The Future of Banking: Crypto, Blockchain and Fintech


banking-4-17-19.pngInscribed in the first block of the first blockchain ever created are the words: “The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks,” referring to the London newspaper’s lead story of the day.

This edition of the newspaper is now one of the most valuable crypto collectibles to date. It’s hard to deny the symbolism in the covert message encoded into the genesis block of the bitcoin blockchain.

That message signals problems in our modern fiat financial system while introducing a novel system that replaces centralized institutional trust with a system relying on decentralized cryptographic trust.

Today, bitcoin has celebrated its 10th birthday, despite critics predicting its doom since its inception. With bitcoin came another suite of technologies collectively known as blockchain.

Despite the actual word “blockchain” not appearing in the original white paper published under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto in October 2008, it has undoubtedly become one of the most talked about buzzwords in technology and banking, as well as the larger world of finance.

Blockchain is generally considered to be a subcategory of distributed ledger technology (DLT), referring to its distributed architecture in which there is no central point of attack, making it less vulnerable to hacks, fraud and manipulation.

A quick online search of the word “blockchain” will yield a wide array of differing definitions, because there is currently no universally recognized definition—something the International Standards Association is working toward. One way to define blockchain is as a shared ledger designed to produce immutable records through cryptographic techniques that facilitate the processing of transactions and tracking of assets.

Part of what makes blockchain so attractive is that it’s considered a general purpose technology, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with many potential applications across industry verticals.

The primary application for the technology thus far has been within financial services—specifically, payments.

Banking on Blockchain
A study performed by Accenture found nine out of 10 banking executives saying their bank is exploring the use of blockchain in payments, the most prevalent use being cross-border transfers.

But reaping the promised benefits of blockchain will require “fostering an uncommon coordination among banks,” according to Accenture’s study. The value is in the network—in collaboration. Examples of these interoperable networks between banks and corporations globally are using private enterprise blockchains, or DLT, like R3’s Corda platform and Hyperledger fabric.

Major benefits from blockchain include lower administrative costs and shorter settlement times. One bank that has sought to offer these benefits to its clients by leveraging blockchain technology is Signature Bank. The New York-based commercial bank launched its own blockchain-based platform for real-time, 24/7 payments on Jan. 1, 2019.

Signature’s platform is interesting, considering some alternatives can take several days to clear and can be unavailable on weekends, for instance.

While many of the largest banks in the U.S. may be exploring blockchain and distributed ledger technologies, and filing a litany of patents, cryptocurrency is listed as both a risk and competitive threat in some of their annual reports. Meanwhile, forward-looking community banks have embraced cryptocurrencies and seen their balance sheets improve with it, such as San Diego, California-based Silvergate Bank.

“The Times They Are A-Changin”
Cryptocurrency is only one of many risks cited in the annual reports of major banks.
The rise in the number and nature of fintech firms has brought an explosion of innovation and competition.

Since the financial crisis, younger generations are growing up without the same relationship with banks that their parents and grandparents had, which has helped propel the growth of fintech companies focused on convenience and customized digital experiences.

This has paved the way for many fintech startups to excel in the financial services market. These companies are disrupting the status quo by providing a user experience that quickly adapts to the needs and desires of their customers.

With the genesis of bitcoin and blockchain, and the explosion in fintech, one thing is certain. In the words of Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changin’. And they’re changing in financial services on an unprecedented scale.

What Are The Real Risks Of Blockchain?


blockchain-2-25-19.pngIn the landscape of innovative disruption, the public’s attention is often focused on bitcoin’s impact on financing and investment options. However, it is important to understand that blockchain, the underlying technology often conflated with bitcoin, carries an even greater potential to disrupt many industries worldwide.

The attraction of blockchain technology is its promise to provide an immutable digital ledger of transactions. As such, it is this underlying technology—an open, distributed ledger—that makes monetary and other transactions work.

These transactions can include bitcoin, but they may also include records of ownership, marriage certificates and other instances where the order and permanence of the transaction is important. A blockchain is a secure, permanent record of each transaction that cannot be reversed.

But with all the positive hype about its potential implications, what are the risks to banks?

The Risk With Fintech
One of the most disruptive effects of blockchain will be in financial services. Between building cryptocurrency exchanges and writing digital assets to a blockchain, the innovation that is occurring today will have a lasting effect on the industry.

