Tag Archives: Blockchain

Blockchain Based Equity Settlement in Australia

In the FT, Jamie Smyth reports that the Australian Securities Exchange plans to introduce a blockchain based equity clearing and settlement system.

ASX will operate the system on a secure private network with known participants. The participants must comply with regulation, according to the ASX, which said its system had nothing to do with blockchain technology deployed by cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin.

“Blockchain from a Central Bank Perspective”

An excellent conference organized by the Monetary Law Forum Switzerland focused on blockchain use cases from a central bank perspective. Program, links to slides.

I discussed the macroeconomic perspective and argued for “reserves for all.”

Some related links: Nivaura and Allen & Overy (backing Nivaura). OTC Swiss Blockchain, by Roman Bischoff.

Arguments for Interest Paying, Account Based, CBDC

In an NBER working paper and a column on VoxEU, Michael Bordo and Andrew Levin make the case for central bank issued digital currency (CBDC).

Bordo and Levin favor an account-based CBDC system (managed or supervised by the central bank) rather than central bank issued tokens in the blockchain.

They emphasize the Friedman rule and the fact that interest paying CBDC affords the possibility to satisfy the rule:

These … goals – … a stable unit of account and an efficient medium of exchange – seemed to be irreconcilable due to the impracticalities of paying interest on paper currency, and hence Friedman advocated a steady deflation rather than price stability. But the achievement of both goals has now become feasible using a well-designed CBDC.

Interest paying CBDC would imply—payments to account holders. Bordo and Levin do not discuss the political economy implications. They are also silent about the transition from the current system with deposits to a new system with interest bearing CBDC in which demand for deposits would drastically fall.

Bordo and Levin favor abolishing cash to render monetary policy most powerful. Eliminating the option to withdraw cash would also eliminate the lower bound on nominal interest rates and would render unnecessary any “inflation buffer” of 2 percent or so. Monetary policy thus could move from positive inflation targets to a price level target.

Their paper contains a long list of useful references.

 

ICOs and Frequent Flyer Miles

The Economist on “initial coin offerings:”

Many ICOs are designed to finance applications that will make use of the blockchain … In some cases, the “coins” can be exchanged for services on the site. In a way, this is like selling air miles in a startup airline; investors can either use the miles for flights or hope they can trade them at a profit. For the business, it is also a way of creating demand for the product they are selling.

But in plenty of cases, an ICO is just a way of raising capital without all the hassle of meeting regulatory requirements, or the burden of paying interest to a bank.

Desirable Features of Central Bank Issued Digital Currency

On bankunderground, Simon Scorer reminds us that a central bank issued digital currency (CBDC) need not operate on a distributed ledger platform. The two do not have much to do with each other.

Scorer suggests a series of technical requirements for a CBDC:

And he concludes that a distributed ledger does not meet all requirements.

It’s unlikely that all of the above attributes could be perfectly met with today’s technology; you may need to make compromises between features – e.g. the trade-off between resilience and privacy …

CBDC is far from just a simple question of technology; any central bank contemplating CBDC will need to answer a host of fundamental economic questions, as well as considering how feasible it is to achieve all the required features and what type of technology might enable this.

Bitcoin, Arbitrage, and the Human Side of the Blockchain

On Bloomberg view, Matt Levine discusses the recent bitcoin fork. The handling of long and short positions on Bitfinex, a bitcoin exchange, created an arbitrage opportunity, until Bitfinex changed its mind.

Bitfinex announced a policy to deal with the fork, people took advantage of the policy, and Bitfinex changed its mind after the fact. Each of its decisions was rational, and quite plausibly the fairest option available to it. None of those decisions were required by, like, the nature of bitcoin, or of short selling: There is no single obviously correct solution to these issues. Instead, each decision was sort of weird and contingent and reversible: not the immutable code of the blockchain, but just humans sitting around and trying to figure out which approach would cause the fewest complaints. …

The blockchain has a certain stark logical completeness, but it doesn’t address all of the actual human uses required of it. And so it has become encrusted with other human institutions. And those institutions turn out to be unsurprisingly human.

Connecting Central Bank Payments Systems

In the FT, Martin Arnold reports about a new cross-border payment method tested by the Bank of England. The “interledger” program transfers money “near-instantaneously and without settlement risk.” The Bank of England

set up two simulated RTGS systems on a cloud computing platform, using the Ripple interledger to simultaneously process “a successful cross-border payment”.

