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The Weekend Read: Mar 5

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Enterprise Ethereum Alliance

The Enterprise Ethereum Alliance formally kicked off earlier this week with an all day meet up in JP Morgan’s Brooklyn offices. The group consists of Ethereum-focused startups and large companies, with a focus on developing standards for private Ethereum deployments. The reaction by the press was curious, as many picked up a theme of Microsoft and IBM waging a proxy war via EEA (Microsoft) and the Hyperledger project (IBM). For example, American Banker noted “the IBM-led Linux Foundation Hyperledger Project” and their use of “a mainframe in a cloud” vs Microsoft as “more focused on openness — letting organizations choose the combinations of technology that work best for them.” Coindesk followed up with an article on the decentralized nature of the new group:

Still, while the board is also designed to give members a sense of accountability, more experimental governance models are also being considered. “Everything starts as an idea, with one person,” said Lubin. “That happened. But Ethereum is moving towards decentralization.”

The press loves a simple narrative (see below for a fine example), but both groups are very diverse and seek to move the whole industry forward, as we ALL have a lot of work to do to make this technology real for business users. One theme that did persist at Tuesday’s EEA launch was the desire to keep aligned, and in some minds perhaps eventually merged, with the public Ethereum chain (not to be confused with Ethereum Classic, or Ethereum Classic Classic!). This and Bitcoin’s recent price surge are most likely what is behind the recent ramp up in the price of ether. For an older, somewhat related article on public Ethereum, I recommend this Aeon article.

Et Tu, Blockchain?

The only good thing to come out of the R3 non-story was this new Tim Swanson meme...
The only good thing to come out of the R3 non-story was this new Tim Swanson meme…

Over the last two weeks, a blockchain butterfly flapped its wings, and the next thing we knew, R3 was caught in the oddest of fake-news hurricanes. In short: a tweeted pic from a Corda meetup was coupled with the quote “GAME OVER” (perhaps an early tribute to the great Bill Paxton?) and the next thing we knew, there were all sorts of nonsense articles and blog posts. For a run down, you can read Chris Skinner’s take (and yes, his is an intentional fake news headline…) and this Bank Innovation piece (Dave Birch: I would love to meet your tailor). In shorter: it was all complete BS. Which was disappointing, but not surprising. I just finished the Michael Lewis book The Undoing Project and the one thing the book taught me was that we are all “confirmation bias” machines. Or as The New Yorker put it: Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds

As David Rutter pointed out in his blog post last week:

Humans are creatures of habit. As time went on, the term blockchain came to be associated with any type of distributed ledger, even as the technology matured and evolved to meet the needs of different groups of users. This isn’t an issue unique to our space. The marketing team at Canon must have spent countless hours working out how to stop people referring to all copy machines as Xeroxs.

We can see this in two other thoughtful articles that were recently published. Our very own Antony Lewis has a great take on Distributed Ledger Technology for post trade published in Tabb Group…yet the title chosen by the editors was “Applying Blockchain to Post-Trade Derivatives Processing.” Another from CFO magazine includes yours truly and does a great job in explaining why CFOs should pay attention to distributed ledger technology…which they term “Betting on Blockchain.”

Lost in the noise was the release of an 80 page report by the Aite Group. This Coindesk review of the report gives a flavor of the market landscape that Aite explored, including this key quote:

“A growing trend, adopted by five chaintech platforms and spearheaded by R3,” writes Paz, “calls for consensus taking place at the transaction level, requiring the consent of at least two counterparty nodes.”

Another bit lost was our new intro video to Corda, which declares in very plain language what Corda is (and isn’t):

But don’t just trust our word on it. Sign up for Corda training or sign up to our Slack, and see (and debate) for yourself!

Links

The Weekend Read: September 11

Sharing the blockchain pixie dust

Sharing the blockchain pixie dust

1. Talking Down the Hype

Bloomberg and Accenture lead this week’s edition with pieces that try to (somewhat) gently deflate the blockchain hype bubble. First up, Bloomberg columnists compare the lightly funded optimism of blockchains with the harsh reality of Europe’s massive and expensive Target2 overhaul:

Take one recent example of wholesale technological change: The very un-glamorous Target2 Securities pan-European settlement platform. (Next time, call it a blockchain, guys.) It was designed in 2006 as a way to improve efficiency, cut costs and reduce complexity for settling cross-border trades in Europe. A decade and 2 billion euros later (divided between the ECB and the financial industry) it’s still not fully rolled out. Official forecasts say the system will begin paying for itself in 2024 — two years, remember, after blockchain will have supposedly also started to save the industry billions.

