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The Weekend Read: Feb 19

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by Todd McDonald

R3 in the News

Our CEO David E. Rutter sat down with Financial News for a very entertaining (and paywalled, sorry) interview that gives more than a few anecdotes on R3 and how we attempted to surf the blockchain hype cycle…all while trying to not get snared in the ‘reef of inflated expectations’ that hides just below the surface. But as Dave says, it is the hardest any of us have ever worked in our careers and yet the most fun any of us have ever had.

Credit Suisse Corda Hackathon in full flight
Credit Suisse Corda Hackathon in full flight

Over the last two weeks, we have talked about our recent work with Credit Suisse on their triple time zone Corda Hackathon, we were very pleased to announce our newest Regulatory Member: Hong Kong’s Securities and Futures Commission, and to read the lessons learned from Bank of Canada’s Carolyn Wilkins on the work dubbed “Project Jasper”, the collaboration w BOC, Payments Canada, R3 and R3 Member Banks to experiment w a DLT wholesale payments system. I wanted to highlight her take aways for the business case below:

We’ve also gained some other important insights that will be relevant to the business case for this type of DLT application:

1. Most cost savings appear unlikely to come in the core system itself, but rather more likely through reducing bank reconciliation efforts. The initial design is quite collateral intensive while the current system is already highly efficient.
2. There’s the potential for more savings if other applications could be built on top of a core cash payment distributed ledger system (eg financial asset clearing and settlement, trade finance).
3. In an actual production system, trade-offs will need to be resolved between how widely data and transactions are verified by members of the system, and how widely information is shared.
4. While DLT may aim to reduce concentration of risk, a substantial amount of centralization would still be required (eg permissioning of nodes and setting of operational standards) if applied to wholesale payments systems.

And a shout out to my colleague, and provider of Slack-Avatars-as-a-service, Gavin Thomas for his post on how he PM’ed the #### out of the Corda open source release: DON’T LOOK DOWN, A PROJECT MANAGER’S SHORT STORY OF OPEN-SOURCING

Industry News

CoinDesk has continued their reporting on the upcoming announcement of Enterprise Ethereum, with two articles this past week, as the group readies for an official announcement soon. We are glad to see that the enterprise blockchain space, both within Hyperledger and the new Enterprise Ethereum, has started to focus on the core requirements of scalability and confidentiality. To echo what our CEO said above, there will be no shortage of hard work involved as the new group “state channels” their inner cat herder.

In another CoinDesk article, Swift’s Global Payments Initiative (GPI) Program Director Wim Raymaekers describes how the project has aimed to improve the current Swift architecture and make payments more transparent by layering on new business rules and a GUI. Raymaekers provided both hope and shade to the blockchain crowd, saying:

[B]lockchain developers will be given access directly to the GPI as part of a hackathon. “We’re going to open those APIs for fintech and blockchain designers to come up with … new ideas,” Raymaekers said.

Overall, while Raymaekers is optimistic about the possibility that blockchain might improve some products, he ultimately sees the need for the tech as limited. He concluded: “We think blockchain today is not ready for wholesale cross-border payments. We are improving that with GPI, so it’s no longer a problem.”

Lots of Links

Here is a quick rundown of other stories from the last few weeks, which features such FoTWR celebs as The Blockchain Beard, lil’ Buterin, The Swanny, and my Snark Sensei

The Weekend Read: Dec 11

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by Todd McDonald
david-rutter-r35.jpg

R3 at TechCrunch Disrupt

Our CEO David Rutter hit the stage during TechCrunch Disrupt in London earlier this week for an extended interview. Among the highlights was his call that we will see substantial activity on a distributed ledger in 3-5 years, and that R3 will have a DLT-based product in the market by the end of 2017, much the delight and cheer of our product department. (Side note: Dave called me and asked for any background on this event. I pointed him to this clip…not sure it was helpful). In a DLT world, he noted, the idea of hiding a ticket or manipulating a trade will be a thing of the past, which could bring much needed trust back to Wall Street. On trust, he also pointed out the irony of many libertarians and bank antagonists: We all trust our banks, though we like to say we don’t. If we get a chunk of money, we put it in a bank. And for the quantitative participants in the audience, he noted R3 and others in the space addressing a $3.6tn opportunity to re-work the global payments infrastructure, cited from a recent McKinsey report.

