The Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation (DTCC) held a private blockchain event in New York last week, a move that coincided with the announcement it would embark on its first test of the technology with partner Digital Asset Holdings.
The all-day affair saw a number of new names debut at a blockchain industry conference, with marquee representatives from Blackrock, Goldman Sachs, the SWIFT Institute and the White House joining a cast of more experienced blockchain innovators from Chain, R3 and tØ.
Overall, while the event showcased the growing enthusiasm for blockchain technology among large financial incumbents, most conversations sought to temper this enthusiasm by underscoring the need for checks and balances as part of a transition to blockchain-based systems.
Though discussion of the technology and its impact was expansive, it was perhaps notable for a lack of discussion of specific technologies.
Conversations about blockchain protocols offered by Ethereum, Bitcoin, Ripple or Hyperledger were notably scarce, with the second half of the day seeing a more inclusive dialogue that touched on digital currencies and the bitcoin blockchain.
CoinDesk recaps the day’s major moments with the 12 most notable quotes:
1. “When the pressures of the financial crisis repeat [themselves], which at some point they will, a processing structure that operates on automatic would drive the financial system off a cliff. Preserving central command has to be part of an implementation scheme.”
With these words of warning, Donald Donahue, president and CEO of Miranda Partners, opened the day’s event with a focus on the “big questions” about the future of blockchain. In prepared remarks, Donahue cautioned that just because the blockchain could enable an automated economy, this doesn’t mean that the financial system should or must function this way.
His remarks showcased the long time horizons on which financial incumbents are beginning to consider the impact of blockchain, and foreshadowed widely voiced concerns about whether the tech would be implemented in a manner consistent with traditional financial values.
2. “2015 [is] the year we elaborate on challenges. [In] 2016 we look for the solutions to come back.”
Lee Braine, investment bank CTO Office at Barclays, was vocal, if non-specific about his UK bank’s blockchain work during Donahue’s panel session. In the midst of what he called a “perfect hype storm”, he said Barclays has been attempting to discern the best strategy through a number of investigations.
With this quote, however, he gave some insight as to why details about these efforts have been scarce, noting that due to the length of some of the studies, its research may begin to bear fruit in 2016.
3. “We receive hundreds of millions of transactions every day, they go into the same exact systems, they validate within a second, it costs much less than a penny, and as [DTCC CEO] Mike [Bodson] indicated in his keynote, it runs in real-time as well. I’m not sure that is really the problem that needs addressing.”
As with many of the day’s speakers from host DTCC, managing director Robert Palatnick sought to stress that settlement, the company’s main line of business, perhaps isn’t the best use case for blockchain technology.
In this quote, he evoked the perceived issues related to the bitcoin blockchain, holding them up as a potential sign that the tech might not work as a replacement for major clearinghouses.
He continued by talking about the “structural and regulatory challenges” he believes are really slowing down the settlement process, suggesting that the firm may be equally willing to embrace non-blockchain solutions to settlement concerns.
4. “If you came to me and said, ‘Are you interested in tech that can solve back-office problems and requires a consortium approach?’ I’m not interested in that as an investor.”
Matt Harris, managing director at Bain Capital Ventures, was mixed about his outlook on the industry as it shifts focus to “blockchain”, noting that its preferred use cases aren’t the kinds of things that attract high-return investors.
Nonetheless, Harris said he has become convinced that the financial industry’s pain is acute enough for real change to happen. Further, he said he has been encouraged by the industry’s innovators to go against what might be his gut instinct.
“Talent is being drawn to this space. You have the Ethereum team, the Eris team, these are not teams generally drawn to back-office tech problems,” he said.
5. “There are going to be pockets of adoption. There are some firms that are going to see this as more of a priority.”
The comment above was from Murray Pozmanter, managing director and general manager of DTCC’s systemically important financial market utility (SIFMU) businesses, who defined his thinking on blockchain tech.
While others predicted production pilots would go live in as soon as one to two years, Pozmanter said that innovations were likely to occur in “white spaces” where specific solutions could be crafted for niche markets.
Pozmanter held up DTCC’s partnership with Digital Asset Holdings as a template he believes other market participants will follow.