So a real-world example, then, that it takes 20 years for a new, efficient 2 billion-euro post-trade system with full central-bank backing to start recouping its cost. It would be a miracle if blockchain could repeat this feat in a fraction of the time without similar backing or funding. To match such ambitious expectations would surely require some seriously large-scale resources — which, despite the hype, bank-friendly blockchain technology has yet to attract.

This has been our opinion (from a much more optimistic perspective, of course) from the beginning, and one that is inevitable as things shift from pure innovation labs to business lines. In a similar vein, Accenture had this post in the NY Times that cautions about the challenges of blockchain immutability in a regulatory climate that increasingly tries to enforce a “right to be forgotten”:

The financial services industry needs to face the question of how to balance the appeal of pristine accounting with the demands of the real world, where some things simply need to be struck from the records.

This challenge is coming to light with new data privacy rules like the European Union’s general data protection regulation, which will add new consumer data privacy and ownership rights over the next two years. These rules will not just affect Europe; they will have a far-reaching impact on global companies, and not least on the back offices of major financial institutions.

[SNIP] One thing is clear: If the financial services industry is to embrace a new technology, it cannot be one in which mischief and mistakes are immutable and fraudsters can defend their actions on spurious ideological grounds. Even the smartest contracts can be susceptible to human error, and even the cleverest I.T. architectures will be hit by events that need to be undone.

On some levels the above concern makes sense, but at least in the capital markets perspective, I struggle to see how immutability creates issues, especially in ledger networks with clear governance. Using a simple markets “fat finger” example, the common and correct practice for unwinding trade errors is not to “strike them from the record” but instead to enter an equal and opposite counter-trade. Cancelling records of trades or obligations would quickly lead to that person looking for their next place of gainful employment.

2. Friends and Blockchain

Many thanks to our partners at BNP for inviting me to the kickoff of their Americas Innovation Zone and their “Bizhackathon” event, which was covered here and here. Our panel discussion and Q+A was very engaging and focused more on the challenges and opportunities highlighted in the above article, namely the positive friction that is starting to result as innovation and business reality start to intersect in the PoC-Pilot-Production journey.

Big ups as well to Gadi and the Wave team, which announced, in collaboration with Barclays, a successful use of a blockchain to digitize a part of the mountain of documentation needed in today’s global trade. And Thomson Reuters, another R3 partner, kicked off a weekend-long “HackETHon” in London to explore a few very important themes, such as secure smart contracts and the challenge of exposing trust-minimized distributed ledgers to “the great unwashed” of the external world of data.

3. Open Source

Hyperledger’s Executive Director Brian Behlendorf recent interview in Bitcoin Magazine lays out the Project’s vision to support the various communities emerging across the distributed ledger spectrum in an open way:

“Permissioned chains do not solve all the interesting problems out there,” he commented. “I think Bitcoin, Ethereum, and other cryptocurrency and distributed application platforms have a long, bright future. Specific currencies may come and go, but the problems they solve are real and worth solving and there are incredibly active user and developer communities around each. I think we’ll also find over time that there are many shades of grey between ‘permissioned’ and ‘unpermissioned’ and I’d love to explore that whole spectrum with projects at Hyperledger.

[SNIP] “We’ll have many public chains and technologies (I think Zcash looks really cool, technically) and many, many private chains, because there are many different kinds of communities and use cases, and expecting one chain to meet them all is unrealistic. We should be asking ourselves how we maximize the amount of re-use and code-sharing between the software driving all those chains. That’s what we’re hoping to help with at Hyperledger.”

We are excited to work with the team at the Linux Foundation as they expand the distributed ledger communities and help prove the model of open source in financial markets. It certainly seems like the right side of history, as the data points of “big bad banks” going all Linus increases (see this article on Goldman Sachs).

