FX trading and last look doubts

photo by Veri Ivanova for Unsplash
photo by Veri Ivanova for Unsplash

The murky world of foreign exchange trading could be about to get a bit more transparent.

A few days ago, the sovereign fund of Norway (NBIM) – the largest in the world, with over $1tn under management – published a report calling for improvements in the foreign exchange (FX) market. It feels that the market’s friction and opacity tilts profits unfairly towards the dealers, and that the lack of transparency is weakening trust in the system.

It points to three particular aspects of FX trading, specifically: last look, algorithms, request for quote feeds and their relationship with interdealer prices.

While each is intriguing and worthy of further digging, I want to take a closer peek at “last look”, since it exemplifies how new technologies can both improve and complicate trading, and how evolving infrastructure requires a regular re-think of established processes.

Looking back

What is “last look”? It’s a “way out” for the dealer, who can renege on an agreed trade if certain conditions are not met. It could be that the client doesn’t pass the credit check. Or it could be that the price moves against the dealer.

This last aspect gives last look the whiff of unfair advantage. Critics claim that it can be used to “cherry pick” trades, only following through on the profitable ones, which would negatively impact market confidence and liquidity. It could also lead to “front running” of trades, whereby information from client orders is used for the dealer’s own profit.

Others argue that its use as a latency buffer – protecting against price moves between order agreement and order execution – is no longer necessary given technology improvements that make that time gap almost negligible. And the lack of information – often clients are not told why their trades fell through – weakens confidence, which could impact order size and even willingness to operate in the market.

Proponents claim that the practice allows dealers to quote better prices – with less risk in a trade, the spread can be narrower, which implies a better deal for the clients.

What’s more, the option of backing out of a trade enables dealers to post their price on several exchanges at once. Without that option, the dealers run a higher risk that the market will move against them. With posts on several exchanges, changing all of them takes time (seconds, but that’s a long time in FX). So, last look encourages a wider spread of trading venues, which in theory enhances liquidity.

Wait a second

Norway’s sovereign fund is not alone in its concerns about the practice, which has been coming under increasing scrutiny.

Vanguard (the world’s largest mutual fund manager), Citadel (one of the world’s largest alternative asset managers) and others have called for its elimination. Several exchanges have echoed that sentiment. XTX Markets Limited, one of the world’s biggest spot currency traders, officially stepped back from the practice in August. The Bank of England has been publicly questioning the practice since 2015.

Global regulators are also taking a closer look. In 2015, Barclays was fined $150m for what was deemed abuse of the practice – not only did the bank filter all trades in which the market moved against it (as opposed to using last look as a sporadic protective measure), but it denied doing so. (2015 was a ripe year for FX manipulation – Barclays was fined a further $2.3bn for other FX infractions, and penalties levied on Citigroup, JP Morgan, UBS, Bank of America and the Royal Bank of Scotland brought the total to almost $6bn.)

However, removing the practice will leave end users vulnerable to predatory manoeuvres, especially given the prevalence of high-speed trading. It could also constrict liquidity as dealers protect themselves against risk.

Rules, please

Why can’t the regulators step in and establish certain rules? Because the FX market is notoriously difficult to regulate, largely due to its cross-border nature. Which jurisdiction would apply?

In an enlightening example of self-regulation, the Global Foreign Exchange Committee (GFXC) was created in May 2017 as a forum for FX market participants (including central banks). Its first act was to issue an updated FX Global Code, a set of “best practices” for the foreign exchange community.

It does not rule out last look, but does ask practitioners to disclose the criteria, in order to allow end clients to make the appropriate adjustments. The GFXC simultaneously issued a request for feedback on the practice, demonstrating a willingness to contemplate adjustments.

So why are the Norwegian sovereign fund and others protesting now? Just two years ago, NBIM publicly came to the practice’s defense, citing its potential to improve available liquidity for investors.

It turns out that their positions are not inconsistent. Even now, it is not advocating the removal of last look. What it wants is more transparency.

Furthermore, it is no doubt aware of the deteriorating levels of trust in FX trading. The previously mentioned scandals and fines are probably the tip of the iceberg when it comes to abuse, especially since the rules have been vague and the FX market is opaque to begin with.

And, the protests could be influenced by fund managers’ need to increase revenue and lower costs through narrower spreads and more transparent pricing. Quoted in the Financial Times, the co-author of the report said:

“We want to be more explicit about the risk sharing between us and the dealer. The client is providing optionality for the dealer. We would like to be rewarded for this option.”

Large market participants no doubt understand that the system is changing, and so are expectations. Calls for market reform are both timely and self-serving, contributing to a cleaner image and hopefully a more robust system.

Looking forward

So, what would a solution look like?