One of the principles of blockchain technology is the removal of intermediaries. In fintech, the primary intermediary is a bank or other financially regulated entity. If blockchain becomes used widely, that could pose a risk for banks because the regulatory body that works to protect the consumer with regulatory requirements is taken out of the equation.

This disintermediation has a dramatic effect on how fintech companies build their products, and ultimately requires them to take on a greater regulatory burden.

The Risk With Compliance
The first regulatory burden to consider concerns an often-forgotten practice that banks perform on a daily basis known as KYC, or Know Your Customer. Every bank must follow anti-money laundering (AML) laws and regulations to help limit the risk of being conduits to launder money or fund terrorism.

Remove the bank intermediary, however, and this important process now must occur before allowing customers to use the platform.

While some banks may choose to outsource this to a third party, it is critical to remember that while a third party can perform the process, the institution still owns the risk.

There are a myriad of regulations that should be considered as the technology is designed. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the European Union’s online privacy law, is a good example of how regulations apply differently on a blockchain.

One of the GDPR rules is the so-called right to be forgotten. Since transactions are immutable and cannot be erased or edited, companies need to ensure that data they write to a blockchain doesn’t violate these regulatory frameworks.

Finally, while blockchains are sometimes considered “self-auditing,” that does not mean the role of an auditor disappears.

For example, revenue recorded on a blockchain can support a financial statement or balance sheet audit. While there is assurance that the number recorded has not been modified, auditors still need to understand and validate how revenue is recognized.

What’s Ahead
The use of blockchain technology has the potential to generate great disruption in the marketplace. Successful implementation will come to those who consider the risks up front while embracing the existing regulatory framework.

There has already been massive innovation, and this is only the beginning of a massive journey of change.

How And Where Blockchain Fits in Traditional Banking


blockchain-12-26-18.pngMany banks haven’t found an efficient way to deal with issues like payment clearing inefficiencies, consumer fraud, and the general limitations of fiat currencies.

Blockchain, however, may be the go-to solution for many of these challenges.

Issues Traditional Banks Face Today
Traditional banks and financial institutions have faced some challenges for decades, but we have yet to see the technical innovations to mitigate or eliminate them, including inefficient payment clearing processes, fraud and currency options.

Inefficient Payment Clearing Processes
One of the biggest roadblocks that banks face today is how to quickly clear payments while complying with regulatory procedures. The number of payment clearing options available in 2018, is not different from the options available in 2008 – a decade ago.

In the U.S., for example, same-day ACH is likely considered to be the biggest improvement during this decade. Only in recent years have cross-border fintech applications emerged that reduce payment clearing costs and wait times. For the most part, we are still stuck with old architectures that lack innovation, efficiency and the data to make a meaningful impact on money laundering and fraud reduction.

Inability to Stop Fraud
Fraud has always been notoriously difficult to stop. Unfortunately, this remains the case even today. Fraud costs are so high in the US, that interchange fees paid by merchants are some of the highest in the world. Despite an increase of available identity fraud detection systems, banks are still unable to make a material improvement in fraud reduction.

For banks, this leads to financial losses in cases where funds are paid to the fraud victim. For customers, this can reduce trust in the bank. For merchants, it means higher fees for facilities, which creates higher costs for customers. Additionally, customers often wait to receive a new bank card. In 2017 alone, the cost the data lost to identity theft totaled $16.8 billion.

Limited Number of Currency Options
Fiat currencies are limited by geography and slim competition.

When we think about fiat currency around the globe, we have seen a steady move towards standardization. This presents risks for banks and consumers. For example, a heavy reliance upon a single national currency relies upon factors like economic growth and monetary policy.

Twenty-eight nations have experienced hyperinflation during the past 25 years. Not only did banks fail in some cases, but entire economies collapsed. Because there were no currency choices, the problem could not be easily avoided.

This process continues to happen in many locations globally.

Benefits of Blockchain Over Traditional Systems
There are ways blockchain can reduce or eliminate these issues for financial institutions.

More Efficient Approval Systems
When compared to traditional payment approval processes, many blockchains are already more efficient. Instead of waiting days for payments to go through clearinghouses, a well-designed blockchain can complete the verification process in minutes or seconds. More importantly, blockchain also offers a more transparent and immutable option.

With innovations like KYC (Know Your Customer) and KYT (Know Your Transaction) transactions conducted via blockchain, banks can be more capable of preventing finance-related crimes. This means traditional finance can more effectively comply with laws for AML (Anti-Money Laundering), ATF and more.

