Blockchain and capital markets: foreign exchange trading

FX market

For something so little talked about, the foreign exchange (FX) market is a big deal.

The world’s largest and most liquid financial market, over $5tn a day changes hands in FX cash and derivative transactions. That’s more than the entire annual GDP of some countries.

The bulk of transactions are for FX derivatives, and few appreciate how integral these are to the functioning of the world economy. In terms of value, FX swaps are the most traded instrument in the world, exchanging an average of $2.4tn per day. When a central bank, commercial bank, corporation or fund manager needs a foreign currency for a purchase, an investment or a hedge, they generally resort to FX swaps – basically, they lend their domestic currency to foreign institutions, and simultaneously borrow from them the currency they need. This works out to be much cheaper and faster than directly borrowing the money in another country. In principle, the collateral for each side is the payment (or series of payments) they commit to making to the other.

As with most derivative markets, the system is clunky and relatively expensive, operating on dispersed, decentralized exchanges with duplicate processes, a lack of standardisation, an emphasis on direct relationships and increasing capital requirements. Although the infrastructure has radically improved over the past few years with the introduction of new trading venues, greater liquidity, algorithmic execution and improved data aggregation, the industry still regards settlement risk as one of its greatest threats.

New technologies and processes are making a difference, and are becoming even more essential in light changing regulation and increasing costs. Clearing houses are becoming even more important, for example, and traditionally opaque over-the-counter markets are being given a welcome (but expensive) wash of sunlight as post-crisis financial regulation demands greater transparency and less risk.

Given the decreasing profitability of swap market making (due to greater capital requirements and a recent slump in volume due to macroeconomic conditions), many prime brokers are either pulling out of the sector or closing out smaller clients, leading to lower liquidity and increased risk. This encourages even more prime brokers to pull out. Non-bank dealers and infrastructure innovations are picking up some of the slack.

Several capital markets businesses – both startups and incumbents – are looking at how blockchain technology can help reduce operating costs.

One of the most prominent is Cobalt, a startup working on a blockchain platform for FX post-trade settlement which it claims can reduce risk and cut costs by 80% (according to the FT, banks currently spend about $500m a year on technology for currency trading). In May, it announced that two of the world’s largest FX traders – Citadel Securities and XTX Markets – will use its service. They join 22 other banks and traders, including Deutsche Bank, UBS, BNP Paribas and Bank of America Merrill Lynch, in testing the platform ahead of a launch expected later this year.

While Cobalt is currently building on a blockchain platform designed by UK-based startup SETL, it aims to be ledger agnostic. The startup cites Tradepoint (a foreign exchange trading technology provider), First Derivatives (a database technology developer, which will apparently feed the data) and Kx (focused on high-speed data processing) as tech partners, and counts CitiGroup (which has the lion’s share of the global FX market) and DCG among its investors.

From startup to industry incumbent… NEX Group (formerly ICAP) has been working on a distributed ledger for FX trades – called Nex Infinity – built with technology from New York-based startup Axoni. The company recently began allowing clients to test the platform.

This makeover is a key part of the company’s strategy as it moves away from its history as one of the market’s leading interdealer brokers and into trading infrastructure. Its subsidiary Traiana will most likely end up playing an important role in the rollout of NEX Infinity, as it is one of the market’s leading post-trade and risk specialists. (As an aside, the founder and CEO of Cobalt – Andy Coyne – used to be CEO of Traiana.)

And, moving up the ladder, CLS Group – the world’s largest FX settlement service (handling over 50% of global FX transactions) – is working on CLS Netting, a blockchain-based settlement system for trades in currencies outside the standard service. The platform won’t be used in the core settlement system, but rather to improve liquidity in other currencies with more challenging legal frameworks that are currently settled on a bilateral basis, such as the renminbi and the rouble.

CLS is a founding member of blockchain consortium Hyperledger, and the platform is being built on Hyperledger Fabric. Several banks – including Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Citi, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, HSBC, Bank of China (Hong Kong), Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, FirstRand and Intesa Sanpaolo – have expressed an interest in participating. Not bad for a fledgling project. Development is expected to near completion in early 2018.

The FX market is not an easy one to disrupt, even though the opportunity is obvious. First, scale matters – small startups, unless they have influential backers, are at a disadvantage in a sector in which most participants know each other, and trust is an important factor. What’s more, the incumbents increasingly seem to be aware of the potential of blockchain technology, as well as the need to innovate.

Second, the spectre of tightening regulation and the impact of macroeconomic trends add risk to the outlook for any foreign exchange project, for both startups and incumbents. FX volumes have been declining for a couple of years, although the slump has been concentrated in the spot market – derivatives are growing nicely, for now.

The next 12 months should see some key announcements in the nexus between blockchain technology and FX trading, as projects mature and more proofs-of-concept emerge. As regulations change, economic trends realign and even newer technologies develop, the market will continue to evolve towards a more efficient, transparent and trustworthy financial service. We are witnessing what will be looked back on as a fundamental shift in capital markets.