While blockchain technology is by no means the solution to all things financial, it could offer a useful tool for a platform that allows transparency, immutability and decentralized (but permissioned) participation. A major drawback would be the latency – it’s not the fastest way to share data, and the FX market is used to split-second speed.

It is clear that enhanced disclosure is a stop-gap remedy. Once the goal posts start moving, it’s impossible to see where they will stop. What’s more, temporary solutions are not conducive to a lasting realignment of trust. And with self-interest up against community fairness, and a huge economic sector in play, a more durable solution is urgent.

Will blockchain technology end up playing a part? It’s possible, perhaps even probable, especially as new features emerge and work-arounds gain strength. It’s unlikely to be the only solution, though, as database technology and communications infrastructure also continue to evolve. And as long as speed remains a competitive advantage, decentralized resilience and transparency are unlikely to be the main priority.

What’s more, the FX sector is unlikely to see a sweeping change in the near future – it’s just too big and important for that. However, the processes that keep the system running need revision and updating, to continuously improve efficiency and trust.

And eventually, the patchwork of solutions to specific problems will point to a deeper evolution, one that favours interoperability over universality, reliability over speed and trust over profit.

Could Brexit encourage blockchain development?

by Rob Bye via Stocksnap
by Rob Bye via Stocksnap

The FT reported yesterday on the intensifying staring match between the EU and the UK over financial services.

London has for some time been in danger of losing its position as the world’s clearing center for euro-denominated derivatives. The city’s clearing houses handle up to three-quarters of the global euro-denominated derivatives market.

The European Central Bank (ECB) has long argued that oversight of euro clearing services would be easier if they were relocated to within the Eurozone, and in 2011 issued a policy reflecting this. The UK took the case to the European Court, which eventually sided with the UK. The reason given was not because geographical restrictions would discriminate against some member states (the UK’s main argument), but because the ECB’s role is to supervise payment systems, not securities settlement. The ECB still alleges that settlement oversight is essential for payment system stability.

Now that Britain will soon no longer be an EU member, the battle lines are shifting. The European Commission (EC) is preparing legislation for June that will impose geographical restrictions on euro-based clearing. An interesting twist is that the EC is not waiting until Brexit becomes a reality.

The policy, due for publication tomorrow, moves to extend the ECB’s role to include supervision of clearing houses if they provide “critical capital market functions” (such as derivatives swaps). If this goes ahead, it will mean that either the activity needs to relocate, or the UK has to allow ECB supervision on British territory (which it’s unlikely to be happy with).

If the activity has to relocate, the fallout will be considerable, and the impact could be felt around the world. Euro-denominated derivatives clearing accounts for about one third of the global interest rate swaps market.

It’s probable that some clearing houses will prefer to wind down than move (CME Group recently decided to pull out of London due to lack of profitability). The larger ones may find that they lose clients. Either would be enough to contract medium-term liquidity in the market.

Short-term, the potential problem is more serious. Clearing houses reduce liquidity risk in financial markets by standing between two traders in a transaction. They also increase transparency by being in a position to publish the price at which a trade executed.

Disrupt those functions, or even temporarily interrupt them, and you increase systemic risk. You also increase the cost of clearing, as economies of scale are reduced.

Some clearing houses are looking into blockchain applications as a way to reduce costs and enhance liquidity. In 2015 a group including settlement giants CME Group, Euroclear and LCH.Clearnet formed a working body to discuss how the technology might be used to settle transactions. The Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation (DTCC) in the US is specifically looking at credit derivatives settlement.

And notable blockchain startups such as Setl, Digital Asset, Clearmatics, Symbiont and others are also working on protocols to either help or replace traditional clearing houses.

So, there is movement to seek greater efficiencies in settlement, reduce dependence on clearing houses and reinforce transparency. But it’s happening slowly.

Understandably so. Blockchain technology is still new and relatively untested in financial applications. And systemic market infrastructure is not something you play around with.

However, the clock is ticking. And heavy investment in new systems that perpetuate current inefficiencies and are not future-proof will end up adding even more pressure to financial services firms’ already squeezed margins.

I’ve written before how financial shifts due to pending regulation end up spurring research on new uses.

Now we can add political pressure to the list motivating factors.

PSD2 and the blockchain

by Diego Hernandez via Stocksnap
by Diego Hernandez via Stocksnap

Europe has some surprisingly progressive ideas about retail banking.

In 2018, the new payments directive (PSD2) comes into force. This will change not only how we see banking, but also how we treat data.

A bit of background: the Payments Services Directive was adopted in 2007 to create the Single Euro Payments Area (SEPA), aimed at simplifying and modernizing the rules and guidelines for money transfers within the European Union.

An update (PSD2) was passed by the European Parliament in 2015, with the goal of further promoting innovation while enhancing consumer protection.

