Blockchain and Corona virus: could it prevent future pandemics?

| 31-03-2020 | Carlo de Meijer | treasuryXL

The sudden emergence and rapid but uncontrolled worldwide spread of the Corona virus shows us the failure of existing healthcare surveillance systems to timely handle public health emergencies.

Though improvements in healthcare surveillance have been realised, these still fall short in preventing pandemonium. Lack of necessary steps taken to ensure containment and tracking of the virus have aggravated the situation.

Blockchain technology is increasingly been mentioned as a tool to assist with various aspects of containing the outbreak. Could the use of blockchain in the health care industry help to prevent future pandemics?

Outdated health surveillance systems

Preventing, and controlling diseases that have epidemic potential is a major public health activity. Many surveillance systems are used to track potential new diseases and control existing diseases. Though governments are doing everything in their power to contain the spread of the Corona virus, their fight is hampered by difficulties in the timely sharing of information with local and international health enforcement agencies on the ground.

Unfortunately, many of these systems are outdated, hard to access, or inaccurate. China’s current disease surveillance system for instance is an updated version of a system that is five decades old. And there is the privacy and security issue when using centralised healthcare surveillance systems. Time however is of the essence when dealing with outbreaks of this sort of deadly diseases.

Main issues

Epidemiologists who study how diseases spread, are being faced with the task of gathering, verifying and cleaning data in an efficient manner.

Privacy and security issues, language barriers, the sheer distance between the geographical location of an outbreak, cultural differences, and many other factors are issues that slow the transmission and exchange of necessary information.

Non-optimal data management
There is the data management issue. Containing the Corona virus could come down to a question of data management. Gathering data, verifying that data, and then cleaning up that data however is far from optimal. Epidemiologists need high-quality data to model viruses; with models, they can provide governments with recommendations about how to contain the disease. But that data is hard to get or its integrity cannot be verified, thus of no use to epidemiologists.

Underreporting
As a result of that the current infection and death statistics are speculated to be much higher than reported. The coronavirus outbreak has raised concerns over the Chinese government underreporting the number of infected and deceased. This underreporting can be caused by many disruptions in the system, such as the lack of data transparency.

But also a shortage of testing kits reduces the number of confirmed cases, and deaths can be attributed to other causes. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know just how serious this outbreak really is without access to a secure, decentralized surveillance system.

Political Complications
And there is the issue of national centralised surveillance systems not talking cross-border. Diseases can spread quickly across political borders. Traditional systems run by governments can miss outbreaks because they happen across physical borders. A decentralized system is the fastest way to report outbreaks.

Lack of innovation in healthcare systems
In many countries healthcare surveillance systems lack innovations, caused by low investments in new technologies leading to less effective healthcare systems. This notwithstanding the upcoming of new technologies including artificial intelligence, big data management and blockchain.

Blockchain could be of help

The time to build borderless solutions based on decentralized technologies has come. Highlighting the need for numerous improvements in the health care sector, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology issued a Shared Nationwide Interoperability Roadmap requesting ubiquitous, secure network infrastructure; verifiable identity and authentication of all participants; and consistent representation of authorization to access electronic health information.

Hereblockchain could offer ways to improve many public health activities associated with preventing and controlling diseases. Blockchain powered solutions could address and tackle various aspects of the issue. Blockchain technology has the ability to improve health, access to information, supply chains and many more.

These expectations are based on the key aspects of blockchain technology, such as decentralized management, immutable audit trails, data provenance, and robustness. Additionally, multiple nodes in a permissioned blockchain have the ability to share and report vital data instantly, while complying with data privacy and security regulation

Blockchain use cases

Blockchain could be used to improve a variety of health care-related processes, including record management, healthcare surveillance, tracking disease outbreaks, management crisis situations and many more.

Record management: single source of information
Containing virus should be looked at as a data management issue. The biggest opportunity for blockchain in the healthcare industry is as a single source of truth for the data provenance, as the whole world is fighting against this outbreak. It could be used for record management purposes, to manage real-time data and importantly, to ensure its integrity, while identifying and eliminate misinformation about the Corona virus.

In emergencies like these, there are high numbers of incoming data, “with not many hands on deck to manage the same”. With the use of blockchain, data collection will become automated and immutability of the ledger makes it impossible to alter any of the records.

By using blockchain technology one could be able to securely manage health records, ensuring interoperability without compromising patient privacy and security. Those records could include patients’ data, treatments given, and any progress detected. Blockchain will also make sure that data are archived and protected by any unauthorised access, but still keeping it available for the whole healthcare system.

It will enable users to see all the data and trends on the virus in real-time including all information about confirmed cases of infected, death toll, recoveries, etc. The exponential growth of connectivity and the access to the wealth of data it offers  would allow health officials to quickly track the spread of disease, giving vulnerable populations vital information. All this information can be used by research labs working on a vaccine.

Blockchain healthcare surveillance system
Blockchain can also be used for surveillance purposes. A blockchain healthcare surveillance system can provide the means to prevent and control future outbreaks. A permissioned blockchain surveillance system would allow local and national health agencies to access the surveillance data.

A global blockchain surveillance system could easily reach areas where connectivity is poor, and costs must be kept low. Local practitioners can receive real-time information on surrounding areas, regardless of governmental or political barriers. In addition, global organizations like the World Health Organization could access the data. Because the system is decentralized and secured through blockchain, data remains secure and multiple organizations can report the data.

Tracking infectious disease outbreaks
Blockchain could be used for tracking public health data surveillance, particularly for infectious disease outbreaks. Increasing transparency will result in more accurate reporting and more efficient responses. They would allow for rapid processing of data, enabling early detection of infections before they spread to the level of epidemics.

Blockchain can help develop treatments swiftly, and help with management when pandemics do occur. This could enable government agencies keep track the virus activity, of patients, suspected new cases, and more.

They could also use the blockchain to track down where the virus originated, probably It could enable doctors to review patients’ symptoms and monitor diagnostic data in real time, integrating patient history information. Information can be collected in a distributed way and have that information available to different parties, including authorities such as the WHO.

Management crisis situations
Blockchain technology can not only help in keeping track of the virus and outbreak activity. Blockchain could also be used to better manage pandemic situations and the dissemination of treatment. It could instantly alert the public about the Corona virus by global institutes like the World Health Organization.

It could instantly recommend a course of activity should an outbreak be detected. Using blockchain could enable to provide governments with recommendations about how to contain the virus. It would offer a platform where governments, medical professionals, health organizations, media, and all the concerned parties can update each other of the situation and prevent worsening of the same.

Securing medical supply chains
The blockchain could also be used for “track and tracing” of medical supply chains. Blockchain has already proven its success as a supply chain management tool in other industries. Blockchain-based platforms could be used to enable the review, recording and tracking of demand, supplies and logistics of epidemic prevention materials. As supply chains involve multiple parties (from donors and recipients, to warehousing and delivery logistics), the entire process of record and verification by each party is tamper-proof, while also allowing anyone to track the process.

It could help streamline medical supply-chains, ensuring that doctors and patients have access to the tools when they need them and preventing contaminated items from reaching stores. A blockchain-based system could ensure vaccines, testing equipment, and other relief efforts are sent to the right places at the right times and in the quantities needed, and have that recorded. Securing the supply chains of these valuable resources could have life-saving effects. Combined with a surveillance system, a blockchain supply management system could change the way the world responds to epidemics.

Prevent zoonotic diseases
Zoonotic diseases like Corona could be caught in animals before they make the jump to humans if veterinary field records were kept on a blockchain surveillance system. Because many animals are migratory – so not staying in the same area – a decentralized blockchain system would allow for greater collaboration and transparency across the world. Diseases could be “flagged” and eliminated in animal populations before they make the jump to humans.

China and blockchain

Chinese organizations are trying to implement blockchain-based solutions to combat the Corona virus and reduce its economic impact on the country. They have rolled out a number of applications for immediate and emergency use, to fight the spread of the corona virus in public institutions, hospitals, universities and the financial sector. These are touted as performing a variety of different functions.

These blockchain solutions are already being used by local authorities to manage identity information and donation platforms. Additionally, multiple countries world-wide are employing blockchain-based tools to track patients diagnosed with coronavirus and identify the people who might have been infected. The apps are designed to ensure people’s privacy, identity, and medical records using the blockchain against Corona virus and other medical conditions.

HashLog
One of the interesting applications is HashLog, a solution launched by Acoer, a developer of blockchain-enabled applications for public health and global health organizations, to fight against the deadly coronavirus.

The HashLog visualisation engine interacts in real-time with Hedera Hashgraph’s distributed ledger technology to ensure real-time logging and data visualization of the spread of the disease. With the help of public data from the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), Acoer’s Hashlog Dashboard is capable of providing real-time information for tracking this epidemic. For example, this application is tracing people traveling to and from the country, to pinpoint patients and prevent further infections.

HashLog allows for the real-time visualization of coronavirus data and trends. This includes the overall number of cases globally, rates of deaths and recovery per infections (where we have reliable data), cases filtered by country, as well as Google trends by interest and region on Corona virus.” Acoer’s CEO, Jim Nasr

This should help epidemiologists verify the integrity of records that have been uploaded to their analytics systems. Each transaction is recorded through a verified hash reference on Hedera’s ledger, meaning epidemiologists can trust data to be legitimate. This allows researchers, scientists and journalists to understand the spread of the coronavirus and its trends over time through visuals presented on Acoer’s HashLog dashboard.

IBM Food Trust
This is not the first time blockchain is being applied to track diseases. There have already been a number of initiatives using blockchain and distributed ledger technology to track the origins of food, for example. The IBM Food Trust has been using blockchain to help improve food safety by managing and conducting food tracings in order to identify sources of contamination for occurrences of Salmonella. By being able to identify the cause quickly and effectively, it is much easier to contain the problem and treat it at the source.

Blockchain preventing pandemics: not yet?

Presently, the authorities all over the world are trying their best to contain the Corona virus as it has shown the potential of turning into a pandemic. And that is where blockchain can help. We have seen that disease outbreaks can happen at any time, anywhere on the planet, with little or no warning. These are natural events that have occurred in the past and will re-occur in the future.

Blockchain will not prevent the emergence of new viruses itself. But what blockchain can do is create the first line of rapid defense through a network of connected devices whose only purpose is to remain alert about disease outbreaks. The use of blockchain can help prevent pandemics by enabling early detection of epidemics, fast-tracking drug trials, and impact management of outbreaks and treatment.

With easy access to such data, the containment of an outbreak becomes manageable and is of great help to the health authorities as well. This instant response capability can represent the difference between quick containment and global contagion.

While blockchain holds promise for the health industry, analyst warn a number of issues, including data standardisation, costs of operation and regulatory considerations, still need to be addressed before this technology is suitable for wide adoption. But with this serious Corona virus pandemic a number of these considerations could be solved rather quickly.

 

Carlo de Meijer

Economist and researcher

 

Blockchain consortia need good governance: but how?

| 24-03-2020 | Carlo de Meijer | treasuryXL

Blockchain consortia are creating a massive hype in the market. Many enterprises are highly interested in this type of network willing to join these consortia in order to gain optimal benefits of this technology. However, there is still a large uncertainty among them how these consortia work and how they are governed.  Up till recently the focus was mainly on governance solutions for public blockchain platforms like Hyperledger and Ethereum. Consortium blockchain governance however will become as or even more important to enterprises than public blockchain governance because they will work with this level of governance on a daily basis.

People in the field are increasingly aware that consortium project blockchain governance need to address quite different issues from public blockchains. But what are the main governance issues enterprises should think about ? So let’s take a deeper dive.

What are blockchain consortia?

Before going into more detail in the governance issue, it is good to say that there is no universal sort of blockchain governance. First of it all it depends on the type of blockchain solution that companies can use. Here we can distinct in fact between three main types of blockchain systems: open or public, private or permissioned and consortium or federated blockchains. While the public and private variant are ‘pretty self-explanatory’, the consortium blockchain needs more nuancing.

Blockchain consortia are defined as a type of network where multiple organisations maintain the system  A group of companies thereby collaborate on advancing the state of blockchain technology adoption in the industry, establishing industry standards, drafting use cases, developing key infrastructure and also operating commercial blockchain platforms.

Consortium blockchains are in fact hybrid solutions, in-between public and private, i.e. between fully open, decentralized systems and fully centrally-controlled, thus taking the best of both worlds.  Instead of only one organization, multiple organizations take part in the consortium. As a result, every organization gets similar treatment. So, there’s no single entity ruling over the network.

Types of blockchain consortia

There is however not one uniform type of blockchain consortium. Basically we can distinct between three types at present: technology-focused, business-focused and dual-focused.

The first type of blockchain consortia is the technology-focused. These offer reusable blockchain platforms, solutions based on technical standards. Mainly these have multipurpose use cases. This type of blockchain consortium exists solely for the purpose of helping blockchain reach global recognition. Quorum (based on Ethereum), R3 Corda and Hyperledger have emerged as some of the most popular blockchain development platforms. Each is suited to different industries and types of solutions, and developers are working with them around the world.

The second type is pure business-focused. These tend to develop blockchain solutions for a specific business issue. Instead of offering open-source platforms, many of them go for commercial purposes only. While the majority of these consortia so far are from the financial sector, many other industries like supply finance, trade finance, life science, healthcare etc. are joining in to work on blockchain-based systems and reap such benefits as shared resources, decreased development time and increased communication. Examples include consortia like  Bankchain, We.Trade, Marco Polo, B3i etc.

The third one is dual-focused. Here, they focus on both technology and business when offering a platform or solution, combining the best of both worlds. So, in a way, they would offer an open-source platform suitable for any kind of solution but also commercial products as well.  An example of dual-focused consortium is R3.

In this blog I will focus mainly on the second and third type with from a blockchain governance point-of-view the dual-focused blockchain consortium being the most interesting.

Benefits of blockchain consortia

Joining such a blockchain consortium could bring enterprises a number of interesting benefits, including cost savings, shared (and lower) risks, build critical mass of adoption and offer influencing standards.

First of all such a blockchain industry consortium would help enterprises cut all the expenses quite impressively. Instead of each company building their own solution from scratch, by being part of a consortium, they can share the development costs and time with other organisations.

As these consortia are mainly suited for industrial purposes, enterprises can easily link these up with their existing network more efficiently than public or private blockchain. This can lead to shorter development times and economies of scale. This allows smaller organisations to take advantage of the same system as larger ones. Another significant aspect of this blockchain industry consortium is that they can give a lower transactional fee. As it is a more controlled environment, and only permissioned people can get in, it would be much more stable.

What is blockchain governance?

But what is governance in general and why is it important?  The term ‘governance’ is used in many ways. In the business environment it is often defined in the context of process and IT control. Governance is thereby a structure that every user or participant agrees to follow. It refers to all actions such as decision-making processes that are involved in creating, updating, and abandoning formal and informal rules of a system.

In the context of blockchain consortia we define governance as a set of rules that govern this partnership both organisational and operational. These rules focus on what is the subject of the regulation, who is involved, i.e. what are the roles and what are they responsible for, and, how will decisions be made? These rules can be code (e.g. smart contracts), laws (e.g. fees for malign actors), processes (what must be done when X happens), or responsibilities (who must do what).

Why is proper governance important for blockchain consortia?

