Greeks rioted Wednesday night in Athens over parliament's approval of a financial bailout that will leave the nation saddled with several more years of financial austerity, but keep Greece in the European Union. Is there a better way to run an economy, or even just move money around?
Alternatives to a centralized banking system have been around for decades, but will we even need banks, euros or dollars in the future? Experts say that digital currencies like Bitcoin have a role, along with new technologies like blockchain (the "wallet" that holds bitcoins), and mobile currency exchange services or peer-to-peer lending that make moving and borrowing money easier (and cheaper).
There are even some experts who believe that Bitcoin isn't quite dead yet, despite the big bubble that enveloped the digital currency back in early 2014 and threatened to kill it.
"If you want to send $100 to Buenos Aires, it will cost you $10," said Nicolas Colas, chief market strategist with Convergex, a New York financial research firm. "With Bitcoin, it will cost 50 cents. The Bitcoin architecture is more efficient than currency. But is it a store of value? That remains to be seen."
Colas also sees emerging forms of consumer lending that take advantage of crowdsourcing technologies to make borrowing easier and cheaper. Online sites like The Lending Club match lenders and borrowers with loans up to $35,000. Google and Chinese e-seller Alibaba have both signed agreements to work with The Lending Club to fund small businesses that sell on their sites.
Other companies are trying to avoid banks and transfer money directly between customers. TransferWise, a financial startup based in London and Tallinn, Estonia, has become an alternative to moving money across borders through banks or Western Union. It uses algorithms that match up people in different nations, so money makes a "u-turn" of sorts that keeps exchange fees low.
"TransferWise is built by people who understand the Internet," said spokesman Joe Cross. "We are not bankers or financiers. We feel our product will save you money abroad. Our customers like how easy it is to use."
TransferWise allows its customers to move money in 50 countries, and has reached a $1 billion valuation since it started in 2011.
Some Bitcoin supporters have argued that Greece should have dumped the Euro in favor of a Bitcoin-based economy. They say it's a perfect time for a transition to a purely digital currency. The problem is that Greek leaders wouldn't be able to control the value of the Bitcoin any more than they could control the value of the euro, according to Dave Birch, director of innovation at Hyperion Consulting in London.
"The Greek problem is not that they don't have electronic money," Birch said. "The Greek problem is one of government debt."
Birch suggests a novel solution: Greece should issue an "e-drachma," which would allow the government to pay its salaries and pensions to government workers, while making tax evasion more difficult since electronic currency is tougher to hide than paper notes.
Birch notes that Ecuador is working to introduce a new electronic currency, while in Kenya, 80 percent of residents use mobile handsets for banking, making the nation ripe for such a e-currency system as well.
The electronic wallet that holds bitcoins is known as blockchain. Duke University's Campbell Harvey believes blockchain represents a secure way to transfer other items as well.
"Every financial institution in the world is working on this right now," said Harvey, who teachers a course on Bitcoin. "Blockchain is the future."
And banks? Their future lies in protecting security rather than currency, according to Birch.
"Banks will stop being place to store money," Birch said, "and start becoming a place to store your identity."