Blockchain technology could add almost $2 trillion in gross domestic product to the global economy — and $407 billion in the U.S. — by the end of the decade, according to a 2020 PwC study. The digital ledger’s potential to build efficiencies, speed and trust isn’t limited to the banking industry, with PwC identifying five broad areas for transformation across various sectors, including improvements to supply chains, identity management to counteract fraud and faster, more efficient payments.
An increasing number of banks, large and small, are exploring opportunities for their institutions in a blockchain-based world. I focused on how two banks are using blockchain to build a payments niche in the third quarter 2022 issue of Bank Director magazine. New York-based Signature Bank launched a blockchain-based payments platform, Signet, in 2019. The $116 billion bank collaborated with Tassat Group on the initiative. Now, Tassat works with banks such as $19 billion Customers Bancorp, in Reading, Pennsylvania, to deliver payments services to commercial clients via a private blockchain.
Another group of banks has taken a more collaborative approach, launching the USDF Consortium in January 2022. The five founding banks include $7 billion NBH Bank, the Greenwood Village, Colorado-based subsidiary of National Bank Holdings Corp., and $57 billion Synovus Financial Corp. in Columbus, Georgia, along with the blockchain technology company Figure Technologies and the investment fund JAM FINTOP. The group wants to make the industry more competitive with an interoperable, bank-minted stablecoin, a digital currency that’s pegged, one-to-one, to fiat currency or another physical asset.
Rob Morgan, who recently took the helm at USDF after leading innovation and strategy at the American Bankers Association, says that the banks are working together to answer key, competitive questions. These include philosophical ones, such as: “What is a bank’s role in a digital, tokenized economy?” They’re also answering questions specific to blockchain, including how can banks use a technology that has fueled the rise of cryptocurrency and apply it to traditional financial products?
Creating a more efficient, faster payments system looks like the logical first step for these organizations, but other use cases could run the gamut from building better loan and identity verification processes to conform with know your customer and anti-money laundering rules.
Given the nascency of blockchain applications, bank regulators are still getting up to speed. “From a legal and regulatory standpoint, [we are] working with the regulators to get them comfortable with this technology,” says Morgan. “Broadly, we have seen a changing posture toward cryptocurrencies for the regulatory agencies,” citing communications from the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. that underscore expectations that banks work with their regulators before engaging in activity related to digital assets, including stablecoins. “We’re working really closely with the regulatory agencies,” says Morgan, to “make sure that they are totally comfortable with what we’re doing before moving forward and making these products live.”
For banks considering blockchain initiatives, Rachael Craven, counsel at Hunton Andrews Kurth, emphasizes the need for robust business continuity and incident response plans, as well as recovery protocols. “As with any emerging technology, operational failures, cyberattacks … should definitely be things that stay top of mind for banks,” she says. And working with a third party doesn’t let a bank off the hook for a compliance snafu. “Banks ultimately own the risks associated with any regulatory or compliance failures,” she says.
One potential murky area tied to blockchain centers around the technology’s immutability: Once the transaction data — or block — is added, it can’t be amended or reversed. Erin Fonté, who co-chairs Hunton’s financial institutions corporate and regulatory practice, sees potential conflicts with consumer protections under Regulation E, which governs electronic transfers of money via debit card, ATM or other means. “There’s nothing in Regulation E that exempts cryptocurrency transactions,” says Fonté. “You cannot forget the applicability of existing regulations to potential crypto or blockchain transactions.”
Sara Krople, a partner at Crowe LLP, recommends that banks consider their current competitive strengths and strategic goals when discussing potential opportunities and risks with blockchain. Signature Bank started its Signet platform after consulting with its commercial client base; Customers Bancorp was pursuing a competitive moat with its niche serving companies in the digital assets sector. “Make sure it makes sense for you strategically and that you’ve thought through the risks,” Krople says. Many banks will partner with blockchain vendors, as Signature and Customers did. Banks should examine the controls and processes they’ll need, and determine whether they’re comfortable with the risk.
Krople adds that banks should also identify one or more internal stakeholders who can take ownership for blockchain and bring the organization up to speed on its potential. Before Customers Bancorp launched its Customers Bank Instant Token [CBIT] platform, it formed an employee-level committee that spent months reviewing the associated risks. That resulted in a “best in class BSA review process” that provides speedy onboarding for clients while also ensuring the safety of the bank, according to Chris Smalley, the bank’s managing director of digital banking.
Legal, risk and compliance processes should meet the needs of the emerging technology, says Krople. Among the questions banks should consider, she says: “Who’s going to monitor it for security? How do you know the transactions are process[ed] the way they’re supposed to? Who’s reading the smart contracts for you? You need somebody to be able to do those things.”
A bank’s needs will differ by use case, Krople adds. “There’s a huge amount of opportunity, but you need to make sure people have thought through all the steps you need to implement a process.”