One of the aims of governance is to establish a foundation of mutual trust, which allows companies to carry out their business processes using the blockchain solution. Its core purpose is to meet the user or participant’s needs with available resources as efficiently as possible and achieve the long-term sustainability of the structure. There are various reasons why good governance for blockchain consortia is urgently needed.

First of all: from an acceptance point of view.
As the size and complexity of blockchain have grown, better management calls for proper governance. Since the strategic value of the blockchain networks lies in its scaling, it is important to consider that an increasing network size correlates positively with an increase in coordination complexity. Hence, for the few high-potential applications in trade finance, insurance, supply chain and mobility services a proper establishment of sustainable governance principles for the deployment of a blockchain consortium is key.

Second: no one party can exert dominant control
Consortium blockchains have many of the same benefits of private blockchains. But there is something more. That is they could employ a group governance model over their network so no one party can exert dominant control over the others. This increases the trust of a consortium network significantly over a single entity private blockchain, while still maintaining the benefits of a private blockchain. Additionally, consortium blockchains are not restricted to only being visible to network members. Their transactions can be openly seen by the public, engendering increased trust.

Third: to solve the Coopetition Paradox
The strategic value of blockchain technology can only be realised through the respective adoption at scale. These blockchain consortia are thereby effectively obliged to address the so-called Coopetition Paradox through collaboration between natural competitors in a particular industry. The Coopetition Paradox forces blockchain consortia to break up fierce competition between industry rivals in order to access the strategic value of such a business network. Obviously, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this topic.

Fourth: as a mean to achieve efficient change
The biggest motivation behind Blockchain governance for blockchain consortia is the goal of efficient change. That means the ability to fix issues as fast as possible and change where change is needed. These issues can be of all kinds, including changes to blockchain parameters, the recovery of lost coins due to hacks.

Governance is especially needed in blockchains with enterprise or end-user use cases. Quick updates could enable enterprise and mass market end-user use cases.
An update/change that takes too much time could cause corporates to abandon the service or not participate in the consortium. Changes could also divide the community and lead to even more uncertainty and hesitation to participate. Conceptually, this is where centralized applications are advantageous.

Fifth: governance mitigates indirect dependence on incumbents
Another motivation to use blockchain governance in blockchain consortia is that it could mitigate indirect dependence on incumbents, such as the likes of Facebook, Amazon, Google that determine their own rules, such as the publicly criticized use of personal date. Publicly accessible and governable blockchains could mitigate that indirect dependence. Everybody who is interested in how those systems are set up, could purchase the respective tokens and suggest changes including changes in regards to how personal data is handled.

Sixth: Governance as a competitive advantage
A sixth but not final motivation is that it could improve competition. Given the fact that most blockchain projects are open-source, copying them is a waste of effort. Thus, the biggest competitive advantages for blockchain projects stem from the community’s size and speed of adaption. The more supporters a project has and the quicker the developers can react to issues and competitors, the greater the chances of survival.

What governance model for blockchain consortia?

Governance in blockchain consortia is quite different from that in pure public or private blockchains. A private blockchain is mostly controlled by normal IT governance, while the issue of specific blockchain governance only applies to open and permissioned platforms

Before enterprises can develop governance of the blockchain consortium, they first need to determine the business goals and business model of the blockchain project. So will the blockchain project operate as a service provider (so no direct customer contact) with a relatively limited number of participants, or will it act as a market participant, directly reaching the ultimate customer. The business model may also be affected by regulatory issues in the business.

Key factors to consider
When starting a blockchain consortium it is important to agree on a number of rules right at the outset, such as access to the platform and rules to perform activities. In the context of a permissioned blockchain solution used by a consortium business partner network, there remains the question of what exactly it is important to control.

In order to ensure the reliability, integrity and transparency of the solution, one needs to consider more than just goal-oriented governance issues (such as changes to data structure, codes and technology). One should also define the various stakeholders and their specific roles, as well as assess how to control the ecosystem. But also what entity should represent the blockchain consortium and what legal issues to consider

One should at least agree on a number of questions
There is no best practice here, so there are many open questions and a lot of unknown territory, such as who can decide what, and when?, how should decisions be made? (using people and committees, or using smart contracts?), which data should be visible to whom and what is allowed, what is not allowed, and what do people want?

Governance structure: issues
When thinking about the governance structure, one should address some main  issues. First of all one should ensure that all stakeholder groups in the blockchain eco-system are represented. One should also focus on implementation of the business model for the blockchain consortium (B2B or B2C). While determining intellectual property ownership and licensing as well as how to raise and spend funds to support the blockchain project

Shared values
The governance system should be based on a number of shared values. First of all there should be no dominance by a single player: i.e. as decentralised as possible.
The partnership and the distribution / exercise of power should be governed by rules. It should be an open value-added chain: i.e. – intellectual property is available to the consortium and can be exploited by its members. Relating to collaboration between companies, the process and data standards for the consortium should be defined together and used. And it should be a neutral platform, meaning that  the solution should be ‘open’ whereby all members should have access to the process, data and interface definitions.

Blockchain consortium governance architecture

Governance of blockchain consortia should be looked at on various layers. business network; protocol level and data level.

Business network layer
One of the key challenges of forming a blockchain consortia is balancing the interests of the initiators and the later-joiners. One should take account of the early investments made by the initiators as well as the incentivisation needs for later-joiners of blockchain consortia. This becomes even more crucial if the initiators are industry leaders or key competitors. In such cases, the coopetition paradox urges the operators of the business network to open up towards competitors to materialise the strategic value of the network for all contributors.

A centralized legal entity for the business network, a so-called network operating company governed by open governance principles is the preferred standard. The network operating company would be in charge for the development, administration and commercialisation of the blockchain application. This central entity approach enhances transparency within the business network and compliance with respective laws especially in the field of anti-trust and data protection. However, not every network member has similar interests. Some like to assume a more active role in the management and technical deployment of the network while others just simply want to use the blockchain application as a service through an API-access.

The organisational governance must account for the interests of both the equity holders and the community. The equity holders of the network operating company would elect the members of the board of directors representing their respective interests. The board itself appoints an executive management team in charge of the day-to-day operations of the business network and thereby the platform.

Non-equity holding customers should be given a voice by establishing a so-called community council. This body can be approached for consultation in case of key product development issues, changes to membership admission policies or protocol and data privacy related matters.

In order to ensure maximum reach and acceptance within the ecosystem, the platform should be open-sourced to the community. This means that basic access to the platform is granted for free, provided that the node operation is handled by the respective member. Next to that a tailor-made subscription-based API-access model could be offered.


Protocol layer
The initial protocol layer is normally defined by the initiators of the business network during the assessment undertaken in the proof-of-concept. In general, the framework used should be based on an open-source standard (such as Hyperledger Fabric, R3 Corda or Ethereum). This would facilitate the integration into legacy systems for the users. Furthermore, the above-mentioned blockchain frameworks also enjoy prominent support by companies operating in the ecosystem. Moreover, in case changes to the protocol become necessary, the network operating company can consult the community council for consent prior to its implementation.

Data layer
And there is the data layer. The blockchain application should be built upon the principle of privacy by design. That means that any data should only belong to its original owner and can only be transacted in agreement with the data owner. Moreover, the network operating company should act as the data controller and data processor in line with the applicable data protection laws, while the data storage would ideally be decentralised (e.g. point-to-point communication or IPFS), although the relevant solutions need to mature further.

Some concluding remarks

What has been written in this blog is just a starter. Blockchain governance is an ongoing discussion and will certainly involve a wide range of different opinions. There is no best-practice. Solutions described here for blockchain consortia governance are still far from complete.

The challenges of governance in blockchain consortia are very similar to those solved (and continuing to be solved) by open source software (OSS) projects, such as Linux and OpenStack. Blockchain project consortia should therefore look to the experience of OSS projects to take advantage of their experience (and avoid their errors).

 

Carlo de Meijer

Economist and researcher

 

Remaining challenges of blockchain adoption and possible solutions

| 06-03-2020 | Carlo de Meijer | treasuryXL

A growing number of companies have expressed their will to enter the blockchain arena. But after some number of years in which their focus was mainly on the benefits of blockchain in various areas, in terms of speed, costs, streamline operations and increased efficiency, their attention is now turned to the various challenges and bottlenecks that are preventing widespread adoption. In this blog I will go into more detail in these bottlenecks and how the industry is trying to tackle these.

Main challenges

First of all there is a reputation challenge. Blockchain is still very much connected to the crypto world in the mind of many. And that is seen as a world of bad actors, hackers, frauds and speculators.

But more important are the technical ones such as immaturity (still slow and cumbersome), lack of scalability, lack of interoperability, stand-alone projects, difficult integration with legacy systems, complexity and lack of blockchain talent.

What to think about the organisational challenges at corporates like lack of good governance, lack of awareness and understanding, lack of user experience and education, the attitude of incumbents, or the security and privacy challenges, including lack of regulation. And there is the productivity paradox.

And finally, but not unimportant other challenges such as culture, energy consumption/environmental cost.

Blockchain has an image problem

Blockchain has an image problem. Blockchain is too much linked with cryptocurrencies in the mind of many. Especially crypto has a negative image that is surrounded by fraudsters, hackers that are using he technology for criminal activities. This bad name is reflecting on the blockchain technology system as whole and is making people seriously think twice before adopting it.

Before the general adoption is possible, members of the public must understand the difference between bitcoins, other crypto-currencies, and blockchain. One should understand that cryptocurrencies are only one application of blockchain technology amongst many others. This will help to eliminate the sometimes negative implications and may result in an increased willingness to use the technology. In the meantime a growing number of collaborative initiatives in the blockchain world in various industries have come up to bring wider change. This sort of interdependence may be the key to moving forward.

Corporates are afraid of the disruptive character of blockchain

There are organisations that do not like the idea of blockchain and its disruptive character. For some it is a nightmare thinking they will lose market share or will even become obsolete.

Blockchain is about 80 per cent business process change and 20 per cent technology implementation. It represents a total shift away from the traditional ways of doing things. This even goes for industries that have already seen significant transformation from digital technologies.

It places trust and authority in a decentralised network rather than in a powerful central institution. And for most, this loss of control can be deeply unsettling.

It is still uncertain who will be most affected by blockchain implementations and which areas of the business are likely to be most disrupted. So, a more ‘imaginative’ approach is needed to understand opportunities and also how things will change.

And there are the vested interest of incumbent parties

Existing regulation represents by far the most significant hurdle for blockchain innovators, as ‘existing regulations favour incumbents and their vested interest over disruptors’. The digitisation (of information) process is taking place in a so-called regulatory “heavy” zone. That is not that strange given the long-established authority of governments to protect consumer and property rights.

Blockchain presents new challenges to regulators looking to protect consumers and markets, but the rigidity with which regulators in the world’s major economies have approached blockchain has served to stifle innovation and growth.

But that view is also changing and as soon as also governments and other public organisations are seeing the benefits of this technology and develop a regulatory model that encourages innovation while protecting consumers that might be an eye opener for others.

Blockchain is still an immature technology

Beyond the above described challenges, blockchain faces a number of implementation challenges, that has all to do with the still immature technology.

  • Lack of scalability

One major technology challenge of blockchain is related to the technical scalability of the network which can put a strain on the adoption process, especially for public blockchains.

Legacy transaction networks are known for their ability to process thousands of transactions per second. Visa, for example, is capable of processing more than 2000 transactions per second. The two largest blockchain networks, Bitcoin and Ethereum however are far behind when it comes to transaction speeds. While the Bitcoin blockchain can process three to seven transactions per second, Ethereum can handle approximately 20 transactions in a second.

This lack of scalability is not such an issue for private blockchain networks, since the nodes in the network are purposely designed to process transactions in an environment of trusted parties, which makes sense business-wise.

There are some interesting solutions upcoming to tackle the scalability issue. Such as s the Lightning Network, which consists of adding a second layer to the main blockchain network in order to facilitate faster transactions. Another interesting solution is Sharding that groups subsets of nodes into smaller networks or ‘shards’ which are then responsible for the transactions specific to their shard. When offered in conjunction with the proof-of-stake consensus mechanism, has the potential to scale up the application.

  • Lack of standardisation: limited interoperability

Another main challenge is the lack of interoperability between the large number of blockchain networks. Over 6,500 projects are leveraging a variety of – mostly standalone – blockchain platforms and solutions with different protocols, coding languages, consensus mechanisms, and privacy measures.

The problem is that with so many different networks, the blockchain space is in a ‘state of disarray’ due to a lack of universal standards that would allow different networks to communicate with each other.

The lack of such uniformity across blockchain protocols also takes away consistency from basic processes like security, making mass adoption an almost impossible task.

The establishment of industry-wide standards with regard to various blockchain protocols could help enterprises collaborate on application development, validate proofs of concept, and share blockchain solutions as well as making it easier to integrate with existing systems.

There are now various projects that offer interoperability among different blockchain networks, such as Ark which uses SmartBridges architecture to address this challenge, and claims to provide universal interoperability, plus cross-blockchain communication and transfers. Another example is Cosmos, which uses the Interblockchain Communication (IBC) protocol to enable blockchain economies to operate outside silos, and transfer files between each other.

  • Integration with legacy systems

And there is the challenge for corporates of how to integrate blockchain with their legacy system(s). In most cases, if they decide to use blockchain, organization are required to completely restructure their previous system, or design a way to successfully integrate the two technologies.

One problem is that due to the lack of skilled developers, organizations do not have access to the necessary pool of blockchain talent  to engage in this process. Reliance on an external party can soften this problem. But most solutions present on the market require the organization to invest a significant amount of time and resources to complete the transition.

And there are the high incidences of data loss and breach that are discouraging most companies from transitioning to blockchain. Every enterprise is reserved and unwilling to make changes to its database, and for good reasons, as data loss or data corruption constitute major risks.

Recently, new solutions emerged which enable legacy systems to connect to a blockchain backend. One such solution is Modex Blockchain Database, a product designed to help people without a background in technology, access the benefits of blockchain technology and remove the dangers posed by the loss of sensitive data.

  • Lack of blockchain developers

While the demand for qualified blockchain staff is increasing dramatically, the blockchain landscape suffers an acute  shortage of an adequately trained and skilled /qualified people  for developing and managing the complexity of peer-to-peer networks. Blockchain technology however demands additional qualification and know-how.

According to some, the demand for blockchain-related jobs has increased by almost 2000% between 2017 and 2020. Having a sufficient pool of qualified developers is a top industry concern.

Blockchain technology is still in its infancy and is still evolving. It requires time for the developer community to adopt it, and for educational institutions to introduce relevant blockchain-related courses. Though this will alleviate the market demand, the results however will become palpable only after students will finish their training and that will take some time. .

  • Blockchains can be slow and cumbersome

Due to their complexity and their encrypted, distributed nature, blockchain blockchains can be slow and cumbersome. Transactions can take a while to process, certainly compared to “traditional” payment systems such as cash or debit cards.

When the user number increase on the network, the transitions take longer to process. It can take even days to process the whole transaction. As a result, the transactions cost is higher than usual, and this also restricts more users on the network.

In theory the principle extends to blockchain networks which are used for something other than as a store of value (for example logging transactions or interactions in and IoT environment). This is a problem which could be solved with advances in engineering and processing speeds, but that will take some time.

Organisational challenges


And there are various organisational challenges that are limiting the use of blockchain technology by corporates.