4. R3 and Exchanges

And finally, we are very excited to announce the addition of BM&F Bovespa as our third member in Brazil and our first exchange (the largest in South America). The Brazilian market is fascinating, as much of its infrastructure is years ahead of markets like the US. Brazilian markets have had to survive the crucible of hyperinflation and market instability time and again, and their market structure has been built in response to that. Fabio Dutra, Client and Business Development Managing Director at BM&F BOVESPA, says it well here: “We believe that strong collaboration with our customers, regulators and vendors is crucial to futureproof financial and capital markets. Innovation with appropriate regulatory oversight is paramount to making the Brazilian markets even more efficient and reliable. Shared ledger technology may play an important role here.”

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My thoughts are with those whose lives were impacted on this day 15 years ago. The years pass but the events that day will not be forgotten.

The Weekend Read: June 12

WARNING: do not try at home. Objects in picture may not be to scale.

WARNING: do not try at home. Objects in picture may not be to scale.

Many thanks to Kevin Rutter for pinch hitting for last week’s Read. Your author was unavoidably detained at my 20th college reunion, aka a mid-nineties Hot Tub Time Machine. An age before social media (thankfully, for all involved) and carb-phobia. The only thing that seems to survive is that, now and forever, Slices come plain only.

1.  CBDC Discussed in DC

The World Bank, IMF and the Fed recently hosted an event called “Finance in Flux” to broadly discuss the impact of technology on finance. Chain’s Adam Ludwin delivered a keynote address and shared his speech on the Internets here. As usual with Adam’s articles, he provides a clear narrative and interesting context, especially for the evolution of distributed ledgers versus the recent financial backdrop and other technological developments:

The medium of money has only changed a few times in history, from precious metals to bearer currencies to now our ledger-based electronic systems. Bitcoin and blockchain represent a transition to a new medium. This transition is often referred to as distributed ledger technology, which is a reference to today’s centralized ledgers. But I find it more helpful to look back to bearer instruments, like banknotes, to appreciate what this new medium enables: a digital bearer instrument.

[SNIP] The goal of the blockchain industry is to collapse these steps into a single step, where payment is the settlement, just like with physical notes. This is what I mean by digital value transfer, which I sometimes like to call money-over-IP. Soon, the phrase “cross-border payment” will make about as much sense as “cross-border email.”

The main thrust of the talk was to introduce and potentially advance the topic of central bank digital currency (CBDC), something we often reference in this space. There is undeniably a lot of activity going on across both public and private sectors, and I expect that the discussion, especially around the second order benefits and (most importantly) risks, will only increase thru the end of 2016.

2. Blockchain Buzz. Bitcoin (price) Breakout?

Bloomberg published a short op-ed touting the promise of blockchain, although they perform an all-star hedge, claiming in a single paragraph that it can “change the world” or “fade into relative obscurity.” Do we only get two choices? Meanwhile, the IMF chimes in with an article entitled The Internet of Trust, shared here not because it breaks much ground but to highlight that the IMF would bother publishing such a piece. The blockchain buzz continued with the second annual “Blockchain Illuminati” resort retreat on Necker Island, where attendees unironically discussed solving Peruvian land title issues while sitting poolside.

Quick test of target $650/700 level. To the moon...or back to retest breakout?

Quick test of target $650/700 level. To the moon…or back to retest breakout?

Meanwhile, Bitcoin price continues its strong run. As noted a few weeks back, a break of the $465 resistance opened up a test of 650/700 area…and here we are. Not a bad level to trade against. I am sure we will be in for lots of XBT cheerleading this week, so take this as a semi-regular reminder to not read into any of it, as (now and forever) story chases price.

 

 

 

3. Blockchain…what is it good for?

Back to the more pedestrian topic of what we can actually do with distributed ledgers. Dave Birch has an interesting 4 part series on digital identity and how this could be implemented with shared ledgers:

What if we could use shared ledger technology to build this record of financial services passports but but in such a way that no institution owned it, that it had no central system to go down, that it could resist intrusion or attempts at fraud from compromised members of the network, and that it could provide a platform for new products and services that we can’t really imagine at the moment? Personally, I think the shared ledger may well a plausible solution to this problem.

I especially liked his observation in Part 3: “while the idea of having sovereign control of your digital identity in some sort of blockchain is an appealing prospect if you are a 20-year-old computer science major MIT, I remain unconvinced that is a mass-market solution especially in developing countries.” Indeed.