ICOs, common sense and the long reach of the law

I’m scratching my head here.

Most respondents to CoinDesk’s poll question “Who should be most fearful after the SEC’s DAO token sale ruling?” answered “Nobody, very unactionable”.

CoinDesk poll on SEC impact

This goes a long way to explaining the continued momentum of initial coin offerings (ICOs). A quick look at any of the ICO tracking sites shows no shortage of upcoming sales, many of which look to the naked eye very much like securities.

Are the respondents on to something? Or are they buying into the tragic “it’ll never happen to me” fallacy?

The thing is, they’re probably right. The SEC doesn’t have the resources to “go after” every digital token that acts like a security but didn’t register.

But, its moves can be swift and sharp. Today CoinDesk reported that the SEC has ordered the temporary suspension of trading in OTC-listed CIAO Group over questions about ICO-related claims.

Whether this is a one-off or the beginning of a slew of actions is unclear (the fact that CIAO is a listed company is no doubt a significant influence). However, the chance of a sanction or even an investigation should be enough to give pause. It’s a career-breaker. Even if the SEC ends up giving the green light after poking around, the stigma of having been singled out will be difficult to wash off.

What’s more, almost all digital token issuers are young startups with shallow pockets. An SEC fine would financially cripple the founders for years. Even just doing a simple risk analysis of [potential cost * probability] vs [potential benefit * probability] shows that, in many cases, ploughing ahead on the assumption that you’re immune is just not worth it.

The likely outcome is that the SEC, having issued a warning shot and seeing that the industry didn’t really take it seriously, swiftly moves to take action. We can probably expect further precedents to be set over the next few months as the regulator decides to make examples of some of the more egregious cases.

Meanwhile, lawyers will continue to speculate on what the rather vague wording of the SEC statement means, cryptoasset entrepreneurs will continue to build new economic models and investors will continue to dream of rapid riches with no consequences. All part of the evolution, right?

Is bitcoin money?

by Ondrej Supitar via StockSnap
by Ondrej Supitar via StockSnap

I’m currently reading “Money: The Unauthorised Biography” by Felix Martin, which I thoroughly recommend. Thought-provoking, illuminating and beautifully written, it debunks our preconceived notions and highlights the surprising evolution of this social technology that we use every day.

In the first chapter, Felix explains that the coins and notes that we carry around are not money. Money is the system of credit and debt that is sometimes represented by circles of metal and rectangles of paper. But usually not – most transactions are not represented by anything physical.

Rather, coins and notes are tokens that help us keep track of debts. The big innovation was to start exchanging those debts for others. Frank owes me, and here’s a token that represents that. I owe you, so here, take Frank’s token. Now he owes you. This conceptual leap is what kickstarted trade and the concept of an “economy”.

Looking back through history, that is what money has always been: a system of recording debts, and a representation of trust. That we associate money with coins is simply survivor bias – coins tend to weather the test of time better than other types of physical token.

One of my favourite anecdotes from the chapter is the siege of Malta. When the Turks cut off the fort from its supplies of gold and silver, the mint had to resort to making coins from copper – it inscribed each with the motto Non Aes, sed Fides – ”Not the metal, but trust.”

The system of recording that trust is what we call money.

Enter an entirely new way of recording that trust: bitcoin.

So, yes, bitcoin is a type of money. Perhaps not a currency – the online dictionary defines “currency” as “a system of money in general use in a particular country”. Since bitcoin is not confined to a particular country, that rules that out. (JP Koning points out that “currency” used to mean “something that could legally be used by the new owner if stolen”. So that would probably include bitcoin – but that definition has fallen into disuse, so we’ll go with the more modern one for now.)

According to the US Commodities and Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), bitcoin is a commodity. If you’re talking about bitcoin the coin, then yes, it could be. Commodities (gold, silver, cacao beans) have often been used in the past to represent money. BUT bitcoin is more than just a commodity, just as the euro is more than just copper coins. (Interestingly, paper – which also represents money – is not considered a commodity.)

And anyway, the CFTC ruling is mainly aimed at the regulation of derivatives, not so much at the use of bitcoin as money.

The topic is tangled, though. If bitcoin is a commodity (like silver), what makes it usable as money (like silver)? An official stamp of some sort – after all, monetary systems have always been controlled (or at least overseen) by a central authority. For the first time, we have a money that escapes the traditional parameters.

Also, commodities have always existed independently of the monetary system they move on (for instance, copper is not just used for money, knots on a string can mean something other than debt). Until now, anyway.

The confusion highlights the need for a new attitude. Maybe it’s time we updated not only our vocabulary but also our understanding of the monetary system. It’s not going to be easy.

Blockchain and capital markets: equity swaps

by Jan Vasek, via StockSnap
by Jan Vasek, via StockSnap

The world of capital markets is littered with terms that sound simple on the surface, but thoroughly confusing once you start poking at them.

Take, for instance, “equity swaps”. Easy, you swap equities with someone else, right?