  • Lack of awareness and understanding

The main challenge for corporates associated with blockchain, especially the small and medium ones, is a lack of awareness of the technology and a widespread lack of understanding of how it works. Many companies do not understand what blockchain is or what they can do. This has a lot to do with the dominance of technicians in the blockchain area and their too much technology approach.

This is hampering investment and the exploration of ideas. Instead a much more business oriented approach is very much needed. This asks for improving the user experience for those not as technically minded. Organisations really must educate themselves about this emerging technology. They should increase their level  of understanding at all levels. This asks for better educational campaigns to make all this knowledge more accessible.

  • Productivity paradox

And there is the so-called blockchain paradox. The speed and effectiveness with which blockchain networks can execute peer-to-peer transactions comes at a high aggregate cost, which is greater for some types of blockchain than others. This inefficiency arises because each node performs the same tasks as every other node on its own copy of the data in an attempt to be the first to find a solution.

Therefore, decisions of corporates about implementing blockchain applications need to be carefully thought through. The returns to individual processing may diminish as the network grows in size. This means that blockchain applications must harness network effects to deliver value to consumers or to sectors at large.

  • Lack of cooperation

The blockchain creates most value for organisations when they work together on areas of ‘shared pain or shared opportunity’. The problem with many current approaches, though, is that they stand alone: organisations are developing their own blockchains and applications to run on top of them.

In any one industry sector, many different chains are therefore being developed by many different organisations to many different standards. This defeats the purpose of distributed ledgers, fails to harness network effects and can be less efficient than current approaches.

A positive developments is however the rise of so called blockchain consortia, aimed to tackle industry wide issues, including standards, critical mass etc.

  • Security and privacy challenges

And what to think about the various security and privacy challenges. While cryptocurrencies offer pseudonymity, many potential applications of the blockchain require smart transactions and contracts to be indisputably linked to known identities, and thus raise important questions about privacy and of the security of the data stored and accessible on the shared ledger.

Many companies nowadays work with privacy rules governed by regulation. Their consumers trust them with sensitive information. But if this information is all stored in a public ledger it won’t actually be private anymore. Private or consortia blockchain could work here. You would get limited access, and all your sensitive information would stay private as it should.

Security is another crucial topic here. However, only a handful of scenarios have good protocols that can cope with this. While blockchains are more secure than traditional computer systems, hackers can still breach apps, systems, and businesses built on blockchains.

The solution is not just government protection of privacy. Self-sovereign identities on blockchain will enable us to capture and control our own data. While there is a lot of work on several privacy protocols such as proof of zero knowledge to overcome these obstacles and good identity initiatives are underway (Sovrin), we are still a long way from a radically new identity framework.

  • Lack of regulatory clarity and good governance

There is also the lack of regulatory clarity regarding the underlying blockchain technology, which is a significant roadblock for mass adoption. Regulations have always struggled to keep up with advances in technology. This is also the case with blockchain. One of the challenges of the blockchain approach (which was also one of its original motivations) is that it reduces oversight.

Many organizations are making blockchain technology as a means of transaction. But even now there aren’t any specific regulations about it. So, no one follows any specific rules when it comes to the blockchain, so there is still no security.

There are certain areas that require regulatory support, such as the earlier mentioned smart contracts. If the regulations do not cover smart contracts, it inhibits adoption as well as investment in the blockchain industry.

Centralised systems, particularly in financial services, also “act as shock absorbers in times of crisis” despite their challenges and bottlenecks. Decentralised networks can be much less resilient to shocks, which can impact participants directly, unless careful thought is given to their design.

There is thus a strong argument for blockchain applications to work within existing regulatory structures not outside of them. To get over this challenges, Government and extremely controlled sectors may need to create regulations for blockchain. But this means that regulators in all industries have to understand the technology and its impact on the businesses and consumers in their sector.

Other challenges

  • Blockchain has an environmental cost

And finally but not least important the huge energy consumption is another blockchain adoption challenge. The majority of blockchains present in the market consume a high amount of energy.

Most of the blockchain technology follow bitcoins infrastructure and use Proof of Proof-of-work (PoW) as consensus mechanism for validating transactions. These protocols require users to solve complex mathematical puzzles, and require tremendous computing power to verify and process transactions and to secure the network.

In the meantime the amount of energy consumed by computers that compete to solve the mathematical puzzle has reached an all-time high. Some estimate that Bitcoin transaction energy consumption could soar as high as the yearly electricity usage of Denmark in 2020. Add to this the energy needed to cool down the computers, and the costs increase exponentially.

To overcome this issue, many blockchain proponents are developing more efficient consensus algorithms, that are less energy taxing. So-called proof-of-stake (PoS) protocols were introduced, that involve a combination of a participant’s stake in the network and an algorithm to randomly assign the task of validation to a node. Given that the participants are not required to solve complex puzzles, these mechanisms significantly reduce energy consumption.

Furthermore, from a business perspective, private blockchains are more suitable to serve company interests, as they provide restricted access, an additional layer of privacy to protect trade secrets, and are more energy-efficient.

Forward looking

In general, technological advancements take a long time to mature and reach a stable form that can be introduced into the market. Like any technological innovation, blockchain will follow the same, slow trajectory of adoption over the coming years. Although there are many possibilities, it will still take some time to get rid of all the challenges and use it to get all the benefits of it.

The list of Blockchain adoption challenges mentioned above clearly underlines the need for technological improvements. And the industry is very busy solving them. If we can fix these and remove the various bottlenecks, things will surely become more comfortable and trigger mass adoption.

 

Carlo de Meijer

Economist and researcher

 

Central bank digital currencies: towards a global approach

| 21-2-2020 | Carlo de Meijer | treasuryXL

In one of my earlier blogs, I mentioned that Facebook’s efforts to launch its Libra cryptocurrency triggered intense debates over who would control money in the future. It has also forced Central Banks to think about and explore their own digital currency.

According to recent research, at least 18 central banks are currently developing digital currencies. But up till recent that was just done on an individual stand-alone basis. The most effective way to counter private digital currencies however is via a collaborative approach.

This year we are seeing more collaboration between central banks, aimed to think about the impact of such a digital currency for monetary policy and financial stability and what could be the optimal design of such a currency.


Why a central bank digital currency?

There are various reasons why central banks may introduce their own digital currency. First of all as a defensive move. The rise of crypto currencies like the Libra could create tensions among central banks and regulators as these can make it difficult for central banks to manage their foreign exchange controls and implement a sound monetary policy.

Another reason is the optimisation perspective. Current central bank operated money systems work well, but could certainly benefit from improvements e.g. in settlement. They see this technology as ‘optimizing or improving the rough edges on a system which is already great, and which they have no desire to fundamentally change’.

Central Bank Digital Currencies versus Crypto currencies

While central banks recognize digital money may be an improvement over physical money, a central bank designed digital currency will not resemble a decentralized cryptocurrency.

Though both CBDCs and cryptocurrencies, to a varying degree, are based on blockchain technology, CBDCs are – fundamentally – different to cryptocurrencies. CBDCs are traditional money, but in digital form, issued and governed by a country’s central bank, whereas cryptocurrencies are decentralised. The Central Bank consensus is that decentralization is not a desirable property in a CBDC as it could aid tax avoidance and enable criminal payment systems. Cryptocurrencies are neither recognised as legal tender – which CBDCs, by definition, would be. And unlike central bank money, both traditional and digital, the value of cryptocurrencies is determined entirely by the market, and not influenced by factors such as monetary policy or trade surpluses.

BIS Survey

Early this year the Bank of International Settlement (BIS) published a paper that presents the results of a survey that asked central banks how their plans are developing in the area of central bank digital currency (CBDC).

It shows that a wide variety of motivations drive extensive central bank research and experimentation on CBDCs. According to the survey about 80% of the central banks are engaging in some sort of work in this area, with half looking at both wholesale and general purpose CBDCs. About 40% of central banks have progressed from conceptual research to experiments or proofs-of-concept while another 10% have developed pilot projects.

Every central bank that has progressed to development or a pilot project is an institution in an emerging market economy. Globally, emerging market economies are moving from conceptual research to intensive practical development, driven by stronger motivations than those of advanced economy central banks.

Nonetheless, plans of central banks in advanced economies appear to be accelerating compared with earlier expectations.

Central banks need to collaborate

The BIS survey also showed the urgent need for collaboration by central banks on CBDCs. To find an optimal design of a central bank digital currency cooperation between these institutions is a must. Collaboration through international vehicles, such as the BIS Innovation Hub, will be necessary to avoid any unforeseen international consequences.

The collaboration on understanding the impact of CBDCs need to intensify. The survey shows that more central banks should be looking at the risks outside the financial system while also exploring ways to improve the system with CBDCs.

Collaboration initiatives

Since this year we see a shift from more stand-alone projects towards working with other central banks in the CBDC field. It is seen as critically important for central banks worldwide to join the discussions and take part in a more global coordinated approach for CBDCs.

1. Group of six leading central banks

Last month the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) announced that it had created a group involving six leading central banks including Bank of Canada, Bank of England, Bank of Japan, Central Bank of Sweden, Swiss national Bank, as well as the ECB.

The group will be co-chaired by the Head of BIS’ Innovation Hub, Benoît Cœuré, and the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England and chair of the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructure, Jon Cunliffe. Senior representatives of other bank members will also be included.

These central banks have joined forces to explore digital currencies, assess the potential for central bank digital currency (CBDC) in their respective jurisdictions, share experiences as they assess the potential cases for CBDC in their home jurisdictions and look at ‘cases for central bank digital currency’. The members will thereby work closely with the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures (CPMI), an international standard-setter for payments and clearing, and the Financial Stability Board (FSB).

The latest decision [by the six central banks] is not just about sharing information. It’s also an effort to keep something like Libra in check.” “Something like Libra would make transactions costs much cheaper. Major central banks need to appeal that they, too, are making efforts to make settlement more efficient with better use of digital technology.” Yamaoka, Bank of Japan president

2. World Economic Forum CBDC Toolkit

The World Economic Forum (WFO) and a community of over 40 central banks, international organizations, academic researchers and financial institutions have created a framework to help central banks evaluate, design and potentially deploy CBDC. The framework, dubbed the “CBDC Policy‑Maker Toolkit”, is intended to help accelerate critical and rigorous analysis of CBDC.

The framework provides a guide for central banks around the world. The toolkit provides information on retail, wholesale, cross-border and “hybrid” CBDCs, for all sizes of emerging and developed countries.

It is aimed to help policy‑makers within central banks confidently evaluate whether CBDC is the right fit for their economy and guide them through the evaluation, design and deployment process. It describes a step‑by‑step evaluation process for CBDCs, including potential benefits and challenges, could help “identify trade-offs between benefits from the use cases and their associated risks across different dimensions.” For those who are already researching, it helps them “make progress quickly”.

“Given the critical roles central banks play in the global economy, any central bank digital currency implementation, including potentially with blockchain technology, will have a profound impact domestically and internationally.” “The toolkit can serve as a springboard as central banks progress with their CBDC investigation and development.” “The intricacies of implementing CBDC are complex and the implications are wide‑reaching. As a result, policy‑makers may find themselves in uncharted waters when attempting to evaluate the potential benefits and trade‑offs.” Sheila Warren, Head of Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technology at the World Economic Forum

3. European Central Bank Task Force

At the end of 2019 the ECB created an expert task force to look into and analyze the feasibility and potential outcome of establishing a central bank digital currency (CBDC). Central banks should consider the merits, which may include public goals such as financial inclusion, consumer protection and payment privacy.

The group is a result of efforts by Christine Lagarde, the new ECB president, who has pushed the European Central Bank to dedicate significant resources to studying the merits of CBDC. She explained that this task force was aimed at ensuring the European Central Bank plays an active role in fostering cheap and speedy payment transactions, likewise exploring the benefits of having a CBDC. With this development, Europe would join the rest of the world in their pursuit of having a central CBDC.

“In terms of the road ahead, the ECB will continue to assess the costs and benefits of issuing a central bank digital currency (CBDC) that would ensure that the general public remains able to use central bank money even if the use of physical cash eventually declines”. Christine Lagarde

The task force will work closely with the EU national central banks to study the feasibility of a euro area CBDC in various forms, covering all the practical aspects, including how to minimise possible unintended side-effects.

Lagarde agrees that pursuing a CBDC is a legitimate goal for the ECB but does not rule out competitive solutions that may come from private companies pursuing platforms that utilize digital currencies to expedite cross-border and domestic transactions.

“We are looking closely into the feasibility and merits of a CBDC, also because it could have major implications for the financial sector and for the transmission of monetary policy”. Lagarde

Optimal CBDC design

Interesting question is: what is the most optimal CBDC design? Certainly, a digital central bank currency has the potential to impact the financial system in a significant way. But for an optimal design one need a good cost-benefit balance and mitigate – as far as possible – potential unintended side-effects.

In this blog the focus is on so-called general purpose CBDCs accessible to the broad public. Wholesale CBDC are seen as of more limited scope and does not really question the established structure of the monetary base. General purpose CBDC could be implemented in two alternative ways: they could be offered in the form of deposit accounts with the central bank to all households and corporates. Alternatively, the central bank could offer a digital token currency that would circulate in a decentralized way without central ledger.

But for security and privacy reasons this latter alternative is not the favourite of central banks especially in the well developed countries.

Opportunities and challenges of CBDCs

Central banks have started to analyze intensively the benefits and negatives of introducing central bank digital currencies (CBDC). They are especially looking at what is their potential impact on monetary policy, financial stability and the financial system. It is imperative that central banks thereby proceed cautiously, with a rigorous analysis of the opportunities and challenges posed.

Opportunities    

In various studies a number of quite diverse benefits of CBDCs have been put forward.

More efficient payments

CBDCs could address problems like inefficient payments that cryptocurrencies seek to solve, while maintaining state control over money. Central banks think CBDCs could make payments systems more efficient, reducing transfer and settlement times and thus promoting economic growth. Other advantages could include making available efficient, secure and modern central bank money to everyone, and strengthening the resilience, availability and accessibility of retail payments. This is especial true for the countries with underdeveloped banking systems, and/or without a secure and efficient payment system.

More security

A widely adopted CBDC would allow better control of illicit payment and saving activities, money laundering, and terrorist financing. It would thus place users at less risk of violent crimes that target holders of cash, and potentially reduce security and insurance costs associated with keeping cash on business premises. This however would requires the discontinuation of banknotes (or at least of larger denominations). Obviously, this motivation of CBDC would not apply if CBDC circulates as anonymous token money even for high amounts.

Improve overall effectiveness monetary policy

CBDCs could provide significant competition for traditional monetary instruments. Such a competition would present monetary policy with challenges but also with opportunities. Central bankers fear that Libra and other crypto currencies could quickly erode sovereignty over monetary policy. CBDCs could counter the rise of cryptocurrencies issued by the private sector.

Next to that CBDCs could allow relaxing the so-called zero-lower bound constraint on nominal interest rates as negative interest rates can be applied to CBDC. If digital cash is used to completely replace physical cash, this could allow interest rates to be pushed below the zero-lower bound, which could promote macro-economic stability. CBDC could also widen the range of options for monetary policy. Variable interest rates on CBDC would provide for a new, non-redundant monetary policy instrument that would allow improving the overall effectiveness of monetary policy.

