How SMEs should select a BAAS platform?

| 08-06-2020 | Carlo de Meijer | treasuryXL

In my last blog BAAS and SMEs: New Opportunities I explained what Blockchain-as-a-Service is, where it could be used for and what the benefits are for SMEs. But another question is: how should SMEs select BAAS providers and their offerings. What are the various issues they should look at to get the most out of it. In other words: how should SMEs deal with this?

Why many SMEs move to BAAS?

But first, why this growing interest by SMEs for Blockchain-as-a-Service (BAAS)? There are various reasons for that. Such a the promised benefits in terms of efficiency, simplicity, transparency, speed, costs etc.

BAAS has some interesting use cases ranging from smart contracts, document origin tracking, resource sharing, single window, contract execution and spend rationalisation.

And BAAS could be used in various business activities like food safety tracking, international transactions, retailer industry, supply chain management, and trading.

What issues for SMEs to consider?

But before a company decides to start integrating BAAS services in their existing infrastructure it is important for them to consider a number of key issues. They should ask themselves a number of key questions.

Such as, does the company really need BAAS (or blockchain)? If so, for what purposes? And what are the specific (basic) requirements to look for at the “ideal” BAAS provider? What other factors to be considered? And finally, which BAAS provider offers the right and best type of solutions for the company?

Do you need BAAS or Not?

One of the first questions a company should ask themselves is do they really need BAAS. Whether or not BAAS matters to a company will depend on a number of issues.

Does the company already works efficiently from a cost and processing point of view? There may be hurdles in the company in the form of managing varied database, browsers, firewalls, application servers, and hardware, that could make it very difficult to integrate BAAS offerings into the legacy network of the company.

And does the company have the team skills that are comfortable and confident (or not) in using BAAS? Do they already use (one or more) cloud providers? And if so, do they have enough experience with these. This question is especially relevant because BAAS offerings are evolving quickly.

Other questions that may determine all or not choosing BAAS will be the tools available, choice of operating systems, ease of use, and pricing, thus costs.

So many things to think about, investigate and discuss.

Some broad guidelines for Selecting a BAAS Partner

Given the lack of readily available guidelines and best practices a lot of discussions and evaluations are needed into the process of selecting a BAAS provider or solution. Here are some broad guidelines a company should consider.

BAAS provider experience
First of all the company should ask themselves has the BAAS provider prior experience in setting up blockchain infrastructure? A company should ensure that the BAAS provider has proven experience in developing and deploying Blockchain technology. Companies should be ensured that the implementer department of the BAAS provider has professional staff that could easily attain the complex solutions for the enterprises. Companies should also ensure that the BAAS provider disposes of a good developer community, thereby guaranteeing “excellent output”.

BAAS provider’s commitment
There is also the question of BAAS provider’s commitment? Delivering quality is of great importance when choosing the right BAAS provider. A company should therefore probe their commitment to quality, process and standards of BAAS offerings.

Security assurance
Another critical issue that a company should investigate is can the BAAS provider deliver security assurance? In the first place they hey should ensure that –  for privacy and security reasons – BAAS offerings are built on permissioned blockchains. Given the variety of security issues ranging from application level to server level, it is important to look for potential gaps in security assurance in the proposed BAAS implementation plan.

Seamless deploying
A company should also look if the BAAS provider has enough experience in deploying. A company should evaluate the BAAS provider’s experience in deploying cloud-based solutions for operating systems similar to that of their organization. SMEs should  thereby look for BAAS providers that offer quick and economic deployment, testing, staging, and good production line. Companies also need to ensure that the new Blockchain infrastructure integrates seamlessly with their legacy systems.

User-friendly
A company should make sure that the proposed BAAS systems and processes are user-friendly and easily to adopt. After all, they look for  a system that their employees do not find difficult to use or navigate.

BAAS innovation
SMEs should also ask how innovative BAAS providers are. As BAAS solutions may vary from provider to provider, innovations might be a real trigger in case of any blockchain deployment. Innovations in the BAAS marketplace can create a more different type of BAAS architecture for a company’s organization.

Cost control
But also in terms of costing control the company should be aware of the real costs. Can a company be assured that they just pay for the value proposition delivered by the BAAS provider? Companies should therefore carefully analyse the pricing options and post-deployment support options and modalities. They should investigate if there are hidden costs linked to the BAAS contract.

Other features of BAAS offerings to look at

But next to these issues there are other basic features of BAAS offerings a company should look for. These include, amongst others, things such as offering good backend or backup solutions, quickly add up new additions to the platform, offer technical support in case of self-deployment etc.