In addition, legitimate transactions can be approved at a lower cost.

No More Fraud
While fraud seems like a pervasive issue in society, this can be reduced using technology. Blockchain can change how people prove identity and access services.

Instead of having to wait to stop a case of fraud, blockchain can stop transactions before they ever occur. The Ivy Network will have smart contracts which will allow banks and financial institutions to review a transaction and supporting KYC and KYT before accepting the deposit. Because blockchain transactions are immutable, we could see a reduction in counterfeiting of paper currency and consumer products.

Increased Digital Payment Options
While blockchain has many use cases, this is one example of how technology can change finance and the global economy. In the early days of cryptocurrency, there was really only bitcoin. Now, there is a range of coins and tokens like Ivy that serve important purposes within existing regulatory and legislative frameworks.

One of the biggest misconceptions is crypto and fiat payment systems have to be direct competitors. By creating a blockchain protocol that links fiat and cryptocurrency, businesses and consumers can have more, better market choices and use cases for cryptocurrency.

At the same time, financial institutions can serve an important role in the future of digital payments and fiat-crypto currency conversions.

As financial institutions look to solve many challenges they face around payment clearing inefficiencies, consumer fraud, and the limitations of fiat currencies, blockchain is a viable solution. Financial institutions that fail to embrace blockchain’s potential will face heightened monetary and reputational risks, and miss opportunities for growth and innovation.

What’s At Stake In A Tech-Driven World


technology-10-2-18.pngTechnology is driving a wave of disruption across the entire financial services landscape. Financial services companies are increasingly finding themselves both competing with and working alongside more agile, highly entrepreneurial technology-based entities in a new and evolving ecosystem.

There are a number of global trends creating opportunities for financial services companies:

  • China’s population is growing at about 7 percent annually, roughly the equivalent of creating a country the size of Mexico every year.
  • At the same time, China and other emerging, fast-growing economies are raising many of their people above the poverty line, creating a new class of financial services consumer.
  • In more developed countries, people are retiring later and living longer.

These trends are driving a growing need for financial services. However, the story does not end with demographics and economics. Changes in technology are reshaping the ways these services are being delivered and consumed.

Consumers expect simplicity and mobility. Smartphones provide a wide range of financial services at our fingertips. With the rapid growth in artificial intelligence and machine learning applications, savvy financial services companies are adapting to the new ecosystem of digital service delivery and customer relationship providers. Gone are the days when customers have to visit the local bank branch to get most of the services and products they needed. The shakeup in providers will make for a vastly different landscape for competing financial services organizations in the near future.

While the adoption of blockchain technology is still in its infancy, it will potentially reshape the financial services landscape. Much of the transaction processing, matching, reconciliation and the movement of information between different parties will be a thing of the past. Once regulation has caught up, blockchain, or distributed ledger technology, will become ubiquitous.

Financial services companies need to understand where they fit in this digitally fueled, rapidly evolving environment. They need to decide how to take advantage of digital transformation. Many are starting to use robotic process automation to reduce their costs. But the reality is the spread of automation will soon level the playing field in terms of cost, and these companies will once again need to look for competitive advantage, either in the products and services they offer or the way they can leverage their relationships with customers and partners.

When companies leverage technology and data to achieve their business goals in this new environment, they also introduce new risks. Cybersecurity and data governance are two areas where financial services companies continue to struggle. The safety of an ecosystem will be dependent on its weakest link. For instance, if unauthorized breaches occur in one entrepreneurial technology company with less mature controls, those breaches can put all connected institutions and their customer information at risk. Further, automation can result in decisions based solely on data and algorithms. Without solid data governance, and basic change controls, mistakes can rapidly propagate and spiral before they can be detected, with dramatic consequences for customer trust, regulatory penalty and shareholder value.

Strategically, financial services companies will need to decide if they want to be curators of services from various providers—and focus on developing strong customer relationships—or if they want to provide the best product curated and offered by others. Investing in one of these strategies will be a key to success.

Blockchain: What You Need To Know



Cryptocurrencies and blockchain could directly affect banks as the technology evolves, and regulators start to pay more attention to the issue. But what does the board need to know about this seemingly complex technology? In this video, Wolters Kluwer’s Stevie Conlon breaks down the differences between blockchain and cryptocurrency, as well as the broader regulatory implications.