Meanwhile, ICYMI (I did…), Josh Stark of Ledger Labs provides a nice review of the different perceptions of smart contracts, breaking them into two overlapping yet unique definitions: smart contract code and smart legal contracts. He explains both in detail and also nails how Corda fits into the ledger ecosystem:

The different uses of the term illustrate a broader challenge in our industry. The interdisciplinary nature of blockchain technology, and “smart contracts” in particular, lead people to see the technology as primarily belonging to their own discipline, at the expense of the others.

Lawyers often look at smart contracts and see marginally improved legal agreements, without appreciating the fuller potential of blockchain-code to extend beyond law’s reach.

Developers, on the other hand, consider smart contracts and see the limitless possibilities of software, without appreciating the subtleties and commercial realities reflected in traditional legal agreements.

As with any interdisciplinary field, both must learn from the other.

The Weekend Read: Mar 20

1. The Economist as un-Hype Man

The Economist is back on the blockchain beat with a pair of short articles. The first is a pseudo-cold shower for the enthusiasm within financial services to “put a blockchain on it,” lead by a quote from the Blockchain Beard himself. The article ends on a more hopeful note:

Yet it would be wrong to conclude that the blockchain is no more than a fad. It is merely moving through the same hype cycle as other next-big-things have done before it: inflated expectations are followed by disillusionment before a technology eventually finds its place. Although it will take a while for distributed ledgers to rule the world, they are an idea, to paraphrase Victor Hugo, that will be hard to resist.

The second outlines the nascent love affair between central bankers and distributed ledgers: our oft-cited Regtech theme which we will discuss further down the page. The article does end with a nice crypto-libertarian head exploder: “The technology first developed to free money from the grip of central bankers may soon be used to tighten their control.”

2. Good News

A warm welcome to SBI Holdings as our newest R3 member institution. It is great to have their team on board, as SBI has been quite active in the ledger space, including their recent JV with Ripple to create SBI Ripple Asia. Another member bank, Unicredit, recently released a white paper discussing the potential applications of blockchain tech to financial services. The authors Matteo and Vittorio have a wealth of hands-on experience to draw from and the paper is well worth a read in full. And a congrats as well to the TradeBlock team for their recent announcement of a successful PoC with ICAP as well as their new sister company Axoni.

3. Regtech and Identity

The US Dept of Homeland Security (DHS) recently announced requests for proposals in two blockchain related areas. One area is not too surprising: “Blockchain Applications for Homeland Security Analytics.” But the other one (“Applicability of Blockchain Technology to Privacy Respecting Identity Management”) truly piques my interest, both for their desire to learn more about identity management and in their concern to respect privacy!

Continuing the identity theme, Barclays announced that they are “one [of] a group of nine companies certified by Gov.UK.Verify to supply and manage public IDs for services.” The Gov.Verify program has had some ups and downs, but the effort to create a digital identity service, if only for government services, should be commended. Speaking of the UK government, we have yet another article touting their aggressive push towards central bank digital currency as part of the government’s fintech hub strategy: “The speed with which the digital-currency agenda has captured the imagination of U.K. officials hints at its potential strategic value for both central banking and the economy.”

…and finally, an article that I missed from last week by the always excellent Ben Thompson at Stratechery. The post is nominally about the block size debate, yet it is more a meditation on how a lack of diversity within tech can lead to blind spots in decision making:

Ultimately, I don’t know what will happen to Bitcoin, but I’m skeptical of folks who are attracted to it because it allegedly removes humans from the equation: that is and always has been an idea that only makes sense in the very narrowest view of a single Bitcoin transaction, as we are seeing all too clearly in the community’s inability to address a relatively minor issue.

More broadly, I hope that the fundamental humanity that goes into any decision — product, policy, or otherwise — is appreciated by everyone in tech. Just as products and companies are either growing or dying, so too efforts to make the technology industry more accurately reflect, and thus better serve (and better monetize!) the diversity of the human race, are either explicitly improving the status quo or implicitly embracing it. There are no neutral “rules.”

The Weekend Read: Sep 20

1. R3 Announcement

It has been a busy week for us at R3. Our announcement in the FT sparked quite a bit of coverage (click here for a selection of articles). We look forward to making more announcements in the coming weeks.