It turns out that you don’t swap equities. You swap the returns that the other party’s equities give. That way you can diversify your portfolio without having to actually sell underlying holdings. Selling large holdings incurs costs and can move the market, which you probably want to avoid. Or, maybe your fund’s bylaws prohibit you from doing so. Or, maybe you would rather avoid capital gains tax. Other possible advantages include retention of voting rights (you want to retain your holding in a company but would rather have a fixed dividend than a variable one), access to illiquid markets, or being able to legally go around holding restrictions (eg. limitations on foreign funds).

So, let’s imagine you have a holding that pays you a fixed rate, the same payment every year. But you would rather a variable one. Rather than sell your fixed rate security, you enter into a swap with another party that has a holding that pays (for example) the return on the S&P 500 stock index. They are tired of so much volatility and want something more stable (or maybe they have fixed payments coming up and need to lock in those receipts).

So the two of you enter into a swap – you get the other party’s payments from their security, they get yours.

Now, just imagine the complicated and duplicated paperwork that backs up this operation.

Digitisation helps, obviously. Traiana, founded in 2000 to provide pre-trade risk assessment and post-trade solutions, is the market leader in electronic processing of over-the-counter (OTC) swap trades. It connects derivatives exchanges, institutional investors, interdealer brokers and swap execution platforms, channelling trades to clearing houses and providing analytics.

It is owned mainly by the Nex Group (formerly ICAP Ltd.), which at one stage was the world’s largest interdealer broker for OTC trading with daily transaction volume of over $2.3tn. After a tumultuous few years (which included whopping fines from the Commodities Futures Trading Commission in the US and the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority), that division was sold at the end of 2016, and Nex now focuses on market infrastructure.

Traiana counts among its investors such blue-chip firms as Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Barclays, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan, Nomura, and the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Yet in spite of the presence of a clear market leader, the sector does not have a common infrastructure, leading to costly data reconciliation.

Could equity swaps benefit from blockchain technology? That’s what New York-based startup Axoni is hoping to determine.

Last year it completed a trial involving nine market firms, including Barclays, Credit Suisse, IHS Markit and Capco (a capital markets consultancy owned by FIS), as well as shareholders Citigroup and Thomson Reuters. The project established a blockchain processing network for equity swap trades using Axoni’s proprietary distributed ledger software.

One interesting aspect is the involvement of Traiana competitor IHS Markit in the trial. One of Axoni’s investors is Euclid Opportunities, the investment arm of Traiana’s parent Nex, and the two firms also both have Citigroup and JP Morgan as investors.

Although it worked with IHS Markit in this trial, Axoni has collaborated with Traiana on other projects in the past, such as a securities post-trade prototype in early 2016 and a foreign exchange one currently under development.

Could there perhaps be industry consolidation further down the line?

While equity swaps are a small part of the global OTC derivatives market, they could be considered the “low hanging fruit” of the sector for capital markets blockchain integration. The processes are complex, and the market is distributed and fragmented. What’s more, changing regulation calls for increased transparency and reporting. Coherence and coordination will benefit all participants, adding liquidity while reducing costs.

A blockchain-based platform would have the additional advantage of scalability, perhaps also including other types of swaps and offering even further efficiencies to market participants.

While blockchain exploration is ongoing in other areas of capital markets, Axoni’s equity swaps test is an interesting snapshot of a concrete use case. Furthermore, it points to how the sector will be restructured: carefully, one application at a time.

(This is the first in a series on the potential impact of blockchain technology on capital markets. Up next: FX.)

Bits and stuff: media, labels and awe – August 6, 2017

I’m so looking forward to getting back to my old routine of researching and writing… Soon, very soon. Meanwhile, I still have a lot of figurative desk-clearing to do. But making progress.

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My CoinDesk article this week, on how last week’s statement from the US Securities and Exchange Commission says more about the future of securities than the future of digital tokens (and yes, there is some convergence).

More Welcome Than Warning? The DAO Ruling Could Transform Securities

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The explosion of coverage of cryptocurrencies in the mainstream media is startling. Even the Daily Mail of the UK, one of the leading “tabloid” newspapers, has frequent columns about bitcoin (I confess that I’ve seen them but not read them, so I don’t know how accurate they are).

I used to summarize the mainstream coverage for the CoinDesk Weekly newsletter, and I remember that there were weeks in which it was a struggle to find a handful to report on.

These days there are so many that I get to pick and choose which to mention!

Fad or trend? I suspect the latter…

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I’ll be changing the name of this column (which, in spite of the name, is not Daily), since my friend and ex-colleague Ryan Selkis has relaunched his weekly newsletter called The Daily Bit. Given his tenure, he deserves the name much more than I do. For original thoughts entertainingly expressed, give his newsletter a look.

So far I like Bits and Stuff – what do you think?

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This stunning photo was picked from the National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Award, featured in My Modern Met. Take a look at all of them, if you want to feel total awe at the beauty of this world we know so little about.

via My Modern Met
via My Modern Met