Despite its troubles, cryptocurrency use is growing in Minnesota

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Cryptocurrency, despite deep dives in value this year, has hit a point where it is being integrated into common financial interactions in Minnesota and across the country. You can buy clothes and food with it in some places, and Kwik Trip and Cub have traditional ATMs and new ones for crypto.

Home Depot, Whole Foods and Starbucks are among retailers that now accept crypto at checkout, said Vivian Fang, Honeywell professor of accounting at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. Payment platform and credit service company PayPal late last year introduced a crypto checkout option, and most services that use PayPal now let shoppers pay for their items with crypto.

“That opens up the options to over 2 million online merchants in the U.S.,” Fang said.

In the simplest terms, cryptocurrency is unregulated digital money, which is usually named by the company offering it such as the most popular form called Bitcoin. You buy a certain amount and your transaction is recorded in a digital ledger, which down the line is used to make sure you have enough of a balance to cover your transaction.

Bitcoin spending by consumers is moving toward large value purchases in categories like real estate, investment, travel, digital goods and gaming sectors, as well as charitable donations, said Josh Held, head of strategy at OpenNode, a Los Angeles-based Bitcoin payments platform that helps companies in more than 125 countries add Bitcoin to their payment stack.

“On the business side, we’re seeing demand from many types of businesses and merchants who are looking for instant, reliable, lowest cost payments,” Held said via e-mail. “In some cases these are businesses that need bitcoin, want bitcoin, or are curious about the new technology that optimizes the transfer of value. On the payments side, luxury goods purchases with Bitcoin continue to grow as well as any type of purchase enabled through e-commerce solutions like Shopify.”

Financial institutions say they have seen an uptick in investments in digital currency and use for foreign transactions. There also are a growing number of small companies financing through crypto.

Immigrants also have been increasingly using it to send money to relatives in their home countries, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The downside is that cryptocurrency is still unregulated, so it’s a buyer beware system. The consumer must research whether a company is viable and ethically run.

For example, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is investigating Coinbase Global for trading digital assets that should be registered as securities. The SEC also sued one of the company’s managers and two others for insider trading, Bloomberg reported last week.

Celsius Network, which promoted itself as serving the function of a bank without all the hassles, filed for bankruptcy protection.

Crypto’s fast immersion into mainstream payment systems has led lawmakers to believe it must be regulated. The U.S. government and individual state agencies are trying to get a handle on the fast-growing digital asset segment with regulations and monitoring illegalities.

Under a legislative bill called the Responsible Financial Innovation Act, elected officials are trying to regulate cryptocurrencies in the U.S. The bill, introduced in early June and not yet passed by the House or Senate, would implemented taxation of digital assets and decentralize autonomous organizations that may execute blockchain-based contracts, among other things.

Minnesota officials have taken a stance on enforcing the law against crypto-based firms that fail to comply with state law. Earlier this year, the Minnesota Department of Commerce joined 31 states and the SEC in a $100 million settlement with crypto fintech BlockFi for sales of unregistered securities. As a result of the settlement, the state will receive more than $940,000 that will go to the state’s general fund.

Raising capital and transferring funds are a portion of crypto’s overall value, though. Growing wealth by investing in crypto assets is where most people find it useful, and financial advisory institutions like Charles Schwab offer investment opportunities in coin trusts, Bitcoin futures and stocks for clients interested in crypto for trading purposes outside their traditional portfolio.

Over $2 trillion was lost as cryptocurrency values nosedived this spring, mostly due to inflation, high interest rates and instability of the digital coins. And while many of the companies have since recovered some in the markets, some analysts have pointed to the volatility as a reason not to engage in the digital currency.

But others liken it to the dot-com burst in the late 1990s, which in the end strengthened many companies that survived.

“This is the third or fourth crypto cycle we’ve been through,” said Chris McAlary, founder and chief executive of Coin Cloud, which operates digital currency machines similar to ATMs. “We’ve ridden out these cycles before.”

And in the background with crypto, many finance companies that don’t want to miss out on a possible market are maneuvering to equip themselves to handle the digital coins. For example, the Wall Street Journal reported that big credit card companies Visa and MasterCard are preparing to engage with it.

Las Vegas-based Coin Cloud about a year ago made a deal with Cub Foods parent United Natural Foods Inc. to put the machines in 500 of its locations. The partnership could grow to 4,000 spots, making it one of the largest retail relationships for Coin Cloud. Right now, 159 Coin Cloud kiosks are in Minnesota, with 105 inside UNFI-owned groceries.

Coin Cloud also has kiosks in Lewis Drug locations in South Dakota and the Williston Basin International Airport in North Dakota, McAlary said.

McAlary intentionally sought partnerships with brick-and-mortar retailers because they receive high levels of foot traffic. It’s also where customers are most likely using cash.

“They are a place of people’s daily routine,” McAlary said.

Earlier this year, La Crosse, Wis.-based gas station and convenient store operator Kwik Trip — which has over 800 locations in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa — announced a partnership with Bitcoin ATM operator Coinsource. Texas-based Coinsource’s kiosks are in 2,500 locations in 46 states.

Twin Cities entrepreneur Chad Capp is currently trying to figure out technology for people to pay gym memberships with crypto, maybe even launching his own brand. Capp is the co-founder and president of HelloGym, an Osseo company that developed software to manage gym operations and now works with over 800 gyms.

“With our gym membership management software, we want to be cutting edge, and we felt that this is a way to incorporate something a little different,” Capp said, adding the branded crypto could then serve as a driving factor for rewards programs.

Small entities also have found digital currencies allow for successful crowdfunding campaigns. That trend will seemingly grow in the coming years. Kickstarter, the popular New York-based crowdfunding platform, said late last year it was developing a sister company that will live on blockchain, the cryptic data-storing technology used for crypto.

Supplying a way for people to convert cash to crypto to make payments or transfer funds to another person has become a lucrative opportunity for companies. Cash App, the digital money transfer application owned by Block Inc., allowed users to send and receive Bitcoin starting in 2018.

So far, more than 10 million Cash App accounts have bought Bitcoin, the company recently reported. The company also added a new direct deposit feature that allows users to have a percentage of their direct deposit automatically converted to Bitcoin for free.

Using PayPal or Cash App still involves most users attaching a bank account. Meanwhile, most crypto exchanges and crypto wallet operators don’t require a bank account for use, making it an attractive alternative for millions of people who don’t have a traditional banking and credit account, Fang said. Per the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., an independent agency created by Congress, an estimated 5.4% of U.S. households in 2019, equivalent to 7.1 million people, were without a checking or savings account that year.

As a result, cryptocurrency is becoming more widely used among minorities in the low-income bracket who see barriers with traditional financial products, Fang said. According to the Pew Research Center, Asian, Black and Hispanic adults are more likely than white adults to say they have ever invested in, traded or used cryptocurrency.

Accessibility, not affordability, is the main obstacle holding most people back from using crypto, Fang said.

“There’s no hurdle when it comes to crypto,” Fang said. “You don’t need a decent credit score.”