This is not necessarily good news for the blockchain community. The Bank of England’s proof of concept is

“about connectivity between central bank systems rather than replacing the central bank systems with the blockchain,” [according to] Daniel Aranda, head of Europe at Ripple.

 

 

 

Initial Coin Offerings and the Pecking Order

On Alphaville, Izabella Kaminska comments on the pecking order induced by initial coin offerings (ICOs).

All of this raises an important point about actual shareholder rights within these structures. Say a legally-incorporated institution with actual shareholders dishes out an uncapped amount of tokens promising a share of revenues or dividends via the ICO process. Do shareholders’ rights to those revenue/dividends trump rights of the token holders? And if so, how does that square with the way risk is distributed through these systems? As Unseth notes, more often than not, it’s the token holders taking the bulk of the early concept risk, yet the inferiority of their ranking relative to shareholders kind of sees the latter receiving a free lunch.

Governments Adopt the Blockchain, To Improve Efficiency and Build Trust

The Economist reports about government initiatives aimed at using blockchain technology in the public sector.

  • Possible uses include land registries, identity-management systems, health-care records, or elections.
  • Proponents expect the technology to improve efficiency and transparency and foster trust.
  • Adoption requires significant investments.
  • According to a survey “nine in ten government organisations say they plan to invest in blockchain technology to help manage financial transactions, assets, contracts and regulatory compliance by next year.”
  • Sweden tests a blockchain-based land registry; Dubai’s government wants to completely shift to blockchain technology by 2020; Estonia stores health records and protects its shared government systems using blockchain-like technolog; Georgia’s land registry uses blockchain technology and has processed 160,000 transactions; Ukraine wants to become “one of the world’s leading blockchain nations,” not least to build trust between government and citizens.

Smart Ponzi Games in the Blockchain

On the FT’s Alphaville blog, Izabella Kaminska points to a paper by Italian academics arguing that the Ethereum technology tends to incubate Ponzi schemes.

The uniqueness of the “smart Ponzi” is its capacity to protect the identity of the initiator but also its ability to persist even after being exposed. Since contracts are unmodifiable and thus unstoppable there is no central authority to terminate the execution of the scheme or force the initiator to refund victims. What’s more, the inability to shut it down means victims can be led to believe the scheme will last forever.

Does Decentralized Intermediation Add Value?

On the FT’s Alphaville blog, Izabella Kaminska questions the value of decentralization (and thus, blockchain technology) in intermediation.

Decentralisation is, in almost all cases, not an efficiency. To the contrary, it’s a cost that adds complexity and creates an unnecessary burden for both users and operators unless centralised layers are added on top of it — defying the whole point. …

At the end of the day, there are only two groups of people prepared to go to costly lengths to decentralise a service which is already available (in what is often a much higher quality form) in a centralised or conventional hierarchal state. One group is criminals and fraudsters. The other is ideologues and cultists. …

It’s not privacy, because a centralised system can be encrypted just as much as a blockchain-based one.

Bitcoin Unlimited

On Bloomberg, Yuji Nakamura and Lulu Yilun Chen report about conflicting views in the Bitcoin community on how to address capacity limits in the blockchain.

Bitcoin Unlimited is essentially a software upgrade to the blockchain. Years ago, bitcoin’s early developers imposed a cap on the amount of data it could process. While that slowed down the network, it was seen as a necessary safety measure against potential attackers who could overload the system. Now, Unlimited supporters say the blockchain is robust enough that it doesn’t need any limit at all.

While most agree the blockchain is stronger, critics … say that removing the data cap is a risky move which will leave bitcoin vulnerable to governments and global banks. Without a limit, large organizations would use their resources to out-muscle smaller miners and effectively take control of the blockchain and bitcoin itself.

“Vollgeld, the Blockchain, and the Future of the Monetary System”

Presentation at the Liechtenstein Institute about the Vollgeld initiative, the blockchain revolution, and their possible effects on banks and the monetary system.

Report in Liechtensteiner Vaterland, February 1, 2017. HTML.

Interview in Wirtschaft Regional, February 4, 2017. PDF.

