Now that we’ve had a little more than a month to decompress from our time in Montauk for Brainstorm Finance, we’ve been reflecting on everything we learned and culling the key trends that emerged from our discussions with top executives.
Here are a few of the most salient predictions and themes we gleaned:
1. Facebook may struggle to launch its Libra Cryptocurrency
As Facebook announced its Project Libra the day before Brainstorm Finance kicked off, naturally it was the talk of the conference. But one persistent theme tempered attendees’ optimism: Skepticism that the cryptocurrency could actually get off the ground. “Libra is a very exciting moment when it launches—certainly the question is if and when it’ll launch,” Barry Silbert, the CEO of Digital Currency Group, told Fortune on the sidelines of the conference.
Jeremy Allaire, the CEO of Circle, pointed to regulatory hurdles and other complexities involved with creating a stablecoin backed by not just one fiat currency, but a basket of various nations’ monetary notes. “I think that’s something that both individuals, businesses and governments will have to ultimately get comfortable with, so it’ll be interesting to see if Libra is able to launch and how that’s perceived,” Allaire told Fortune in a separate interview.
2. Big banks aren’t really all that screwed
Adam Dell, who sold his company Clarity Money to Goldman Sachs’s consumer bank Marcus and now serves as its head of product, made some headlines with his pithy comments at Brainstorm Finance: “There are only two kinds of banks— there are banks that are screwed, and banks that don’t know they are screwed,” he said.
But his employer, Goldman Sachs, didn’t seem to fall into either category, nor did the other big banks that were represented by their CEOs at the conference, with their vast global scale and trillions of dollars in assets. (Compare that to fintech startups and challenger banks, where even the leading companies have yet to amass more than a few billion each.) Fortune executive editor Adam Lashinsky put Dell’s comments directly to Citi CEO Michael Corbat, who responded, “You’re screwed if you’re in denial. and I would say as an institution we’re absolutely not in denial.” Citi would be “dead” if it stuck to the status quo, he added, “But we’re a 200-year-old institution that’s reimagined itself several times, and we are very much in that process today.” Corbat also described himself as a “true believer” in blockchain technology.
Bank of America, whose CEO Brian Moynihan opened the conference, also offered a telling statistic to illustrate why his company wouldn’t be left behind: “We have more blockchain patents I think than anybody else does now,” he said.
3. Amazon could come for banks
As my colleague Jeff Roberts put it on this show, “Amazon has all the ingredients to be a bank.” One main ingredient: Its close relationship with customers. Added Robert Hackett, “If you look at some of the consumer sentiment, people like Amazon way more than they like their banks.”
At the conference, though, Patrick Gauthier, vice president of Amazon Pay, threw cold water on the idea: “The fact that we can build something doesn’t mean that we should,” he said. Still, he didn’t entirely rule out a banking foray sometime further off in the future—nor did he scoff at the idea that Amazon could very well build a bank if it wanted to.
The following day, Citi’s Corbat was asked whether he feared that Amazon or another big tech company would build a competing digital bank. “It’s a question we get asked frequently,” Corbat acknowledged. “I don’t know their ambition or intentions per se, but what I would say is, we don’t take anything for granted and we’re not dismissive. We’re not dismissive of Amazon, I'm sure we’ll get to Facebook—anybody who’s got a couple billion users, I think you need to pay attention to.” It’s clear the big banks aren’t writing off Amazon as a potential competitor one day.
4. Millennials’ net worths are bulging
For years, the popular narrative around the millennial generation has been that their heavy student debt burdens and the fact that many of them graduated during or around the Great Recession would condemn them to a dimmer financial outlook than prior generations. At Bank of America’s last count, in 2018, only 16% of millennials had saved at least $100,000.
At Brainstorm Finance, though, executives painted a different picture of millennials. “They’re not all sitting in their basements smoking weed all the time,” said Andy Rachleff, the CEO of Wealthfront, a robo-advisor whose customers are primarily millennials. And, he added, “They’re in the wealth accumulation phase of their lives.”
Walt Bettinger, the CEO of Charles Schwab, meanwhile, said that hundreds of thousands of millennials are now flocking to the brokerage annually, and make up more than half (53%) of Schwab’s new accounts. Their average net worth? $350,000 in household assets, Bettinger added. “So the average millennial we’re winning has that level of affluence today already.”