That may sound good for the consumer and the fintech sector, but it makes banks’ current situation even more tenuous. The sector is already pummeled by low interest rates, increasing KYC/AML costs and flourishing competition. Now, it has to invest in further compliance, and watch while its main competitive advantage is eaten away.

What main competitive advantage? Access to your information.

After 2018, when PSD2 comes into effect, banks have to share your data with third parties.

For end users, this streamlines payments and lowers costs. For innovative businesses, it gives them instant access to a significant resource: specific and detailed information about potential clients.

Retailers will be able to ask you for permission to access your bank account – the payment will be directly between your bank and the retailer. No intermediaries. Investment services will have access to your financial history and be able to offer more tailored advice. Payment portals will be able to compete for the lowest fees and creatively combine financial and social functions. Aggregators will be able to display all your financial information in one place, regardless of how many banks you work with.

Just think how attractive all that data is for service providers.

(There’s some other stuff in there as well, such as tighter control on credit card charges, greater protection for non-EU payments, unconditional refunds on direct debits… all good news for the consumer, not so much for the banks.)

What does that mean for blockchain development?

Basically, PSD2 is about the sharing of sensitive data with a network. Right now, the law envisions the transfers being handled through Application Programming Interface (APIs), code that gives third parties access.

On a blockchain, the distribution could be handled in an open, seamless and secure manner. Banks, clients, retailers and fintech services could all use the same system to share information. Access would be limited to network participants (who would have to jump through some hoops to join), transparency would ensure good behavior, and decentralized storage would enhance security.

This has to be preferable to a system in which banks (reluctantly) cede the information to any approved entity. Or a system littered with targeted APIs with limited interoperability. Or one in which the information is stored in centralized (hackable) silos.

Furthermore, a blockchain-based system would have lower operating costs than a distributed database, since less verification will be needed each time the data crosses over to another platform.

Lower operating costs will be crucial, given the tightening squeeze on banks’ profit margins.

While banks are currently preparing for this seismic change on their current systems, the appeal of a blockchain alternative is likely to encourage even more research and pilots than are already going on. Incorporation of a decentralized, transparent solution may shift from being a nice-to-have, when-we’re-absolutely-sure option to an increasingly pressing imperative. While blockchain technology is still new and has many hurdles to overcome (not least, regulatory), and while the cost of implementation is likely to be substantial, the need to adapt to a new financial paradigm could well be the catalyst that the sector has been waiting for.

We could be on the verge of a shift in blockchain interest. Already high among banks, it could jump up a notch to imperative.

 

Trying to enforce Mifid II could kill it

The FT reported yesterday (paywall) that the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) has issued guidance toughening the rules on securities trading transparency.

Under the upcoming Mifid II rules, banks will no longer be able to offer clients fixed income products kept on their own books (which accounts not only for most fixed income trading in the market, but also for a large chunk of bank trading profits).

The new statement closes a loophole that would have allowed banks to band together to form “dark pools”, effectively trading securities on the books of other members in the group, without needing to go through pesky public exchanges.

ESMA has made clear that any such group would need regulatory approval.

The potential consequences of this clampdown (and all the others embedded in Mifid II) could on the one hand be positive: increased transparency is likely to push down bond prices and open up the market.

Or, they could be negative: rather than make bond trading more transparent, the market movers (mainly banks) could decide to curtail their trading operations, which could result in a less liquid market.

The potential negative impact could also be what ends up killing Mifid II implementation.

Why? Because of the power of the banks.

Let’s backtrack a bit: Mifid II is all about increasing the transparency of securities markets, and enhancing investor protection.

Equities are already mostly transparent. The same cannot be said of fixed income, where trading has traditionally been over-the-counter (OTC).

Banks dominate the fixed income market, where they make most of their money (allegedly due to the lack of transparency). As the deadline for implementation approaches, we could well start to see significant pushback from an influential sector.

Surely ESMA could tell the banks to shut up and behave? If you have small children, you know how that generally turns out. Any large bank could resort to the typical two-year-old defense of “I’m going to hold my breath until you do what I want”. And it’s unlikely that ESMA will want a messy bank failure on its hands.

Giphy
Giphy

Also, one of the largest purchasers of bonds in Europe is the European Central Bank, which has been buying fixed income at the not inconsiderable rate of €80bn a month (now down to €60bn). I doubt very much that they will be happy with a change that is likely to reduce bond prices, let alone one that could provoke a contraction in liquidity. There aren’t enough bonds to meet demand as it is.

Furthermore, a possible result of the clampdown will be a migration of the market for European bonds to the US, which has a more relaxed attitude to bank bond trading. Since a large chunk of Trump’s cabinet seems to be made up of ex-investment bankers, that attitude is unlikely to change any time soon.

Losing an important market to the US is not something that the various organizations with confusing initials that currently govern Europe are likely to be happy about.