6. “I think Ethereum very much is bitcoin 2.0.”
IBM vice president of blockchain technologies Jerry Cuomo may have said it first, but the idea that Ethereum either is or isn’t an improvement or replacement for bitcoin became a notable side debate held over the course of the day.
Cuomo’s comments came amid a keynote address in which he discussed the explorations IBM undertook prior to its decision to embark on the open-source Hyperledger blockchain project. Also discussed was its use of ‘shadowchains’ or blockchains meant to run alongside existing legacy technologies.
Notably, Cuomo suggested the use of a shadowchain helped IBM reduce the amount of capital held up in dispute resolutions by 40%.
7. “Certainly, if you have a business model that is dependent on you being the one updating the ledger, it asks some questions.”
The idea that incumbents would be safe from the impact of blockchain or could perhaps emerge from it unscathed was questioned most directly in a “lunch debate” featuring Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne and Nasdaq head of blockchain strategy Fredrik Voss.
Though there was disagreement between the large US stock market operator and the upstart CEO seeking to reimagine capital markets, Voss agreed with Byrne that the tenor of the conversation thus far had perhaps been misleading.
Still, he was coy in his remarks about Nasdaq’s trials, indicating his company “doesn’t have enough evidence” to suggest blockchain won’t fulfill its promise, which in turn has lead it to continue its activities in the space.
8. “The way we have our system, regulators can see down to the lowest level.”
Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne has historically been reticent to discuss tØ’s tech, preferring to use the blanket term “blockchain agnostic” when asked, but he opened up when pressed on the day’s panel.
tØ, Byrne said, has built a top-layer blockchain system that can interface with any blockchain, but that today uses the bitcoin blockchain as a way to ensure the veracity of its data.
Notable, however, was this quote, which gave insight into how the platform is being built in a way to ensure the requirements of regulators are respected as these innovations roll out.
9. “Not everyone gets to win. This is not a faster email server, this is a technology where people will go away.”
Normally a favorite of financial incumbents, Chain CEO Adam Ludwin stirred the room with this quote, which found him hammering home an earlier point raised by Nasdaq’s Voss.
On the panel, Ludwin discussed why he believes blockchain pilots will launch this year, but that the full ramifications won’t be felt for a while. He said he expects the first blockchain networks to “appear modest” but warned incumbents not dismiss trials by “a few banks or institutions”.
Those who fail to get involved, he forecasted, could come to regret this delayed action.
10. “We have to not dismiss the idea that the world is ready for a decentralized digital form of money.”
SecondMarket founder and Digital Currency Group CEO Barry Silbert is known for his unabashed pro-bitcoin approach, one that derives from what he has long heralded as its ability to serve as a unique asset class.
As with many recent events, Silbert has found himself increasingly at odds with panelists who he inferred have been all too eager to write off bitcoin, the oldest and longest-running implementation of blockchain technology.
Silbert stressed he believes that the killer app of decentralized ledgers is the ability to “move money around the world”, and to change how global finance works fundamentally.
11. “The idea that the industry as a whole is trusted by the public is not that strong. Bernie Sanders has raised millions on one particular story, and that is that Wall Street is stealing from it.”
Author and Australia native Michael J Casey didn’t shy away from talking US politics in his one-on-one conversation with DTCC CIO Robert Garrison.
Onstage, he noted that while the day’s discussion was perhaps respectful of the achievements of the financial industry, the general public may be willing to side with innovators seeking to disrupt it.
12. “Please say I’ll have a job.”
If all jokes are based on some truth, then there may have been no more telling moment than DTCC president and CEO Michael Bodson’s quip about his first conversation with Digital Asset’s Blythe Masters.
During a fireside chat, Bodson perhaps stole the show with the candidness of his remarks. In another notable anecdote, he recalled a sleep-deprived encounter with a representative of Australian regulator ASIC, who had asked him “What the hell is a blockchain?” six months earlier.
While humorous, the remark underscored the speed at which financial regulators, and financial incumbents, have needed to get up to speed with the technology.
Disclaimer: CoinDesk is a subsidiary of Digital Currency Group.
Image via DTCC