Blockchain speed bumps

by Alex Iby for StockSnap
by Alex Iby for StockSnap

Sigh, thought so.

The DTCC (the US post-trade giant) hosted a fintech symposium earlier this week, in which blockchain technology was one of the main points of discussion. According to CoinDesk’s report, the atmosphere – as evidenced by the event’s keynotes and panels – could be described as “reserved enthusiasm”, “hopeful realism”, or perhaps even “putting on a brave face”.

Several of the speakers pointed out the complexity of the systems currently in place, the limitations of blockchain technology, the risk inherent in public blockchains and the colossal task of getting regulators around the world to agree on a constructive way to protect users.

One intriguing detail revealed is that the unveiling of the DTCC’s new platform will be delayed. The original press release promised a launch in early 2018. CEO Michael Bodson let drop in a LinkedIn post last December that it would be late 2018. Now it’s looking like it will be in 2019, at least a year late. This is where the sigh comes in, because it will probably end up being even later than that.

I wrote about the scope and advantages of the DTCC project a few months ago, but to recap: the decision to go with a blockchain-powered platform was based largely on the need for 1) transparency – where all participants could share the “golden copy”, the main database from which others draw their information; and 2) efficiency – reducing settlement times, and streamlining administration with smart contracts. The use-case makes sense.

But blockchain is complicated. Securities markets are complicated, particularly derivatives. And project planning is complicated, especially when you’re dealing with new territory and uncertain infrastructure.

The DTCC’s project is far from the only one that has suffered setbacks. Going through the slew of announced banking blockchain projects from the past year, the number of missed deadlines is overwhelming. Many projects start out with high hopes and effusive press releases, only to get quietly shelved as the obstacles prove to be expensive.

Often it’s because limitations of the technology are discovered as building progresses. The technology is young, after all. The DTCC platform was originally to be based on ethereum (not even four years old), with Solidity as the smart contract language. Yet the team soon discovered that the DTCC application needed something more sophisticated than Solidity would allow. While the firm has not (to my knowledge) specified what the new solution would look like, it is an investor in Digital Asset Holdings, which has developed a new smart contract language.

Sometimes setbacks originate where regulation and applicability meet, an area fraught with uncertainty. Getting the authorities to sign off on something that hasn’t been built yet is a challenge. Beyond that you also have the need to agree on regulatory reporting requirements.

Technology changes are extremely difficult, and delays are common. The risk is that the longer the delay, the more complicated the project gets as additional requirements are inserted by regulators or stakeholders, and as technology moves on. With delays come additional costs, and there may come a point when the change is no longer a good business idea. The infamous upgrade of the London Stock Exchange system in the 1980s accumulated a delay of over 10 years – in the end, it was scrapped after sinking over £70 million (£140 million in today’s money). Could the same thing happen here?

I hope not. The work being done is important, and points to a new financial system that has the potential to solve current roadblocks and cost barriers. We can’t underestimate the knowledge contributed to the blockchain sector, even if the work ends up being private (although the DTCC’s technology partner Axoni has said that it plans to open source the project once completed).

The main lesson is to not get giddy with excitement over big pronouncements – they are far from a victory. They are, however, a validation of an idea, and a commitment to further the sector’s development. We also need to be able to take setbacks in our stride, lower our expectations and not point to delays as evidence that we are now in the “disappointment” phase of the hype cycle. Even if the high-flyers end up pivoting, the amount of focus and progress in the sector shows that others will be willing to pick up the mantle and try a different, perhaps more modest approach.

Given the strong amount of work still going on, and the constructive tone of high-level conversations – such as those at the DTCC event – we can take the delays as breathing space, and settle back to watch hard-won progress slowly emerge. Better late than never.

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