  • Blockchain vs. Cryptocurrency
  • Obstacles Facing the Cryptocurrency Space
  • Compliance and Regulatory Concerns

Why Management and Directors Need to Consider Blockchain in Overall Digital Strategy


blockchain-8-15-18.pngIf we think back to what we were doing in 1994, we would say we were using a gigantic cell phone, just hearing about the internet, addicted to the fax machine, and just starting to use email. Fast forward, and we are with blockchain where we were with the internet and email in 1994.

After the sale of Mechanics Bank in 2015 and subsequently leaving my role as CEO, I embarked upon a journey that has forever changed how I think; how I problem solve; how I view the boardroom; the secret society of the c-suite and most importantly, how I view technology, people and process.

There is a convergence of social media, digital retail, robotics, artificial intelligence, wearables, blockchain, Internet of Things, big data and advanced analytics. We must think about the big picture and how all of these pieces fit together in overall corporate and organizational digital strategy.

Forbes recently reported the top 20 largest businesses in the world, including top financial institutions, are all now exploring blockchain. These same companies are simultaneously evaluating and implementing the use of big data, predictive analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Since 90 percent of goods in global trade are transported through the shipping industry supply chain, let’s use the announced partnership of Maersk and IBM as our first example.

As you may know, Maersk is the largest shipping container company in the world, transporting 15 percent of the world GDP each year.

The shipping industry supply chain consists of:

  • Land transportation brokers
  • Customs brokers
  • Ports
  • Freight forwarders
  • Governments
  • Ocean carriers

Like many bank functions in the U.S., global trade functions are antiquated. The industry is still largely paper intensive with organizational silos and a heavy reliance on Excel. A typical transaction can take up to 30 people and more than 200 communications to complete. Maersk is not immune to these same challenges, but recently embarked on its own digital transformation through two partnerships:

  • Microsoft Enterprise Services to move five regional datacenters to the cloud, improve IT performance, bolster customer services, and reduce operational risk;
  • IBM to improve transparency and efficiency, with complete visibility of tracking millions of container shipments each year.

Each participant in a supply chain ecosystem can view the progress through the supply chain. They can also see the status of customs documents, view bills of lading and other data. This will all be done using blockchain technology and smart contracts.

So, what does all of this mean? Let’s take a look at how this all ties in to what I call “the digital innovation melting pot” and why we as bankers must pay attention:

In this video, the bank is partnered with the shipping, wearable device, driverless car, identity, virtual agent/chatbot, social media, social media influencers, predictive analytics, retailer, airline, and hotel industries. These 11 industries are working together to offer products, complete transactions and improve the customer experience with little in-person human interaction.

My view of blockchain, innovation and its place in the new digital world is from my role as a CEO who’s been accountable to shareholders, responsible for the bottom line. Though the top banks in the country have caught on to this trend, many banks are still in the dark ages, plagued by denial, lack of innovation knowledge and the right talent.
Many institutions still have bricked-up infrastructure, engrained in the mentality that “this is the way it’s always been done,” with a lot of outdated, dysfunctional and inefficient processes, policies and procedures.

The disregard of digital technology disruption and innovation is like a termite infestation that destroys the structure if you don’t pay attention to warnings and maintain the property.

Key Takeaways
Partnerships are the way of the future. A bank can no longer rely solely on its own infrastructure and core vendor relationships. The new digital world converges industries, so make sure you pick the right partners. To do so, understand existing infrastructure and look through the lens of generational age groups with a customer focus.

  • Does the customer want simple to use technology services and want it now?
  • Do they prefer more traditional services, and are they less trusting of new market entrants? Do they still value human advice?
  • Do they value high-quality service and view “trust as a must,” but are interested in innovation and want to be educated?
  • Is there forward-thinking leadership in the boardroom and C-suite?
  • How does the board get refreshed with new perspective?
  • Would board members be willing to give up their board seat to allow fresh perspective?
  • Has there been evaluation about current state and future growth?
  • Is there understanding about existing system capabilities, shortfalls, what works, what doesn’t?

Determine your game plan:

  • Does the front end need digitization?
  • Fix front end while gradually replacing legacy infrastructure and integrating middle and back office?
  • Go digital native – full overhaul?
  • Evaluate whether systems, processes, procedures and policies are still relevant?