Improve financial stability

CBDCs could also improve financial stability and macroeconomic stability and reduce so-called “moral hazard of banks“ by downscaling the role of the banking system in money creation via sight deposits, as CBDC would take over to large or full extent sight deposit issuance by banks. By providing competition for bank deposits, the adoption of a CBDC could limit the practice of fractional reserve banking, thereby strengthening financial stability.

Safer financial system

A CBDC could have profound implications for the banking sector, either positive or negative. CBDC can also make the financial system safer as. Under a central bank digital currency scheme, citizens and business would be permitted to open and hold interest paid accounts with the central bank. It would allow individuals, private sector companies, and non-bank financial institutions to settle directly in central bank money (rather than bank deposits). A CBDC, therefore, would compete directly with commercial bank deposits, likely inducing a partial shift of deposits away from commercial banks towards the central bank.

This may significantly reduce the concentration of liquidity and credit risk in payment systems, resulting in a safer financial system, with less scope for impairment in monetary policy transmission.

Potential costs of CBDCs

Most of the proposed advantages of CBDCs however are not that straight forward and are mostly subject to controversial debate. Overall, one may conclude from reviewing the arguments in favor of CBDC that the merits of CBDC i.e. contribute to an efficient, resilient, accessible and contestable payment system seem relatively uncontroversial, without this per se being sufficient to justify CBDC. But that is not the case for other arguments.

Disintermediation of the banking sector

It remains uncertain to what extent and in what direction a sovereign digital currency would impact the banking sector and financial stability. Different outcomes are conceivable, with different policy implications, but with no clear indication as to which is most likely. Some warn against the structural disintermediation of banks that could be caused by CBDC. This disintermediation has been considered as one of the major drawbacks and risks of CBDC.

De-funding of the banking sector

Too widespread a substitution of bank deposits by CBDC could lead to a significant de-funding of the banking sector. If CBDCs replace private deposits, that could erode commercial banks’ credit channels, having negative spill over effects on credit creation and economic activity. Another danger associated with CBDC, is that it would facilitate runs out of bank deposits into central bank money in times of financial crisis situations.

Impact on financial stability

A substitution of bank deposits by CBDCs could also weigh on growth prospects if it compromised bank lending activity. First, even if banks were both willing and able to attract alternative funding, the adoption of a CBDC as a very easily safe asset could make credit supply more volatile, facilitating a flight to safety. It might act as a vehicle for bank runs, undermining financial stability. Second, the de-funding risks of banks associated with a CBDC might push the private sector into shadow banking activities.

Forward looking: are CBDCs close to becoming reality?

There is growing consensus that central bank digital currencies have a big chance to become a reality. But it is still guessing when and how it will look like. Most CBDC projects are still in very early or conceptual stages.

While the creation of the group of six leading central banks in the developed economies demonstrates that central banks are moving forward in their research on the costs and benefits of digital currencies at the global level, present findings are not (yet) enough to justify a central bank digital currency. It is still too early to say what would be the optimal design for CBDCs.

There are still many open questions such as, what will be the effect on monetary policy? How will it impact financial stability? And what about the position of financial institutions?

For that there are still too many controversies in the various arguments pro and con. It remains uncertain to what extent and how CBDCs would impact the banking sector and what that means for financial stability. It is also unclear how CBDCs really impact monetary policy.

More research should be devoted to better understanding and assessing the pros and the cons associated with the use of such a CBDC. Only than balanced decisions can be made.

Carlo de Meijer

Economist and researcher

 

Crypto regulation in the Western world: towards more global uniformity?

| 24-1-2020 | Carlo de Meijer | treasuryXL

In my last Blog I suggested that regulation of the crypto markets would be one of the main issues for 2020 and beyond. There seem to be urgent need for more clarity on many cryptocurrency issues. The EU Fifth ALM Directive came into effect early January, while ESMA announced its plans to develop a legal framework for cryptocurrencies in 2020. In the US the Crypto Currency Act of 2020 is being discussed in the House of Representatives. My prediction that a growing number of regulators worldwide would more prominently enter the crypto stage this year will come true. Main question is: will this lead to more uniformity in the regulatory approach worldwide?

European Commission consultation on EU crypto framework

In December last year, the European Commission launched a public consultation on the future EU framework for markets in crypto-assets. It thereby seeks stakeholder views on, among others, the usefulness, means and features of future crypto-assets classification.

The Commission notes that the lack of any comprehensive classification of crypto-assets leads to uncertainty in the markets, as to whether (and potentially which) such assets fall within the scope of EU financial services legislation by means of being MiFID II financial instruments.

The Commission also seeks stakeholder views on the importance of specific benefits related to crypto-assets and also specific risks related to its use. The Commission notes that while crypto-assets can bring about significant economic benefits in terms of “efficiency improvements and enhanced system resilience”, they can also cause potential challenges for their users.

The consultation document includes detailed questions designed to assess legislation applying to security tokens and including, but not limited to, MiFID II, Market Abuse Regulation, Short Selling Regulation, Prospectus Regulation, Central Securities Depositories Regulation, EMIR and UCITS.

More broadly, the Commission seeks views whether a tailor-made EU regime for crypto-assets would “enable a sustainable crypto-asset ecosystem” and whether the use of crypto-assets in the EU would be “facilitated by the greater clarity as to the prudential treatment of financial institutions’ exposures to crypto-assets”. The current consultation remains open until 19 March 2020.

The consultation paper: Three main parts

This consultation paper consists of three main parts: (1) Classification of crypto-assets, (2) Crypto-assets that are not currently covered by EU legislation; and (3) Crypto-assets that are currently covered by EU legislation.

a. Classification of crypto-assets
The Commission acknowledges that while there is a wide variety of crypto-assets in the market, there is no commonly accepted way of classifying them in the EU. There is still a lack of a single and broadly accepted definition.  For the purpose of this consultation, the Commission defines a crypto-asset as “a digital asset that may depend on cryptography and exists on a distributed ledger”.

b. Crypto-assets not covered by EU legislation
The consultation document includes specific questions focused on service providers related to crypto-assets, and in particular the issuance of crypto-assets, trading platforms, exchanges, provision of custodial wallet services for crypto-assets and other service providers.

The Commission notes that such activities and services providers remain – with some exceptions – outside the European (and national) legislative and regulatory framework and considers that “regulation may be necessary in order to provide clear conditions governing the provisions of these services.”

c. Crypto-assets covered by EU legislation
The Commission considers “security tokens” as crypto-assets “issued on a DLT and that qualify as transferable securities or other types of MiFID financial instruments”. For activities concerning such security tokens qualifying as MiFID II investment services/activities, authorisation is required.

In summarising trends concerning security tokens, the Commission admits “the limited evidence available at supervisory and regulatory level” and that “existing requirements in the trading and post-trade area would largely be able to accommodate activities related to security tokens via permissioned networks and centralised platforms”.

Fifth EU Anti Money Laundering Directive

The Fifth EU Anti Money Laundering Directive  that took effect from 10 January 2020 puts a regulatory framework for all 28 EU members to date. Even the United Kingdom has decided to implement the law despite its decision to leave the EU.

The new Directive defines crypto-assets as “digital representation of a value that is not issued or guaranteed by a Central Bank or a public authority and that does not have the legal status of a currency or money, but that based on agreement or practice is accepted by natural or legal persons as means of payment or exchange or is used for investment purposes and that is transferred, stored and traded electronically”. This is to specifically exempt digitally stored and transferred fiat money, but include both payment and security tokens.

Among the most notable changes are that cryptocurrency service providers will have to follow Know-Your-Customer (KYC) rules. Cryptocurrency platforms and wallet providers are required to identify their customers for anti-money laundering purposes. All transactions will have to be monitored, and companies will need to file Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) with law enforcement. The new KYC mechanism would require personal ID when opening an account on EU-operating exchanges. The proof-of-identity would serve as insurance, for not making any illicit financial operations.

The New Regulatory Framework is mandatory for all EU-based crypto exchanges and custodial wallets. Every crypto exchange operating on the European Union market must meet the legislation in order to continue its operation in the EU. They had to achieve compliance with the rules already by 10 January.

Worldwide exchanges must undergo an AML/KYC upgrade for the EU market, as until now, there were no rules about implementing such mechanisms.  However, meeting those regulations would streamline the EU market to become competitive to other regulated markets, such as the United States.

Challenges

For firms buying and selling crypto assets, the Fifth Anti-Money Laundering Directive will require them to register with national financial regulators. The way exchanges and crypto-oriented companies must verify they are KYC-compliant, is via appropriate licensing in every jurisdiction. It also states minimum requirements for AML processes, similar to what we see with traditional asset classes.

Unless any company wishes to leave the EU, they should comply in full. Because the Directive requires crypto-related firms to register with their national regulators and comply with a variety of AML guidelines, it’s likely that some firms may struggle to adjust to the new regulatory environment. European crypto exchanges and companies are still far behind the “KYC-ready” state that the Directive requires.

While U.S.-based exchanges have the expertise to deploy AML/KYC protocol updates to comply with the EU Directive, crypto exchanges in the EU however have shown mixed readiness for KYC upgrades to their platforms. The majority of EU-operating exchanges have taken a so-called “procrastinating” approach. That could be very bad for those as, if the services do not comply with any of these requirements, they will have to pay fines and penalties, or even risk being shut down.

And while the Fifth Anti-Money Laundering Directive suggests a “harmonized regulatory framework,” there are significant differences in the ways the Directive is being implemented across the European Union.

ESMA aims to develop legal framework for cryptocurrencies in 2020

Early this month ESMA published its 2020-2022 priorities list, noting that EU capital markets are facing new risks from digitalisation. ESMA wants market participants to acknowledge and prepare for these apparent risks. In its Strategic Orientation, the regulatory agency also revealed its plan to bring a legal framework for digital currencies and related products.

“The dangers of cyber threats to the financial system as a whole and a sound legal framework for crypto-assets are increasingly becoming areas of focus for ESMA together with the other ESAs, the ESRB, the ECB and the European Commission.”

“The new Strategic Orientation sets out how we will exercise our new powers, and meet our new responsibilities, in pursuit of our mission of enhancing investor protection and promoting stable and orderly financial markets in the EU,” Steven Maijoor, chairperson of ESMA

The European agency had already been watching the digital asset industry for a while and has been grappling with the question of how to regulate cryptocurrencies and securities in the space. Last year it issued an advisory on initial coin offerings (ICOs) and crypto-assets, highlighting that some crypto-assets may qualify as MiFID financial instruments.

US Crypto Currency Act 2020-2022

But also in the US more crypto regulation is arriving, triggered by the possible launch of Facebook’ s Libra. The introduction of the Cryptocurrency Act of 2020 is seen as a vital move in regulating crypto markets. The goal of the new legislation is to provide additional clarification on digital asset regulations to the market and create a framework for cryptocurrencies, thereby countering the negatives of crypto investing.

The Act has now been introduced in the US House of Representatives. The bill has some wide-ranging regulations that, if voted into law, could reshape the crypto landscape moving forward – at least in the United States, but also elsewhere.

The objective of the Act is to enforce regulations and to force crypto companies to play by the same rules. The Cryptocurrency Act 2020 categorises digital assets into three main groups: crypto-commodities, cryptocurrencies, and crypto-securities. The draft bill thereby contains broad definitions of the types of digital assets. It further determines the various regulatory bodies that will oversee the crypto currency space and will be responsible for the creation of regulation and legislation. The Act thereby seeks to clarify the power of each government agency to regulate the crypto space.

Up till now multiple government agencies have been competing to regulate the crypto space, leading to a confusing mixture of laws. This is suppressing the crypto space, since crypto companies can be attacked by multiple federal agencies.

Additionally, rules will be established with the goal of tracing all crypto and digital currency transactions, in addition to the personal facilitating the transacting, similar to other traditional currency transactions, securities fraud, corporate auditing and other financial activities.

Digital assets: Three main groups

The most interesting change is how digital assets are to be split up into three main categories. A distinction is made between cryptocurrencies, crypto-securities, and crypto-commodities.

a. Cryptocurrencies
The draft bill puts cryptocurrencies in a separate category of digital assets. They are defined  as “representations of US currency” synthetic derivatives backed by smart contracts or collateralized by other digital assets (resting on a blockchain or decentralized cryptographic ledger).

The crypto class includes Bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash, Litecoin, and any other cryptocurrencies that don’t fall under the current securities regulations. Smart contracts and oracles fall under the cryptocurrency category as well. Furthermore, the role of stablecoins will be scrutinized, as not all of these currencies are created equal.

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) is to overlook cryptocurrency regulations, on behalf of the Treasury secretary. FinCEN will thereby need to collaborate with the Secretary of the Treasury to enforce AML and KYC protocols in the market. Primarily, regulators want to develop a way to trace all cryptocurrency transactions, which seems highly questionable.

b. Crypto-commodities
The bill defines crypto-commodities as all digital assets, regardless of who produced them, stored on a “blockchain or decentralized cryptographic ledger”. A key aspect of these tokens is the fact that they contain some form of substantial fungibility. Fungible assets are interchangeable, such as the USD.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) is to be responsible for regulating crypto-commodities. The group will need to develop the framework for these tokens from the ground up if the legislation passes. Due to the rise of cryptocurrencies, it is expected crypto-commodities will play a major role in the space going forward.

c. Crypto-securities
Crypto-securities, the most comprehensive of the three types of digital assets, “include all debt, equity, and derivative instruments that rest on a blockchain or decentralized cryptographic ledger.” These tokens are simply any coin that “fails the Howey Test”. What the Howey test defines is whether or not an asset will be categorised as a security by financial regulators.

The draft bill’s exceptions to crypto-securities are as follows: “A synthetic derivative operating as a money services business and registered with the Department of the Treasury; and, or Any security that operates in compliance with the Bank Secrecy Act “and all other Federal anti-money laundering, anti-terrorism, and screening requirements of the Office of Foreign Assets Control and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.”

In the Cryptocurrency Act 2020 security tokens are to be overlooked by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Growing need for crypto compliance professionals

The fast evolvement of crypto regulation worldwide as well as the – sometimes very – different approaches ask for a large number of regulatory and compliance professionals. There is still a great lack of knowledge of future crypto compliance and governance, so finding, recruiting and hiring these people may become a big challenge especially for smaller firms. Bigger companies generally will likely have the necessary procedures and processes already in place needed for crypto from working with other asset classes.

The news of “pending” clarity of new government regulation is mobilising a growing number of professionals (crypto accountants, tax professionals and compliance officers) to study the various compliance issues that are arising from these mostly different crypto regulations. They are working together to use any available information to accurately meeting the new reporting and compliance requirements for 2020 and beyond.

Towards a global regulatory framework?

The year 2020 should be seen as the start of a regulatory revolution for cryptocurrencies. Regulatory initiatives in both the EU and the US could trigger new cryptocurrency regulations around the world, to attribute regulatory clarity to the global crypto market.

A global regulatory framework for cryptocurrencies however will not be easy to implement. Bringing a complex and fast evolving area like cryptocurrencies into a global framework is going to be a difficult and lengthy process.

In countries all over the world, governments have been struggling to develop laws and guidelines regulating the use of cryptocurrencies currencies. This has resulted in a patchwork of different regulations.