So poor, beleaguered ESMA could well come under pressure to go easy on market transparency. But if it does, then Mifid II unravels. Parts of it could still be implemented, and brokerage houses and asset managers will still have to scramble to improve reporting and lower costs. But the essence, the need to increase market transparency to protect investors and to avoid a repetition of the financial crisis, will be tainted.

Somalia and the question of currency

image from AFP via the BBC
image from AFP via the BBC

As the US escalates its military intervention in Somalia and drought and disease continue to decimate the country, a surprisingly resilient and resourceful currency system teeters on the verge of an overhaul. And in the process, it teaches us a lesson about cryptocurrencies.

JP Koning’s piece from last week on the Somali shilling is an excellent read, touching on the history, economics, philosophy and sociology of currency. He takes a deep look into the monetary system of a country without a government and without a central bank.

In the Somali economy, the old shilling notes have continued to circulate for the past 20 years, along with new, counterfeit notes. The interesting part is that the counterfeit notes are easily distinguishable from the old ones, but are generally accepted anyway. They became part of the currency, although they were not issued by any central bank. Counterfeiters created currency.

This shines a light on the tenuous nature of central bank-issued paper. Currency is what we say it is. In the absence of a central bank to enforce acceptance, we can designate something else as our coin if we wish.

It also underlines the resilience of money. With no central bank, why were the shilling notes accepted at all? JP presents some theories, all of them compelling: while inertia probably played a big part (might as well continue doing what we’ve always been doing, no reason not to), the one that I find most intriguing is that Somalis always assumed that a central bank would one day re-emerge and grant validity to the old (and the counterfeit) notes.

That is what is happening. A central bank formed in 2009, and, with the help of the IMF, is planning to buy the counterfeit notes from the public. It remains to be seen at what price, but the concept of validating whatever currency is currently in circulation (because hey, we weren’t here, so whatever) highlights the philosophy that money is whatever the central bank says it is.

Or maybe not. US dollars are also accepted as currency, especially in the cities. In fact, dollars are the most common medium of exchange. So, again, money is what the people say it is.

Counterfeit dollars are also in wide circulation. They, obviously, won’t be tolerated (since that’s not up to the central bank, they have no sovereignty over the US currency). According to CNBC, the US Secret Service has been brought in to help weed them out.

The case also highlights the need for some sort of monetary control. The enthusiasm of the printers of fake shilling notes led to inflation in the double digits and a currency in which over 95% of the notes in circulation are “unauthorized”.

Although, if there was no central bank, who’s to say the new notes were “fakes”? They weren’t treated as such by the users. There was no official authority to say that they weren’t real. So, why are we calling them “counterfeit” rather than “alternative”?

Perhaps because of the legacy of central bank power. Perhaps because the idea of anyone printing currency is too chaotic for us to process. Perhaps because experience has shown us that the “common good” requires a central authority.

This could go some way toward explaining the psychological resistance to bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. We are so used to money being authorized by official institutions, and so averse to the idea that anyone can come in and complicate things, that we instinctively reject the idea of a viable alternative.

You’ll have heard the old adage that to really understand how something works, you need to break it. Thus a society ravaged by violence, famine and a lack of public infrastructure ends up revealing what money is and how it works. It can also teach us all that, while the current system is faulty, it is better than no system at all.

In addition, it shows that bitcoin is unlikely to replace national currencies. Governments, even fragile ones, like to exert some control over monetary policy. However, just as the US dollar ended up circulating along with the Somalian shilling, bitcoin can co-exist. In the end, the market will decide which currency it prefers.

The SEC and the Bitcoin ETF – what now?

Well, that was exciting…

source: CoinDesk
source: CoinDesk

The SEC decided to not approve the proposed Winklevoss Bitcoin ETF, citing the lack of regulation on bitcoin exchanges, and the possibility of using protocol forks to manipulate the price.

While disappointing, none of that is surprising.

What is surprising is that the price didn’t plummet further. That it found strong resistance at $1,000 and then started trending back up is testament to the underlying strength of sentiment.

CoinDesk provided an excellent post-game wrap-up, with comments from Tyler Winklevoss (striking an upbeat tone, way to go Tyler) and others, reflecting on the motives and consequences.

Since the rejection was based on the fundamentals of the bitcoin market, rather than on specifics to the proposed vehicle, it looks unlikely that an SEC-regulated ETF will be forthcoming any time soon. It is possible that other jurisdictions will take a more relaxed approach – but following SEC guidance, it’s unlikely.

So where now for the Winklevoss brothers? One option is to change the scope and objectives of the fund, and limit the availability to a certain type of participant, much like the Bitcoin Investment Trust which is only available to “professional” investors.

Or, the twins could choose to continue to “work with the SEC” (as Tyler said in his statement) to get the fund approved in its current form.