Don’t forget impact on your people. Make sure new offerings do not cannibalize existing product offering and pricing. Remember that a digital expert is unnecessary in the boardroom. Instead find a digital technology translator; someone who understands the cause and effect of decisions made at the macro level. Lastly, and most importantly, figure out how to disrupt your business model before it becomes disrupted.

Blockchain is Coming, but It’s None of Your Business…Yet


blockchain-5-18-18.pngFor most banks under the $20 billion asset threshold, blockchain technology—the distributed ledger—will be a tool like every other technology tool. Banks under that size will be provided that tool by established providers or very large institutions and the tool itself will enable typical banking businesses like extending credit, payments and wealth management.

While there is a ton of argument about the validity of the distributed ledger as a tool that enables currency that is untethered to a government or regulation, there is widespread belief that the technology behind the currency itself can carry value and be a boon for banks. It is useful because blockchain technology is enables faster, cheaper and fully transparent transactions in near real time.

Blockchain has potential to carry property deeds, stocks or insurance. Many banks have been skeptical about the technology because of the speculative nature of the cryptocurrency market and the dubious ethics of some of the folks running that market. But now many banks are starting to see it as a solution for quicker, cheaper transaction options.

JPMorgan Chase and the National Bank of Canada announced a debt insurance blockchain test. They believe that they can move debt insurance cheaper, faster and more securely on the distributed ledger, and they are doing a year-long test to find out. If that test works, the platform will have faced many challenges and presumably overcome them. It will have to get multiple regulators to sign off on it, it will have to integrate old systems’ data with the new platform, and it will have to prove that this new technology is actually superior to old systems.

Many banks under $20 billion can and will use it when it is rolled out by a reputable provider. So don’t worry too much about blockchain for now—you will be using it when it has been developed by a much larger institution with the capacity to invest in its trials. One important part of that process will be creating shared protocols. Right now, there is no one blockchain, and there is no one common language where one chain can talk to another. That will probably need to change if it is to become ubiquitous.

There are exceptions for banks below $20 billion
When you are a bank that is a specialist in a particular line of business, you should watch the enablers of that specialty with keen interest. If a bank makes 80 percent of its profit through commercial real estate lending, for instance, that bank should be looking at anything that enables better, quicker, easier service, better pricing, or cheaper production. Adopting the technology that gets the bank in front of most competitors will eventually increase potential for growth, profitability and market share.

It doesn’t matter if that technology is Statistical Analysis System (SAS), or on a distributed ledger, someone in the bank should be trying hard to be the second adopter of the technology that will make the bank so much better at what it does well. That is when a bank should care about blockchain—when it is proven enough to not to be a nightmare to your bottom line or your employees, and provides a competitive advantage in an area that really counts.

Navigating the Difficult Terrain of Money Transmission Laws


regulations-10-20-17.pngState money transmission laws can be difficult to navigate. Fees, surety bond and net worth requirements make it costly to enter, and significant complications arise when determining whether the requirements apply in the first place. As of June 9, 2017, 49 states and the District of Columbia impose registration and licensing requirements on money transmitters, with varying criteria for what constitutes “money transmission” and which entities are subject to regulation. Determining whether a particular financial services-focused business is subject to these regulations requires a careful review of the rules of each particular state.

This is a significant issue in the blockchain and virtual currency space because many states have yet to issue guidance on the application of state money transmitter regimes to these activities. Although most states define “money transmission” broadly to include any business that transfers money or its equivalent, the precise application of this definition to a particular set of activities can vary significantly among the states.

However, four states have taken specific regulatory action:

New Hampshire
The state enacted House Bill 436 on June 2, 2017, which exempts virtual currency transmitters from licensing requirements, reversing an earlier position. The change in course appears to reflect increasing government acceptance of virtual currency activities and recognition of the potential for regulatory arbitrage by market participants. The law became effective in August 2017.

Illinois
On June 13, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation issued guidance on the treatment of virtual currency under its money transmission law. Digital currencies are not considered money, so the regulations will only affect transmitters if they also involve transmitting government-backed foreign or domestic currency. Therefore, virtual currency exchanges would likely have to apply for a license while blockchain tokens companies should be able to avoid licensing if they exchange their tokens exclusively for other virtual currencies, and not for fiat currency.