Krypto Currencies and Privacy

On Wired, Andy Greenberger discusses Monero, Dash, and Zcash, krypto currencies that provide more privacy than bitcoin and its derivatives.

Unlike commercial services like PayPal, Bitcoin allows anyone to spend money online without providing identifying details. But if someone’s Bitcoin address is linked with their real identity, any transaction from that address is entirely visible on the public blockchain … Hiding those transactions requires taking extra steps, like routing bitcoins through “tumblers” that mix up coins with those of strangers—and occasionally steal them—or using techniques like “coinjoin,” built into some bitcoin wallet programs, that mix payments to make them harder to trace. “If I pay my rent in Bitcoin, it wouldn’t be that hard for the landlord to figure out how much money I earned if I don’t take extra precautions” …

Monero … implements a few features that Bitcoin still can’t offer. It uses a technique called “stealth addresses” to generate addresses for receiving Monero that are essentially encrypted; the recipient can retrieve the funds, but no one can link that stealth address to the owner. It employs a technique called “ring signatures,” which means every Monero spent is grouped with as many as a hundred other transactions, so that the spender’s address is mixed in with a group of strangers, and every subsequent movement of that money makes it exponentially more difficult to trace back to the source. And it uses something called “ring confidential transactions,” which hides the amount of every transaction.

Monero isn’t the first cryptocurrency designed to offer a financial privacy panacea: Dash, formerly known as Darkcoin, integrates the “coinjoin” technique that allows bitcoin users to mix their transactions with a few other spenders in what Todd calls a weaker form of anonymity than Monero offers. More recently, Zcash debuted with the strongest anonymity promises yet—it uses cryptographic tricks designed to make tracing a transaction not only unlikely, but mathematically impossible. Zcash has yet to be integrated into dark web markets, though, and still requires wielding the command line to use.

“Wer hat Angst vor Blockchain? (Who’s Afraid of the Blockchain?),” NZZ, 2016

NZZ, November 29, 2016. HTML, PDF. Longer version published on Ökonomenstimme, December 14, 2016. HTML.

Central banks are increasingly interested in employing blockchain technologies, and they should be.

  • The blockchain threatens the intermediation business.
  • Central banks encounter the blockchain in the form of new krypto currencies, and as the technology underlying new clearing and settlement systems.
  • Krypto currencies bear the risk of “dollarization,” but in the major currency areas this risk is still small.
  • New clearing and settlement systems benefit from central bank participation. But central banks benefit as well; those rejecting the new technology risk undermining the attractiveness of the home currency.

“Central Banking and Bitcoin: Not yet a Threat,” VoxEU, 2016

VoxEU, October 19, 2016. HTML.

  • Central banks are increasingly interested in employing blockchain technologies.
  • The blockchain threatens the intermediation business.
  • Central banks encounter the blockchain in the form of new krypto currencies, and as the technology underlying new clearing and settlement systems.
  • Krypto currencies bear the risk of “dollarization,” but in the major currency areas this risk is still small.
  • New clearing and settlement systems benefit from central bank participation. But central banks benefit as well; those rejecting the new technology risk undermining the attractiveness of the home currency.
  • See the original blogpost.

How Does the Blockchain Transform Central Banking?

The blockchain technology opens up new possibilities for financial market participants. It allows to get rid of middle men and thus, to save cost, speed up clearing and settlement (possibly lowering capital requirements), protect privacy, avoid operational risks and improve the bargaining position of customers.

Internet based technologies have rendered it cheap to collect information and to network. This lies at the foundation of business models in the “sharing economy.” It also lets fintech companies seize intermediation business from banks and degrade them to utilities, now that the financial crisis has severely damaged banks’ reputation. But both fintech and sharing-economy companies continue to manage information centrally.

The blockchain technology undermines the middle-men business model. It renders cheating in transactions much harder and thereby reduces the value of credibility lent by middle men. The fact that counter parties do not know and trust each other becomes less of an impediment to trade.