This will require unpacking what the SEC is likely to mean the next time around by “unregulated”.

Bitcoin itself cannot be regulated. It was born as an unregulated currency. To regulate it is to control it.

The exchanges, however, can be regulated. In fact, Gemini is. Gemini is the Winklevoss exchange, from which the ETF price would have been determined, and is one of only three companies to have been awarded a New York BitLicense, which authorizes it to carry out bitcoin exchange activities in the state.

And yesterday, an official from the Central Bank of China was reported as saying that the PBoC is looking (again, but apparently more seriously this time) at regulating the Chinese exchanges.

So, hopefully the Winklevoss brothers will try again (although I shudder to think what all this must be costing them in lawyers). It’s unlikely that deliberations will take quite so long next time around, but even so, a couple of years is a long time in bitcoin – it’s only been around for eight.

A couple of years is also a long time in politics, and the current US administration does seem eager to dismantle financial regulations swiftly. It also appears to be bitcoin-friendly, and can no doubt count on serious lobbying by people both within government and without to harness the potential without stifling it.

Let Round 2 begin.

Bitcoin ETF approval: the long game

by Louis Blythe for Unsplash - Bitcoin ETF approval
by Louis Blythe for Unsplash

The looming decision by the US Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) is, according to market analysts, putting wind under the bitcoin price sails. Market attention and media headlines seem to be focusing on the short-term impact. A pity… they’re missing out on a more interesting story.

A brief summary of the situation so far: in June 2013, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss – the owners of the New York-based Gemini bitcoin exchange – submitted a proposal to the SEC for a bitcoin exchange traded fund (ETF) to list on Nasdaq. Since then, the Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust proposal has gone through several amendments, including switching to the BATS exchange (newer, and allegedly more technologically advanced) and establishing pricing mechanisms and custodianship procedures. After seeking public comment and using up all the deadline extensions available, the SEC is due to make a decision on approval by March 11th.

Many doubt that it will be approved. In fact, BitMex is running a book on the outcome, which places the probability at less than 40%.

Why would the SEC say no? The decision is a complicated one, but can be broken down into three sections: the intrinsic (issues pertaining to the fund itself), the extrinsic (issues pertaining to the market) and the bigger picture.

Amongst the intrinsic considerations are the suppliers of the various services that the fund will need. The Winklevosses propose that price determination and custodianship be carried out by their Gemini exchange. In the ETF world, it is unusual for one entity to fulfil both of those functions and at the same time be the sponsor.

The SEC also has concerns about bitcoin and its market. Its recent request for information included questions about forks, immutability and hacking, which reveals uncertainty over the strength of the technology. Furthermore, most of bitcoin’s trading volume is in China and Japan, which raises the spectre of manipulation of a US asset by foreign entities.

While structure and market concerns are fundamental, the SEC is no doubt also considering abstract issues such as its own reputation, and the possible effect on financial instruments. Here’s where the more interesting long game shows itself.

The SEC’s main purpose is that of protecting investors. Supporting innovation is not on its list of priorities. Given the relative youth of bitcoin and the potential vulnerabilities of the technology (mining decentralization, accidental forks, quantum technology), the risks are high. And if the SEC approves and something negative happens, that’s their reputation shot.

So, will the SEC embrace evolution and innovation, and acknowledge that bitcoin is here to stay? If so, that would mark a precedent that could shape expectations for years to come.

Or, will the SEC play it safe and defer difficult decisions until a later date? In which case, think about the message sent to change-makers. While it’s impossible to suppress creativity, a “no” decision could send innovators scurrying to find alternative (and less-regulated) outlets.

It’s also important to think about the bitcoin market beyond the immediate impact.

The Winklevoss proposal was recently amended to increase the initial amount from $65m to $100m, which signals strong initial demand. Analysts Needham & Company estimate that $300m could pour into the fund if approved, which given the limited daily volume (US$ trading is usually under $50m/day) would push up the price. How much of that is already priced in, we don’t know. And it’s worth remembering that the estimated inflow is just that, an estimate based on the performance of other similar funds (which is tricky, given that this is a first).

If the SEC decides “no”, it’s probable that the price will fall sharply. But bitcoin has many other fundamentals in its favour, and the price is likely to find support at lower levels (how much lower, I don’t know).

So, the immediate impact, even if the ETF is approved, is uncertain. The longer-term impact, however, is clearer.

There’s the liquidity aspect. If approved, the increase in bitcoin demand will boost trading volumes overall, which will reduce volatility, making bitcoin even more attractive to investors. Most of the increase will be in the US, since the fund will be doing its trading on the Gemini exchange. This will even out the current geographical imbalance in trading volumes, and calm the unease of regulators. It’s worth noting that Gemini is one of two bitcoin exchanges to have a BitLicense, which makes it one of the most highly regulated exchanges in the world.