Need for backend services
One key issue that should be investigated thoroughly by SMEs is how BAAS could deliver a company’s unique need for backend services such as integration of popular features and mainstream technologies. A BAAS provider should at least provide some key deliveries including data security, process control, costing control and integration. These backend services should support a wide range of applications without changing the legacy network, often characterised by multiple layers of the data sources, processes and workflows.

Companies should also know  the ins and outs of the blockchain platform in order to avoid risks. This asks for adopting proper monitoring and managing tools to manage the BAAS solution network effectively. For security reasons it should be made sure that the application data and user data “should stay within the boundaries of the platform” .

There are also a number of process control requirements for the application. SMEs should be guaranteed that the new BAAS environment needs to keep maintaining the original performance all the time. Some performance checking tools could let companies know how much capable their blockchain solution really is. It also needs to have protection mechanism from hackers, controlling data flow, computer resources, active monitoring tools etc.

Smart contract offering
When considering BAAS a company should make sure that the BAAS provider offers the smart contract integration with the deployment. As you have read in my former blog smart contracts are an important part of any BAAS solution. These allow the companies to electronically measure and encode all terms of the contract so there can be no dispute. Though they are not (yet) legal contracts, they allow the enforcement of an agreement between parties under pre-agreed rules, but also enforces the penalties in case of any rule breaking situation.

Access management
And there is the issue of who and who may not have access to certain information within the organisation. Companies should look for identity based consensus solutions as all the enterprise will operate with known identities. Not everyone in the company should have access to internal securitised information.

It is therefore also important to look for secure Identity and Access framework integration with the BAAS solution. It will enable companies to control the user access from critical information in the organisation, helping the administrator to regulate and control access all over the network.

Flexible deployment
And there is the issue of flexibility in deploying BAAS solutions. BAAS providers should offer versatility when it comes to BAAS frameworks. This asks for the availability of a variety of toolsets for companies. Companies need to have a choice in case of choosing the perfect framework. They should choose a BAAS operator that offers optimal support.

What else to consider?

A final, and may be the best way to select a BAAS architecture is the existing customer ecosystem. In many cases BAAS companies that can offer the most advanced and trouble-free BAAS have a large customer base. So, a BAAS provider with good and positive customer base could be a sign of good quality services.

After having answered all these many questions a company may (or may not) be able to select their favourite BAAS provider. On Google you may find various oversight lists of BAAS providers with many ins and outs.

Enjoy your BAAS journey!

 

Carlo de Meijer

Economist and researcher

 

 

 

Source

Blockchain-as-a-service and SMEs: great opportunities

| 19-05-2020 | Carlo de Meijer | treasuryXL

One of the recent promising blockchain trends is the growth of Blockchain-as-a Service (BAAS) platforms and software. This is highlighted by the recent release of the Second Annual Blockchain 50 list by Forbes. Several of the entrants on this year’s list offer blockchain-as-a-Service, including global players such as Microsoft, Amazon and IBM.

These third-party services are a relatively new development in the growing field of blockchain technology, mirroring the growing demand for hosting decentralised software services to boost market growth.

Fortune Business Insights recently revealed that the BAAS sector is set to reach a valuation of almost USD 25 billion (EUR 23,2 billion) by 2027, from USD 1.9 billion recorded in 2019, demonstrating an impressive so-called compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 39.5% during the forecast period (2020-2027). According to the same report especially the retail and e-commerce segment is expected to adopt BAAS solutions and are expected to register the highest growth rate during the forecast period.

What is BAAS?

In my first blog on BAAS I wrote last year I already explained what it is. Here follows a short resume.

BAAS is a cloud-based service that enables users to develop their own digital products by working with blockchain. It is in fact the distributed ledger equivalent of Software-as-a-Service or SAAS, the means by which businesses subscribe to and access cloud-based software.

These digital products may be smart contracts, decentralized applications (Dapps), or even other services that can work without any setup requirements of the complete blockchain-based infrastructure.

How does BAAS work?

BAAS describes the process by which a third party installs, hosts and maintains blockchain networks on behalf of other organizations. The external service provider thereby offers to set up all the necessary blockchain technology and infrastructure for a fee. They thereby take care of the infrastructure and maintenance issues.

In fact, a BAAS’ provider’s role is similar to that of a web hosting provider. It allows customers to leverage cloud-based solutions. BAAS helps businesses develop and host blockchain apps and smart contracts in a blockchain ecosystem that is managed and administered by cloud-based service providers.

The BAAS operator typically offers support activities like bandwidth management, suitable allocation of resources, hosting requirements, and data security features. As a result enterprises can focus on their core business without worrying about the day-to-day complexities of operating a blockchain.

Why is BAAS needed?

