Cryptocurrency and blockchain. Did you just roll your eyes? Me too. These overused buzzwords continue to stubbornly infiltrate corporate boardrooms while few truly understand the promising technology. I’m a cheerleader of the burgeoning industry and own a small amount of bitcoin, but mostly to indulge my curiosity rather than a conviction that crypto is destined to replace the US dollar. But when viewed through the prism of New York City’s office market, the impact of crypto might extend well further than the success of bitcoin, litecoin or any of the other coins.
Reflecting the industry’s comparative infancy, the majority of crypto-related companies lease small spaces in co-working environments like WeWork. Although some, like the Winkelvoss’s Gemini Funds, have signed significant long-term lease obligations, it continues to be the exception rather than the rule. The continued regulatory uncertainty has fueled landlord concerns relating to credit risk, thus necessitating non-traditional leases (i.e., co-working) for all but the most established companies. As a result, to date cryptocurrency remains a minor sub-bullet in the story of NYC’s office leasing market.
But similar to the Gold Rush of 1849, the Cryptocurrency Rush of 2018 is spurring market activity from those far beyond the currency providers themselves.
170 years ago, hundreds of thousands of hopeful adventure seekers moved west in pursuit of wealth. Mining was lightly regulated and littered with incidences of fraud and malfeasance. And while billions of dollars of gold wealth was created, it was concentrated among a select few. Yet the story of the Gold Rush is really about the supporting industry that sprouted around the miners. For instance, denim jeans were popularized by miners looking for rugged-wear, directly leading to the commercial success of Levi Strauss.
The story of the American railroad is also inextricably tied to the Gold Rush, with significant investment and expansion designed to address the problem of transporting the vast wealth back to the East Coast. Overall, the Gold Rush accelerated the development of the country’s economy in a manner that far exceeded the value of precious metal.
Fast forward to present day. While there have similarly been several bad actors in the crypto market, we’ve also seen a growing outcrop of an entirely different set of service providers powered by the growth of cryptocurrency and its underlying technology, blockchain. Law firms specializing in Initial Coin Offerings (ICO) have sprouted due to the unique regulatory uncertainty. PR firms are rising to address the marketing and branding concerns for entities fighting for recognition in an increasingly competitive space. Lobbyists have identified the need for advocacy in a sector that remains misunderstood by many publicly elected officials.
And a growing number of established companies like IBM, JPMorgan and Capital One, have committed to significant blockchain (but not yet cryptocurrency) research. These companies have dedicated hundreds of jobs to the research and development of financial technologies like blockchain with the hope that it will increase their efficiencies and profit margins. All of these specialties and jobs didn’t exist three years ago and translate into hundreds of thousands of square feet of additional occupied office space.
While the permanence of the new jobs remains contingent on blockchain and crypto achieving and maintaining both respectability and shedding the image of a 21st century Wild West, my strong belief remains that regardless of the ultimate size of crypto market, its development provides a boon for the economy and has created new areas of expertise for ambitious professionals.
As the Gold Rush waned in the 1850s and prospectors packed their panning equipment, they left behind both new industry and thriving metropolises that continue to be relevant today. Provided that blockchain and crypto achieve even a small degree of success and stability, it is my belief that we will benefit more from the economic growth associated with the support industry that emerges to service it.
Gabe Marans is a corporate managing director at Savills Studley, a commercial real estate advisory firm specializing in tenant representation. The views expressed here are the author’s own and not those of ALM’s Real Estate Media Group.