Smart Contract Debate

The Chamber of Digital Commerce put out a doc this week entitled Smart Contracts: 12 Use Cases for Business & Beyond that features a forward by Nick Szabo. Luckily for your lazy author, R3’s Ian Grigg has written a very concise response to some of the points in the paper on his Financial Cryptography blog:

The finance end of town is only interested in smart contracts within the fully contractually-informed framework. That’s because accidents happen and the go-to place to sort out disasters is the courts, with their facility for dealing with the unexpected or unusual. This notion goes back to the Magna Carta, which was ultimately a brawl over the right to a fair day in court.

If you want a pithy principled statement, it is like this: people who trade in large values want someone to mind their backs. These people believe that smart contracts will always break, and we need a way to get predictability back into the contract.

Which brings us to the DAO – that $150 million lesson in how not to build a smart contracts platform. [SNIP] To interpret a short, pithy principle, the investors in the DAO found that nobody’s minding their backs. And when that happens, the brawl starts. Magna Chaina?

I know that some folks can’t stomach it, but for the rest that have an interest in what legal and financial professionals have to say about smart contracts, please see this excellent summary of R3’s recent Smart Contract Templates summit by Burges Salmon.

RegTech (cont.)

The Federal Reserve released a paper this week called Distributed ledger technology in payments, clearing, and settlement:

In the context of payments, DLT has the potential to provide new ways to transfer and record the ownership of digital assets; immutably and securely store information; provide for identity management; and other evolving operations through peer-to-peer networking, access to a distributed but common ledger among participants, and cryptography.

I asked Tim Swanson for his views on the paper: “The new paper provides a good objective overview on what distributed ledger technology is and what it is being used for., as well as a number of interesting data points. For instance, “In the aggregate, U.S. PCS systems process approximately 600 million transactions per day, valued at over $12.6 trillion.”  I actually ended up citing this number several times this past week at an event in Korea. The paper also makes a distinction between the settlement finality that permissioned ledgers can provide versus the probabilistic finality that un-permissioned / public blockchains provide.”

The Fed also provides a comment to add to the Smart Contract debate above:

DLT has also raised the possibility of writing terms and conditions between parties into computer code to be executed automatically. In order for these “smart contracts” to be enforceable, they must have a sound legal basis. Contract law is an established set of rules that govern the basic principles of contracting, including formation, amendment, termination, and dispute resolution.

Open Development and Other News Across the Industry

I had the pleasure of attending the Hyperledger Annual Member Summit this past week. It was a great opportunity to connect with folks from across the globe and to hear more about the projects underway underneath the Hyperledger umbrella. Chris Ferris, head of the Hyperledger Technical Steering Committee, put together his reflections in this blog post.

One highlight for me was to watch our CTO Richard Brown keep the audience in rapt attention with his overview of Corda and some of its unique design decisions. The R3 tech team has continued to post to the corda.net blog with more updates on their thinking behind the code. ICYMI, click here for James Carlyle on distributed ledgers as a ‘truth layer’ and click here for Mike Hearn on ‘why UTXO?’ We also had the chance to catch up with our friends at Digital Asset, who released their non-technical white paper earlier this week, which I believe Richard will share some thoughts on in the coming weeks.

The folks at Circle made a splash with their announcement this week of their open source platform Spark and their intention to focus exclusively on “global social payments” that happen to use blockchain(s) as rails. Or, if you are r/bitcoin, totally betraying the Bitcoin community…And for those with a penchant for oral histories of ‘cryptographic ceremonies’, be sure to check out this article on the launch of Zcash. Or if you like Bloomberg articles with all the snark of Matt Levine yet with none of his wit or deep understanding of financial markets, click here (but I wouldn’t recommend it).

…and finally, many thanks to my colleague Tim Grant for letting me crash his set for the debut of Project dR3am, and to the thousands dozens of folks who turned out to support us. Rock on.

