Wells Fargo Meets with Bitcoin Experts to 'Learn More'

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Wells Fargo (WFC) wants to get to know Bitcoin.

The nation's fourth-largest bank by assets convened a meeting in the Bay Area Tuesday with experts on the digital currency and payment system, and other systems like it, to obtain a better understanding.

"We had a gathering of internal and external experts and interested people to learn more about virtual currencies, including Bitcoin," says Mary Eshet, a spokeswoman for the $1.5 trillion-asset Wells Fargo.

"It's a new, evolving … currency," she says, "and since we have so much interest and invested in payment system we want to understand everything that's relevant about it."

The Financial Times reported earlier Tuesday that the meeting would take place.

Bitcoin, introduced five years ago by a pseudonymous programmer, has been the subject of much media attention and controversy over the last year, due in part to the highly volatile exchange rate between bitcoins and fiat currencies.

The virtual currency has acquired a sordid reputation due to its use in a now-shuttered online underground drug market and the ability to transact anonymously on the Bitcoin network. However, at Senate hearings in November, regulatory and law enforcement officials said they recognized Bitcoin has legitimate and innovative applications, and that physical cash remains a more effective way of laundering illicit money.

A number of venture capital firms have invested in Bitcoin startups, and recently Overstock.com became the largest retailer to accept the currency. Bitcoin is attractive to many independent online merchants because the fees for accepting payments are negligible and transactions cannot be unilaterally reversed, a risk of accepting credit cards. Bitcoin's decentralized nature — it has no central issuing authority or controlling entity — has made it popular among libertarians and others distrustful of governments and financial institutions, and its cryptographic security features have appealed to online privacy advocates.

Still, banks have been reluctant to do business with startups in the Bitcoin field because it is perceived to carry high anti-money laundering compliance risk, and many Bitcoin-related businesses have struggled to obtain or keep bank accounts.

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