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.

Lessons learned: Taurus and the ASX blockchain integration

image by Tamarcus Brown via StockSnap
image by Tamarcus Brown via StockSnap

London, 1993. A big decision was about to be made, that would send ripple effects across Europe and forward through time, acting as a warning against ambition and consensus.

For the past 10 years, the London Stock Exchange had been working on a significant upgrade of its securities settlement system. With paper-based systems groaning under the 1980s boom in share ownership, pressure was building not only from nimbler competitors but also from the regulators across the Channel. If London wanted to maintain its role as the continent’s money centre, it needed to upgrade.

The new system was called Taurus, and its goal was to remove as much physical documentation from the system as possible. It also planned a move to rolling settlement, reducing the payment period for equities from three weeks to three days.

Yet things were not going well. The first sign was the rhythm of missed deadlines.

From the outset, the project was complicated. It aimed to include as many sector stakeholders as possible, in spite of conflicting interests. Institutional investors wanted a fast, reliable service, while private investors wanted lower costs. Also, the existing registrars (dominated by large banks) were given a say in the development of a centralized registry, even though it would undermine their business model. Well into the development cycle, they torpedoed the idea.

What went wrong?

In the haste to get development off the ground, the project allegedly started without a clear roadmap. And delays gave more time for the various stakeholders to add requirements.

Even with clear and stable stewardship, that scale of development would have been tough. Yet the project management structure was not clearly defined, and the lack of centralized control meant that interlocking pieces were being developed out of sync, with sections of the process at different testing stages, while other functions had not yet been designed.

Also, given the long lead time (which ended up being more than double the initial estimate), the system – if launched – would already have been behind the competition from day one.

The final straw came when an investigation in 1993 revealed that completion would take another two to three years, at double the cost-to-date.

The decision was taken to scrap the whole project. The exchange’s investment of over £70 million (over £140 million in today’s money) was lost. The London Stock Exchange handed over responsibility for the development of a new stock trading system to the Bank of England, and its CEO resigned.

It wasn’t just the colossal waste of money and the damage to its reputation that made many fear for the exchange’s future. Hundreds of brokers had based their systems development on the assumption that Taurus would be the main platform, and thousands of employees had been trained. The total cost to London’s financial centre was estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of pounds.

Of course, it’s easy to see in hindsight where things went wrong. And it’s easy to believe that today, big systemic projects would be managed with different principles.

While that may be the case, the fate of Taurus serves to highlight the colossal complexity of introducing a new systemic platform. Throw in a technology that has yet to be tested “in the field”, and you have a potential powder keg of risk.

All change

I’m talking about the decision of Australia’s primary securities exchange, ASX, to upgrade its clearing and settlement platform to one based on distributed ledger technology.

Announced late last year, the news sent waves of excitement through the blockchain sector – it would be one of the first major public-facing applications of the technology, which many have touted as having the potential to decentralize finance.

Introduced with bitcoin, the blockchain offers a way of sharing data that removes the need for validation from a central authority. The elimination of redundancies and the speed with which information can be transmitted and acted on present significant cost reductions, especially intriguing in an era of diminishing margins and increasing competition in the financial sector.

It’s not yet clear whether the technology that ASX will use (developed with blockchain startup Digital Asset) will technically be a blockchain, in which information is stored in blocks that are irrevocably linked to previous blocks, ensuring data integrity. The official press release referred to “digital ledgers”, and while the two terms are often used interchangeably, some distributed ledgers don’t rely on linked blocks to share and verify inputs and outputs. However, since the boundaries of the new technology are being blurred as the concept evolves, the announcement was treated as a triumph by blockchain sector participants – official, public validation of the potential benefits.

Be careful

And yet, it is by no means the windfall that the headlines proclaimed.

First, it isn’t happening anytime soon. At the end of March, the ASX will reveal a potential live date for the new platform – it will most likely be years away. We won’t get a clear indication of the expected timing until the end of June.

And, as we saw with Taurus, in complex undertakings, deadlines are often extended. Hopefully the new system will be revealed within a much shorter timeframe than the failed British attempt’s estimated 13 years…

If it gets revealed at all. The ASX platform does need to be replaced – known as CHESS, it is 25 years old and is struggling to keep up with newer and nimbler competitors. But the decision to build on top of a relatively untested technology with uncertain scaling and bottlenecks is a brave one. And few development projects progress without setbacks.

It’s fair to assume that the planning will be meticulous and thorough. But will it manage to avoid the pitfalls of overwhelming systemic change?

Learning from the mistakes of Taurus will help. But the leap forward in technology with this development adds a new layer of complexity.

A large part of the problem will be managing expectations. While “blockchain” has been hailed as “the next industrial revolution”, we are not going to see a new decentralized stock exchange emerge before our eyes. As far as the public is concerned, things will continue pretty much the way they are.

