Last year was an affirmation for people like me who believe the blockchain — the technology that underlays virtual currencies such as bitcoin — works best when it’s decentralized and open.
While many titans of finance and the global securities industry hold tight to the idea that private, centralized blockchains are preferable, their mentality started to change last year. The industry’s shift toward favoring open, decentralized systems was only a matter of time.
In late 2016, R3 CEV’s consortium released the source code for its private blockchain Corda platform. The response to the bank consortium was lackluster. Just weeks before launching the code, Goldman Sachs, Santander and JPMorgan Chase quit R3, albeit they did not cite the lack of decentralization as a reason for leaving.
Project Jasper, a test of a closed and centralized blockchain version of Payments Canada’s large-value transfer system, offers another telling example. According to the Bank of Canada, which is a member of Project Jasper and has oversight of the LVTS, Project Jasper has not been faster or more cost effective than the existing LVTS — so far.
While the test was not optimized for speed or cost effectiveness, the central bank said Jasper’s results increased its understanding of distributed-ledger-technology-based payments systems and would guide future research.
These and other examples point to a kind of tragic misunderstanding of what makes blockchain so appealing. Large financial institutions have appeared to fall in love with blockchain. But they are not fully aware that decentralization is blockchain’s most valuable feature. What is more surprising is they have erased this feature in their pilots and proof of concepts.
We probably haven’t seen the last of test projects that will go bust or just fade into obscurity. But in time, more large institutions will realize that closed, centralized blockchains aren’t any better than the databases now in use. As that day approaches, people will increasingly ask which of the open, decentralized blockchains have the speed and functionality to become the foundations of the next generation of value transfer and custody services.
But proponents of open, decentralized systems cannot afford to stand by and wait for acceptance.
The blockchain industry remains at risk of losing control of its narrative to entrenched middlemen in the securities clearing industry, for example. These middlemen would seek to exploit institutional unease about implementation of a decentralized system.
Case in point: Tony Freeman, a U.K.-based executive director of industry relations with the Depository Trust & Clearing Corp., said in a recent article posted on DTCC’s website: “While using blockchain to eradicate inefficiencies in this part of the trade processing lifecycle sounds great in theory, the universal level of adoption required to implement it, combined with the need for the buy-side to buy into it means that this is not going to happen any time soon, if at all.”
Granted, the crypto-community is at least partly to blame for such skepticism. The early rhetoric that bitcoin was going to completely wipe out everything — central banks, investment banks, all of it — was just bravado that hasn’t helped the blockchain’s credibility. The early rhetoric spoiled what could have been a much better or slicker marketing campaign.
Now, the blockchain industry can help to speed the adoption process by improving the way we explain the overall mechanics and pragmatic benefits of the technology — especially by addressing lingering unease with the concept of decentralization.
Many buy-side fund managers remain stuck in what’s called the client-server model network architecture. They (and their regulators) are unconvinced that they can give up the idea that they must lock everything of value in a centralized vault.
But this is flawed thinking. As Ferdinando Ametrano, who teaches bitcoin and blockchain technologies at Politecnico di Milano and Milano Bicocca University, said in commentary on Coindesk: “Bitcoin and blockchain is more a cultural paradigm shift than just a technology. It is all about decentralization, so the attempt of intermediaries to repurpose it appears quite ludicrous.”
Securities industry incumbents will remain resistant even though open, decentralized systems can reduce the need for massive investments in computer hardware and IT security, as well as nearly eliminate the costs involved in clearing and settling trades. They don’t yet realize that the value proposition of the blockchain is embedded in decentralization.
Understanding that concept will be important as the skeptics go back to their product-development engineers. The opportunity for the financial industry to run orders of magnitude leaner than they are now is already here. It just has to let go.