Beyond price and liquidity improvements, there’s the reputation. Bitcoin will go from being “something criminals use” to “something approved by the SEC”, which would add a lasting veneer of respectability. Institutions and investors, not just in the US, would start to see it as an asset class rather than a libertarian speculation.

This could rattle economists and policy makers, since bitcoin represents an alternative to the established system. But it is in line with increased interest in blockchain technology from institutions. Central banks around the world are studying cryptocurrencies, some with a view to launching their own. And the recent appointment of bitcoiner Mick Mulvaney as Trump’s Director of Office of Management and Budget could herald a shift in the official attitude.

Finally, it’s important to bear in mind that an approved bitcoin ETF would be the first “mainstream” fund to be based entirely on a digital concept, with no tangible underlying asset. This could unleash a stream of creative financial engineering which could usher in a new era of opportunity. Or, it could end up increasing market instability, especially when combined with a federal policy of more relaxed regulation of financial institutions.

So, the ramifications go well beyond a “yes” or “no” and the resulting impact on the price. The initial swings will be exhilarating or horrifying, depending on your position. But the bigger picture, which affects us all, is much more compelling.

Fraud and the jitters

by Jean-Pierre Brungs for Unsplash
by Jean-Pierre Brungs for Unsplash

All is far from well in the Chinese bond market. And the implications for blockchain technology are deep.

December was not a good month for bond traders. As if the deep slump in bond prices after the US Fed raised rates wasn’t enough, the market was also shaken by two major incidents of fraud.

In one case, the forgery involved papers in which a bank guaranteed a bond that subsequently defaulted. The bank said “not my problem” and refused to honor that guarantee.

In another case, it emerged that two rogue employees of a trading house called Sealand Securities had used a forged company seal to purchase, on behalf of other financial institutions, over 16 billion RMB (almost $2.4bn) worth of bonds. You read that right, “billion”. The bond prices fell, and someone had to make up the loss. Sealand said “not my problem”, the blame lay with the perpetrators, and why not, also with the correspondent financial institutions who “should have checked”.

In the end, Sealand agreed to honour the bond contracts, but the fright did not help market jitters. At least 29 bonds defaulted in 2016, up from 7 the year before. Over 117 billion RMB of sales were canceled or postponed in December, almost four times the amount in November. A government bond index fell 1.7% in December, the steepest monthly decline since October 2013. And with interest rates heading higher and economic difficulties ahead as leverage is reigned in and global trade becomes more, um, complicated, it looks like defaults will continue to increase in 2017.

Tighter regulation and controls could help to calm fears that fraud is making the system more vulnerable. Local media has reported that the government is contemplating the creation of a regulatory body just to focus on systemic risks.

Or, financial institutions could step up their investigations of blockchain technology applications.

On the blockchain, transactions cannot be tampered with, and fraudulent use of signing keys is instantly visible to network participants. An unalterable ledger of events would make accountability more transparent, authorizations can be more tightly controlled, and the falsification of ownership documents ceases to be an issue.

In other words, with financial settlement supported by blockchain technology, fraud would be much more complicated. The incentive would not just be for corporations. With enhanced transparency, government officials would be under greater pressure to clamp down on irregularities, especially given President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive.

China’s financial institutions, tech enterprises, universities and startup community are active in blockchain innovation. The central bank recently announced that it was testing a blockchain-backed digital currency, with a view to using the platform for bank bill transactions.

The government, perhaps aware of the need for speed, is encouraging blockchain research and adoption. In October, the Ministry of Industry and Information released a white paper that explored blockchain applications, particularly in finance, and encouraged businesses to be more active in global experimentation. The same month, the government hosted a forum aimed at fostering cooperation in blockchain development.

Given the obvious need for a lasting solution, we can expect these efforts to intensify over the next few months. But will it be fast enough?

While blockchain-based solutions could restore confidence in the integrity of the bond market and open up channels of financing to a broader range of businesses, it is unlikely that any would be ready for the market in the short term.

The situation is verging on urgent, though, as a rapid build-up of leverage has made firms increasingly vulnerable to an economic downturn or even to a change in market sentiment. A looming trade war with the US, or even military conflict in the South China Seas, could be enough to trigger a string of defaults, which are likely to uncover even more fraud and misappropriated leverage.

The damage could be harsh, in an environment that would already be suffering from economic and geopolitical factors.

Bitcoin and governments… Wait, what??

Wasn’t bitcoin about evading the control of governments? Weren’t we at the dawn of a truly global currency that knew no politics? What happened to freedom from boundaries? Won’t governments moving in take out all the fun?