Consumers and businesses are increasingly willing to adapt to blockchain technology. However, the technical complexities and operational overhead involved in creating, configuring, and operating a blockchain and maintaining its infrastructure often act as a barrier.

Blockchain requires huge investment when it comes to setting up infrastructure and maintaining it. It is much more resource intensive, as compared to traditional databases. It also consumes a huge amount of energy and requires huge bandwidth.

What may BAAS bring?

BAAS is gaining significant traction recently, and that for various reasons. For many companies, pairing cloud services with BAAS could be very valuable. The personalized flexibility of BAAS technology allows businesses to combat pain points by tailoring integrations. BAAS can resolve complex issues around transparency, efficiency and cost in a simplistic and straightforward manner, thereby firmly reducing the barriers to entry for enterprise blockchain applications.

By favouring this BAAS model, companies can take advantage of the many often-mentioned benefits of blockchain technology – improved transparency and accountability, data security and trust minimization – without having to develop their own blockchain ecosystem or invest in expensive in-house computing resources.

They may give diverse businesses the opportunity to experiment with blockchain apps and smart contracts while letting service providers manage the network itself.

Is BAAS valuable for SMEs?

By organization-size, BAAS market is still dominated by large enterprises especially in the financial sector. The SMEs segment however is expected to grow at a higher rate, given the above mentioned opportunities of BAAS for these enterprises.

BAAS is ideal for such organizations that outsource their technological aspects, and are not involved in understanding the working mechanism of the blockchain. It allows these firms and other organizations to quickly get to grips with the technology without having to develop their own proprietary blockchain. It lets these enterprises focus on their core jobs and not waste time in setting up of infrastructure facilities.

BAAS is firmly growing across a variety of industries for issues such as supply chain management, identity management, payments. Blockchain technology is emerging as an optimal solution to many of the challenges faced by SMEs such as access to various financing sources. SMEs looking to expand their businesses in foreign countries can gain wider access to trade financing sources using BAAS as this technology is decentralized and cuts out the middlemen from the process.

BAAS service providers 

BAAS has become so popular, that some of the largest tech companies in the world all have divisions dedicated to the integration and promotion of BAAS. But also some of the most successful cloud service providers have started offering Blockchain-as-a-Service.

Main companies or platforms that are operating in the BAAS market include the names like Amazon, Microsoft, Oracle, Corda, IBM, SAP, Accenture, NTT Data, Stratis, Huawei, Baidu, Alibaba, Infosys, consequently shaping the future of blockchain applications.

But there are also the many smaller innovative BAAS companies – mostly based in the US – that integrate these game-changing ledgers into everyday technology such as Altoros, Blockstream, Bloq, Dragonchain, Factom, Innominds, PayStand, Skuchain, Symbiont,  tZERO, VironIt etc.  

Some major players in the BAAS market

Let’s take a look at some of the key BAAS service providers helping enterprises realize their blockchain ambitions.

Alibaba Cloud Blockchain as a Service

Alibaba’s BAAS offering, is under the umbrella of its cloud computing arm. Utilizing Quorum, Hyperledger Fabric and the Ant Blockchain, the platform integrates Alibaba Cloud’s Internet of Things (IoT) and anti-counterfeiting technologies to create blockchain solutions for product traceability, among other things. At present, Alibaba’s BAAS offering encompasses enterprise-level BAAS services, an agile BAAS platform that supports private deployment, and specific blockchain solutions for container services.

Amazon Web Services
Amazon provides various blockchain tools to both large and small companies via its cloud computing arm, Amazon Web Services (AWS).  AWS is a BAAS leader in many industries. The company integrates blockchain-based networks and business processes for some of the largest companies in the world (including T-Mobile and PwC) to improve IT infrastructure, business processes, human resources, financial transactions and supply chains.

Amazon, which has introduced Amazon Managed Blockchain, a BAAS service that “makes it easy to create and manage scalable blockchain networks” using open source frameworks including Ethereum and Hyperledger Fabric. Amazon has attracted a steady stream of high-profile clients including  Nestlé, BMW, Accenture, Sony Music Japan, and the Singapore Exchange.

Huawei Blockchain Service
Huawei unveiled its novel BAAS solution, called Blockchain Service, based on Linux Foundation’s Hyperledger Fabric 1.0. The solution is devised to help companies design smart contracts focusing on supply chain, securitized assets, and public services, on top of a distributed ledger network.

IBM Blockchain Platform
Another key BAAS provider is IBM. Its Blockchain Platform allows organizations to “easily build and join a blockchain network on-premises, or on any private, public, or hybrid multicloud. Partnerships have been vital to IBM’s continuous BAAS expansion. IBM’s Blockchain-as-a-Service business deploys Hyperledger Fabric and has been used extensively in industries such as food supply, media, advertising and trade finance.

