One of the most unusual and potentially transformative deals in the cryptocurrency space started as an argument on social media.
Back in April, Charlie Lee, the creator of litecoin, was exchanging barbs on Twitter with Derek Capo, the CEO of payment processor TokenPay. But their fight quickly turned into a friendly exchange of direct messages, in which the two crypto enthusiasts realized they shared a common problem: In a word, banking.
Both the Litecoin Foundation, the non-profit that promotes the sixth-largest cryptocurrency and where Lee is a managing director, and Capo’s Virgin Islands-based startup had encountered difficulty securing bank accounts – a longstanding problem for the industry.
“We had lots of trouble” on that front, Lee told CoinDesk.
Capo elaborated: “Some banks, they close down bank accounts if they get a whiff of anything to do with crypto. We saw a lot of competitors with similar offerings get cut off because they didn’t own the bank and they didn’t have control.”
But Capo was working on a solution for TokenPay by trying to buy a bank. And he realized this plan, if successful, could address another problem for Lee.
“Why don’t we talk about having a litecoin debit card so that you’ll have a real solution?” Capo recalled telling him. “Because, you know, they had been trying very hard to have a litecoin debit card… I said, why don’t we talk?”
That is how the Singapore-based Litecoin Foundation ended up owning 9.9 percent of WEG Bank AG, an until-now obscure German financial institution, in a surprise transaction revealed this week.
But the foundation didn’t put money in; TokenPay previously acquired the stake and traded it to the non-profit in exchange for future technical support. TokenPay also acquired another 9.9 percent (the maximum allowed in Germany without prior regulatory approval) of WEG and is seeking the green light to buy up to 80 percent. (The price was not disclosed.)
If all goes according to plan, not only will TokenPay and the Litecoin Foundation have a reliable banking partner, they would also transform WEG into an on-ramp for consumers worldwide who want to trade fiat for cryptocurrency or pay for goods and services with crypto.
But owning a bank, by itself, won’t necessarily solve crypto’s banking problem, according to compliance experts who’ve worked in both fields. Even if the regulators bless the pending takeover, Capo and Lee may face new challenges operating in a heavily regulated industry where “coin” is frequently treated as a four-letter word.
Undaunted by regulatory hurdles, Capo and Lee have ambitious plans to usher in a new wave of crypto banking services.
Stepping back, while transacting in cryptocurrency may be frictionless, converting from dollars or euros to crypto and back is anything but. Buying crypto through an online exchange can mean registering a credit card with an exchange platform, then waiting days, sometimes longer, to complete the transaction.
Meanwhile, most of the merchants that accept crypto are wary of the price volatility and generally rely on a payment processor like BitPay to convert it to fiat. All these options incur processing fees along the way.
That’s why Capo wants to offer crypto debit cards and the ability to convert litecoin to euros directly through a traditional bank account, to make it a smoother experience for crypto users transacting in a fiat-dominated economy. He hopes to offer such services within nine months of receiving regulatory approval for the acquisition.
“Connecting cryptocurrency to fiat rails is very useful,” said Lee, who told CoinDesk he aims to join the WEG board as the Litecoin Foundation’s representative (a move that would make him possibly the first person to simultaneously hold the titles of “cryptocurrency founder” and “bank director”).
“We will have a say in influencing the bank to work on crypto projects,” he said.
Eventually, after tackling debit cards and payment processing, Capo and Lee plan to integrate banking services directly with TokenPay’s decentralized exchange (DEX) platform, eFin, which offers peer-to-peer trading between cryptocurrencies.
If traders pass all the know-your-customer (KYC) and anti-money-laundering (AML) demands for a crypto bank account, they will be able to seamlessly cash out TokenPay’s own token, known as tpay, from the exchange as fiat, plus buy or sell cryptos like litecoin without delay.
“eFin will have LTC. We will help them with it technically,” Lee said. “And they will also airdrop [eFin] tokens to litecoin users.”
In addition to the promise of technical expertise and litecoin’s relatively stable popularity among cryptocurrency fans, Capo said he gave the nonprofit equity in the bank based on Lee’s massive online following, a marketing boon, and professional connections.
“Litecoin has a very influential leader, someone who’s been around for a very long time,” Capo said in describing Lee, an alumnus of the popular cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase.
Yet even if they obtain a banking license, Capo and Lee are not guaranteed unlimited liquidity.
Located in the town of Ottobrunn (population: 21,378), WEG was previously a property management bank that offered loans to housing associations. After TokenPay acquires a majority stake, the plan calls for the bank’s CEO, Matthias von Hauff, to stay involved as WEG transitions to a retail bank with more consumer-facing products and services.
But such a tiny institution likely would likely rely on outside organizations – larger global banks, the German central bank, or SWIFT – to be able to move large amounts of fiat around the world, according to Simon Taylor, a former Barclays banker and co-founder and director of the U.K. fintech advisory firm 11:FS. If those partners became squeamish about crypto in general, they could cut off WEG’s access to fiat, Taylor cautioned.
“The really, really big banks tend to be the ones that connect you through the global corridor to the U.S. dollar, they’re the ones that get the big KYC fines,” Taylor said, adding, with regard to the WEG acquisition plan:
“I don’t think it’s going to achieve what they want it to achieve. I get the temptation to buy a bank. But buying a bank doesn’t give you what you think it gives you.”
Joe Ciccolo, president of the compliance service provider BitAML Inc., said regulators would probably expect extra diligence on WEG’s part if it were to become a crypto-focused bank.
“On its own, running a bank and implementing AML anti-money laundering] across a broad range of products and services is difficult to begin with,” Ciccolo said. “This is going to be a much higher barrier to entry than one would associate with traditional AML.”
The idea of integrating a decentralized exchange into a bank gave Ciccolo the most pause. He described DEXs as “nails on a chalkboard for regulators,” who have taken years to wrap their heads around bitcoin. If Capo and Lee plan to pull this off, Ciccolo said, it will require significant investment in educating regulators on an ongoing basis and constant communication with larger banks.
Acknowledging the challenges, Capo said the first and most costly step of converting WEG into a crypto-savvy bank will be restructuring all of its KYC and AML processes to create a new crypto-centric model.
“We’re being conservative because we want to build this bank so it will be around for a long time,” he told CoinDesk, concluding:
“The infrastructure is there, we just might have to potentially modify it for crypto-based services.”