But while the approaches of other governments may initially remain quite different, most experts however believe that, triggered by the regulatory approaches in the EU and the US  such a global framework will be a reality at the end of this decade

Carlo de Meijer

Economist and researcher

 

What may we expect for blockchain and the crypto markets in 2020?

| 3-1-2020 | Carlo de Meijer | treasuryXL

2019 was a remarkable year for blockchain technology. A lot of things, some unexpected, happened. But now it is time to bring our attention to the New Year 2020. Just like last year, and the year before, we try to predict what awaits the blockchain industry. So, let’s look at what does 2020 have in store. What are the most expected events that will shape the blockchain ecosystem in 2020 and beyond?

The year 2019

By all measures 2019 was a transformative year for the blockchain and crypto space with a more realistic approach. Overall, our 2019 predictions worked out pretty much as expected. It was the year where the blockchain industry translated the hype of previous years into more practical use cases and further advancements in the field of blockchain and distributed ledgers.

Both corporates and customers were significantly increasing their understanding of where blockchain technology makes sense and where it doesn’t in terms of a solution for real business problems. The most memorable thing about 2019 for the blockchain space was the speed and sustainability with which it has regained recognition and legitimacy in the eyes of governments and institutional players. We saw the birth of new blockchain alliances, new next generation blockchain start-ups entering the market, the introduction of new infrastructure projects and a plethora of blockchain protocols matured and expanded in growth.

More spectacular was what happened in the cryptocurrency markets. New cryptocurrency trading products were launched and we saw the growth in the number of stable coins. We have seen an increase in governments, regulators and central banks engaging with crypto in general. Many central banks are paying close attention to the benefits of blockchain and the need for their own digital currency. This was mainly triggered by Facebook’s plans to launch its Libra crypto currency.

Gartner Hyper Cycle

But before going into my own predictions it is interesting to look at the Gartner Hype Cycle. According to Gartner during 2019 blockchain has passed the ‘trough of disillusionment’. The industry has learned some tough lessons regarding the difficulties surrounding widespread adoption of this technology. It showed that they were much ahead of its technical and operational maturity. During this stage most enterprise efforts remain stuck in experimentation mode, with very few meaningful applications for blockchain in the real world. As a result, interest has waned as most experiments and implementations failed to provide expected results. As a result earlier start-ups were forced to end their operations.

We are now on the peak of the slope of enlightenment, when corporates and customers really learn and begin to use the technology for practical, useful purposes that will change how companies, applications and users interact. According to Gartner, the 2020s will be the decade when blockchain technology will leave small-scale proof-of-concept projects behind, and makes its way into the operational structure of multinational corporations. Over the next couple of years it will expand into a number of pragmatic use cases in payment processing, data sharing, equity trading and contract/document keeping and tracking. Blockchain will be fully scalable by 2023, according to Gartner.

What to expect for 2020

Looking forward to the New Year 2020, there are several notable trends and movements in the blockchain and crypto currency area to watch. Some of the key trends we outlined this year will persist in 2020. Users of blockchain and distributed ledger technology will further focus on operational matters, deployment flexibility and, interconnectivity. They will look for enhanced services and tool offerings that meet their business needs.

Blockchain will enter the stage of more realism

1. Many blockchain start-ups will not succeed

A first prediction is that in 2020 many blockchain start-ups will not succeed in the market race for their blockchain production projects. An ordinary start-up with the use of the blockchain will not be able to get as high support as it happened before. The race will be difficult and only a few will survive the stiff competition, failing to provide expected results.

The problem does not lie with blockchain itself. There is the lack of uniqueness by these start-ups. Many repeat similar projects during the implementation of the blockchain. They create another alternative, rather than something conceptually new. Many start-ups will be just a simple waste of money since enterprises will not invest in a platform they are not confident about. Specialists and large companies are aimed precisely at finding new business opportunities for blockchain deployment. They will take a wait-and-see attitude. So it will last until the best use of this technology appears.

2. The token market will be cleaned up

Another expectation for 2020 is that the market for tokens will be cleaned up. As exchanges are forced to increasingly professionalise and investors gradually shift their focus to quality, so-called ‘zombie tokens’ for projects that are far from market-fit will be more aggressively delisted. New tokens coming to market will be few and will all be more mature. It is expected that the majority of publicly listed tokens will be delisted and/or cease trading. So from existing 2500 tokens actively traded today not more than 1000 tokens will be remain by the end of 2020.

3. Blockchain technology will become more mature

Blockchain itself, however, is far from a failure. What we have seen in 2019 is the increased maturity of the technology. And this trend will continue in an accelerated way in 2020 and beyond. Next year will mark the start of more mature and usable networks creating decentralised applications, building an increasingly competitive landscape for projects to “battle it out” in order to become mainstream.

Going forward, in order for blockchain platforms and the apps built on top of them to stand a chance of making their mark, the focus should be much more on improving usability and finding product-market fit. 2020 will see the launch of multiple ‘third generation’ blockchain projects, with a greater variety and reach of applications being built on top of the DLT ecosystem. Multiple large chains will be releasing significant technology upgrades such as Ethereum with ETH2.0 and NEM with Catapult, both in early 2020.

4. More realism will enter the blockchain market place

More realism is expected coming into the market towards blockchain and its implementation. Those responsible for blockchain projects will take a more informed and strategic approach. The effect will be that in 2020 there will be a more realistic and pragmatic approach to blockchain projects. Enterprise DLT teams will thereby focus on realistic use cases that might deliver a particular benefit and bring existing projects closer to, or into, production.

We will see a shift away from so-called R&D-type exploratory proof-of-concepts (PoCs) run in isolation to a focus much more on the end-to-end process to which blockchain/DLT will apply. This means more emphasis on how frameworks perform and how well they integrate with existing systems and, potentially, each other. As a result of this approach we will see more successful implementations of blockchain technology, whereby there will be improved ties between blockchain and business management solutions. .

Growing blockchain adoption by enterprises

Though scepticism will remains (for the time being), and many enterprises will take a wait-and-see attitude towards blockchain adoption, the increased maturity of the blockchain technology will certainly trigger adoption in the coming year(s). More and more enterprises will understand the added value of distributed ledger technologies (DLT), including transparency, immutability, and decentralization.

A Deloitte report revealed that 34% of companies have already initiated a blockchain deployment, while 86% of leaders are confident that its mainstream penetration is inevitable – results which are clearly indicative of the continued maturation of the market. But before seeing real widespread adoption blockchain technology will need to mature further, not only technically but also as a part of a more complete ecosystem.

1. Finance industry will continue to lead blockchain adoption

Once blockchain overcomes the initial hurdles, it will be a game changer for many industries with finance expected to be the “leading takers” of the blockchain technology. Unlike other traditional businesses, the banking and finance industry will not be extremely reluctant in adopting blockchain.

According to a recent PWC report, by 2020, 77 % of financial institutes are expected to adopt blockchain technology as part of an in-production process. Financial corporations are more likely to embrace blockchain for more traditional banking operations owing to the plethora of advantages it has to offer. Blockchain will more quickly take root in financial services for security and management of identities – first for businesses and later for consumers.

2. Enterprises outside the financial sector are more reluctant

Enterprises outside the financial sector however show a more reluctant attitude towards blockchain adoption. But moving into 2020, they may change their attitude towards a more positive but realistic one. Over the next 12 months, these companies will first need to analyse their business models, and ask how (as opposed to whether) blockchain is going to disrupt their industries.

With the growing maturity of this technology blockchain will become another piece of enterprise technology that helps an organization become more secure and efficient, even enabling new business models that grow the business or enable net-new businesses (some completely decentralized). Positive measurements of the value derived from blockchain in enterprise production environments will encourage a much broader uptake. With giant companies such as Amazon or Microsoft committing to building services around blockchain, we will begin to see accelerated adoption by enterprises and customers as they tackle the issues that have long time being hurdles for mainstream adoption – with real world solutions coming into play from 2020.

3. Further government integration of blockchain

Although governments around the world remain centralized, there are opportunities for them to incorporate decentralization into certain aspects of their activities. There are several countries, including the US, Japan, Denmark and even Estonia, that are already practising blockchain implementation in government agencies. Countries such as China and Estonia are utilizing blockchain to manage citizens’ healthcare data and create digital identity systems respectively.

In 2020 we may expect other governments actually accepting blockchain advantages and begin to use it to optimize financial and public services. We will certainly see further government integration of blockchain technology in order to process large quantities of data between agencies, services and administrative bodies each having their own database. Distributed ledgers will be crucial to streamlining interaction and information sharing between these entities. The adoption of blockchain technology for effective data management and the introduction of a distributed registry will greatly simplify this procedure and will improve the functions of government sectors.

4. Battle between private and public blockchains

In 2020, the battle between private and public blockchains will further heat up and the debate will reach corporate executive teams. Though enterprises often prefer to operate in their permissioned blockchain network and at first will be sceptical of public ledgers, this stance will change over time. The permissioned versus public network debate will see blockchain/DLT-based applications falling into two main categories: a. consumer-focused DApps, which will usually use public (permissionless) blockchains; b. enterprise applications, built almost exclusively on private (permissioned) networks using enterprise DLT frameworks.

While it’s not realistic today to support complex enterprise use cases at scale on a public blockchain, concerns about interoperability between multiple chain silos have already resulted in discussions about the role of public blockchains in enterprise processes. With multiple networks already existing for some of the most popular use cases (such as supply chain or trade finance), proliferation will continue.

5. Enterprises will utilize hybrid blockchains

As the hype around blockchain cooled, and corporates turned back to a more realistic approach, non-technical challenges and interoperability hurdles have emerged. Permissioned blockchains, while great for B2B uses, don’t connect with consumers who need an open ledger accessible by any mobile device via an API.

For this reason, many companies are looking for ways to close that gap and make the best of the decentralization of public blockchain networks on one side and the additional security of private networks on the other. Tech companies such as IBM and blockchain platforms like Corda and Ripple, are already responding with enhanced offerings and will continue to build these out to meet enterprise demand.

The International Data Corporation (IDC) reports that it is time for hybrid cloud initiatives to focus on IT goals, in addition to business objectives. 2020 is expected to be the year when we will start to see growing offerings of so-called hybrid blockchains. Hybrid blockchains, are a combination of a private or permissioned blockchain and public blockchain. According to surveys it is expected that more than 80% of future blockchain deployments will be hybrid or multi-cloud — or both. Especially networks with stringent data sovereignty and confidentiality requirements will clearly have chosen frameworks that support hybrid or multi-cloud models.

6. Interoperability will move center stage

In 2020, enterprises will increasingly focus on operational matters, demanding deployment flexibility and interconnectivity between networks. In 2020 the call for interoperability between the many blockchain networks and the various (and also distinct) protocols that have been launched will intensify. We still see a lot of private PoCs, often testing different blockchain technologies for the same purpose: to weigh the pros and cons. Each blockchain has varying levels of security, performance and privacy.

We have witnessed the emergence of multiple networks addressing the same use case. Already several networks cover identical or similar functionality, including: trade finance, invoice factoring, shipping documentation. Participants in these networks are keen to understand whether, and how, these various chains will be able to interact. These are all reasons we predict that the future will involve more focus on getting these to interoperate.

As networks expand, nodes will distribute across multiple cloud providers. This will apply even if a network leverages its managed blockchain offering from a service provider. Cross-blockchains pilots are expected to see live in 2020. The move of Hyperledger Besu to Linux Foundation Hyperledger, should be seen as a “definite” sign that permissioned Blockchains might start to cross. There is a thorough research conducted on how digital assets on various chains might co-exist.

7. Growing competition between blockchain platforms

Progressing to 2019, many enterprises joined existing consortiums around the most popular use cases. Most of these consortiums are now looking to go into production in 2020, thereby solving specific use cases including identity and document management, supply chain management, trade finance, IoT applications, etc.

For 2020 we expect more customizable permissioned networks forming as well as growing competition between blockchain platforms. Not only between the main existing blockchain platforms, Corda, Hyperledger, Ethereum and others, but also from new comers that could upset the existing balance. Who will become the market leader is still open. We also expect several integrations with other blockchain frameworks. Such as Digital Asset that is now firmly focused on its smart contract modelling language, DAML, integrating it with other frameworks. We will a number of interesting combinations emerge.

Blockchain communities will increasingly recognize the importance of good governance and will prioritize it in order to stay competitive and stand out from an increasingly crowded field of competing platforms.

8. Internet of Blockchains

Another development, may be not yet for 2020, but certainly for the coming years is the development of an Internet of Blockchains, just like the existing Internet. The next generation of blockchains will be a flexible system of a multitude of independent/sovereign yet cooperative entities with different applications, philosophies, and validator. The ecosystem will be an open, sovereign, secure network of interconnected blockchains, that will be able to interoperate made possible by interoperability protocols like Inter-Blockchain Communication.

Continued crypto currency confrontation

1. First national digital currencies will be launched

The Facebook Libra announcement has provoked a lot of debate at central banks throughout the word. From a recent survey 80% of countries are concerned about the popularity of uncontrolled financial assets. There is a consensus around the world among central bank governors and governments at large that they want to maintain control of money and money supply. A number of countries have already come with plans for launching their own national digital currency.

In 2020 we will see the launch of the first national digital currencies. It is thereby very likely central banks will focus on the wholesale market leaving the retail market for regulated institutions. China is pursuing its the Digital Currency/Electronic Payment (DC/EP) initiative and next year we will see the People’s Bank of China roll out its digital yuan. Russia’s Central Bank is also considering possibilities of issuing its own crypto Rouble in the near future, which would take the status of a national cryptocurrency. In addition, the World Bank, and the International Monetary fund have recently launched a private blockchain and quasi-cryptocurrency. The digitization of national currencies will continue its momentum in the coming years as more central banks and governments warm to the idea. Experts assumed that by 2022 at least five countries will issue a cryptocurrency.

2. Crypto currency market will be regulated

In 2019, there has already been a lot of talk about regulation in the blockchain industry and this will continue in 2020. The industry is evidently ripe for regulation granted the number of projects operating in the space. But the urgency for regulation has intensified. Government leaders and regulators worldwide are now wrestling with how they will handle blockchain technology and crypto currencies as we enter a new decade. The possible launch of Facebook’s Libra in 2020 forced regulators to take cryptocurrency seriously, and triggered many regulators to come up with more stringent regulation for crypto currencies, but without frustrating innovation. In order for blockchain and crypto to mature, enterprises and individuals need to feel completely comfortable leveraging this technology, secure in the knowledge that their government and legal systems support them.

3. Crypto currency market revised

In 2019 we saw many crypto projects failed and stopped their activities. As the crypto ecosystem matures, every project needs to have a viable use case, strong funding, strong community, and an experienced leadership team to succeed. It is expected that in 2020, this “weeding out” of poorly executed crypto projects will continue. Some even predict that “98% of crypto projects and their currencies will go to zero or have no viable exit for their holders”. In 2020, we may expect mergers and acquisitions to accelerate in the cryptocurrency sector across both exchanges and technology. In order to achieve full compliance and trust in the industry, exchanges have to work diligently to regulate themselves. In a similar way, we do believe exchanges will work more harmoniously toward regulation and pricing.

The trend we saw from the last few years that issuers are tokenizing fiat currencies and using them as easier exchange mechanisms on cryptocurrency exchanges will continue. There will be a clearer distinction between forms of currencies as payment tokens, utility tokens, asset tokens and security tokens. We will also see increased adoption of stablecoins, mostly fiat-backed, and driven from trading on exchanges. Another development will be the shift of major altcoins from being just a utility token towards more high-value transactions, even as a store of value. We see this shift will increasingly noticeable in 2020 as altcoins mature and demonstrate additional use cases to stakeholders and the investment community.