Microsoft Azure
And there is Microsoft’s Azure platform based on Ethereum. That BAAS offering enables clients to deploy blockchain networks, build apps with confidence and store data off-chain. Clients can choose to build on several networks, while three products are available: Azure Blockchain Service, Azure Blockchain Workbench, and Azure Blockchain Development Kit.

As Azure can be integrated with other Microsoft products such as Logic Apps and Flow, this makes it ‘a dependable choice’ for enterprises seeking to harness blockchain, such as General Electric and T-Mobile .

R3 – Corda
Corda, the open-source blockchain platform developed by global enterprise solutions provider R3, enables companies to transact directly and privately using smart contracts. The BAAS provider was recently used by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines to simplify financial processes and enhance settlements. Interoperability, security and privacy are the foundations of the finance-focused Corda. The firm R3 developed solutions for over 300 clients.

Regional development

According to a recent BAAS Market Report North America – especially the US, Mexico and Canada – owns the largest share in the worldwide market for BAAS. One of the major reasons for the widespread development and adoption of BAAS tools in North America is the strong presence of small, medium, and large tech companies operating in the US. This, along with rising integration of BAAS solutions with public utilities services, will enable the region to dominate the BAAS market share in the foreseeable future.

Europe has been deemed as the second-leading market for BAAS. Apart from this, the region can note significant surge in adoption of blockchain technology in the forthcoming years, because of the strong support from the government across various countries. Increasing focus of well-established players on blockchain technology will propel the market in the near future.

The Asia Pacific (APAC) region is believed to be the third-most lucrative market for BAAS. The BAAS Market Report states that Asia-Pacific will register the highest growth rate during the forecast period. The BAAS sector will be boosted by enormous blockchain investment by China, Japan, and South Korea governments.

Final remarks

BAAS may become the catalyst that leads to a widespread adoption of blockchain technology and to a deeper penetration across various sectors and businesses, especially by SMEs.

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) blockchain technology could be instrumental in bridging the gap in trade financing around the world. Similar benefits can be reaped by SMEs in the context of supply chain processes as transparency, immutability, and traceability become inevitable. These potential advantages of blockchain for SMEs may provide a significant boost to the BAAS market growth in the coming years.

So, BAAS may be seen as a great opportunity for SMEs to take advantage of blockchain.

 

Carlo de Meijer

Economist and researcher

 

 

 

Source

Stable Coins and Monetary Policy: towards more instability?

| 08-05-2020 | Carlo de Meijer | treasuryXL

In response to a call last year October by the G20 to examine regulatory issues raised by so-called global stable coin arrangements and to advise on multilateral responses ‘as appropriate’, the Financial Stability Board (FSB) recently published ten high-level recommendations for consultation for effective regulatory and supervisory treatment of stable coins. The FSB however did not extend their response to financial stability and monetary policy risk issues. And these are of utmost importance.

What are stable coins?

But first, what are stable coins? These are digital currencies or contracts that are linked to certain underlying assets. That could be a currency, a real estate, or stocks. Stable coins can be used in many forms, namely as a store of value, a means of payment or fully backed or collateralised by fiat currency. Stable coins can be issued as tokens or accounts, settled in a centralized or decentralized fashion. So there is not one uniform sort of stable coin but many variations, making it very difficult to control and regulate.

Why are stable coins taking off?

Why is adoption of stable coins growing? Stable coins could bring a number of benefits especially to cross-border payments, which currently tend to be slow, non-transparent, and expensive. Stable coins might bring improved efficiency, broader financial inclusion, and more innovation (better integrated in our daily digital lives). But also low transaction costs (near-costless and immediate), convenience, global reach (via strong network effects), and speed are all key advantages.

While stable coins could greatly facilitate transactions in foreign currency, it could drastically lower costs of remittances, which would increase foreign currency inflows. Though they are increasingly being used for payments, an area where speed and efficiency have become the deciding factor, stable coins could also make storage of foreign currency easier, safer, and cheaper.

Most banks however do not yet address consumer and companies demands for these kind of digital currencies, so other organisations are filling the gap.

Why are stable coins risky?

Facebook’s plans to launch a stable coin named Libra has created a large amount of scepticism from central bankers and financial regulators around the globe (See my earlier blog). And that for justified reasons.

While stable coins have the potential to enhance the efficiency of the provision of financial services, at the same time they may also generate a number of important risks. Though stable coin arrangements might be expected to have contingency arrangements in case of problems, there are a number of risks brought in by them that could be detrimental for both financial stability and monetary policy effectiveness.

These risks are related to issues such as the value of stable coins, the security of the trust account, the interoperability of stable coins and thus to competition.

