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The long and winding road … to the blockchain

I still talk a lot about blockchain, distributed ledgers, cryptocurrencies and more, but often feel it’s falling on deaf ears. The price of bitcoin flies around in the $7,000 a coin bracket, having risen from a tenth of that amount a year ago; and many people talk about blockchain and distributed ledger interchangeably, as did I until those with more knowledge than I corrected me.

It’s a complex space that I really don’t think many understand. A great example is bitcoin. Who is actually using it versus who is speculating in it? When your parents, siblings and even your dog wants to own one, you know something is wrong.

In particular, do the people in banks talking about blockchain know that you can have a distributed ledger without a blockchain, but you cannot have a blockchain without a distributed ledger? Do they understand the difference between Proof of Concept (PoC), Proof of Work (PoW) and a pilot scheme? Have they considered that most of what is happening today is experimentation with no certainty about what will come out of the other end? And specifically, have they reflected upon the fact that four of five use cases for distributed ledger technologies (DLT) are structural changes, where the technology is the least significant part of that system?

This last point for me is probably the most important. Nearly every use case I’ve discussed in DLT – digital identity and clearing and settlement in particular – require massive industry changes before we can apply the technology. Many of those industry structural issues have not been addressed yet, and they have to be dealt with first.

Take digital identity. How can you have a digital identity working in DLT without the buy-in of the counterparties – government, banks and other institutions – to the scheme? Now I know that there are ways around this, but I really do not see the digital identity schemes working without agreement by those who need to verify identities agreeing that the scheme being developed is the right one. I know some people will disagree with me here – a self-sovereign scheme can operate without the deployment by a government or bank – but the point is that a government or bank are the ones who want to verify identities and without their buy-in, there is no scheme. Nevertheless, there are some leading innovators out there doing something about it.

Similarly, with clearing and settlement. The clearing and settlement systems are based upon central counterparty structures, central banks and central custodians, working together in structural agreements to interoperate. To suddenly decentralise those centralised institutions is never going to happen overnight. In fact, an awful lot of industry dialogue has to take place first around how a decentralised database of clearing would operate, the legal agreements that go with that, the contracting structures and the ecosystem that needs to be in place to make it happen. Then, and only then, will the industry start to replace the centralised databases with decentralised shared ledgers.

That is a big commitment and ask.  Bear in mind TARGET2 for Securities (T2S) took about ten years to come to fruition, that’s the sort of timeframes we are looking at for any major financial infrastructures to be refreshed.  About five to seven years will be agreeing the legal entities and operations around the system, and three to five years to develop and implement the system. That’s going to take a while.

So, anyone who expected a jazz hands moment saying that digital identity and clearing and settlement on DLT was here, is wrong. There will be no moment; just a long hard slog towards agreements and implementation.

About Chris M Skinner

Chris M Skinner
Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, the Finanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal’s Financial News. To learn more click here...

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  • Matthias Benfey

    A voice of reason!