4. Banks will enter the crypto currency market

After the tumultuous 2019, the digital asset market will mature and crypto currency prices will continue to stabilize. As a result of this increased maturity it is expected to see more and more institutional investors enter the crypto markets in 2020 as education around digital assets improves. In 2020 we will also start to see other cryptocurrency payment systems gain momentum that do not come from legacy banking institutions. It is expected more banks to enter the crypto currency market in 2020, partly in a move to defend their positions. In this regard, we will see more big names in the financial industry coming into the blockchain and cryptocurrency sector.

Earlier this year, the US-based J.P. Morgan already announced the launch of a proprietary digital coin JPM Coin during 2020. Other examples are Fnality’s stablecoin, while the Japanese bank Mizuho announced its own crypto launch already in early 2019.

Integration Blockchain with other technologies

In 2020 we will also see the further integration of blockchain with other technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence. According to the IDC, many IoT companies are already contemplating the implementation of blockchain technology. According to them more than 20 percent of IoT deployments enabled blockchain based services by 2019 and this process will continue in 2020 and beyond. The IDC suggests that global spending on AI will reach $57.6 billion by 2020 and 51% of businesses will be making the transition to AI with blockchain integration.

Firms will gain measurable benefits from blockchain in conjunction with IoT and AI. Blockchain technology provides a secure and scalable framework for communication between IoT devices. Blockchain conducts much faster transactions compared to other platforms owing to its distributed nature of work.

Forward looking

As we recap, 2020 is going to be a pretty exciting year for blockchain in enterprises. If all these predictions come through and will be realised it may become a historical year for both blockchain and the crypto currency market, improving the attitude to this technology by corporates and consumers alike.

The focus will shift to integration and interoperability, from irrational exuberance to realistic assessment. So it looks like it is about to be THE year for new opportunities and achieving goals in a decentralized manner.

Blockchain projects and digital assets are set to grow in adoption with the like hood of rising breakthroughs in mainstream use cases. Potentially we will start to see some new business models because of the technology.

The future of blockchain is thus promising but there will still be stumbling stones in the initial stages of its journey. But leaving behind the concerns related to this technology, it seems that this innovation will gain the community’s trust.

To ensure the longevity of the blockchain and crypto industry into the next decade and beyond, key players need to work together to prioritize education, ensuring adoption continues to occur on a wider scale.

By the way, I wish everybody a great 2020.

 

Carlo de Meijer

Economist and researcher

 

Blockchain: the 10 Commandments for CIOs

| 25-10-2019 | Carlo de Meijer | treasuryXL

In my last blog about Gartner and Blockchain I mentioned the importance of the role of CIOs. They are supposed to play a leading role in determining if this technology could be of use for their business. Great question is: are CIOs already prepared for that role. In this blog I will sum up ten commandments for them that should be prerequisites for successful implementation of blockchain technology in their company.

1. CIOs should study blockchain, potential benefits, opportunities and use cases for their business

In order to get grip on blockchain and what it could mean for their business, CIOs should investigate what blockchain really is, that means the ins and outs, its characteristics, how it works, how to integrate blockchain into existing legacy systems etc. CIOs should put real thought into how this technology could potentially benefit the business, asking themselves why they need it, and what value it offers over legacy database or other technologies

While in the next few years blockchain will mostly affect how an organization executes its business, longer term  blockchain will eventually change the core of a business. They therefore should start focusing beyond solely on how this technology is being used today. CIOs should look for opportunities to leverage blockchain technology for deeper business changes that can drive real value.  They should focus on areas where blockchain could strengthen the organization’s value proposition. CIOs should figure out which use cases are most appropriate, , and propose projects that could truly differentiate the organization.

2. CIOs need to understand how blockchain will impact key parts of the business

The opportunities for blockchain technology are massive. It can significantly impact many parts of the business. The most important question for CIOs is how these changes might affect the enterprise and how can the organization exploit the technology?

CIOs need to start thinking about what value blockchain can add to their organization and how to tackle the challenges over the next five years. They should plan for incremental evolution of their own blockchain strategies. For that they should carefully look at the stages in which blockchain  technology is situated. The Gartner Blockchain Spectrum distinct four phases: blockchain-enabling; blockchain-inspired; blockchain-complete and blockchain-enhanced. We are now half way i.e. in the blockchain-inspired phase. Technologies in this stage combine some elements of blockchain, but lack two core elements:  decentralization and tokenization (see my blog: Gartner Blockchain Spectrum: a great tool for CIOs March 18, 2019).

3. CIOs should look at the potential gaps, weaknesses and hurdles of blockchain

Blockchain is not there yet. And – next to that – this technology is not a panacea for all companies problems.  CIOs should be aware of that.  One of the main elements of blockchain is decentralization. It removes central authorities from the process and enables a level of trust between two parties who have never done business before. The definition of participant will – as a result – expand beyond individuals and businesses to include things like smart contracts, distributed ledgers, connected things and DAOs.

Blockchain will facilitate the interactions between all of these participants and enable a new society, but cannot solve all trust problems. CIOs therefore should create a map that highlights potential gaps and weaknesses.

CIOs should also be aware of the various hurdles that prevent massive adoption. It will take a number of years before this technology will enter the maturity stage. Considerable work needs to be completed in ‘non-technology-related activities’ such as standards, regulatory frameworks and organization structures for blockchain capabilities to reach the Gartner Hype Cycle Plateau of Productivity. This is the third stage now also including the previous lacking instruments: decentralisation and tokenization. In a recent blog, Gartner listed eight hurdles needed for the technology to deliver its promises, including technically scalable blockchains, advances in smart contract technology, transaction risk assurance, data confidentiality, and an efficient consensus algorithm.

For effective rollouts, CIOs also need to keep in mind that blockchain is not secure in and of itself. Blockchain is a complex technology, and can lack the clarity of oversight and auditability that more traditional systems offer. As a result, compliance and enforcement costs may increase with blockchain implementation, and some regulatory environments (such as GDPR) may require oversight that is difficult to achieve with the technology. This is exacerbated by a lack of common standards or legal frameworks. CIOs should look at methods to manage these blockchain-related risks.

4. CIOs should brief their CEOs on the strategic implications of blockchain

Company boards will have to make strategic decisions on blockchain in a climate of uncertainty. Many boards of directors will therefore call upon CIOs to brief them on blockchain due to current market hype. CIOs should therefore regular update their CEOs on new developments. The difficult task as a CIO is to explain the strategic implications of blockchain without getting stuck in its technical aspects. Board directors do not want a lot of detail. They just want the high-level issues, implications and suggested actions. CIOs should thereby focus on three main areas: a description of blockchain, frictionless markets and the cross-industry business impacts of a programmable economy. The reason for this is that blockchain has the potential to create cross-industry, transparent and frictionless markets, where transactions have almost no costs and restraints. However, be aware that the future business climate, risks and legal status of blockchain remain unclear.

5. CIOs should warn their board not to underestimate the impact of blockchain

CIOs should warn their board not to underestimate the impact of blockchain. Blockchain for most industries remains ‘mired between inflated industry expectations and general disillusionment’ with regard to how it can improve business processes. While most have heard about blockchain, few understand the technology and its implications for business. This bears the danger that they are underestimating the impact of blockchain. Enterprises run the risk of having their business disrupted if they do nothing about blockchain; however, undertaking a blockchain initiative carries risks too. It is important for CIOs to discuss the areas where blockchain will affect the board’s risk calculations.

CIOs should also determine and inform their CEOs whether blockchain could solve business problems and whether they really need this technology. Existing systems may look much more efficient, or could be managed cheaper compared to blockchain solutions.

6. CIOs should think and work towards a new blockchain-based business model

Once decided to implement blockchain in their company, the greatest challenge for CIOs will be thinking about and working towards a new blockchain-based business model. As blockchain is a collaborative issue, main question for CIOs is, how they could come up with a business model in which companies in an industry can agree on common standards and operate together.  This asks for a strategic approach. By focusing on a number of key areas early in their blockchain efforts, CIOs can lay the foundation toward successful execution. These areas include: make the blockchain business case, build an industry ecosystem, determine the rules of engagement, and, navigate regulatory uncertainty.

First of all CIOs should give strategic clarity when presenting their business case. This should ensure that their blockchain initiative has a business purpose around which they and other participants can align. For that it is needed to identify the business value. To get the most out of blockchain, collaboration between (previous) competitors is key. This should result in building an industry ecosystem, aimed to meet industry-wide challenges. For that it is important that CIOs discover the benefits of collaboration.

A third area of attention is to determine the rules of engagement. Every blockchain will require rules and standards, particularly around what various participants will be able to access and how they can engage. CIOs should thereby explore potential blockchain models and chose that one that fits best. Finally, CIOs need to “stay agile” to meet regulatory requirements as they evolve in the years to come. They should understand the shifting regulatory landscape.

7. CIOs should focus on the various challenges when implementing blockchain

Despite the potential opportunities of blockchain technology, organizations still face a number of important challenges when it comes to implementing blockchain. CIOs should focus on these challenges, that should be identified well in advance, in order to get the best out of this technology.

A first challenge – and not the least one – is the possible lack of skills. Because blockchain is still young and not yet a mainstream technology, there are very few professionals with skills in this area. This asks for intensive education, setting up internal and external courses, hiring externals etc.

Another challenge is the non-existence of a  universal standard for blockchain. This limits the usability of blockchain in and between companies. Until you have standards, you really can’t share information in the classical sense. Though one uniform standard is still far away, Gartner predicts that there will be four main standards in about five years’ time. A third challenge is that blockchain must integrate with legacy technologies so that businesses can exchange information in a meaningful way. In some industries, this is a major obstacle. People just don’t understand the technology, or know what it is good for.

8. CIOs should continue to develop proofs of concept internally as well as part of market consortiums

In order to get grip on blockchain and what it can mean for their business, CIOs should continue to develop proofs of concept to test blockchain’s business worthiness. Thereby they should take into account that different industry domains (upstream, midstream, downstream and marketing) and functional areas (such as commodity trading, cash management, supply chains and data integrity) are expected to adopt blockchain on different timelines.

For enterprise success, blockchain needs to be a consortium effort – not something that is used only internally. CIOs should be aware that the transformative nature of blockchain works across multiple levels simultaneously (process, operating model, business strategy and industry structure), and its success will depend on coordinated action across multiple companies. The way to create a multi-company blockchain consortium however is a very difficult one.

9. CIOs should look to combine blockchain technology, Big Data Analytics, IoT and AI

Blockchain should not be looked at in an isolated way. In order to get the most out of blockchain technology, CIOs should investigate integrating this technology with other ones like Big Data Analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Once blockchain has been combined with the Analytics, IoT and AI, blockchain has the potential to change business models forever, impacting both data and monetary flows and avoiding centralization of market power (see my blog: Blockchain and Big Data: a great marriage, January 29, 2019).

10. CIOs should be aware of the changing world in which business exist.

Finally, CIOs should be aware of the changing world in which business exist. Not only because of blockchain, but also triggered by other technologies. The reality is that blockchain and its core elements will radically alter not only the business world itself. The future might eventually lay in a more decentralised programmable economy, that may evolve into digital societies that have a legal standing equivalent to today’s corporates and individuals. These digital societies will set the terms of competition in the future. CIOs should realise that, not  only by developing the technology, but also the ethics and practices to exist in the digital society.

What does this all mean for CIOs?

CIOs are counted on for innovation in their company. Related to blockchain, there however will be a need to  a different approach, away from present blockchain tech-of-the-day approach to a more methodical one to innovation. This asks for a new type of CIO. To deliver, CIOs should realise and recognise that their ability to innovate is nowadays restricted by an organisation that lacks flexibility and agility. CIOs should instead become more flexible and agile and deliver an operating model that is fast, connected, and insights-driven.

Carlo de Meijer

Economist and researcher

[button url=”https://www.treasuryxl.com/community/experts/carlo-de-meijer/” text=”View expert profile” size=”small” type=”primary” icon=”” external=”1″]

[separator type=”” size=”” icon=””]

Gartner and Blockchain: the Good, the Bad and the…

| 01-10-2019 | Carlo de Meijer | treasuryXL

Last year Gartner, the high-standard research institute, painted a rather realistic scenario for blockchain. In one of its research papers, Gartner stated that its latest technology hype cycle puts blockchain beyond the peak of expectations and is currently sliding down towards the trough of disillusionment stage. They estimated a 5-10 year timescale before it enters the plateau of productivity, or mainstream.

Now a year later, in a recent study Gartner show a more sober picture. They found that most enterprise blockchains have been ‘mistargeted’, and that most of the blockchains in use today will need to be replaced in a couple of years.

This raises a number of questions. According to some commentators, blockchain is having an identity crisis. They state that technology is constrained by assumptions and that technological immaturity is prohibiting efforts from moving beyond the pilot phase. Other say that this is just a normal stage in the development of a new technology?

The bad …..

First the bad news. The report gives a rather sober vision for blockchain technology and its near term development. According to their research that was published last June, Gartner predicts that by 2021, more than 90% of current enterprise blockchain platform implementations will fail or need to be replaced in a 18 months period. This is due to a fragmented blockchain market and ‘unrealistic expectations’ by CIOs.

A May 2019 report by Gartner already predicted that 90% of blockchain-based supply chain initiatives would suffer from ‘blockchain fatigue’ by 2023. Garner’s June research report however has a much broader industry base and should therefore be taken seriously.

Fragmented blockchain market

The blockchain and distributed ledger technology has already become highly fragmented in terms of platforms, standards and offerings. This makes it difficult for companies to push ahead with real-world uses.

Multiple blockchain platforms

The present blockchain platform ecosystem is a very fragmented one. Today CIOs can choose from numerous blockchains available using either private ledger approaches such as R3 Corda, Hyperledger and Digital Asset or public ones such as Ethereum. Each consortium is thereby trying to make their offerings ‘the de facto basis for value exchange and digital asset representation, smart contracts and decentralised applications’. Gartner does not expect that there will be a single dominant platform within the next five years.

Fragmented offerings

The blockchain platform market is composed of fragmented systems and offerings by blockchain providers that often overlap or are being used in a complementary fashion. The blockchain platforms and technologies market is still nascent and there is no industry consensus on key components such as product concept, feature set and core application requirements.

Companies are as a result unable to find an off-the-shelf, complete packaged blockchain solution. Hybrid offerings of conventional blockchain platforms are adding further confusion to justifying a use case. This adds more complexity and confusion, making it that much harder for companies to identify appropriate use cases.

No uniform standards

Blockchain standards esp. for financial services companies are currently fragmented and immature. Standards are critical for corporates esp. in the financial industry, because they are constantly moving assets between clients, partners and other institutions. Fragmented blockchain standards are likely to prevent widespread short term deployment of blockchain and distributed ledger technology in real-world systems. Until consortiums and standards groups come together on several industry standards or de facto standards emerge, the use of blockchain will be limited mostly to proofs of concept and pilot tests.

Implementation issues

No seamlessly integration

To achieve the true potential of blockchain, implementations must be seamlessly integrated with already installed software solutions. However, major software and SaaS providers are not offering blockchain solutions as add-on features to their enterprise solutions. Currently, integrating blockchain platforms with existing systems can cost organizations millions of dollars, which further slows blockchain adoption.