  • Reduced consumer protection

There is the risk of reduced consumer/investor protection. Providing appropriate protection levels may become more challenging, as the cross-border nature of a stable coin means it is subject to a variety of regulatory frameworks in different jurisdictions. It is therefore not clear whether strong safeguards on consumer bank accounts and the associated payments will be in place with stable coins, or what recourse consumers will have. There is a big chance that redemption of stable coin into fiat currency is not (always) possible as government-backing is absent. Without requisite safeguards, stable coin networks at global scale may put consumers at risk.

  • Limiting market competition

But also from a competition point-of-view it might be very challenging to create a future level playing field. Stable coins may pose challenges for competition and anti-trust policies. Competition in financial markets may be endangered especially when stable coins are not interoperable. Tech giants could thereby use their networks to create monopolies to “shut out” competitors and monetize information, using proprietary access to data on customer transactions. And there is the risk of a potential and partial disintermediation of commercial banks if some depositors prefer holding stable coins.

  • Increased cyber risk

And there is the risk – caused by lack of transparency (anonymity) and clear regulation – of stable coins promoting illicit activities such as money laundering, terrorist financing, and other financing crimes. But it could also heighten data privacy and protection concerns, as the organisation behind a stable coin could rapidly become the ‘custodian’ of millions of users’ personal information.

Stable coins may negatively impact financial stability and monetary policy

Stable coins already pose a number of additional risks including credit and liquidity risk to the existing financial system. These may threaten  financial stability and hamper monetary policy and ultimately may harm real economic activity if not designed and regulated properly. This by increasing existing fragilities in the financial sector and facilitating the cross-border transmission of shocks. These impacts could be seriously magnified if stable coins are widely accepted and used as a means of payment on a global scale for general use.

Threat to financial stability

There are still many questions related to the implications of a widely used stablecoin for financial stability. This impact will greatly depend on the sort (design) of the stable coin and complexity of these arrangements as well as the scale of adoption. If stable coins achieve wide-scale usage, more serious financial stability issues may result.

  • Stable coin arrangements

The effect of a stable coin on financial stability, for example, would thereby be driven in part by how the stable coin is tied to an asset (if at all) and by the features of the asset itself. A stable coin tied one-to-one to an individual currency would have different (but less negative) implications than one tied to a basket of currencies.

A stable coin that is built on a permissioned network would have different (less) risk implications than a permissionless network, which may be more vulnerable to money laundering and terrorist financing risks. A stable coin used solely by commercial banks would have a different risk profile than one for consumer use.

  • Likelihood of bank runs

Giving the general public access to stable coins could pose a greater threat to financial stability (of the international payments system), by increasing the likelihood of a bank run in times of shocks. The impact on financial stability will be heavily determined by how stable coins are managed.

If risks are not addressed and managed adequately, the resulting liquidity, credit, market, or operational risks, could undermine confidence and trigger a run on bank deposits where users would all attempt to redeem their GSCs at the reference value. Such a scenario would be more likely if the stable coin issuer is not transparent about its reserve holdings or if the stable coin’s reporting lacks credibility. But also poor governance may result in the stable coin being vulnerable to runs or loss of confidence.

Hampering monetary policy

Global stable coins have also the potential to challenge monetary sovereignty and change the way monetary policy works. Stable coins could hamper monetary policy in a number of circumstances. Especially if they reach global scale they could have a very negative impact on the effectiveness of the  monetary policy. This will be most pronounced during periods of strains when there is a massive substitution of fiat currencies into stable coins.

  • Privatisation of money

Large scale use of stable coins could lead to further privatisation of money, out of the control of monetary authorities, and to frustrating trust in the existing monetary system. This could further negatively impact monetary policy effectiveness and ultimately have massive disruptive effects on the entire global financial ecosystem.

  • Real impact on monetary policy

The real impact on monetary policy will very much depend on how stable coins will be used: as a store of value, a means of payment or a unit of account. But also on how the stable coin is linked to the various underlying asset(s).

  • Store of value

If a stable coin is used as a store of value on a large scale, the effect of monetary policy on domestic interest rates and credit conditions could be weakened. This is especially the case in countries whose currencies are not part of the reserve assets.

If users were to hold stable coins permanently in deposit-like accounts, bank retail deposits might decline. This will increase bank dependence on wholesale funding and might exaggerate monetary policy transmission. This because wholesale deposits are generally more interest rate-sensitive than “sticky” retail deposits.

  • Currency substitution

By facilitating cross-border payments, a stable coin might increase cross-border capital mobility and the substitutability of domestic and foreign assets, affecting monetary policy transmission thereby amplifying the responsiveness of domestic interest rates to foreign rates and as a result underme domestic monetary control.

