The U.S. Securities and Exchange commission has green-lighted an unprecedented plan by Overstock.com to issue company stock over the Internet using the technology behind Bitcoin, known as the blockchain, a decentralized ledger that allows value to be exchanged without a third party.
The SEC reportedly granted Overstock - one of the world's largest online retailers, with $1.3 billion a year in sales - an amended Form S-3, which would allow the company to issue securities using blockchain-based technology, according to WIRED.
The blockchain is essentially a huge publicly-available electronic ledger of transactions that runs across a global network of independent computers. Once a transaction is mathematically verified and recorded in the chain, it cannot be altered or deleted and is available for anyone to view at anytime. With bitcoin, the blockchain tracks the exchange of money, but it can also track the exchange of other stores of value such as stocks and bonds.
While Overstock has already used the blockchain to issue private bonds, which did not require regulatory approval, the company now intends to use the same technology to issue as much as $500 million in company stock through a subsidiary called tØ (T0.com), according to CoinDesk.
The company also plans to license the blockchain technology to other public companies, and Overstock CEO Patrick Bryne told Wired he believes it "can do for the capital market what the Internet has done for consumers."
Bryne, a libertarian with a doctorate in philosophy, did not say when the company will begin issuing public stocks using the blockchain, but he told Wired, "You can assume it's high on our list of priorities for 2016."
In January 2014, Overstock became one of the first large companies to accept bitcoin as payment for its products. And then, this summer, Bryne announced his plan to use blockchain technology to essentially create a transparent stock market outside of the control of Wall Street.
"I wish to provide the world a way to give Wall Street some payback in the form of a massive hot fudge high colonic that would be a cryptosecurity," he told Wired in a 2014 interview.
Last week, Bryne told Tabb Forum last week that the current markets "are extremely opaque. There are huge [price] spreads in it. It's kind of a dirty little secret how much money is made there."
Bryne says his new system makes it more difficult to "rig" the market and allows shares to be traded and settled near instantly, rather than the three days it takes on regular exchanges. It could also get rid of middle men and eliminate large amounts of illegal short-selling and cheating that occurs on the traditional stock market, according to Engadget.
"It can not only ensure that there's security in the transaction, but it provides a full record of ownership for things like corporate bonds and stocks," said Jeffrey Steiner, a lawyer with international firm Gibson Dunn. "It can increase transparency, reduce costs, and remove the middleman - in this case remove a [traditional] exchange or a broker."
Overstock has spent at least $3.2 million on the blockchain technology, according to its latest quarterly reports released in November.
At least two other companies have begun experimenting with blockchain technology in the financial markets. Nasdaq OMX, which supports the Nasdaq stock exchange, is developing a blockchain system to oversee trades in private companies, and Digital Asset holdings is raising $35 million to issue its own cryptosecurities, according to the New York Business Journal.