2. Blockchain for Business

IBM hit the news this week with a WSJ article extrapolated from this blog post by Arvind Krishna, SVP and Director, IBM Research:

We believe that for blockchain to fulfill its full potential, it must based on open technology standards to assure the compatibility and interoperability of systems. Furthermore, the various blockchain versions should be built using open source software rather than proprietary software, which could be used to suppress competition. Only with openness will blockchain be widely adopted and will innovation flourish.

Jamie Dimon was specifically asked about “block chain money transfer” at a conference this week (overview here). Dimon reiterated his lack of optimism on Bitcoin itself while making some encouraging comments about blockchain tech (quote edited for clarity, please see full transcript here):

I still believe [Bitcoin] will not be a currency because government’s control currencies and they are not going to like it…but the block chain, which is a technology behind the encryption and the certification…might very well be very useful in a cheap way if you can go see we own something…it takes 21 days on average…to transfer a loan…So if you go to DTCC, they already keep all the data. They transfer all these things, the question is can you use these things to do it more efficiently. And if it is more efficient we should do it. And I don’t know yet and it’s got to be secure.

3. Bitcoin as Commodity (says CFTC)

The CFTC finally gave a clear opinion on Bitcoin, deeming it a commodity (I agree), which not coincidentally puts it directly under the purview of the CFTC. It will be interesting to see if other regulatory bodies such as the SEC start to stake out jurisdictional territory in response.

4. Fintech Conference Season

Fire up the name tags and cocktail banter…conference season is well under way. NYC played host to Finovate (rundown here), while London hosted Fintech Week. Our own Richard Brown took part in a spirited panel entitled Blockchain for Enterprise (video here, but beware the sound mix) along with Jon Matonis and Dr. Lee Braine (IB CTO Office from R3 partner bank Barclays).

5. Odds ‘n Ends

I admit, I cannot help myself when presented with Tech Bubble click bait. In that spirit, here are two stories I have enjoyed recently. First, Bubble-Grim-Reaper Bill Gurley calls out a few Unicorns as potential Undercorns during a Techcrunch chat:

“It’s like the old adage, [when you’re] handing out dollars for 85 cents, you can go [infinitely],” he said. “Chosen unicorns are being given hundreds of millions of dollars, but you have to ask how much margin is there. The unit economics [with Instacart] would be very difficult, I’d think.”

Couple this with the recent Vanity Fair article by Nick Bilton:

Now countless people from all over want this to be a bubble and they want it to burst. There are the taxi drivers who have lost their jobs to Uber; hotel owners who have seen their rooms sit vacant as people sleep in Airbnbs; newspapers that are at the mercy of Facebook’s algorithms; booksellers and retailers who have been in an unrelenting war with Amazon; the elderly, who can’t keep up; the music industry; television producers; and, perhaps most of all, San Franciscans, who would rejoice in the streets if their rents fell from totally insane to merely overpriced, or if they could get into a decent restaurant on a Monday night. The bloggers who cover the technology industry would write a thousand jubilant think pieces saying “I told you so” to the venture capitalists who sneer and scoff when anyone comes close to mentioning the word “bubble.” As one prominent tech reporter told me, “Frankly, wiping that smug look off Marc Andreessen’s face—I can’t wait for that.”

Finally, this fascinating (long) Bloomberg piece on Tom Hayes, one of the chief conspirators (or fall guy, depending on your perspective) in the LIBOR manipulation case is worth a read:

The investigations into Libor kick-started by McGonagle and his colleagues at the CFTC have resulted in close to a dozen firms being fined a combined $10 billion. More than 100 traders and brokers have been dismissed or have left the industry. For those who remain in banking, the trading floor in the post-Hayes era looks like a very different, more chastened place. Emboldened by their success on Libor, regulators have successfully settled manipulation probes in foreign exchange, precious metals, and derivatives markets. Banks have built up their compliance staffs. Gone are the firm-funded trips to Val d’Isère and the $1,000 meals at Le Gavroche. Traders today describe living in a state of paranoia that their past conversations will be raked over and used against them. The draining of excess from banking in recent years is commonly attributed to the financial crisis. But as the public well knows, nobody who ranked on Wall Street went to jail over subprime mortgages. With Hayes behind bars, and others set to follow him to the dock, Libor and the related collusion cases have an equal if not greater claim to the new, subdued reality.