Digital Asset's New Challenger: DLT Disillusionment

FEATURE
Michael del Castillo
Jan 18, 2017 at 14:15 UTC  |  Updated  Jan 18, 2017 at 22:38 UTC

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Stakeholders at one of the first mainstream financial institutions to build with distributed ledger technology (DLT) are beginning to doubt its promise.

It's been just four months since New York-based Digital Asset Holdings commenced the formal process of gathering information from the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX), and reports are already beginning to trickle in that show how difficult the process is becoming.

But those involved say the stakeholder disillusionment is just part of the learning process.

Initiated in August, the partnership's "stakeholder engagement program", as Digital Asset CEO Blythe Masters called it, set out to ascertain from a wide range ASX users what it might take to build a blockchain replacement for the current industry-leading cash equity market, known as CHESS (the Clearing House Electronic Subregister System).

Consisting of dialogues with both users who "directly connect to the system" and those who otherwise rely on it, the engagement program is part of a lengthy process to try to ensure a blockchain platform that does more than just replace the existing system.

Digital Asset CEO Blythe Masters told CoinDesk:

"The stakeholder engagement process is by no means concluded. One of the major objectives of our DLT platform is to reduce operational costs and complexity specifically for the customers of market infrastructure providers."

According to Masters, DA is playing an assisting role in ASX's project to help ensure the distributed ledger platform currently being developed exceeds the demands of the exchange's current customers.

ASX and Digital Asset have separately confirmed with CoinDesk that the engagement program consists of a "purpose-built demo suite", and that more than 50 presentations that have been made to help explain the technology to both customers and regulators.

Concerns raise

In spite of industry understanding that self-executing code deployed on a distributed ledger could lead to increased efficiencies, it turns out that some ASX stakeholders have expressed skepticism about how that might play out in the real world, according to a Financial Review report.

While exchanges with wider margins might provide greater opportunity for improvement, ASX is already one of the most profitable in the world.

Earlier this week, Accenture published a report that blockchain could save banks $12bn a year by simplifying a number of back-end procedures. But ASX is already generating more profit than 14 exchanges in a recent report, according to AFR.

"There is a suspicion among the stakeholders who use ASX's services that [ASX CEO Dominic] Stevens will be under intense pressure to skimp on technology investment to preserve margins," the article reads.

ASX spent AUD $50.2m ($38.5m) on technology development in the previous fiscal year, at least part of which was dedicated to its investment in DA.

Ramping up

While the tone of the AFR report is occasionally dour, the effort to implement a blockchain-like solution on the cash equities exchange is only just beginning, those involved say.

Since stakeholder consultations first began last year, an ASX representative revealed to CoinDesk that the exchange has hosted a series of workshops and released a supplementary questionnaire as part of an ongoing process to learn how stakeholders might use a series of self executing contracts powered by DA's Digital Asset Modeling Language (DAML).

In addition to the stakeholder engagement program, ASX's Code of Practice Business Committee has formed a technical sub-committee to focus on adopting interbank messaging platform Swift's ISO 20022 messaging standard. Swift itself is experimenting with a possible blockchain implementation of the standard.

By August, ASX had completed its first DLT settlement prototype, and the following month, it set the date to make a final decision to implement — or not — by the end of this year.

"There is already strong levels of interest and engagement from stakeholders," the representative of ASX told CoinDesk. "We are listening and responding to the market's business requirements."

Future milestones

Regardless of concerns raised by the unnamed stakeholders, we won't have to wait for long to learn more about the engagement effort.

The ASX representative told CoinDesk the securities exchange plans to release an update on the "progress of its distributed ledger technology plans and partnership with DAH" in its half-year results report.

The presentation is expected to be delivered on 17 February.

Even if the jointly created DLT platform wins the support of stakeholders, however, that process of learning from those who might use it is expected to continue.

The ASX spokesperson described the engagement effort to CoinDesk:

"It is thorough, detailed and transparent, and will continue throughout 2017 and beyond."

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