  • Dollarisation

The existence of stable coins as a safe haven during times of financial crisis could also encourage dollarisation. Via network effects, this could have a significant impact on monetary sovereignty through currency substitution leading to a loss of monetary autonomy. Central banks may lose monetary policy control, as financial systems become more exposed to exchange rate shocks, while the central bank is constrained in providing liquidity. This may have adverse effects on monetary policy effectiveness. As the monetary supply of stable coins cannot be controlled by any one party, it will negatively affect the menu of options available to central bankers in certain economic situations.

Some worry that, if stable coins are adopted on a wide enough scale, it could have a negative externality, or spill-over effect, on the economy as a whole. This may be amplified by potential uncertainty surrounding the ability of official authorities to provide oversight, backstop liquidity, and collaborate across borders

How to react: tackling the risks?

Stable coin networks at global scale are leading us to revisit questions over what form money can take, who or what can issue it, and how payments can be recorded and settled. While central bank money and commercial bank money are the foundations of the modern financial system, nonbank private “money” or assets also facilitate transactions among a network of users.

Regulators, central banks and monetary policy authorities would be confronted with a number of challenges. If stable coins may reach global scale, they are likely to become systemically important and concentrate risks. That however may hurt the safety, efficiency and integrity of the global financial system. For that reason strict regulations and monetary surveillance is of utmost importance.

“The more you move towards the core of the global payment system, the more likely you are to see central bank money because that is what provides stability.” “We care about financial stability and we have built a system which works very well … it has never failed.” Benoît Coeuré, director of BIS’ new innovation hub

Because stable coins and other cryptocurrencies are unlikely to be bound by physical borders, regulatory actions in one jurisdiction are unlikely to be fully effective without coordinated action elsewhere. The emergence of stable coins has raised important questions for regulators, central banks and other authorities worldwide how to react. They are now looking for ways how the various risks linked to stable coins could be tackled in a most effective way.

The challenges however will not only be creating an appropriate regulatory framework including consumer protection, but also measures to counter financial stability and monetary policy risks. Given the large differences how stable coins are organised and the role they might play, there is no one-solve-all-problems solution. Things to decide are: whether or not to restrict foreign-currency stablecoins; whether or not forbid stable coins unless there is a sufficient framework in place to ensure governance and risk management; ask for more interoperability between stable coins; risk management procedures in place by enforcing international standards etc.

  • Regulate stable coins like money market funds

Customer funds must be safe and protected from bank runs. This calls for legal clarity on what kind of financial instruments stablecoins represent. One approach would be to regulate stable coins like money market funds that guarantee fixed nominal returns, requiring providers to maintain sufficient liquidity and capital.

  • Access to Central Bank reserve accounts

Another way is getting central banks involved. They could offer stable coin providers access to their reserve accounts ( the safest and most liquid assets available), under strict conditions. This offers a blueprint for how central banks could partner with the private sector to offer the ‘digital cash of tomorrow’—called synthetic central bank digital currency (sCBDC). In the sCBDC model, which is a public-private partnership, central banks would focus on their core function: providing trust and efficiency. The private sector, as providers of stablecoins, would be left to satisfy the remaining steps under appropriate supervision and oversight, and to do what they do best: innovate and interact with customers.

  • Create own Central Bank Digital currency

The most extreme reaction of Central Banks would be to create their own central bank digital currency (CBDC), whose monetary issue is centralized in the hands of the bank. Proponents argue that central bank digital currencies would be a safer alternative to privately issued stable coins because they would be a direct liability of the central bank.

A more relevant question may be whether some intermediate solutions may be able to offer the safety and benefits of real-time digital payments based on sovereign currencies without necessitating radical transformation of the financial system.

 

 

Carlo de Meijer

Economist and researcher

 

 

 

 

Source

Blockchain and European payments: banks in the defensive mode

| 14-04-2020 | Carlo de Meijer | treasuryXL

The European Banking Federation (EBF), the European Association of Co-operative Banks (EACB) and the European Savings and Retail Banking Group (ESBG) point out that the crisis has brought to the fore the importance of well-functioning payments services.

The three groups have put together their vision for payments in the EU over the next five years, as they “seek to meet changes sparked by a mix of evolving customer needs, regulatory action, technology and innovation, and increased competition”.

Top of the list of priorities is the importance of developing instant payments across the EU that allows for both the differentiation of EU companies and the reduction of dependency on the dominant non-EU payment card schemes.

But reading the document not one single word was mentioned about using  blockchain or distributed ledger technology. It seems banks are increasingly getting in the defensive mode worrying the disruptive impact of this technology on their business.