Lack of interoperability

Cross-industry interoperability standards are, and will be critical especially for financial services companies. These blockchain platforms however often use differing implementations, data formats, data interchange and directories, making interoperability among different blockchains difficult across organisations.

Lack of strong use cases

As a result of the above shortcomings there is a lack of strong use cases. Most projects have remained pilot projects, due to a combination of technology immaturity, lack of standards, overly ambitious scope and a misunderstanding of how blockchain could, or should actually help the industry.

Not meeting companies needs

According to Gartner, another major challenge that CIOs and IT decision makers currently face is that blockchain platform vendors often use (marketing) messages that don’t link to a target buyer’s use cases and business benefits. This may add to the confusion around blockchain capabilities and how they augment existing processes. Buyers are still confused as to how these functions are achieved or what benefits blockchain may add compared to their existing processes.

Overestimation by CIOs

 Following from the results of the Gartner 2019 CIO Agenda Survey conducted from April through June amongst more than 3000 CIOs from almost 90 countries and across major industries, there is also a mismatch between expectation and reality about how they perceive blockchain technology.

The survey shows that many CIOs overestimate the capabilities and short-term benefits of blockchain as a technology to help them achieve their business goals, thus creating unrealistic expectations when assessing offerings from blockchain platform vendors and service providers. Even though they are still uncertain of the impact blockchain will have on their business, 60 per cent said that they expected some level of adoption of blockchain technologies in the next three years.

Misunderstandings by CIOs

There are a number confusions about blockchain technology leading to misunderstandings at CIOs. The vast majority of projects focus on recording data seeing it as the main offering of this technology. Many corporates however fail to use major capabilities of blockchain technology, such as decentralized consensus, smart contracts and tokenization.

Another misunderstanding amongst CIOs is their idea that the technology is already mature enough so that it is ready for production use. In fact many platforms however are still in a nascent and immature state far from being ready for large-scale production. Gartner however expects this will change within the next few years. And there is the wrong idea amongst many CIOs that protocols are identical to business applications. A protocol is the underlying technology such as Hyperledger Fabric of R3’s Corda and is invariably applicable to several industries. Applications need to be developed on top of these.

There is also the conviction in may CIOs mind that interoperability between various blockchain platforms is already a fact. Although some platforms talk about interoperability, Gartner finds it ‘challenging to envision interoperability when all the protocols are evolving quickly’.

The good ….

But it is not all bad news we can read in Gartner’s recent research paper. Despite the predicted gloom and the mismatch between expectation and reality, blockchain still has a solid future. Still the underlying technology is attractive and its potential uses cases vary across industries.

Impressive business value added

Although the technology will need constant updating, Gartner also predicts that by 2025, the business value added by blockchain to the industry will exceed $176 billion. More impressive is how this figure may surge to $3.1 trillion by 2030.

More stable applications

The ‘chaos’ in the blockchain solutions market is expected to only be a momentary challenge, ‘one that will pass as the hype-cycle dies down, and leads to more stable, enterprise-wide or rather industry-wide applications’. Within three to five years, many of blockchain’s core technical challenges are likely to be resolved. Given the attractive features of blockchain technology it can really drive interesting projects.

Standards maturity

Though it is very unlikely there will be a single de facto standard at all levels, Gartner expects that fragmentation will collapse and that we are three to five years away until standards mature and settle, resulting into no more than four dominant standards. This may allow for more interoperability among different blockchains.

“It’s unlikely there’ll ever be just one standard, but ultimately [there will be] a couple [of] standards bodies who’ll adjudicate…. Ultimately, there will be one or two standards..,. but no more than four”. Gartner

Blockchain capabilities as an add-on

Software suppliers, meanwhile, will integrate and upgrade their chosen blockchain versions and ensure compatibility with their own new software releases. In the next two to three years, Gartner expects all major ERP and CRM players to offer blockchain capabilities as an add-on feature for their software and SaaS products. These efforts will dramatically reduce the costs of deploying blockchain projects across the financial services organizations and their supply chains.

Transformational business impact

The 2019 Gartner Hype Cycle for Blockchain Business shows that the business impact of blockchain will be transformational across most industries within five to ten years. But these opportunities demand that enterprises adopt complete blockchain ecosystems. Future technology developments and removing remaining obstacles may enable that.

“Making wholesale changes to decades-old enterprise methodologies is hard to achieve in any situation. However, the transformative nature of blockchain works across multiple levels simultaneously (process, operating model, business strategy and industry structure), and depends on coordinated action across multiple companies.” Gartner

More intelligent applications

In the future, more intelligent blockchain applications are expected, in line with Gartner’s predictions. Especially as we move further on the Hype Cycle and past the so-called “Inspired Solutions (phase 2)” by 2022 and get well into “Complete Solutions (phase 3)” form 2025 onwards. And finally reach he Plateau of Productivity – the point at which mainstream adoption takes off.

And the …… way forward for CIOs

Companies working with the ‘myriad’ of blockchains available today should realise it is ‘highly unlikely’ the one they are using now or are planning to use short term will become the industry standard in five years. Corporates therefore need to investigate intensively how to navigate the next blockchain wave best.

Well–founded business plan

Many companies want to be fluent in blockchain before the technology is everywhere. For that they need a well-founded business plan. Those who fail to do sufficient scenario planning, experiment with the technology, and delay consideration of decentralization and tokenization risk significant long-term disintermediation.

Recommendations

Understanding and learning how to leverage the technology to create useful and practical solutions, is of utmost importance. In order to help CIOs in their blockchain journey, Gartner came up with a list of recommendations and valuable advices. CIOs should continue to educate executives and senior leaders about the blockchain opportunities and challenges most critical for business.

CIOs should also be aware of complicated challenges and of a number of impediments when deploying blockchain projects: standards, governance, integration and interoperability. They should therefore pay close attention to these hurdles blockchain projects face. In order to get used to blockchain technology and its applications, it is important for CIOs to continue to develop proofs of concept internally as well as part of market consortiums. By doing this they may learn how to leverage the technology to create useful and practical solutions, to take good decisions.

This Garner Hype Cycle is a very useful tool for corporates to get insight in the scope of blockchain’s transformation, how it impacts various industries as well as may show the current state and evolution of this technology.

Carlo de Meijer

Economist and researcher

[button url=”https://www.treasuryxl.com/community/experts/carlo-de-meijer/” text=”View expert profile” size=”small” type=”primary” icon=”” external=”1″]

[separator type=”” size=”” icon=””]

Using Blockchain for Legal Entity Identifiers or LEIs

| 19-09-2019 | Carlo de Meijer | treasuryXL

In one of its reports, GLEIF, the Swiss-based organisation which coordinates the management of the global Legal Identity Identifier (LEI-) system, suggested to use blockchain technology for identifying financial legal entities, as that would not only improve transparency and security but may also lead to broader global acceptance of the LEI.

This however raises a number of questions such as: Why could blockchain be of use for LEI and its users? What role could smart contracts thereby play? What benefits could blockchain bring for the LEI? And what does the most recent blockchain-based projects for the LEI tell us?

What is the LEI?

But first, what is the LEI? According to their website definition, “the Legal Entity Identifier or LEI is a 20-digit, alpha numeric code based on the ISO 17442 standard. It connects to key reference information, allowing clear and unique identification of legal entities participating in financial transactions. Each LEI contains information about an entity’s ownership structure and thus answers the questions of ‘who is who’ and ‘who owns whom’”.

In other words a LEI is a uniform way of keeping track of financial legal entities. They are global and have no borders at all for accurate and trusted identification of companies around the world. Looking in that way, the publicly available LEI data pool can be regarded as a global directory, which may greatly enhance transparency in the global marketplace.

The management of the LEI system is coordinated and supported by the above mentioned Global Legal Entity Identifier Foundation (GLEIF), while registrations are performed by so-called LOUs or Local Operating Units.

GLEIF and Blockchain

In their report on the LEI to the Financial Stability Board (FSB) in 2012, the GLEIF stated that “the design of the global LEI system would be premised on a ‘logically’ centralized (meaning not physically centralized) database that will appear to users to be from a single seamless system”.

GLEIF however recently recognised that the organizationally federated operating model used for the LEI in 2012, could be upgraded to a technically federated operating model: the distributed ledger model (DLT). This upgrade could potentially provide the same DLT platform for both the LEI and the UPI (Unified Payments Interface), of which the GLEIF is supposed to be the natural repository. This distributed design has always been a longer term goal for the global LEI system.

Present challenges for LEI

The LEI provides a global standard for the representation of identity as well as a standard validation rule set. Both elements however are subject of a very detailed compliance program in order to ensure proper issuance and maintenance of LEI and data quality.

Nowadays collection and storage of data is conducted in multiple country or regionally located operating units (LOUs). Each has their own databases (there are more than 30 at present in the LEI system and a large number of separate ones for each trade repository), and send their data daily in batch overnight processes. LEI data is sent to the GLEIF. Trade repositories send their data to multiple regulators and to central collection facilities depending on the jurisdiction. All regulators and trade repositories maintain their own data copies of identifiers for products and counterparties, and for trades.

This method bears in it a number of challenges, in terms of non-optimal transparency, security and risk issues where blockchain could be of help.

Blockchain and Identity Management

When it comes to use cases for blockchain, security is one of the serious items that comes in many minds. Identity management is one sector of industry that is supposed to provide high-level security to those who rely upon it to keep their data safe. But in reality security is not always what they get. The digital age has introduced new challenges in terms of preventing identity fraud and other criminal abuses for private people but increasingly also for corporates.

Nowadays there is an increased need for strong, multi-step security that identity management services should bring. The widespread adoption of blockchain technology to ensure that any number of these centralised databases are ‘not compromised’, should give enough arguments for the identity management industry to embrace this technology.

Some use cases for identity management

There are a number of interesting blockchain use cases in the identity management field. These include issues like identity verification, non-custodial login solutions, self-sovereign identity, secure identities for the decentralised web etc. These use cases have all proved their usefulness in such an environment.

Identity verification

Blockchain’s multi-step, multi-factor identification processes have proven to work and are already implemented by a number of companies. Admittedly, it is hard to imagine why the blockchain authentication model has not (yet) gained more mainstream adoption, especially considering the stakes of stolen identities and credentials.

Non-custodial login solutions

With non-custodial logins based on the blockchain, there is no longer need of a central entity who holds the power over user names, pass words, and the database that controls them. By removing the custodian of these credentials and replacing them with public and private keychains for logins, the former centralised entity can still ensure that ‘those logging in are who they say they are’, without holding a central database that hackers can easily acquire and use as ransom money.

Reduce third parties’ involvement

Blockchains could also help reduce the number of third parties while still maintaining a user’s identity. One solution could be that a user would store their data and identifiers on a blockchain which they could use throughout the internet, instead of granting each site or service their personal data and credential time. A second proposal is built on a similar blockchain containing the user’s data but allow third parties to access the data with their consent.

Smart contracts for Identification services

Using blockchain for the identification services including the LEI would preferably be in the form of so-called smart contracts. These contracts are ‘included and coded’ applications and data representing the life-cycle processes of a trade. It is stored and activated across a networked database – the distributed ledger – which itself is networked across the Internet.

In other words, a smart contract is self-actuating, based on standardized contract terms that is translated into standard trade life-cycle processes imbedded in coded applications. The smart contract acts on standardized data sets, setting its outputs in conformity to each participant’s processing requirements.

A smart contract requires data standards, including the LEI and its reference data for each participant in the supply chain; the UPI (Unified Payments Interface) and its reference data; and the UTI (Unique Transaction Identifier). It also requires process standards for each event in the life-cycle of a trade.

How could smart contracts be used for the LEI?

But how can smart contracts be used for the LEI? The central point of using smart contracts for the LEI is to treat a single record for any entity to be identified by some key as ‘atomic’. This in the sense of being administered as a single unit of data, by the authority that assigns the keys. Then the representation of a single ‘atomic’ record can be considered as a state for a single smart contract.

Each such contract would offer a method for accessing the representation, and a dynamic data structure that holds ‘revisions’ of the representation. That is, when the record changes globally, its new representation would be added to the state of the contract. Such contract can hold many revisions of the representation, bound only by the capabilities of the network’s global storage, called ‘entity contract’. Together with entity contracts, someone can devise one or more ‘master contracts’, that keep track of individual entity contracts and make accessing an easier process.

What approach for the LEI?

The use of permissioned and private blockchains or distributed ledgers for identity management purposes such as the LEI will require mapping between real world entities. This is hosted via cryptographic algorithms creating public/private keys pairs linked to reference data. The owner of the private key can write into the chain.

This however raises a number of major issues: Firstly, are we going to see multiple digital IDs depending on the application or are we going to use one ID to access all applications. And second, what is the appropriate management for all these IDs.

There are a number of possible scenarios:

One could use identity labels i.e. unique keys in the blockchain/DLT application. That means using the LEI in a distributed ledger system for tracking financial instruments. This is de facto the standard approach due to legal and regulatory requirements.

Another scenario is using blockchain/DLT for managing the LEI creation and management itself. This however should be seen as a longer term project. There are still many open questions but this approach bears interesting aspects for the further evolution of the LEI system.

MakoLab LEI.INFO and Graphchain Proof of Concept

An interesting project that should be taken seriously for further development is the MakoLab LEI.INFO system. Polish-based MakoLab, a Digital Solution Agency for the industry, last June announced the deployment of their production grade Blockchain-based LEI system.

This was the result of two Proof of Concepts (PoCs) for a radically new blockchain LEI system, based on the private Hyperledger Indy blockchain, using the innovative GraphChain database that is much more flexible than any standard existing system available today. These PoCs allowed MakoLab to investigate deeply the possibility to construct a system which represents the ‘highest level of both technological and organisational security’ and is completely decentralised.

Hyperledger Indy Framework

Given the vulnerability of the data, the suggested architecture for LEI is that of a so-called consortium type of blockchain that works on Hyperledger Indy. This is a blockchain model where the consensus process is controlled by a pre-selected set of nodes. The network of Hyperledger Indy nodes thereby runs as a private, permissioned blockchain for the Global LEI System.

In this model different nodes are used. User nodes that participate in the global blockchain as passive users. They can see all the data stored in it, but cannot create or edit anything. Registration nodes having all the properties of the User nodes plus the ability to provisionally add new LEIs to the system. However, such newly added LEIs are not visible on the system until the LOU nodes confirm them through the ‘Proof of Authority’ mechanism. And LOU nodes that have all the properties of the Registration nodes plus the capacity to confirm the new or modified LEIs as valid. Application of the blockchain technology with LOUs running their own nodes, would make the LEI system much safer and more reliable.

GraphChain

End June MakoLab announced the full production version of the innovative GraphChain for the LEI.INFO infrastructure. They thereby created a conceptual proposal how the entire LEI system could run on GraphChain. GraphChain should be seen as a new innovation of creating a blockchain compliant distributed database. The main idea behind GraphChain is to use blockchain mechanisms on top of an abstract RDP (Resource Description Framework) graph data model, that is used for data publishing and interchange on the web.

GraphChain is thereby defined as a linked chain of named graphs specified by the GraphChain ontology and an ontology for data graph part of the GraphChain; a set of general mechanism for calculating a digest of the named RDF graphs; and as a set of network mechanisms that are responsible for the distribution of the named RDF graphs among the distributed peers and for achieving the consensus.

