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.

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