Some critical remarks

Looking into the report the focus is rather limited. It shows a rather isolated EU-oriented view. It does not take into account the new realities such as globalisation of the payments world, the upcoming of new technologies and the global role of organisations  such as Visa and MasterCard, but also the likes of Facebook and Google.
It is too much EU but above all too much euro-area focused, while not taking into account the cross border element especially towards non-euro EU countries.
The report also does not go into more detail towards the various technologies including Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and above all blockchain.

Present state of EU payments market

But let us first look at the present state of the EU payments market. And what blockchain could mean to improve. As EU banks you cannot deny the outside world. I agree, most European domestic payment systems are pretty efficient. But not where one has to transfer money cross-border, especially where it relates to non-euro countries.

Most established centralised payment systems were designed decades ago, in a completely different world. While they are considered to be reliant, secure and stable domestically i.e. inside individual EU countries, these centralized systems have not been able to catch up with the needs of our digital, open and hyper-connected world.

Banks have continued to use the old-style correspondent banking systems for international payments – despite their inherent weaknesses. Notably, these systems are expensive, slow, and complex. In the correspondent banking system, both the originating bank and the foreign bank retain their own ledgers, from which they make reconciliations and settlements. This may lead to a lack of transparency, but also make them vulnerable for hacks.

According to a SWIFT and EuroFinance joint survey, lack of payments traceability, invisibility on banking fees, and amount discrepancies are the key concerns in cross border payments. It can take days to clear traditional cross-border wire payments, which carry fees as high as 10%. According to a McKinsey Research, cross border-payments take 3–5 days, which is quite long for corporates seeking to receive money. In the event of a dispute or investigation, the duration can be longer.

Disruption

New technologies are revolutionizing the way we pay and transfer money all over the globe. With the advent of mobile banking, e-commerce, and digital wallets, banks have to rethink their correspondent banking system of making cross-border payments. Blockchain is another area that – if adopted in a more massive way – could majorly transform the global payment systems and disrupt banks, causing them to realign  or rethink their products.

SWIFT defensive stance

So it is not that strange banks are increasingly in the defensive. SWIFT is still the dominant payment-processing ecosystem with more than 11,000 banks. Blockchain, through its distributed ledger, however may disrupt SWIFT’s operations in the future. To neutralize the rapid adoption of blockchain in the cross-border payments industry, SWIFT developed a cloud solution called Global Payments Innovation (gpi) to connect all clients in the payment chain. Currently, gpi accounts for more than 55 percent of SWIFT cross-border payments. Half of these transactions are reaching the recipients within minutes, but all of them within 24 hours.

Although SWIFT plans to rely on common standards, core architecture, and APIs to be a leader in the industry, it is also slowly embracing blockchain technology. SWIFT has launched a proof-of-concept (PoC) trial with R3′s Corda platform, which is blockchain-powered, to initiate payments that then go to gpi.

How can blockchain improve payments?

Though blockchain is still in its early stages, this technology has a number of inherent characteristics  presenting a fundamentally new way to transfer information and value over digital networks.

This technology could play a huge and central role in payments, underpinning core market infrastructure as well as end-user products, as a source of efficiency, innovation and competitive advantage.

As it is slowly maturing, blockchain technology could gain the trust of banking institutions and adopted widely in the coming years. From large banks and enterprises optimizing global liquidity, to retail stores accepting payment in digital currencies, to new forms of customer identification for retail transactions, blockchain could permeat the payments landscape at an accelerated space.

New forms of payment rails could “blur the lines” between currencies and countries, while cryptography solutions like zero knowledge proof could shift paradigms in areas such as identity, compliance and data privacy.

What are the real benefits?

Blockchain is a promising technology for payment processing. The broad implications for payments, especially improving settlements’ times, removing the middleman and security of cross-border transactions are hard to ignore.

The ability to speed up the payments process, improve capabilities when it comes to cross-border payments, reducing fraud by using smart contracts and making the whole payment processes more efficient and transparent are all elements that may impact its future potential and use.

Efficiency

Blockchain’s primary feature is its efficiency. Because the core idea of a decentralised ledger technology (DLT) is to forego centralised institutions, paying on a blockchain is “as easy as clicking send.”  The distributed ledger facilitates the bilateral, immutable distribution of value with the assistance of a settlement agency. Blockchain, allows the sender and the receiver, as nodes in the network, to have a complete copy of the ledger. In such a scenario, there are no correspondent banks/intermediaries involved, eliminating any chances of manipulation. The results are no money transfer waiting periods or unnecessary third-party processing fees. Blockchain-based cryptocurrencies can be transferred (and recorded for auditing purposes) instantaneously across the world, increasing liquidity and efficiency in the markets.

