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Blockchain Won't Make Banks Any Nimbler

In 1855, Karl Benz combined his profession of manufacturing internal combustion engines with his hobby of designing carriages to produce the first autonomously powered mobile carriage —the automobile. Benz introduced an engine as a solution to a specific engineering problem: to make a carriage move quickly without a horse. The engine supplanted the horse; it did not make horses faster.

In 2008, a similar engineering problem was solved by Satoshi Nakamoto. He combined cryptography and peer-to-peer networks to produce bitcoin, the first fully electronic cash. Nakamoto introduced the bitcoin blockchain as a solution to a specific engineering problem: to move money online in the same way cash is transacted in person without a trusted third party.

So despite banks' attempts to test and use blockchain technology for their own commercial gain, it is outside the realm of possibility for the technology to serve any useful purpose for the intermediaries it was designed to replace. That is akin to burdening horses with engines in the name of technological innovation: the approach would only slow down the horse and alleviate none of its problems. Such a ridiculous notion will find no real world demand.

When two parties transact with bitcoin, the transaction is broadcast to all network computers that expend significant processing power to verify all transactions and to verify each other's verification.

This highly complex iterative process lets the network achieve consensus on one unalterable record of transactions that are inscribed in a chain of blocks. It also rewards members with new bitcoins that are roughly in proportion to the processing power they spend. This approach is computationally intensive and an expensive method for verifying transactions. That explains why the network's processing power today has exceeded 1 Exahash per second — dwarfing the world's largest supercomputers — and also why it consumes enormous amounts of electricity.

There are many easier and less cumbersome ways of recording transactions, but this is the only method that eliminates the need for a trusted third party. A transaction is committed to the blockchain because many verifiers compete to verify it for profit. Yet not one of them is relied upon or trusted for the transaction to go through. Rather, fraud is immediately detected and reversed by other network members who have strong incentives to ensure the integrity of the network. In other words, bitcoin is a system built entirely on cumbersome and expensive verification so it can eliminate the need for any trust or accountability between all parties: It is 100% verification and 0% trust.

Only time will tell whether this model will supplant traditional forms of finance that utilize simpler technologies but continue to rely on trust and multiple layers of intermediation in various degrees. It is possible that bitcoin will grow to displace many financial intermediaries. It is also possible that bitcoin will stagnate or even fail and disappear. What cannot happen is bitcoin's blockchain benefiting the intermediation that the digital currency was meant to replace.

For any trusted third party carrying out payments, trading, or recordkeeping, the blockchain is an extremely costly and inefficient technology to utilize. A non-bitcoin blockchain combines the worst of both worlds: the cumbersome structure of the blockchain with the cost and security risk of trusted third parties. It is no wonder that seven years after its invention, blockchain technology has not yet managed to break through in a successful, ready-for-market commercial application other than the one for which it was specifically designed: bitcoin.

Instead, there has been an abundance of hype, conferences and high-profile discussions in media, government, academia, industry, and the World Economic Forum on the potential of blockchain technology. Many millions of dollars have been invested in venture capital, research and marketing by governments and institutions that are seduced by the hype, without any practical result.

Blockchain consultants have built prototypes for stock trading, asset registry, voting and payment clearance. But none of them have been commercially deployed because they are more expensive than simpler methods relying on established database and software stacks, as the government of Vermont recently concluded.

Meanwhile, banks don't have a great track record in applying earlier technological advances for their own use. While JPMorgan Chase's CEO Jamie Dimon was touting blockchain technology in Davos last week, his bank's Open Financial Exchange interfaces — a technology from 1997 to provide aggregators a central database of customer information — had been down for two months.

In contrast, the bitcoin network was born from the blockchain design two months after Nakamoto presented the technology. To this day, it has been operating uninterrupted and growing to more than $6 billion worth of bitcoins. The blockchain was the solution to the electronic cash problem. Because it worked, it grew quickly while Nakamoto worked anonymously and only communicated curtly via email for about two years. It did not need investment, venture capital, conferences, or advertisement.

There are many simple technologies banks need to optimize and to improve to enhance their products. Instead, they are seduced by the siren song of futuristic buzzwords and searching for a problem to solve with a blockchain. But they won't find anything.

Saifedean Ammous is an assistant professor of economics at the Lebanese American University.

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Posted by KellyMartelle | Saturday, May 07 2016 at 10:00AM ET
I like the concise and clarity of this article. Validation and verification do not replace trust. The banks' mantra is " banks don't make loans to a company, project, etc., but to people " no matter how much validation and verification of identity, credit, profitability, etc, the risk of loan default still exists. In payment, the risk of " finality of payment settlement " still exists until the FRB makes the accounting entries that transfer the Reserves from one bank's ledger to another no matter how much verification and validation of the parties to the transaction had taken place.
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Posted by Josh456 | Friday, February 05 2016 at 10:05PM ET
I don’t buy this authors views. For one Blockchain is the foundation for Bitcoin, much like paved roads are the foundation for cars to drive on. The author combines them as they are one, not the case.
Second if we keep with the foundational approach of a road and a car, as opposed to a horse and engine as he has, it will make more sense. Cars are continually improving, better designs improve safety, and efficiency. You will see the same thing happen when technologies utilize Blockchain to build a more efficient and safe way to transport money. This may not replace the intermediaries, but it may work alongside them. In sticking with the same comparison of the road and the car, we may be able to add more cars to the road though the use of Blockchain. This is what our friends in the Big Banks are working on.
Posted by jasonmacdonald | Friday, February 05 2016 at 10:09AM ET
Dear genius,

Do you why know horses didn't get faster when combustion engines came around? Because horses are animals, not machines that we can re-engineer and improve upon.

There is a key distinction between technologies like software programs and horses, being: HORSES AREN'T TECHNOLOGY.

Opening with that premise makes you look stupid. Of course horses didn't get faster - that's not how horses work.
Posted by lolRight | Thursday, February 04 2016 at 8:10PM ET
In that regard, Bitcoin is, I suppose, more pragmatic than idealistic.
Posted by nhess06 | Thursday, February 04 2016 at 7:39PM ET
pietrod21 - interesting observation.

I think we trust people every day, but we still lock our car in the parking lot, right?
Posted by nhess06 | Thursday, February 04 2016 at 7:38PM ET
Maybe this is true in the long run but in the short term there is a lot to improve in the actual system, I think this https://coincenter.org/2016/01/blockchain-different-than-bitcoin/ will apply. Then, I do not see a victory in stop trusting just because we discover that humans abuse trust, and that they do not deserve it, to me this seems kind a tragedy, then the solution is to create a digital commodity, this is good, but not on the social side.
Posted by pietrod21 | Thursday, February 04 2016 at 7:34PM ET
Excellent post Saifedean. Clearly, as Marc Andreessen's delicately words it, software is "eating the world".

"Many millions of dollars have been invested in venture capital, research and marketing by governments and institutions that are seduced by the hype, without any practical result."

I'm just curious, but should we expect to see "practical results" this early? That almost seems like if one were commenting on the internet in, say, 1995. No Facebook (2005?), Google Maps, Netflix, etc.
Posted by nhess06 | Thursday, February 04 2016 at 7:33PM ET
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