The Weekend Read: Nov 20

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MAS MD Ravi Menon announces MAS-R3 Interbank Payments project at SGFintechFest

by Todd McDonald

Singapore Fintech Festival

MAS MD Ravi Menon announces MAS-R3 Interbank Payments project at SGFintechFest

I asked Antony Lewis for a field report on this week’s Singapore Fintech Festival:

11,000 sweaty people couldn’t be wrong…Singapore was the hottest place for FinTech this week, as the world’s first regulator-managed FinTech event kicked off for a week-long collab confab.  Ravi Menon, the MD of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, opened the festival by announcing R3’s collaborative efforts with 10 banks and partners to put the Singapore Dollar on a distributed ledger. (see BBG article here). This garnered quite a bit of inbound interest from other parts of the globe as the week wore on, and we look forward to pursuing this piece of collaborative work in a “jurisdiction near you” soon.

Tim Grant insists that he didn’t pay off the Audio/Visual crew during his panel on Wednesday when Blythe Masters’ microphone didn’t work. The whole panel, including Oliver Bussmann (independent) and Sandra Ro (CME), generally agreed that we need to see some traction next year.  Tim’s “5 Ps” of DLT (Proof-of-Concept–>Prototype–>Pilot–>Permission–>Production) crashed Instagram as the audience became bewitched by the power of alliteration. ABC (AI, Blockchain, Cloud) grew a little more mature and became ABCD (AI, Big Data, Cloud, DLT). Our CEO, David Rutter, was also featured at the ASIFMA Annual Conference (all pics above).

The above, and the MAS’ partnership with R3 announced last week, all paves the way nicely for our Lab of Excellence in Singapore. Lattice80, the world’s largest FinTech co-working space, will be the perfect location to light up those Bunsen burners. If you would like to join us, we are hiring in Singapore.

RegTech and CBDC (cont.)

Continuing the MAS RegTech focus elsewhere, there continues to be a steady drumbeat of news stories concerning the regulator’s role in fintech and DLT. First up is the U.S. SEC and CoinDesk’s profile of the SEC DLT lead Valerie Szczepanik. The article reviews the SEC working group’s focus to date, as well as raising the topic of regulation and ICOs:

Since an ethereum startup called The DAO raised over $100m by selling digital tokens without an exchange, a rush of companies have followed suit. So-called initial coin offerings can be launched from anywhere in the world and cross borders as easily as the Internet itself. With millions of dollars worth of capital raised so far and dozens of ICOs in the works, how the SEC will handle the technology is one of the biggest areas of regulatory uncertainty in the industry. Regardless of whether Gemini and SolidX ever win approval or if ICOs might displace traditional fundraising, the SEC will likely play a role.

Speaking of The DAO, the team behind the dream/nightmare, Slock.it, are back with another project, pushing the “fail fast, fail upwards” concept to its limits. I happened to see this being compared to the advent of flight and aviation inventors, yet the comparison falls flat (like many early aviators (groan)) as these innovators fail the “skin in the game” test popularized by Nassim Taleb. As far as I can tell, there was no repercussion from the absolute failure that was The DAO, whereas those early aviators had the ultimate skin in the game! (For more on that story, check out David McCullough’s excellent book on The Wright Brothers).

Sweden’s Riksbank made headlines this week with talk of issuing digital currency:

The so-called e-krona may be introduced within two years. “The less those of us living in Sweden use bank notes and coins, the clearer it becomes that the Riksbank needs to investigate whether we should issue electronic money as a complement to the money we have today,” Riksbank Deputy Governor Cecilia Skingsley told the Financial Times.

Sweden’s Riksbank is the world’s oldest central bank, and was the first to issue paper banknotes in the 1660s.

Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) remains an area of focus for R3 and our Research team. For R3 members, please reach out to us if you have seen our recently published private reports on this topic.

India has also made headlines with their recent demonetization scheme. Once again, many armchair economists/sociologists on the Twitter have been giving their “two paise” on the subject, but since I at least admit total ignorance to all the nuance, here instead is what looks to be a great run down of the issue at hand by The Diplomat.