Security/Safety

Another important feature of blockchain technology is safety. Blockchain allows for the safe transfer of money between different individuals, currencies and countries by securing all transactions on the network with cryptography. The crux of many of its purported benefits for the enterprise is its decentralized nature, which promotes visibility and makes it more difficult for data to be manipulated. The transactions are linked with previous transactions and are distributed to all the participants in the network. For a hacker to tamper with any transaction, he/she must alter all the previous ones, which is (almost) impossible. Additionally, the use of blockchain smart contracts can halt payments when agreed terms are violated.

Cost reduction

And blockchain may support real-time domestic and cross-border payments at lower costs compared to traditional payment services. Blockchain technology completely eliminates the need for intermediaries and facilitate a direct transfer over the platform, thereby eliminating foreign exchange fees while increasing speed of transfer. Instead of incurring these fees, blockchain allows customers to pay only a nominal fee or sometimes no fee at all.

The present state of blockchain adoption in payments

Of course, blockchain technology is still in their early ages and largely still immature. Blockchain payments are not (yet) mainstream and many banks and payment service providers are just testing it, trying to combine the so-called old monetary system with the new one (blockchain solution based values or solutions). Most institutions are still reluctant to embrace blockchain fully until there is broader support for it.

But what about Ripple?

A leading player in the blockchain payment world is Ripple. Its RippleNet blockchain platform facilitates transaction of global payments at a rapid speed, allows users (mostly small business) make payments across the globe and send and receive money in local currency, requiring lower capital amounts for cross-border payments. The company’s ledger technology secures, tracks and reconciles payments, so small businesses have a transparent history of all incoming and outgoing payments.

RippleNet has a product called xRapidthat is already providing low-cost liquidity to financial institutions responsible for facilitating cross-border payments. xRapid can facilitate the process without relying on mandatory pre-funded nostro accounts, as is the case in a correspondent banking system for the execution of cross-border payments, thereby lowering the cost of cross-border transactions. As a result, the transactions occur in a matter of minutes, saving time on recipients.

Currently, the network of banks and commercial platforms has grown to 365, and they are now able to resolve problems that delayed cross-border payments, such as missing data and compliance checks. As more banks join the network, payment delays will reduce importantly.

The Ripple payment system is still in strong competition with SWIFT but is super-fast and can settle a cross border transaction in a matter of few seconds where SWIFT takes more than 3 days at times. Ripple is much more cost effective as well.

Along with this also blockchain platform Corda R3 is helping financial institutions to settle payments.

From hype to more realism

The excitement about blockchain has subsided over the last couple of years. The blockchain hype is over and we are now in the trough of disillusionment, according to Garner’s Hypecycle. Lots of experiments and R&Ds have been taken place from start-ups to central banks, however no full scale working use case has been presented at the moment.

We now moved into a stage of “rational practicality”. However, that is not all bad for the further development of blockchain, as “in the trough is where the real work gets done”. The industry knows what is possible, but also is learning what is practical given the complexity of cross-border payments. Blockchain — assuming it is attached to relevant, pragmatic use cases — can add incremental value to a business or other organization.

Regulatory barriers

One of the primary barriers is the complex global regulatory framework surrounding money and its underlying infrastructure. Central banks, governments and regulatory bodies around the world have varying perspectives and attitudes towards blockchain and its implications to critical matters such as money supply, privacy and financial crime.

As a result, most payment-related innovations either get trapped in ‘proof-of-concept’ mode with limited options for global scale, or end up buried in complicated cross-jurisdiction approval processes. The question now is not will blockchain work, but rather how do we put it to work to create more efficiency in global payment systems and can we get regulatory bodies on-board.

What should banks do?

Inevitably, banks will have to re-evaluate and revamp their existing payment systems to meet the needs of their customers with or without blockchain. However, it is increasingly clear that the scale seems to be tipping towards blockchain given the various benefits including its transparency, speed, and cost of transactions. In the realm of cross-border payments, some financial institutions are already working with blockchain providers to give their customers fast, secure, and cheap services.

When applied correctly, it has the ability to significantly change the way organizations do business with one another. As the global payments ecosystem continues to transform in response to a rapidly shifting commerce landscape, we may see the number of blockchain applications in payments exponentially growing.

A growing number of financial institutions world-wide have reached the point where they recognize blockchain as something that’s not going away and realize that they have to be involved in it if they don’t want to be disrupted by other payments players that use blockchain to bypass slower-moving banking infrastructure.

So, European banks, if you can’t beat them, join them.

By the way, a joint effort of ECB and European banks in creating a European digital currency would be a great step forward.

 

 

Carlo de Meijer

Economist and researcher

 

 

 

 

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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