Weekly Briefing No. 139 | Figure’s Mike Cagney Goes All In on Blockchain and Celebrity Fintech FOMO Financings

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This weekend, we invite you to turn on, tune in and drop your other activities to check out this week’s FR. Our Summer of Love edition includes:

  • The FR’s one-on-one with Figure’s Mike Cagney
  • Financing News: Shock the Monkey
  • CFPB’s new fintech sandbox; TaskRabbit & Uber
  • Evolutionary Programming; WhatsApp’s payments woes
  • Opinion: Retirement 2.0; Guccifer 2.0 & Bitcoin
  • Trove: Vitalik Buterin; PwC’s AI white paper
  • Can economists and humanists be friends?

Want to connect before our July 28th hiatus? Please contact Gregg Schoenberg here.

INTERVIEW

Figure’s Mike Cagney goes all in on blockchain.

“After I left SoFi, I had an opportunity to dive into the characteristics of a blockchain and the distributed, immutable, trustless infrastructure at its heart. I then saw for myself the massive amount of intermediation that you could go after with that kind of technology, and that's when I had the aha moment.” That’s Mike Cagney’s view on how he evolved into a blockchain guy after he departed from SoFi. Now, on the eve of orchestrating a HELOC that will be put on the Provenance protocol he developed, Cagney is set to return to the fintech spotlight. In a far-reaching discussion with The FR’s Gregg Schoenberg, Cagney described in detail how he plans to put assets on a blockchain, who will benefit (and suffer) if Provenance takes off and how he plans to avoid the traps that have caught up other blockchain entrepreneurs.

FEATURED NEWS

Celebrity fintech financing FOMO shocks the monkey.

“Darling, don't you monkey with the monkey.” That’s a lyric from Peter Gabriel’s brilliant 1982 song (and video), “Shock The Monkey,” which is actually about how jealousy can trigger a person’s primitive instincts. In a modern, financial context, that feeling is known as FOMO, and apparently Gabriel came down with a case of it. Perhaps that’s why he’s joined the growing coterie of celebrities who invest in early-stage companies by backing London-based blockchain start-up Provenance. Speaking of celebs who don’t want to miss out, Richard Branson and Joe Montana have joined the $8-million Series A for AI-infused mortgage originator LoanSnap, and Block.one, which is behind the eosio protocol, revealed that it closed a strategic investment round that included Peter Thiel, Louis Bacon and Alan Howard. Finally, gaming-fintech start-up Blast, which was launched by Acorns co-founder Walter Cruttenden, announced that it closed on a $7 million round (from self-help celebrity Tony Robbins and others) to advance its platform that intertwines saving money and playing games.

CFPB announces a sandbox and names a head for it.

This week, Mick Mulvaney announced a new initiative for the CFPB: a sandbox in which to explore cryptocurrencies, blockchain-based platforms and microlending. The sandbox will be led by Paul Watkins, an ex-Covington & Burling lawyer and civil litigation division head in the Arizona Attorney General's Office. More recently, Watkins helped launch a state-level regulatory sandbox in Arizona.

Undercover, employed rabbits and drivers?

In a great demonstration of leadership, CEO Stacy Brown-Philpot of TaskRabbit, the Ikea-owned on-demand furniture assembler and relationship peacemaker, recently went undercover as a tasker herself to better understand both sides of her company’s gig marketplace. But unlike some CEOs who have made surreptitious attempts that wind up being known to all, Brown-Philpot looks to have pulled off the skullduggery and shown that she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty in the name of market research. And speaking of the on-demand space, we’re also noting that the New York State Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board has ruled that three ex-Uber drivers can be considered employees for the purpose of collecting unemployment benefits. In our view, this decision, while notable, is not likely to settle the ongoing debate over what constitutes an independent contractor vs. an employee. All we know is that the people who get their hands dirty, whether it’s driving us or assembling a Grönkulla, should be treated well.

India delays Facebook’s WhatsApp payment service.