The blockchain may lend credibility to a plethora of transactions, including payments denominated in traditional fiat monies like the US dollar or virtual krypto currencies like Bitcoin. An advantage of krypto currencies over traditional currencies concerns the commitment power lent by “smart contracts.” Unlike the money supply of fiat monies that hinges on discretionary decisions by monetary policy makers, the supply of krypto currencies can in principle be insulated against human interference ex post and at the same time conditioned on arbitrary verifiable outcomes (if done properly). This opens the way for resolving commitment problems in monetary economics. (Currently, however, most krypto currencies do not exploit this opportunity; they allow ex post interference by a “monetary policy committee.”) A disadvantage of krypto currencies concerns their limited liquidity and thus, exchange rate variability relative to traditional currencies if only few transactions are conducted using the krypto currency.

Whether blockchain payments are denominated in traditional fiat monies or krypto currencies, they are always of relevance for central banks. Transactions denominated in a krypto currency affect the central bank in similar ways as US dollar transactions, say, affect the monetary authority in a dollarized economy: The central bank looses control over the money supply, and its power to intervene as lender of last resort may be diminished as well. The underlying causes for the crowding out of the legal tender also are familiar from dollarization episodes: Loss of trust in the central bank and the stability of the legal tender, or a desire of the transacting parties to hide their identity if the central bank can monitor payments in the domestic currency but not otherwise.

Blockchain facilitated transactions denominated in domestic currency have the potential to affect central bank operations much more directly. To leverage the efficiency of domestic currency denominated blockchain transactions between financial institutions it is in the interest of banks to have the central bank on board: The domestic currency denominated krypto currency should ideally be base money or a perfect substitute to it, directly exchangeable against central bank reserves. For when perfect substitutability is not guaranteed then the payment associated with the transaction eventually requires clearing through the traditional central bank managed clearing mechanism and as a consequence, the gain in speed and efficiency is relinquished. Of course, building an interface between the blockchain and the central bank’s clearing system could constitute a first step towards completely dismantling the latter and shifting all central bank managed clearing to the former.

Why would central banks want to join forces? If they don’t, they risk being cut out from transactions denominated in domestic currency and to end up monitoring only a fraction of the clearing between market participants. Central banks are under pressure to keep “their” currencies attractive. For the same reason (as well as for others), I propose “Reserves for All”—letting the general public and not only banks access central bank reserves (here, here, here, and here).

Banking on the Blockchain

In the NZZ, Axel Lehmann offers his views on the prospects of blockchain technologies in banking. Lehmann is Group Chief Operating Officer of UBS Group AG.

New possibilities:

  • Higher efficiency; lower cost; more robustness and simpler processes; real-time clearing;
  • no need for intermediaries; information exchange without risk of interference
  • automated “smart contracts;” automated wealth management;
  • more control over transactions; better data protection;
  • improved possibilities for macro prudential monitoring.

Challenges:

  • Speed; scalability; security;
  • privacy;
  • smart contracts require new contract law;
  • interface between traditional payments system and blockchain payment system.

Lehmann favors common standards and he points out that this is what is happening (R3-consortium with UBS, Hyperledger project with Linux foundation).

Related, Martin Arnold reported in the FT in late August that UBS, Deutsche Bank, Santander, BNY Mellon as well as the broker ICAP pursue the project of a “utility settlement coin.” Here is my reading of what this is:

  • The aim seems to be to have central banks on board; so USCs might be a form of reserves (base money). The difference to traditional reserves would be that USCs facilitate transactions using distributed ledgers rather than traditional clearing and settlement mechanisms. (This leads to the question of the appropriate interface between the two systems posed by Lehmann.)

But what’s in for central banks? Would this be a test before the whole clearing and settlement system is revamped, based on new blockchain technology? Don’t central banks fear that transactions on distributed ledgers might foster anonymity?

Commitment within Reach, Part II

The Economist reports about cyber thieves “outsmarting” a smart contract.

Well, what does that mean? Engaging with a code that runs in all states of the world is to engage with a complete contract. How can one outsmart a complete contract?

Previous post on smart contracts and commitment.

Commitment within Reach

In the FT, Richard Waters reports about the advent of the automated company.

The DAO — an acronym of decentralised autonomous organisation, the name given to such entities — has been set up to invest in other businesses, making it a form of investor-directed venture capital fund. … The organisation is governed by a set of so-called smart contracts which run on the Ethereum blockchain, a public ledger designed to make its operations transparent and enforceable.

In other words, the code provides a commitment mechanism. Imagine a world where government interventions can be encoded in a similar way. This could open the way for solving a central problem of democratic societies: The time inconsistency of optimal government plans.