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Future of Finance: PwC’s Oliver on how ‘fintech is becoming crypto’—and approaching the point where ‘there is no paper money’

John Oliver of PwC.
Courtesy of PwC

Welcome to Future of Finance, where Fortune asks prominent people at major companies about their jobs, how their firm fits into the crypto ecosystem, and what this all means for how we use money.

John Oliver has spent more than two decades at PwC, where he’s a partner and U.S. fintech trust services co-leader. Over the past few years, the firm has made a bigger push into fintech, which increasingly has meant a bigger push into blockchain and crypto.

We discussed everything from improving the efficiency of payments to creating opportunities for the unbanked to, perhaps most important, using blockchain to eliminate the filing of corporate expense reports. Also: There may be a silver lining to American politicians failing time and again to pass meaningful crypto legislation.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

How do you describe your job to people?

I wear many hats, so it depends on who I’m talking to. I co-lead our fintech practice. I’m a career auditor with PwC. I’ve been in our banking and capital markets group. We decided a little over three years ago to create a fintech practice combining our technology folks with our financial services—specifically bank and capital markets folks—and have one team that I co-lead with a partner of mine in our technology practice. And crypto has become a much bigger component of what the tech really is.

So, just to be clear, there was a fintech push, and later it’s come to include crypto and blockchain, or was that originally part of the thinking?

I’d say it was a fintech push, and crypto has become increasingly dominant as part of what fintech really means. When we first started this, it was people looking for faster pay rails. And what has emerged as the answer, in some ways, is crypto. I remember probably about 2 1/2 years ago, I was like, “This is really emerging”—you know, fintech is becoming crypto.

I saw you completed a blockchain class at Wharton. What were some big takeaways?

I took the course when I first came into this role. Basically, I knew enough about crypto to be dangerous at the time, and I really wanted to find an immersive experience. It was a great program, with a group of other individuals, and we really learned from each other and pushed each other further and further.

So it was mostly financial professionals in the class?

They were there, but clearly there were also crypto natives kind of coming at it the other way, wanting to learn the financial side. And I think there were some attorneys. People’s different experiences blended together made the course that much richer.

How has this translated into helping clients? What trends are you seeing?

I’d say the demand was much higher on the crypto-native side nine months ago. The VC/private equity space was flush with capital going to crypto natives, and crypto natives were in the capital markets. So the stock markets were opening up, there was kind of this rush to, “Let’s get ready and go public.”

We were getting a lot of requests to help build controls, help make sure the accounting is right, help build infrastructure—then last fall that really dropped off a cliff. And not only did it drop off in what we saw in public markets, but funding froze. There is limited funding going into crypto right now, so more requests are coming from traditional financial institutions who are taking this opportunity to build out their own infrastructures. They’re building proprietary blockchain systems that they’re using within their own customer networks.

If I can give you a tangible illustration, Consensus, one of the big—if not the biggest—crypto conferences, was a couple of weeks ago in Austin. If you sat in a chair and watched people walk past you, the volume of sport coats this year versus last year was dramatically increased. That’s traditional money. That dynamic has changed quite a bit.

You’ve named one of the notable trends—traditional finance—that’s among PwC’s top five for the industry this year. After the FTX collapse and several other bankruptcies, is it fair to say we’re already seeing TradFi play a bigger role?

Yeah, right now the most prevalent is companies starting out with intercompany payments. They’ll start with, “Can we create a blockchain and digital payment mechanism for our own intercompany settlement processes?” In fact, we’re looking at that at PWC. Once we master that, and work the kinks out, then we’ll in turn take that to our customer network. And then once we master that, we can broaden it out and potentially go to a decentralized blockchain network.

Then, number two is on the custodial side—major investments in security, risk management, and working on how we can get to some sort of proof-of-reserves statement to validate to people that assets are safe.

So after mastering some of these concepts internally, you can then take them to customers?

More than that: We’ve implemented a new travel system with a provider using a blockchain. It’s a phased implementation, but we’ve begun, and the way it works will eliminate the need for employees to file expense reports. If I book a flight, then take the flight, it gets recorded on the blockchain. Now it’s known. It also goes to the airline. So we eliminate the need for employees to do expense reporting, and we eliminate the need for a separate payment structure to exist between us and the airline. We’re not going through a travel agent.

Going back for just a second to the five 2023 trends noted by PwC—we discussed the highlights of TradFi a bit—is there one of the five that perhaps isn’t quite where you thought it would be at this point?

I’d have to start with regulation. It’s not where I thought it would be. I say that, and I feel a little foolish, because I probably should have known we wouldn’t have made any headway with regulation. I’ve thought a lot about, “Is our lack of regulation hurting us?” 

When I really think about how the history of America has evolved, in any innovation cycle we’ve had, we have not had regulation—regulation usually lags. I actually think that fosters innovation. And while I know there’s a lot of people who want it—and I want it as well, as I think it’s creating some barriers for us—I think it also is a means to foster innovation.

Would getting one bill through Congress create some kind of snowball effect—other laws could follow more quickly?

No. Just watch the way Congress is working right now. There’s no snowballing of anything. I don’t think that would be the catalyst. It’s going to be a hard push, and Europe’s ahead of us at this point, Britain’s ahead of us, Singapore is.

What does that mean for the future of finance?

The large players that exist today in finance, I don’t see them being disintermediated. I see them adopting and innovating and acquiring and being part of the future of finance. There always are a handful of new players that really come to the forefront, but I think, by and large, the traditional big, big names are still gonna be there.

What I think is fascinating, and people don’t seem to be latching on to, is what we just went through. We went through a crypto wave, then this metaverse wave, and now we’re on to generative A.I. And there may be another thing after those things, but they’re going to start to converge. And the real future is a digital experience with digital assets as the exchange mechanism, accelerated by generative A.I. We’re living through it right now. We’re seeing a little of it. I don’t know about you, but I don’t carry a wallet very much anymore. I pay with my watch, my cell phone. We’re not that far away from completely digital assets. When I think of the future, there is no paper money. 

Is there anything else our readers should know about what PwC is doing in this space?

We’re starting to do some stuff that’s interesting with bringing together the ESG concepts and blockchain. We did a project to evaluate the carbon footprint of a particular blockchain, and we were actually able to show if you use it appropriately and integrate it with the company’s financial systems, with the systems you can eliminate, you’re net carbon negative. There’s been a big wave of “Crypto’s horrible because it’s using all this electricity,” but we’ve moved on from that.

From a social finance standpoint, how can we bank the unbanked? How can we get resources into the hands of people that can’t get financial resources without paying exorbitant fees? It can turn crypto from, you know, a “greedy thing” to a social good, and I want to be a part of that.

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