As the dust settles around a steady stream of positive blockchain buzz from major banks, a consensus on use cases that major institutions believe the technology can be applied to is beginning to emerge.
One of the more often-heralded use cases is international trade, with institutions having presented a willingness to back efforts related to supply chain, using the technology to secure a chain of custody for physical goods, as well as trade finance – the process by which the movement of these goods is financed as part of the delivery process.
So far, IBM has openly touted the supply chain use case, while blockchain startup Wave is working with Barclays on a trial that would find the major UK bank experimenting with digitizing pen-and-paper supply chain processes.
First revealed in December, Standard Chartered recently announced it is working with the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS) to tackle trade finance. Now, the two companies are seeking to expand their work to include the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), the government’s IT and communications arm, and other banks.
Gautam Jain, Standard Chartered's global head of digitisation, client access and product development, indicated that the proof-of-concept (PoC) is moving forward and that the banks are working toward a "full commercialization" of the product.
Jain told CoinDesk:
"Starting with Singapore, we plan to invite more banks to join us and evaluate this technology for wide commercialisation and hence improve, as joint body, Singapore’s standing as a global trade centre."
Still, Jain cautioned against high expectations, noting that the bank itself does not have a specific blockchain technology strategy, per se.
Rather, Jain said, Standard Chartered views the technology as a means to further its trade finance services, and to respond to the demands of customers who want improvements to these offerings.
"We continue to innovate and develop solutions to solve real-world issues, and more importantly, contribute to the overall digitization of trade and trade finance," Jain said.
Jain hinted, but did not confirm, that Standard Chartered is working on additional trials, as part of an effort to "innovate and digitize" its operations. However, he suggested that this project is one on which it has worked the most extensively.
Like other blockchain industry startups, Jain said Standard Chartered and DBS are focusing their efforts on improving bills of lading (BLs) – documents issued by carriers that specify what is contained in a specific shipment and then transfer the title to those goods to the receiving party.
Of issue, Jain indicated, is that today, it is common that parties finance the same BL more than once, meaning customers are able to obtain funding from multiple banks for the same invoices.
"Currently, a bank’s ability to detect duplicate financing of the same set of invoices or BL is limited to their own database," he explained. "Banks can only detect if the same invoice has been financed by themselves within a prescribed period of time but aren’t able to do so if the same invoice is financed by another bank."
Jain said there is now no common way for banks to share information on the details of invoices, as confidentiality has been a concern for the involved parties.
Here, however, Standard Chartered and DBS have been seeking to apply distributed ledgers in an effort to facilitate checks that would guard against duplicate financing.
"The challenge we took was, 'Could we have information sharing initiated by the interested parties while preserving the commercial confidentiality of the underlying trade itself?'"
While big global banks are increasing bullish on 'blockchain', it has been less clear what specific technologies these institutions are referring to when they use the term.
To date, major financial institutions are mostly experimenting with the technology in closed-door consortium settings, and even when announcements are made, there is often an emphasis on the use case rather than the underlying technology powering the trial.
However, there seems to be growing acknowledgement among major financial firms that the distributed ledger technology offered by Ripple is gaining appeal, with Standard Chartered revealing it is using both the startup’s tech and its consultancy services.
"While we may have internal experts, we are open to leveraging the skills of industry experts and learning from their experience," Jain said.
Also involved is global information technology firm CGI Group, which announced a partnership with Ripple in October 2015.
The news follows an announcement last Thursday from Royal Bank of Canada, which unveiled it has been trialing Ripple’s technology for remittances with the help of ‘big four’ professional services firm Deloitte.
Jain was also confident that applying blockchain tech to trade finance could yield significant rewards.
Ultimately, Jain said that the PoC, if implemented, could provide cost savings by lowering users’ risk of fraud and loss, though he sees other potentially beneficial impacts as well.
"Less tangible cost savings would include improved turnaround time and increased productivity from streamlined and automated verification process," he said.
Still, Jain stated his belief that the project needs to take an open approach, as the larger its network, the greater the visibility of all participants to potential fraud.
"The more banks that join us, the better we get in protecting the industry."