For the financial and technology sectors, though, it is a big deal. If all goes well, back office costs will be reduced, new efficiencies will be explored and distributed ledger technologists will learn much from the real-world rollout.

The true change, however, will come years down the road, as other exchanges around the world take a look at their own clearing and settlement processes, as regulators encourage compatibility and connectivity, and as frictionless cross-border trading finally begins to look like a possibility.

But first, the ASX system needs to be successfully launched. And, as we’ve seen, it’s nowhere near as easy as it sounds. While the decision to migrate a country’s main securities settlement and clearing platform to a distributed ledger is good news for the blockchain sector, it is too soon to celebrate.

Blockchain and credit default swaps, Part 2 – the application

by Snufkin via StockSnap
by Snufkin via StockSnap

As we saw in the previous entry in this series, credit default swaps are ideal for blockchain testing because:

  • they’re complex yet with a “programmable” structure;
  • they’re increasingly standardised following recent changes in regulation; and
  • they operate in a self-contained market – although they reference other securities, they don’t actually link to them, and can operate solely on straightforward data inputs.

The largest project currently underway – not only in credit derivatives but also in the financial industry as a whole – is that of the Depositary Trust and Clearing Corporation (DTCC) in the US, which is working on rebuilding its credit default swaps processing platform with blockchain technology.

To appreciate how huge the launch could be, let’s take a closer look at the structure of the DTCC and what it does.

Too big to fail

Set up in 1999 to combine the Depository Trust Company (established in 1973 to hold security titles) and the National Securities Clearing Corporation (founded in 1976 to handle clearing and netted settlement), the DTCC is currently the largest securities processor in the world. It settles transactions of almost $1.7qn a year (that’s quadrillion, with 15 zeroes). There’s no point in trying to get your head around that large a number.

Since then it has acquired or created further subsidiaries to extend its services to include pan-European equities clearing, fixed income transaction processing, information management for trading institutions among other functions.

In 2006, the DTCC launched the Trade Information Warehouse (TIW) service, to centralize the storage of information regarding trades of over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives. One of its main functions is to maintain the “golden copy” − the unique, reliable and actionable record of transactions. It also manages post-trade processing such as payments and adjustments over the life of each contract (which, in the case of OTC derivatives, can be as long as 10 years). It currently handles the event processing services for 98% of the world’s outstanding CDSs.

Time for an upgrade

This is the platform that the DTCC wants to replace with blockchain technology. One of the main attractions is the possibility of making the “golden copy” accessible to all participants. Another is being able to automate the processing of lifecycle events via smart contracts (currently a largely manual process). Also, on the current infrastructure, settlement can take as long as a week to close, whereas on the new platform it could be almost instantaneous.

To this end, the DTCC started work on the redesign of TIW at the beginning of 2017, following a successful proof-of-concept executed in 2016. IBM is acting as project lead, blockchain startup Axoni will provide the technology, and R3 is acting as advisor. The platform is expected to go live in early 2018, at which time the underlying protocol will be submitted to opn-source blockchain consortium Hyperledger (of which the DTCC is a founding member) for others to also work on.

Given the systemic importance of efficient derivatives settlement, initially the new platform will launch in “shadow” mode and run alongside the current system. Participation will be optional, and participants will adapt their internal processes gradually, with large firms implementing their own nodes on the ledger while smaller ones hook in via the DTCC’s node.

To start with, the platform would only handle information and reconciliation. Payments would continue to move on traditional rails.

Thinking ahead

An interesting question is why the DTCC would do this. Are they not potentially writing themselves out of the picture?

What they are in effect doing is “disrupting” their own processes. As the largest CDS post-trade processor, they do have a choke-hold on the market. But the DTCC is a not-for-profit organization, owned by the industry. As such, its obligation is to the market participants, and includes future-proofing its service. What’s more, a reduction in reconciliation costs could boost transactions and liquidity, possibly helping to offset the post-crash decline in trading volumes.

Furthermore, its systemically important role gives it a clear view of how fast financial services can shift. By upgrading the principal post-trade platform and making it easier for derivates to be centrally cleared, the DTCC could be getting ahead of regulatory changes. With a node on the distributed ledger, regulators would have a complete and real-time view of the state of the market.

Big impact

When the platform goes live (expected to be early next year), it will be the largest project to date to enter production. Its effects will not be visible to the mainstream market, but the financial sector will be watching this closely, not only to see if the technology works, but also to gauge the impact of the cautious implementation strategy.

Blockchain technology is not the answer to all of the problems, structural and otherwise, that currently plague financial markets. But its potential is intriguing, especially the opportunity to affect how information is handled. That in itself could fundamentally change how the markets work.

With many more projects in the pipeline – from the DTCC as well as other significant players in the field – the launch of the CDS blockchain platform could well be the tipping point that triggers a host of implementations. With that, we will finally be able to say that the next era of financial infrastructure has begun.

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.