Bonus link: no idea where to put this but here is CoinDesk’s summary of their recently released State of Blockchain.

R3’s Second Smart Contract Templates Summit & RGB on Corda

We were very pleased to host the second summit dedicated to all things smart contract, with participants in person in Barclays London and New York, with many more across the globe dialed in (Ed. note: need to clarify how time is measured by organizers of upcoming event billing itself as “The Industry’s First Event Exclusively Dedicated to Smart Contracts”…). Dr. Lee Braine of Barclays once again set a high standard for the proposed agenda, and all the contributors managed to outdo themselves. IB Times has a great rundown of the event, and we have provided all of the presentation materials via this link. Allow myself to quote…myself:

The summit featured presentations by Barclays, CIBC, Nordea Markets, ISDA, FIA, Norton Rose Fulbright, Thomson Reuters, University College London, Cardozo Law School, and R3. Todd McDonald, co-founder of R3, said: “We wanted to hold this second summit to keep up the cadence and to continue what we at R3 and all the participants feel is important: progressing this in the open and it being industry led, rather than by just one organisation or one company.”

Our CTO Richard Gendal Brown was featured on two 11FS podcasts this week. First up, RGB was joined by Richard Crook (Head of Innovation Engineering, RBS) and Ajit Tripathy (Fintech and Digital Director, PWC) for a more wide ranging chat. The second is a video link to a 1-on-1 chat with Richard Brown. Both pieces were moderated by our old friend Simon Taylor, aka The Blockchain Beard (who evidently put his size smedium t shirts on a high-heat drying cycle in order to show of his Blockchain Biceps in the attached video…). Richard as always delivers an extremely lucid explanation of not only the functionality but more importantly the benefit of DLT, and specifically Corda, to financial institutions:

On why anyone should care about blockchain and DLT: It just becomes self-evident that there’s a massive opportunity in finance, wherever firms record the same data that their counterparts do, and then have to manage it, that this blockchain technology…can be used to massively simplify and reduce that cost and complexity by just doing it once and knowing for sure that what you see is what your counterpart sees.

On how is Corda different from traditional blockchains: The short answer to your question…it is designed by and for financial institutions, its focus is not on crypto-currency or virtual machines; its focus is managing legal agreements between regulated institutions, is designed to integrate and inter-operate with existing systems in banks, and is designed to integrate well with the legal system…. So this isn’t the idea of computers running amok and controlling the world. This is computer code. This is computer data that, in the event of dispute, is grounded firmly in legal reality.

The Weekend Read: May 15

1. “The DAO” Jonesing

[High five self for NY Post style headline pun]. The DAO public crowdsale that isn’s an equity raise continues to gobble up investors and Ether (already over 13% of the float!). CoinDesk did a great job this week of summarizing both the goals of The DAO and the inscrutable semi-organizational structure behind it. I also asked The Swanny to give me two paragraphs on the topic, which in his world means a whole blog post, which you can read in full here.

Overall this is a fascinating experiment, as a few have put it, but one that is being done WITH MONEY, particularly OPM. Is this a result of folks not knowing or more likely not caring about the time value of money, since real rates are so low? What would be an investor’s time horizon to realize returns, as the VC rule of thumb is ~7 year time frame? When you consider that Angellist put roughly $70m to work in public syndicates in 2015, The DAO would need quite a few years to put its money to work, and that would only start the clock on the investment…

Isn’t this like “Ether squared” from a risk perspective? Since you need to believe that Ether will be stable to higher AND that DAO tokens will be stable to higher AND that using a global censorship resistant computer to allocate investment capital will outpace the returns of other investments (opportunity costs). It most definitely could work and give great returns to those who have invested, but with a VERY unclear risk profile. There will be lots of good and bad (and definitely worthwhile) lessons that come out of this experiment, I am just happy that I don’t have to fund it.