Washington
Conversely, Senate Bill 5031 requires virtual currency transmitters to be licensed and regulated in the state of Washington. Under the new law, the definition of “money transmission” now reads “receiving money or its equivalent value (equivalent value includes virtual currency) to transmit, deliver or instruct to be delivered to another location…” The new law appears to treat real and virtual currencies equally by requiring both classes of firms to register and be regulated as money transmitters. It also requires virtual currency transmitters to disclosure information regarding their business or activities and, for some, to conduct an audit of their security system. The bill became effective in July 2017.

New York
New York appears to have gone further than any other jurisdiction by creating the BitLicense regime, which includes many new requirements, such as cybersecurity and business continuity standards as well as state approval for a merger or acquisition. Moreover, there is no blanket exemption from the separate money transmitter license. Thus, virtual currency businesses may need to navigate both the BitLicense and the money transmission licensing schemes before they can operate in New York.

While the New Hampshire and Washington laws only recently became effective and the Illinois guidance is still new, the New York BitLicense has been in place for about two years, so its effect can already be seen. As a result of the scheme, several virtual currency companies appear to have left New York for more regulatory friendly states. Also, the scheme has been described as slow and tough, with only three licenses granted as of January 2017 despite many applications.

Thus far, the states have pursued disparate and sometimes divergent approaches to the application of regulatory requirements to virtual currency businesses. Recently, however, there has been a push for greater consistency. For example, the Conference of State Bank Supervisors (CSBS ) recently announced its Vision 2020 initiatives, aimed at making the state laws more uniform while still protecting consumers. Recently, the Uniform Law Commission (ULC) issued a model regulation of virtual currency businesses, which seeks to harmonize the varying treatment of virtual currencies by the states. At the federal level, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) is on the path to establishing a federal fintech charter regime which could potentially preempt the application of state money transmitter laws to chartered entities. If the OCC charter does in fact preempt the application of state money transmitter requirements to chartered entities, this may be enough pressure to strengthen state level initiatives to achieve consistent regulatory outcomes across jurisdictions.

Companies engaged in virtual currency transmission face a daunting set of regulatory requirements. However, there appears to be good things on the horizon with the OCC, ULC or the CSBS uniting the requirements under one regime. Until then, any business using virtual currency should carefully scrutinize the requirements in all states where it has customers.

Banking Blockchain: Making Virtual Currencies a Reality for Your Bank


blockchain-10-17-17.pngBlockchain-based virtual currencies are gaining in popularity and evolving quickly. Blockchain currencies often are described as disruptive, but also have the potential to radically revolutionize the banking industry in a positive manner. The reality is that blockchain currencies may develop into a useful tool for banks. Their acceptance, however, is hindered by their own innovative nature as regulators attempt to keep pace with the technological developments. Potential blockchain currency users struggle to understand their utility. Despite these hurdles, many banks are embracing opportunities to further develop blockchain currencies to make them work for their customers.

What Are Virtual Currencies and Blockchain?
Virtual currencies, also referred to as “digital currencies,” are generally described as a digital, unregulated form of money accepted by a community of users. Currently, blockchain currencies are not centrally regulated in the United States. For example, the federal government’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and the Securities and Exchange Commission view blockchain currencies as money, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission sees them as a commodity, and the Internal Revenue Service calls them property. The IRS has attempted to define virtual currency as:

a digital representation of value that functions as a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and/or a store of value [and] does not have legal tender status in any jurisdiction.

FinCEN, the agency with the most developed guidance regarding virtual currency, regards it in a more practical fashion as a medium of exchange that operates like a currency in some environments, but does not have all the attributes of real currency. Whatever the regulatory definition, virtual currencies need more certainty in form and function before their use becomes commonplace.

Blockchain technology brings benefits to payment systems and other transactions that are quite revolutionary. Blockchain technology is essentially a decentralized virtual ledger (aka, distributed ledger), utilizing a comprehensive set of algorithms that records virtual currencies chronologically and publicly.

Some examples of blockchain currencies currently in use are Bitcoin, Dash, Ether, Litecoin and Ripple. These currencies are constantly evolving and are being developed by individuals, technology-based peer groups or financial institutions. In August 2016, a consortium of banks, led by UBS, Deutsche Bank, Santander and BNY Mellon, announced the development of the “utility settlement coin” or USC. The USC is meant to allow banks to transact payments in real time without the use of an intermediary. It is expected to go live in 2018.

