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October 16, 2015

Blockchain Tech Is Fundamentally Transforming Finance

Posted by Rajashekara V. Maiya (View Profile | View All Posts) at 6:53 AM

CNBC: Meet The Blockchain [EN] [Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M1h8xkwmQfw]

I was amazed at what the CEO of Digital Asset Holdings, Blythe Masters, said recently in an interview with Bloomberg. With regard to the emergence of blockchain technology and the many cryptocurrencies floating around the capital markets, she said: "You should be taking this technology as seriously as you should have been taking the development of the Internet in the early 1990s." In other words, blockchain tech could become a watershed moment in the history of finance. Even the World Economic Forum (WEF) is predicting that blockchain technology could be a kind of 'tipping point' when it comes to widespread use of cryptocurrencies. Economists at the WEF foresee that by 2027, some 10 percent of the global gross domestic product will be stored using blockchain tech.

To be sure, I've heard it said many times that Bitcoin, for all the negative press around it, is onto something. It's not so much Bitcoin (and other cryptocurrencies), which has been used by mysterious figures across what's known as the 'Dark 'Net'. It's the technology that underlies Bitcoin that's catching the attention of established global banks.

Today, there are roughly US$ 3.5 billion worth of Bitcoin in global circulation. I say roughly because Bitcoin is not pegged to the U.S. dollar and in the past year, its value in relation to the dollar, like other cryptocurrencies, has fluctuated wildly. The impact of these technologies - both cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and the emergence of blockchain - in redefining the financial industry is immense.

Blockchain technology has been likened to building a brick wall. Once you've finished building the wall, the bricks are in place. They aren't going anywhere. The problem was that cryptocurrencies needed a way to be verified so that the parties using them to do business could be assured that the coin was legitimate and the transaction was properly recorded. Blockchain is such a game-changer because a software-generated 'block' of all cryptocurrency transactions occurs every few minutes. Like that brick wall, once the block (or brick) is cemented into place, it's there for good. Financial services giants, therefore, are coming to the realization that blockchain software can be used in the place of clearinghouses and other costly middlemen. So simple trades, like the purchase of a publicly traded stock, can be cleared instantly instead of waiting a day for a clearinghouse to settle the trade between the two parties. Plus, like a brick wall, blockchain software is very difficult to knock down.

Think of the rise and acceptance of blockchain technology as the point during which a sheriff and his deputies ride their horses into a small, lawless town in the American 'Wild West' and establish order. Among the tumbleweeds, they run the outlaws out of town and form a rigid code of laws by which everyone from thenceforth must abide. The same is true of blockchain software. Virtually overnight, it has taken the lawless and freewheeling nature of cryptocurrencies and slapped a rigid structure onto it.

What I like most about this development is that for the past couple years, the established banks tended to scoff at Bitcoin and its competitors because it wasn't tied to any country's central bank or pegged to the value of a precious metal like gold. Yet the underlying software, it turns out, is just the kind of thing banks have been looking for to make their trades more efficient and less costly.

In fact, today many large banks have come together to design business models around cryptocurrencies, and some, such as Citi, one of the world's largest banks, now has its own proprietary Citicoin, for example. Even the British government announced that it would commit £10 million to support research in digital currency technology. Banks are also backing financial technology startups that are working with blockchain software in accelerators like Level 39 in the London's Canary Wharf. Plus, it's been reported that the Nasdaq OMX Group has assigned some of its programmers to work on software based on blockchain technology that will allow it to trade stocks on a new system.

These developments show that when the digital world is surveyed at 30,000 feet, it has the similar effects on many industries. Just as Uber and Lyft cut out taxi dispatchers (and entire taxi companies!) so that consumers could flag down the nearest available car at the most economical price, blockchain technology is changing the way banks view the securitization of their products. Instead of being on one end of a financial trade or other transaction, a bank can remove the middle party and deal directly with the buyer or seller.

It might seem a bit trite to compare the act of hailing a taxi to the act of selling thousands of shares in a company on an exchange. But digitization is ensuring that whatever the business transaction, digital tools and software are transforming the way we conduct business. Today, cyptocurrencies like Bitcoin, which were once used by online drug dealers, are now being embraced by legitimate, global financial institutions because they have a clear record of every transaction and the existence and location of every coin.

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