Tag Archives: Payment system

Distributed-Ledger Based Payment Systems Could Work

The ECB has published a first report on Stella, a joint research project with the Bank of Japan. The two banks are interested in potential roles that distributed ledger technology could play to support the financial market infrastructure. The report assesses whether existing payments systems could be safely and efficiently run on a distributed ledger. It concludes that

  • a distributed-ledger-based system could meet the performance needs of real-time gross settlement systems, up to some limits;
  • such a system could strengthen resilience.

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.

 

 

 

UBS Business Solutions AG

In the NZZ, Hansueli Schöchli reports about further steps by UBS, the Swiss bank, to prepare for the next financial crisis. In the future, a legally independent service unit—UBS Business Solutions AG—provides other business units with critical internal services, including payments, trading systems as well as legal services. A “Master Service Agreement” specifies that the service unit remains operative even if other business units fail.

Die UBS vollzieht nun einen weiteren Schritt. Sie überträgt dieser Tage die konzerninternen Dienstleistungen für das Schweizer Geschäft in die rechtlich selbständige Dienstleistungseinheit UBS Business Solutions AG. Übertragen werden damit im Inland rund 8000 Mitarbeiter. Weltweit soll diese Service-Einheit bis Ende Jahr etwa 18 000 Beschäftigte umfassen. Zu den betroffenen internen Dienstleistungen zählen unter anderem Informatik, Zahlungsverkehr, Handelssysteme, Risikomanagement, Rechtsdienst, Personal und Marketing. Hauptzweck der Übung: Auch wenn Teile des Konzerns in den Konkurs schlittern, sollen kritische Dienstleistungen weiterhin sichergestellt sein. «Dies ist eine Lehre aus der Pleite von Lehman», sagt Markus Ronner, Chef Notfallplanung bei der UBS.

Ein globales «Master Service Agreement» regelt die Service-Lieferungen gegenüber gut 130 UBS-Gesellschaften. Nebst Preisen und Qualitätserfordernissen ist dabei auch geregelt, dass die Service-Einheit im Fall des Konkurses eines Konzernteils ihre Dienstleistungen gegen Bezahlung noch mindestens zwei Jahre lang weiterführen muss. Wenn interne Kunden zahlungsunfähig werden, muss die Service-Gesellschaft genügend Liquidität haben, um in einer Übergangszeit ihre Dienste aufrechterhalten zu können; die Rede ist von sechs Monaten als Referenzmarke.

Money, Banking, and Dreams

In another excellent post on Moneyness, J P Koning likens the monetary system to the plot in the movie Inception, featuring

a dream piled on a dream piled on a dream piled on a dream.

Koning explains that

[l]ike Inception, our monetary system is a layer upon a layer upon a layer. Anyone who withdraws cash at an ATM is ‘kicking’ back into the underlying central bank layer from the banking layer; depositing cash is like sedating oneself back into the overlying banking layer.

Monetary history a story of how these layers have evolved over time. The original bottom layer was comprised of gold and silver coins. On top this base, banks erected the banknote layer; bits of paper which could be redeemed with gold coin. The next layer to develop was the deposit layer; non-tangible book entries that could be transferred by order from one person to another.

The foundation layer has changed over time:

One of the defining themes of modern monetary history has been the death of the original foundation layer; precious metals. … as central banks chased private banks from the banknote layer … and then gradually severed the banknote layer from the gold layer. By 1971, … [b]anknotes issued by the central bank had become the foundation layer. The trend towards a cashless world is a repeat of this script, except instead of the gold layer being slowly removed it is the banknote layer.

Fintech improves the efficiency of the layer arrangement and its connections. It also adds new layers: For instance, some payments made via mobile phone effectively transfer claims on deposits. And it may circumvent layers:

In U.K., the Bank of England is considering allowing fintech companies to bypass the banking layer by offering them direct access to the bottom-most central banking layer.

In contrast, a krypto currency like bitcoin establishes a new foundation layer, on which new layers may be built:

Even now there is talk of a new layer being developed on top of the original bitcoin foundation, the Lightning network. The idea here is that the majority of payments will occur in the Lightning layer with final settlement occurring some time later in the slower Bitcoin layer.

I fully agree with this characterization. In addition to the theme emphasized by Koning—adding layers—I would also stress the theme of untying higher-level layers from lower ones: Central bank money typically is no longer backed by gold; deposits typically are not fully backed by notes; and mobile phone credits may no longer be backed by deposits. The process of untying layers relies on social conventions and trust, and it is fragile. Important questions concern the cost of such fragility, and its necessity. Fragility is not necessary when the social cost of liquidity provision at the foundation layer is negligible.

“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.

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?

Bank of England Opens Access to Payment System

A progress update by the Bank of England describes the Bank’s intention, over time,

to extend direct access to RTGS to non-bank Payment Service Providers (firms granted the status of E-Money Institutions or Payment Institutions in the UK), collectively known as PSPs. By extending RTGS access, our objective is to increase competition and innovation in the market for payment services.

CAD-Coin

In the FT, Philip Stafford reports about a digital currency initiative by the Bank of Canada and commercial banks. It

will involve issuing, transferring and settling central bank assets on a distributed ledger via a token named CAD-Coin.

But:

The Bank of Canada said the experiment was a proof-of-concept and confined to interbank payment systems. … “None of our experiments are to develop central-bank issued e-money‎ for use by the general public.”

“Institutionelle Schwächen der EU (Institutional Problems in the EU),” FuW, 2015

Finanz und Wirtschaft, July 15, 2015. PDF. Ökonomenstimme, July 16, 2015. HTML.

The collapse in Greece is a consequence of major institutional problems:

  • Political decision makers in Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Frankfurt and Washington didn’t follow the rules. This seemed optimal ex post, but is suboptimal ex ante (see Kydland and Prescott).
  • The ECB’s mandate is unclear.
  • The monetary system is fragile.