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Blockchain in Finance: From Buzzword to Watchword in 2016

(@farzamehsani) | Published on December 20, 2016 at 13:00 BST
Opinion

Farzam Ehsani is the leader of the Blockchain Initiative for the FirstRand Group (Africa’s largest bank by market cap).

In this CoinDesk 2016 in Review feature, Ehsani looks back at the evolution of blockchain development – and nomenclature – in the finance space over the course of 2016. Further, he anticipates the introduction of central bank-issued cryptocurrencies that will truly usher in the age of the blockchain.

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evolution

If 2015 was the year when many first heard about blockchain, 2016 was the year when many pretended to understand what it was – it was just too embarrassing to admit ignorance of a term that had become such a buzzword.

After all, everyone else seemed to know what it was. “It’s a distributed ledger!” became the battle cry to fend off those that came close to uncovering our lack of understanding.

Yet, the truth is that we’re all learning. Whether it is figuring out what a “node” is or understanding the intricacies of homomorphic encryption and zk-SNARKs, we are all witnessing the unfoldment of this beautiful technology and its implications for the world.

I like to compare blockchain to an extraordinary vehicle that we’ve heard can travel from Cape Town to Cairo in a matter of seconds.

As news spreads of the discovery of this amazing vehicle, more and more people imagine new possibilities, and announcements proliferate: the vehicle will be used to transport maize, coal, sunflowers and more. But when asked what this vehicle looks like – whether it has wings or wheels, belts or brakes – few can offer satisfactory answers.

Such has been the state of blockchain in 2016: a magnificent technology has been discovered, and numerous use cases abound, however, much work needs to be done to better understand and build the underlying platform or “vehicle”.

Protocol growth

While we fell in love with bitcoin and the genius of Satoshi, we also realized that the bitcoin vehicle wasn’t designed for all terrains.

The financial services industry requires a multi-asset platform which is not what bitcoin was designed for. Furthermore, in a regulated environment, actors are known to one another and a breach of trust has punitive consequences. As such, a consensus algorithm such as proof-of-work, intended for trustless participants, serves little purpose except to increase costs and transaction times in a permissioned network.

With this recognition, 2016 saw the emergence of several open-source platforms for the financial services industry, from Hyperledger to Chain Core to Corda (adding to other open-source platforms such as ethereum and Monax released in previous years).

Several more platforms exist in the proprietary space, and many of these will head into open-source territory in 2017. I believe their proprietors will come to acknowledge that any chance of long-term success at the protocol level lies in the network effect, which is hindered by any attempts of monetization.

After all, no one makes money from TCP/IP or HTTP.

Use case among use cases

As vehicle designs (permissioned blockchain protocols) emerged this year, the proclamation of use cases grew louder. One use case in particular will allow all others to reach their highest potential: money.

Moving the most common asset in our economies – fiat currency – onto a blockchain is currently the most significant use case of all. This is because nearly all transactions in our economies involve two parts, one of which is virtually always money.

Money is the lubricant of our economies and its value is in being the most frictionless asset of all (currently, it is not). Unregulated cryptocurrencies have outperformed fiat currency in this regard and the financial world has woken up to this.

Central banks from Canada to China, England to Europe, Sweden to Singapore, USA to the RSA, and many more, are researching, testing, or actively pursuing the establishment of a central bank issued cryptocurrency* (CBCC).

The issuance of CBCC on a sovereign blockchain will allow other financial instruments such as bonds, equities, derivatives, and even land and car registries, to be migrated to the same blockchain and permit a plethora of use cases to come to full fruition.

Without CBCC on a sovereign blockchain, most use cases are stymied. For example, reducing the settlement time of equities to zero isn’t very helpful if the money used to buy those equities still takes a day or two to settle.

Catalyst for the future

The issuance of CBCC on a sovereign blockchain would not only catalyse other use cases, it would also transform the very nature of the banking industry itself.

In the paper “The Advent of Crypto Banking”, I describe a future in which banks might not be deposit-taking institutions, in which bank runs could not exist, and in which banking systems could be more stable and inclusive. The case for fiat currency on a blockchain is indisputable for central banks and regulators.

As we move into 2017, we will see the transformation of blockchain from a buzzword to a watchword. We will see the custodians of our fiat currencies, central banks, move closer to harnessing the power of blockchain technology for the benefit of entire economies.

The amazing blockchain vehicle that once only existed in Satoshi’s imagination will soon benefit the lives of all. Humanity awaits.

[*I intentionally use the word “crypto” and not “digital” as central bank-issued digital currency has existed for several decades already.]

Have an opinion on blockchain in 2016? A prediction for 2017? Email [email protected] to learn how you can contribute to our series.

Seedlings image via Shutterstock

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, CoinDesk.

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