The data graph model describes the semantics, or meaning of information and stores these data as a network of objects with materialised links between them, thereby managing highly interconnected data. It thereby uses graph structures with nodes, edges and properties to represent and store data.

LEI.INFO system

The new functionality allows cryptographic verification of the accuracy or usefulness of the underlying LEI data. The LEI.INFO system uses the RDF graph data model to express LEI reference data as semantic data, that can be verified against the network of Hyperledger Indy Blockchain. This LEI.INFO platform allows to get instant access to the database of entities holding LEI’s and as a result to find a reliable supplier, partner or customer.

LEI.INFO offers a wide range of LEI-related services including a new LEI registration process, resolution of the LEI codes for both humans and software agents, Data Analytics Solutions and integration services for KYC and financial information consolidation applications.

What may blockchain bring for the LEI?

From what is said before, it should not be difficult to see how blockchain and a single database that could be updated in real-time, securely maintained through encryption technology, distributed and shared by all of the participants could benefit those organisations who use the LEI. The reconciliation of the various copies of what is intended to be identical data sets could be done in real-time.

Managing LEI on blockchain delivers transparency and ensures the necessary trust and certainty optimal for combatting financial crimes, streamlining various administrative processes like onboarding, and truly knowing corporate customers, partners, and other businesses. This could ‘revolutionise’ the oversight of the financial industry. As a result of this all, it may lead to firmly reduced resources and costs of the validation process required for conducting due diligence about those entities.

McKinsey, the global consultancy estimates that the largest financial institutions alone can each save $1 billion in costs through a simplified portfolio of data repositories. ISDA members, many being the largest of financial institutions, are envisioned as direct beneficiaries of such savings.

Going forward

Blockchain technology could be of great help for the Global LEI system. The MakoLab project is thereby a very interesting one that deserves further investigation.

This LEI.INFO project however is just a first step in their research and development process with this technology. Taking into consideration the growing potential of the solution, MakoLab is “working on further-enhancing the LEI resolver with other top-class solutions – semantics particularly – as well as translating blockchain into other business areas” .

In the end such an architecture of the new LEI system will enable ‘thousands of registration authorities from multiple countries to participate in the new LEI creation’, thereby opening the path for the true global adoption of the system.

Carlo de Meijer

Economist and researcher

 

CSDs have a role to play in a blockchain environment

| 12-08-2019 | Carlo de Meijer | treasuryXL

There is a broad consensus amongst the post-trade industry that blockchain technology will revolutionise the securities post-trade world and could radically change how assets are maintained and stored by custodians and central securities depositories (CSDs).

Blockchain technology may enable real-time settlement finality in the securities world. This could mean the end of a number of players in the post-trade area, such as central counterparty clearing houses (CCPs), custodians and others. For a long time, also central securities depositories (CSDs), as intermediators in the post-trade processing chain, thought they also could become obsolete.



This idea however is changing. While CSDs are making up their mind on their future position in the blockchain world, they are increasingly considering blockchain as enabler of more efficient processing of existing and new services, instead of a threat to their existence. But what will be their future role?

Complex/fragmented post-trade infrastructure

As we all now, the current post-trade infrastructure is highly complex and fragmented. Much of this complexity and fragmentation is the result of the various intermediaries needed in the post-trade process. They include players like banks, brokers, stock exchanges, central counterparty clearing houses (CCPs), central securities depositories (CSDs), real-time gross settlement (RTGS) systems and custodian banks.

In the current set-up of the post-trade environment, important record-keeping functions, such as those relating to the issuance, settlement, registration and safekeeping of securities, are performed centrally by different specialist intermediaries. Intermediaries also perform the post-trade servicing of assets, such as crediting dividend payments or bonus issues to client accounts, or managing rights issues and takeovers.

They are thereby dealing with siloed outdated legacy systems and technologies each having their own ledger that are not good communicating with each other.  Consequently, they spend much time and resources on reconciliation and risk management. As a result settlement currently takes two or more days in many places, involving high risks and high costs for transacting parties.

The present role of CSDs

Situated at the end of the post-trading process, CSDs are systemically important intermediaries. They thereby form a critical part of the securities market’s post-trade infrastructure, as they are where changes of securities ownership are ultimately registered.

CSDs play a special role both as a depository, involving the legal safekeeping and maintenance of securities in a ‘central depository’ on behalf of custodians (both in materialised or dematerialised form); as well as for the issuer, involving the issuance of further securities by issuers, and their onboarding onto CSDs’ platforms.

CSDs are also keeping a number of other important functions, including: dividend, interest, and principal processing; corporate actions including proxy voting; payment to transfer agents, and issuers involved in these processes; securities lending and borrowing; and, provide pledging of share and securities.

Blockchain: disruption in securities post-trade

Prospects
DLT offers the prospect of rationalising and combining post-trade activities in one single action, offering safer and cheaper record-keeping, as well as more seamless securities issuance. They thereby may create significant cost savings and efficiency gains across the securities market’s post-trade infrastructure.

  • Blockchain is linking trading partners directly. That means everything will be in place in the ledger at the time of the transaction.
  • With DLT, all of the complex systems and processes to transfer cash and equities from one account to another are not required. Everything can be embedded into the blockchain.
  • Institutions will no longer have to maintain their own databases, as with DLT there will be only one database for all participants in the transaction (so no more fragmented islands of information).
  • This will heavily ease the reconciliation process, allowing increasing transparency and efficiency in a presently highly fragmented industry.
  • It could permit the direct or real-time settlement of transactions between accounts, the simultaneous verification of transactions and the registration of ownership, and the direct and automated payment of entitlements to accounts.
  • As a result, buyers and sellers can match transactions in seconds and all parties are aware a transaction has been done.

Disruption
On the other hand, DLT has the potential to heavily disrupt existing post-trade processes in financial services. Shared ledgers of ownership promise to revolutionise the post-trade infrastructure, Thereby impacting the business model of a number of intermediaries.

Use of a blockchain network would automate the process further, with completely integrated authentication and transparency of the transfers themselves. As a result, clearing and settlement can be transformed into a single process, in which digital and digitised assets are delivered against payments instantly, thereby removing the need for a market infrastructure provider to hold a security, or token in its own physical or electronic vault.

The extent to which blockchain will disrupt existing processes in financial services is still unsure. Some say a complete disintermediation of middle and back office processes is under way, removing most (or even all) intermediaries from the post-trade processes.

Others however say the impact of this emerging technology will be less forceful, with a (limited) number of existing intermediaries to play an important though somewhat different role.

CSDs changing attitude

What is sure is that for some actors in the securities post-trade world, DLT will completely replace their businesses or even make the work of some intermediaries such as CCPs and custodians redundant. Others will still be needed, but they should question what will be their added-value within future DLT services, such as CSDs.

CSDs are changing their viewpoint on DLT including blockchain. Instead of seeing blockchain as a threat to their existence, they are now also considering them as (potential) enabler of more efficient processing of existing and new services.

“CSDs could have an important role to play in a blockchain-based settlement system. As ‘custodians of the code, CSDs could exercise oversight of, and take responsibility for, the operation of the relevant blockchain protocol and any associated smart contracts.” Euroclear Report

CSDs are believed they will continue to perform an important role as trusted, centralised financial market infrastructures (FMIs), providing gatekeeping services and oversight of the relevant blockchain.

How are CSDs reacting?

Recognising the threat as well as the opportunities of blockchain to their current services, a group of CSDs across the world has been working together and with regulators to define their future role in the blockchain post-trade environment. By working together they will ensure that CSDs from each region are represented, potentially unleashing (unimagined) network effects.

Aim of this cooperation is to explore how blockchain could be used for post-trade processes, identify, define and develop use cases in the securities depositories’ industry (including smart contracts and digital assets), and identify how existing standards could support it.

Another  group of 30 central securities depositories (CSDs) in Europe and Asia are researching possible ways to “join hands” in developing a new infrastructure to custody digital assets. The CSDs will attempt to figure out how to apply their experience in guarding stock certificates to security solutions for crypto assets.

“A new world of tokenized assets and blockchain is coming. It will probably disrupt our role as CSDs. The whole group decided we will be focusing on tokenized assets, not just blockchain but on real digital assets.”

These CSDs clearly see an opportunity to apply their knowledge and skills to the crypto currency space, where “losing your private keys means losing your coins forever”. The group’s focus is looking at how to protect these keys for crypto investors, and how the tokenization of “everything stands to change everything”. The next phase of the research will also involve some large custodian banks.

CSDs future role in a blockchain environment

There are various reasons why CSDs may continue to play a role in the post-trade bklockchain environment. That is not that strange as the primary functions of CSD may run parallel to many of those that emerge from the blockchain technology. CSDs are aware that some of those roles will neatly fit into their natural infrastructure. But there will also be some activities that will become obsolete.

Looking at the roles that could be suited for CSDs, those would be anything around safety, notary and governance.

1. Notary function
Blockchain may enable tokenisation of assets and the use of smart contracts. All these are new components in the value chain. This may mean that a digital actor will be needed to manage this tokenisation, and creation and maintenance of smart contracts, overseeing the entire securities token ecosystem. CSDs could fulfil this notary function.

1a. Asset tokenization
Asset tokenization is the representation of assets on the blockchain in the form of tokens, which are designed to be unique, liquid secure, instantly transferable, and digitally scarce – and therefore impossible to counterfeit.

In a world where securities and other assets become tokenised, some have argued that an intermediary will still be needed to issue them and create rules. Tokenised assets exchanged on a distribute ledger may still require CSDs to hold the equities, which the token represent. They would thereby fulfil the crucial notary function, both as tokenising agent and as operator of the escrow accounts in which the real assets are hold.

1b. Custody of private keys
There may also be a need for secure maintenance of personal encrypted keys. Adopting blockchain technology would allow individuals and companies to have complete control over their assets and data, accessed through a set of private keys that must be kept secure.

Emerging technologies like decentralized key recovery will allow more and more individuals to secure custody of their own assets, thereby removing the artificial and expensive separation between legal and beneficial ownership in most asset markets.

Some will choose to take that responsibility themselves, but many investors may choose to outsource the custody of their private keys and token wallets to the companies and CSDs that can provide an independent and secure safekeeping service for these private keys.

2. Record of title for securities
CSDs could  also be of value to record of title for securities. In many cases, the law mandates how title to property transfers. EU regulations state that for “any financial instrument to be transferable and tradable”(i.e. takes place on a trading venue, exchange or multilateral trading facility), securities must be recorded (registered) in book entry form in a CSD.

Under the current law, to enable having a blockchain-based system of transfer of title to securities, the blockchain would need to be the system that the CSD operates, which is not truly distributed.

Or one would need to create a new legal regime that recognizes that the transfer of title on a blockchain is effectively a transfer of title to the relevant property, and allows that in the context of securities trading. But that would take a lot of time to realise.

As a solution, the blockchain technology can be implemented through a hybrid model in which the CSD can either operate a blockchain platform itself to perform the book entry role. Or it can continue to perform this role off-chain, with the third- party blockchain platform accessing those records held by the CSD via an API (application programme interface).

3. Governance
CSDs could also play the governance role in a DLT based system – to ensure that what happens within their systems is unchallengeable. The movement from a post-trade system based around the existing infrastructure to a DLT-based system, without updating the regulatory and legal regime, could introduce a new systemic risk into the financial system. Regulators and legislators are unlikely to be comfortable in allowing the wholesale replacement of the existing infrastructure with DLT-based solutions.

CSDs are best placed to retain a ‘policing’ or governance role in a blockchain framework. This role should be the management of an insolvency of a party, particularly if there is a position that is not settled and the relevant contract is not yet completed. The involvement of CSDs in a governance and operational role could help increase trust of investors, and raise the quality of the blockchain ecosystem infrastructure underpinning these new asset classes.

4. Trusted gatekeeper: Authorisation and administration
CSDs could also be of help as trusted gatekeeper to DLT networks. While regulators will set the standards for admission to the network, the admission tests are likely to be administered by other parties. The most likely candidate for that role of trusted gatekeeper to DLT networks are the CSDs.

They are already the “first home of financial assets issued, and guardians of the integrity of every issue they accept”.

“The regulators are unlikely to want to immerse themselves in the operational details of the authorisation process.” “They will sub-contract that work to a trusted intermediary (read CSD).”

5. Other roles

A. DLT proxy voting system
One role in the post-trade environment that is already intensively investigated by CSDs is the management of a DLT-based e-proxy voting system. This would include providing general meeting services and give shareholders an easy, user-friendly and secure tool for voting remotely.

There is potential for improvement for instance in respect to the depots of voting rights. The system would automatically allow (or disallow) voting privileges for members based on what voting rights they had within a particular organization.

By using open source blockchain technology the efficiency and integrity of the Annual General Meetings and shareholder voting processes can be increased. Given that it is an end-to-end solution – from the time a meeting is announced and all the way through the voting process to the publishing of results – it means that all stakeholders will truly benefit within the process.

“By leveraging blockchain, we are able to reduce friction in the voting and proxy assignment process and also ensure that all information is transparent to stakeholders when required and with the proper security, governance and risk procedures in place.

B. Elective corporate actions
CSDs could also have a role to play at elective corporate actions.  Corporate actions recorded by the ledger may include paying out dividends, splits, issue of rights, warrants, pay-ups etc.

The user group for a permissioned blockchain network can choose who should validate these actions. They could simply give validation rights to every node. Getting issuers to publish elective corporate actions, such as rights issues and proxy votes, directly onto a blockchain, however might be a difficult step to realise.

Alternatively, this could be the role of a trusted third party, or a combination of both a trusted party and the nodes. This would imply a logical role for CSDs, creating a common registry of ownership associated with an ID.

C. Reconciliation
CSDs could also be of help in the reconciliation process. Blockchain may certainly help automate other components of the settlement process, such as reconciliation. A DLT-based reconciliation tool, with multiple trading firms participating in a record-based system, however could still occur within the CSD, which may act as the single point of reference for reconciling the various records.

D. Cross-border collateral mobilization
A final area where CSDs could play a role is in cross-border collateral mobilisation. Leveraging blockchain technology could overcome existing hurdles when moving collateral across various jurisdictions, making the transfer faster and more efficient.

“Designed to simplify cross-border collateralisation away from using multiple complex and non-standardised links towards smooth movement across various jurisdictions.”

By using CSDs it could enable a centralised, faster and more efficient allocation of fragmented security positions to cover financial obligations of market participants in multiple jurisdictions.

Concluding remarks

CSDs are likely to play an integral role but important role in any blockchain environment. Their role however will look quite different from we know them today. They can be the logical center of the system, custodying the standards, processes and governance of the system.

CSDs will have the opportunity to be agents of change. CSDs however need to adapt to meet new demands asking for delivering added value services in the new blockchain environment.

But they are not there yet! There is clearly a gap between the long-term opportunities presented by blockchain and the challenges involved in making progress.

Several blockchain initiatives in this area have failed, or are just ended their pilot stage or are very limited in scope. CSDs are also not currently building a single solution. Rather, each group is building its own platform designed to interoperate with the others.

There is thus urgent need to leverage existing business standards for the distributed ledger technology application in order to realise a global infrastructure that can smoothly operate cross border.

 

Carlo de Meijer

Economist and researcher