As Facebook tries (unsuccessfully, in our view) to contain the damage to its brand and reputation taking place on multiple fronts, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) has decided to put on hold Facebook-owned WhatsApp’s planned move into payments, citing concerns over data storage, among other issues. This decision comes after several people in India have been killed in mob attacks propelled by "harmful misinformation” spread on WhatsApp. In response (and ahead of India’s national elections next year), WhatsApp is putting limits on message forwarding to groups. But in light of Facebook’s ongoing transparency issues, we think MEITY’s move looks smart.

Is Cartesian Genetic Programming the new AI Kung Fu master?  

Neural networks and deep learning techniques have garnered a considerable amount of buzz as of late. However, recently, a team of researchers at France’s University of Toulouse, led by Dennis Wilson, has demonstrated that when it comes to playing Atari games like Asteroids, Defender and Kung Fu, evolutionary reinforcement learning techniques such as Cartesian Genetic Programming may outperform better-known deep learning approaches.

The tasty benefits of investment snobbery.

Sponsored by Groundfloor

Whether you’re an accredited or non-accredited investor, everyone has a chance to back the loans offered by Groundfloor. But while the company believes in equal investment opportunities for all, its loan screening process is choosey to say the least. In fact, Groundfloor only approves about five percent of the thousands of real estate loan applications it receives each week. However, unlike other online platforms that claim to be picky, Groundfloor backs up its finickiness by pre-funding most of the investment opportunities it makes available. That’s what we call eating your own cooking, and it’s the kind of snobbery that we’ll welcome anytime.

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OPINION

We need to retire retirement.

“Just Google ‘boredom in retirement.’ There are scores of articles and papers that provide remedies for those with time but little purpose in retirement.” That’s a thoughtful point from FR contributor Jimmie Lenz, who has written a new piece for The FR. In his latest meditation, Lenz argues for a paradigm shift that speaks not only to today’s financial realities ( “When the Social Security Act was passed in 1935, setting the official age of retirement to 65, a man’s average life expectancy was 58”), but also to dramatically evolving characteristics of retirees. A 65-year-old today, says Lenz, “barely resembles” his or her parents, much less grandparents, at the equivalent age.

So Guccifer 2.0 digs Bitcoin. Therefore, we should ban it?

Perhaps there was something in the air over Helsinki and Menlo Park as two leaders who we believe are in over their heads, our mарионе́тка-in-chief and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, found themselves doing damage control over things they said, but didn’t mean to say (or so they said). But one person sticking to his guns is Rep. Brad Sherman, who said at a hearing this week that U.S. persons should be prohibited from buying or mining crypto because of the negative carbon footprint it creates, and its use for terrorism and other bad things. Sherman is right that Bitcoin mining is lousy for the environment, and it’s true that heuristic algorithm wielder Guccifer 2.0, allegedly a front for catchily-named GRU Unit 26165, used Bitcoin to pay for the infrastructure utilized in the 2016 hacking of the DNC’s servers. However, if trimming energy consumption is on Sherman’s mind, maybe he should have called for the banning of football in stadiums or drafty doors. As for Bitcoin’s ability to do bad stuff, Sherman should consider this: Unit 26165’s use of Bitcoin (allegedly) left digital traces that helped the Mueller investigation. Indeed, if more anonymous payments mechanisms such as cash or gift cards had been employed, the recent indictments may have been more difficult to execute.

TROVE

Vitalik Buterin chats with Tyler Cowen: We enjoyed a recent discussion between Ethereum’s co-founder and Cowen as they geeked out on cryptoeconomics, Zug, Star Wars: Episode VIII and quantum computing.

PwC’s optimistic view on automation: Although we remain very skeptical of studies that make the case that new technologies will lead to a veritable Smurfland of more (and fabulous) new jobs, we are noting PwC’s new thoughtful white paper. In it, the professional services giant studied 200,000 jobs in 29 countries to weigh the opportunities and challenges posed by automation.

Can economists and humanists be friends?: That’s the question posed by author John Lanchester in a terrific new article for The New Yorker. In it, Lanchester cites a summer’s reading worth of books including Cents and Sensibility: What Economists Can Learn from the Humanities and The Wisdom of Finance: Discovering Humanity in the World of Risk and Return by HBS’s Mihir Desai. Our favorite concept: Desai’s characterization of children as “negative beta assets.”

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“The world is not fair, and often fools, cowards, liars and the selfish hide in high places.”

~ Bryant H. McGill