2. A Warm Regulatory Embrace

CFTC Commissioner Giancarlo preceded our panel at Markit’s annual customer conference to give another pro-innovation speech Blockchain: A Regulatory Use Case

This speech reiterated the commissioner’s belief that “we need DLT to succeed” and highlights five steps for a “do no harm” approach. It also has a nice shout out to Corda. The speech also discussed “Regulatory Sandboxes” such as the UK FCA. Speaking of the FCA, they announced a “Fintech Bridge” with the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) earlier this week.

3. Even More Links

Vitalik Buterin’s recent post on settlement finality is a volley in a gentleman’s debate with our Tim Swanson. The Swanny’s article argued that public blockchains by design cannot definitively guarantee settlement finality. Vitalik breaks the argument down into three sections: 1. issues from probablistic finality (such as forks) 2. the interestingly named “law maximalist” position and 3. the economic argument (if value traded >> price of tokens, then attack). Dense stuff but very readable, as is usually the case with Vitlalik’s writing.

CoinDesk’s always interesting State of Blockchain: Q1

The SWIFT Institute (not to be confused with SWIFT itself) released a whitepaper entitled The Impact and Potential of Blockchain on the Securities Transaction Lifecycle. The authors interviewed 75 organizations in post-trade and tech, taking a similar cautious tone and “cold water” approach to other recent papers via market intermediaries.

Nice quick interview with Massimo Morini on his recent paper and the challenges/opportunities facing banks.

IB times profile of David Rutter.

Gideon Greenspan discusses four blockchain use cases: lightweight financial systems, provenance tracking, inter-organizational recordkeeping, multiparty aggregation.

And finally, Fran Strajnar has an interesting post on protocols and standards, a topic that we discuss quite a bit at R3 HQ:

We believe it is too early to tell exactly how things will pan out, but can reflect back to the Internet days and take away the following insights:

Standards/Protocols are inevitable and required.

Networks ALWAYS end up demanding inter-operability.

It took 15 years to shake out the ideas and protocols that solidify the Internet we use today. It will take at least 5-7 years for Distributed Ledger Technology to be implemented commercially on a global scale by enterprise – i.e., using some form of blockchain to replace the SWIFT network, or back-end infrastructure for inter-bank or even inter-branch settlements.

We expect to see proposals rise and fall and flip-flop as solutions and standards evolve, so don’t count on anything proposed today becoming the de facto operating standard. Whatever happens, we know one thing for sure: Millions will be spent, burned, made, and the world will only remember the victors. 

The Weekend Read: May 8

Happy Mother’s Day to all. My gift to my wife is this abbreviated posting (which may be a gift to the readers as well…)

This past week, we witnessed a spectacle that few ever thought they would see, and it all seemed to play out over an excruciating period of time. I am talking of course about Bartolo Colon’s first home run at the age of 42 (and the weight of ten men) and his subsequent home run ‘trot’ around the bases.

There was also some news about Satoshi.

Most of this week’s updates came from Consensus 2016, as many companies and consultants used the showcase to announce initiatives, deals and partnerships. The event wrapped up with what was framed as a debate between Bitcoin and not-Bitcoin, represented by 21.co’s Balaji Srinivasan and R3’s David Rutter. Yet the ‘suits vs hoodies’ event became a bit of a love-in, as Balaji threw compliments instead of shade on the recent blog post from Richard Brown, while Dave complimented Bitcoin as an inspiration, even if he doesn’t know where his private keys are (nice diversion Dave, we know you carry around that titanium briefcase handcuffed to your wrist with all your paper backups for a reason).

Meanwhile, the Ethereum speculative market continues, as the Winklevii announce that they have shipped in a “material” amount of Ether ahead of adding it to their Gemini exchange. Speaking of speculation…nothing like an unregulated capital raise (aka crowdfunding) to get those speculative juices flowing! The DAO takes down 3% of the Ether float (and counting) for their version of tokenized Shark Tank. Holy moly.

As a palate cleanser, please enjoy the latest posting from David Andolfatto called Monetary policy implications of blockchain technology:

The existing structure of money and payments (including central bank design) was built for the pre-Internet world. The world is now changed and we must deal with it. Among other things, there is no reason why, in principle, central banks could not offer online digital money accounts for the public.

Amen. Enjoy the weekend.