No. Bitcoin was and still is about evading the control of governments. But that doesn’t mean that governments can’t also benefit from bitcoin’s advantages. And the official entities aren’t interested in bitcoin as much as in its underlying technology, the blockchain. Governments, both national and local, as well as central banks, are sniffing around, speaking at conferences, writing papers and trying to figure out how this new financial development can extend their reach and reduce their costs. It makes sense.

by Thomas Brault for Unsplash - bitcoin and governments
by Thomas Brault for Unsplash

But how, exactly, can governments use the blockchain? Leaving aside the potential as a currency and the impact on monetary policy, the list of possible uses is long, and includes archive management, welfare distribution, budget allocation, voting mechanisms… A respectable roster of sovereign organizations are officially “investigating the technology”, which sounds very much like a me-too policy. But more and more concrete use-case studies are emerging, with powerful public backing.

The UK government has been particularly active in the sector. Late last year it pledged funding of £10 million to investigate blockchain technology, and has been coming up with interesting applications. From record keeping to tracking financial movements such as student loans and international aid, the Cabinet Office has been running trials on and investigating practical solutions to bureaucracy-heavy processes.

Just a few days ago, the UK government revealed that it is experimenting with distributing welfare payments on the blockchain, through a digital “benefit coin” which could replace welfare payments. This has raised significant privacy concerns, which in turn is generating healthy focus on the technology and debate on the advantages and drawbacks.

Tomorrow the House of Lords is holding a hearing to debate potential governance applications, which you can watch live at this link if you’re interested.

The US government is not quite as proactive in applying blockchain efficiencies, but is stepping up its funding for research projects. In June, it awarded $600,000 in grants to six projects investigating the application of blockchain technology to the issue of identity, privacy and security. And last week it issued a call for papers on blockchain research relating to the healthcare industry.

The US defense and research agency DARPA wants to look at ways to use the blockchain for secure messaging. The Department of Homeland Security is funding research into blockchain authentication of IoT devices. And the initiatives are not just federal: in May the State of Delaware launched an initiative that includes the blockchain trial to store and secure government archives.

Estonia is often held up as an example of blockchain governance. Over a decade ago it launched an e-residency program (not blockchain-based) which allows anyone to establish “fiscal” residence in the nation, to set up companies and administer their finances. Late last year it announced a collaboration with BitNation to offer a blockchain notary service to these e-residents, which would not just cover company documents but also marriage licenses, birth certificates, etc.  Earlier this year it started the process of storing all of its health records on the blockchain.

Ukraine announced a few days ago that it would start to use eAuction, a blockchain-based auction platform, to sell government assets, eliminating the possibility of official interference. A few weeks ago Sweden revealed that it is testing the blockchain for land registration, and the Republic of Georgia has been trialling blockchain-based land titling since April. The city of Zug, in Switzerland, allows its residents to pay for public services with bitcoin. The Finnish city of Kouvola has just received €2.4m of public funding for a blockchain-based smart container shipping system.

In spite of the huge potential scope, it does look like the most advanced initial projects are the relatively “easy” ones of managing documents. Which is, of course, totally understandable, as well as efficient and necessary. The problem in most cases is not that the systems are not digital. The problem is more one of inter-communication between different systems, and the portability of data. A file on one system in this day and age still needs to be replicated on another, even if the end use is similar, and even if the end owner of that information is the same. The blockchain gives governments the opportunity to streamline processes, optimize storage, and extract and share more useful information while keeping it private and secure. The integrity of public registries is fundamental, not only as a matter of trust in authority, but because the information they contain – property and automobile ownership, passports, birth certificates, marriage certificates, business licenses, penal records, and a long etc. – is often the base of a democracy and an economy.

A few intrepid initiatives are looking at the sticky problem of voting, an issue which fundamentally affects most sovereign nations in this day and age. The current process is cumbersome, inefficient and often subject to tampering. But since this revolves around the even sticker problem of online identity, few initiatives have progressed much beyond the initial stage.

The will is there, though, and it is only a matter of time. Most governments have moved from rejecting the frivolous notion of a universal and immutable digital currency, to realizing that bitcoin is just a certain type of information, and that the blockchain can be used for other types of information as well. We have seen some practical applications, and will see many more emerge over the coming months. And we will all of us, soon, be enjoying greater blockchain-enhanced bureaucratic efficiency, without even noticing the technology that makes it work.

Kenya vs. Bitcoin

Over breakfast on December 15th, readers of the main broadsheet newspapers in Nairobi were greeted with a full-page ad taken out by the Central Bank of Kenya, warning them about dealing in bitcoin. The public notice was also posted online.

This is in equal measures surprising, disappointing and encouraging.

