacity and depredation. Money is now on the cusp of a transformation that could reshape banking, finance, and even the structure of society. Most notably, the era of physical currency, or cash, is drawing to an end, even in low- and middle-income countries; the age of digital currencies has begun. A new round of competition between official and private currencies is also looming in both the domestic and international arenas. The proliferation of digital technologies that is powering this transformation could foster useful innovations and broaden access to basic financial services. But there is a risk that the technologies could intensify the concentration of economic power and allow big corporations and governments to intrude even more into our financial and private lives.
Traditional financial institutions, especially commercial banks, face challenges to their business models as new technologies give rise to online banks that can reach more customers and to web-based platforms, such as Prosper, capable of directly connecting savers and borrowers. These new institutions and platforms are intensifying competition, promoting innovation, and reducing costs. Savers are gaining access to a broader array of saving, credit, and insurance products, while small-scale entrepreneurs are able to secure financing from sources other than banks, which tend to have stringent loan-underwriting and collateral requirements. Domestic and international payments are becoming cheaper and quicker, benefiting consumers and businesses.