Blockchain Currency Opportunities for Banks
Despite their reputation for being tools of illicit trade, blockchain currencies may be useful to banks in a variety of ways and can achieve certain benefits. Blockchain currencies could:

  • actually reduce fraud, including hacking or theft attempts, because the technology makes every step of the blockchain transparent.
  • reduce costs and risks associated with know-your-customer (KYC) programs because blockchain has the ability to store KYC information.
  • allow a financial institution to establish a new trading platform for exchange that eliminates intermediaries.
  • potentially could transform the payments industry. An obvious example is the USC, which permits payments to be made in real time, without the use of intermediaries; and strengthens the confidence in the authenticity of the transaction. Banks that are either able to establish a blockchain currency or adapt a proven technology for their operations will generate operational efficiencies and obtain a significant competitive advantage.

What Are the Regulatory Challenges?
Blockchain currencies currently are not centrally regulated in the United States. As discussed above, the lack of a uniform definition is a fundamental issue. FinCEN has classified any person or entity involved in the transfer of blockchain currencies as a money transmitter under money services business regulations.

As blockchain currencies continue to evolve, however, additional federal laws and regulations must be drafted to address the most substantial areas of risk. Some states are weighing in on the topic as well. For example, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation recently issued guidance on the use of virtual currency in which the Department views virtual currency through the lens of the Illinois’ Transmitters of Money Act.

Additionally, the Uniform Law Commission is developing regulations that would, among other things, create a statutory structure (for each state that adopts it) to regulate the use of virtual currency in consumer and business transactions. Regardless whether the federal government or the states enact legislation affecting blockchain currencies, a more uniform regulatory approach would greatly aid their development and utility.

Conclusion
Blockchain currencies, and the laws and regulations governing them, are in a promising state of development. As new technologies emerge and existing technologies continue to evolve, banks are presented with real opportunities for innovation by successfully adapting blockchain for use by their customers. Those that figure it out are poised for real success.

The Blockchain Players: Understanding the Current Environment


blockchain-8-23-17.pngFinXTech Advisor Christa Steele has created a four part series to educate our community about how blockchain is changing the transaction of digital information, its implications and the players who are shaping this technology. Below is the final part in this series.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Banks may be slow to adopt blockchain in the long run but commercial clients may force their hand. Companies that use blockchain such as ConsenSys, Linux Foundation, Hyperledger, and R3 aren’t just working with banks. Kaiser Permanente, Toyota, Cargill, Amazon, and several state, local and foreign governments, among others, are looking to implement blockchain technology as well. The list of prospective commercial clients continues to grow daily.

Why Community Banks Must Pay Attention
It’s too soon for a community bank to dedicate precious and limited resources to blockchain beyond just staying educated. Blockchain, also known as digital ledger technology, will no doubt be led by and developed by the larger financial institutions and regulatory bodies. I believe a community bank’s first interaction with the technology will come from interactions through their correspondent banks in excess of $50 billion in assets or larger commercial clients with robust treasury management requirements.

Blockchain is potentially so transformative, banks are likely to see changes in how banking infrastructure works today in the areas of payments clearing and settlement; digital currencies; capital markets, including securities clearing, settlement and custody; digital identification; supply chain management and regulatory compliance.

Current Regulatory Vibe in the U.S. and Abroad
It is safe to say that blockchain technology is becoming mainstream. The Securities and Exchange Commission, Internal Revenue Service and several other regulatory and governing bodies acknowledge the technology and have adopted policy language surrounding blockchain, digital ledger technology and virtual currencies over the course of the last 12 months. The most notable foreign government to announce its acceptance of blockchain is Dubai which aims to be a “city built on blockchain.”

Have You Opened a Digital Wallet?
Though I am focused on the underlying blockchain technology instead of digital currency adoption, I do encourage you to understand how the digital wallet works. It will be increasingly important in the coming months and years as these consumer digital wallets become mainstream. Xapo offers an easy-to-use and secure bitcoin wallet. I found Xapo’s account opening process to be seamless and easy to use.

Resources for Staying up to Speed
I remain convinced our industry will continue to be disrupted by improvements in technology. Technology enhancements are moving faster today than ever before. We can thank IBM and others for leading this technology charge. As you look to stay educated, great resources to consider include a membership with the Digital Chamber of Commerce and Linux Foundation. For more information, you can also check out CoinDesk, a blockchain news source.