The main surprise is in the timing. The day before, the Kenyan justice system decided to postpone a ruling on the lawsuit brought by bitcoin remittance company BitPesa against the mobile payments giant M-Pesa for intimidation and unfair business practices. M-Pesa had blocked access to its platform, citing as the reason BitPesa’s unregulated status. Bitpesa claims that the Central Bank told them that bitcoin fell outside their remit, and therefore they could not offer a license. The decision, which allows M-Pesa to continue to block access to the main mobile money platform in East Africa, not only denies the convenience and economy of bitcoin remittances to a significant portion of the rural population. It also highlights the absurdity of trying to get a license, being told that licenses are not available, and then being punished for not having one.

While in theory the Central Bank does not influence the justice system, and the government does not control the Central Bank, the timing of the announcement in the newspapers can be interpreted as an indication of which way the government would like the courts to rule. For a fairly modern government battling increasing concerns over deepening corruption, this level of public “intervention” is perplexing.

Another perplexing aspect of this public approach is the list of warnings about bitcoin, and the subliminal messages they contain. The first one reads:

“Transactions in virtual currencies such as bitcoin are largely untraceable and anonymous making them susceptible to abuse by criminals in money laundering and financing of terrorism.”

Putting bitcoin’s untraceability and anonymity first and foremost as a help to criminals will surely attract the attention of even more criminals (or at least those that read the newspaper), and could possibly increase rather than decrease bitcoin use. BitPesa does follow KYC/AML guidelines to prevent money laundering and terrorist financing, but other less high-profile exchanges may not be so rigorous.

The second warning claims that bitcoin exchanges “tend to be unregulated”.

“Virtual currencies are traded in exchange platforms that tend to be unregulated all over the world. Consumers may therefore lose their money without having any legal redress in the event these exchanges collapse or close business.”

While not untrue, it is misleading. Some regulated exchanges do exist (Coinbase, Gemini, itBit), many more are in the pipeline, and many others, while not officially regulated, behave as if they are. Often it’s not that they don’t want to be regulated. It’s that they can’t, as there is no regulation in place. Such as in Kenya, for instance. BitPesa complies with KYC/AML regulations, yet is being treated as if it didn’t.

And the third warning, pointing out bitcoin’s vulnerability and volatility because there is “no underlying or backing of assets”, will surely draw attention to the fact that there is no underlying or backing of assets on the Kenyan shilling, either, other than faith in the economy (doing quite well) and the government (not so much).

Political mistrust is a strong motivator in bitcoin use, and the Central Bank’s request that the public “desist from transacting in Bitcoin” could have the opposite effect. With a fragile democratic stability (the current president took power with only 50.07% of the popular vote in the 2013 elections, and is currently under investigation by the International Court of Justice for crimes against humanity), and with increasing political violence and concerns about corruption, many readers of the major newspapers could well take an official call to refrain from using bitcoin as an open invitation to try it out.

Kenya vs bitcoin

The disappointment comes from the closed-minded approach to financial innovation, from a government that has a reputation for encouraging it. In its early days M-Pesa was not required to comply with complicated and expensive regulations, which allowed it to grow rapidly and inexpensively, creating efficiency and opportunity, as well as a near-monopoly on mobile money transfers. Although it has increasing competition, its extensive network and brand mindshare still give it considerable power in the sector, which enables it to maintain the relatively high transfer fees. Lower fees from a more nimble competitor would benefit the recipients and the economy, while technology and scale bring costs down. Lower profits for M-Pesa, perhaps, but greater wealth for Kenya. Bitcoin-based services can complement the established mobile money networks by expanding their reach and broadening their client base to include remittance senders from all over the world. Trying to limit participation to competitors with less potential is short-termist and damages the incumbent’s reputation.

However, it is encouraging that the Central Bank deemed bitcoin important enough to issue a public statement. In so doing, it has called attention to the digital currency: no doubt most of those that saw the ad hadn’t heard of bitcoin. Now they have. And while it is important that those interested in buying bitcoin be aware that it is not government-backed, all who investigate further will start to realise the opportunity that it presents.

This announcement could be a first step towards regulating bitcoin, which would be positive for the sector (although why the Central Bank didn’t just issue a statement about contemplating regulation instead of advising against bitcoin use is a mystery). It would also be in line with an incipient regional trend. In August of this year the Nigerian Central Bank called for bitcoin regulation, and an increasing interest in Bitcoin conferences on the continent indicate that other nations are contemplating doing the same.

Trying to wipe out bitcoin use makes no sense, especially when the economic advantages are so strong. Harnessing the opportunity, establishing regulation to protect users and limit illicit use, and incorporating a global virtual currency into an economy already heavily dependent on mobile-based local virtual currencies would increase economic activity, encourage saving and bring even more of the population into the virtually banked sector. And it would entrench Kenya’s reputation as a regional technology hub with an innovation-friendly government. Kenya has a lot to lose if it tries to stamp out bitcoin, and a lot to gain if it cautiously supports its integration into the already strong virtual economy.