For half a decade, Bank of America has quietly been preparing for a future in which the world of finance migrates to the blockchain.
Under tech and operations chief Cathy Bessant, the giant bank has accumulated the most patents for the technology of any financial services company, for inventions ranging from blockchain-powered ATMs to storage for cryptocurrency keys.
But Bessant now says she's grown doubtful that blockchain — the distributed ledger software behind cryptocurrencies like bitcoin — will amount to anything in the near term. Or possibly ever.
"What I am is open-minded," Bessant said recently in an interview at the bank's New York tower. "In my private scoreboard, in the closet, I am bearish."
Bessant is wading into the debate about the blockchain, whose proponents have claimed will be as significant as the internet. A blockchain is an encrypted database that runs on multiple computers, potentially cutting out the need for centralized authorities like banks or governments to settle transactions between parties.
Economist Nouriel Roubini has called it "the most overhyped" technology in history. Others have said that blockchain merely needs time to evolve and could eventually upend entire industries from finance to cloud computing and health care.
As the mania over cryptocurrencies died down in the past year amid a bear market, attention and dollars have funneled into blockchain start-ups. Venture capital firms poured $5.4 billion into blockchain start-ups last year, compared with $1.5 billion in 2017, according to Autonomous Research.