Analysis

The Race to Put Blockchain in National Banking: Leaders & Followers

Banks & governments around the world are exploring blockchain. Who's charging ahead--and who's lagging behind?

If 2018 and 2019 were years of central banks talking the blockchain talk, a number of experts believe that 2020 may be the year when they begin to walk the blockchain walk.

Indeed, plans and actions regarding the creation and usage of blockchain-based systems and central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) have been highly publicized in a number of nations around the globe–and the rest of the world is taking note, too.

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For example, a blog post by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) written more than a year ago recommended that in addition to creating regulations for crypto assets not issued by governments, banks should explore issuing digital currencies as a way to “make their money attractive for use as a settlement vehicle” in a financial landscape increasingly populated by cryptocurrencies.

 

“[Central banks] could make central bank money user-friendly in the digital world by issuing digital tokens of their own to supplement physical cash and bank reserves,” the blog post said. “Such central bank digital currency could be exchanged, peer to peer in a decentralized manner, much as crypto assets are.”

Another blog post by the IMF said that one way or another, “innovation will transform the landscape of banking and money.”

Many analysts and economists agree that blockchain will play a role in this innovation. Why blockchain? Which country is the most advanced in its blockchain exploration? And as national and international financial systems take steps toward blockchain, how will they ensure the systems they create will enable them to continue to work with each other just as–or better than–before?

A clear need for change

Daniel Popa, chief executive officer of stablecoin issuer Anchor, told Finance Magnates that regardless of whether blockchain is going to be a part of the future of the global banking landscape, “countries are realizing that much of the current financial systems used for exchanging and storing value is obsolete, especially in the context of today’s fast-moving, technology-driven modern economy.”

Similarly, Eric Benz, chief executive officer of cryptocurrency exchange Changelly, noted in an email to Finance, Magnates that “the global financial ecosystem is as antiquated as one could imagine.”

Daniel Popa, chief executive officer of stablecoin issuer Anchor.

According to Benz, the public pays the price for this antiquated system the most: “the number of inefficiencies that exist is growing daily, and the overhead costs are at an all-time high, thus creating more fees and charges for the end customer–you and me.”

According to both Benz and Popa, blockchain and crypto-based systems could certainly be used to address some of these problems: “blockchain technology can be leveraged to create more efficient, transparent, and secure ways to exchange value,” Popa said.

”Countries and companies are hesitant to go all-in on a technology if their partners [and colleagues] can use a slightly different version, and thus, cannot work with each other.”

“At the same time, the need for a global currency that is borderless and resistant to market impacts caused by inflation or shifting international relations is becoming indisputable.”

But will blockchain ultimately be the vehicle for this global currency and for other major innovations in global finance? Benz, who explained that he has been involved in government blockchain projects in the past, said that “blockchain technology has not always been an easy sell, especially when looking at government bodies within different countries,” although “in the early years of blockchain, it was certainly a lot more difficult than it is today, of course.”

There’s also the issue of interoperability–Christian Casazza, associate at NYC-based corporate innovation and growth strategy group DeerCreek, told Finance Magnates that ”countries and companies are hesitant to go all-in on a technology if their partners [and colleagues] can use a slightly different version, and thus, cannot work with each other.”

Christian Casazza, associate at NYC-based corporate innovation and growth strategy group DeerCreek.

Therefore, “while there have been some promising developments,” Casazza said that “there is no clear leading technology to help blockchains communicate with one another.”

Internal motivations could lead to the creation of a fragmented blockchain world

Indeed, the lack of a “clear leading technology” has contributed to the development of a somewhat fragmented fabric of national blockchain- and cryptocurrency-related initiatives developed either internally by governments themselves, or through collaborative efforts with blockchain and crypto firms.

As such, while some countries may be close to issuing their own digital currencies for internal usage, there is not a clear global vision regarding how (or indeed, if) countries will be able to use nationally-issued digital currencies to transact with another–for international trade, for example.

Therefore, the incentives to create nationally-issued digital currencies–in addition to concerns about an external digital currency such as Bitcoin taking an uncomfortably large market share–seem to be primarily internally motivated.

Christian Casazza explained that, for example, “the use of central bank digital currency by all stakeholders in the economy could be potentially massive for a central bank’s role in a [national] economy as a data miner.”

“Currently, the central bank must rely on traditional economic indicators such as the Consumer Price Index and Nonfarm Payroll Employment,” he explained. “These indicators rely on past information compiled by the Department of Labor, and so it forces the federal government to [play] a reactionary role.”

On the other hand, “if transactions were to begin to be used with central bank digital currency, the Fed would gain access to a previously unprecedented amount of financial information about the economy. They would be able to get data on the flow of capital throughout the country and understand the areas of the economy in the greatest need of help with greater precision than previously possible.”

“This would have massive implications on how the Fed sets its monetary policy [and] could allow the Fed to attempt new methods of monetary policy,” Casazza said. “For example, if the Fed wishes to raise the money supply, it could theoretically be able to bypass traditional financial institutions and pass money directly to businesses and even, potentially, citizens.”

Progress is still being made

Despite the arguably fragmented nature of the international blockchain and crypto fabric, “the technology continues to improve, and the rate of adoption is increasing,” Eric Benz told Finance Magnates.

“As a result, more departments are wanting to take advantage of blockchain’s many use cases,” Benz continued, “which can completely transform not only finance but other areas like regulation, auditing, and supply chain finance.”

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Eric Benz, CEO of cryptocurrency exchange Changelly

Indeed, few countries have charged ahead in their exploration of blockchain. Christian Casazza told Finance Magnates that “in general, Asia and Australia are the furthest along on blockchain technology.”

Specifically, Casazza pointed to China as “a global leader in the field”; in addition to the fact that “China is actively preparing to release a digital yuan,” Casazza explained that “the government has also fostered an environment of innovation that has allowed for thousands of blockchain startups to be created.”

Casazza added Japan and Australia “have modernized their laws to adopt blockchain technology far more than any other major economy. The countries’ efforts will likely lead to faster adoption of blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies by its citizens.” Australia is also currently exploring the issuance of a CBDC.

”Japan has been a major pioneer in blockchain regulation.”

Additionally, “Japan has been a major pioneer in blockchain regulation. For example, Japan was the first country to recognize Bitcoin as a legitimate payment option,” Casazza said. “Its progressive laws have allowed for over 19 exchanges to be created. Major companies such as Sony are actively engaging in blockchain investments.”

Casazza also pointed to several European nations: “Switzerland has fostered itself as a hub of innovation for technology. Companies are able to explore new business practices due to Switzerland’s laws encouraging testing as opposed to hindering it out of fear.” At the same time, “Estonia has long been ahead of the curve in digitizing their country. The country has been using DLT for government purposes for several years.”

Also, Brazil has “created its own blockchain platform, Pier, for interbank communications,” Casazza said. Additionally, “Brazillian banks are using Hyperledger [to create] digital identities for citizens to transfer money.”

And there are others–Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Malta, and many more–that have made an effort to explore the use of blockchain and cryptocurrency in their national systems.

However, while some nations are charging ahead, others have notably seemed to have fallen behind–specifically, the United States.

In the US, “advocates are looking for regulation that will allow for these technologies to be used in daily life.”

Casazza blames this apparent lag in national blockchain- and crypto-related innovation in the United States on “extremely slow regulation at the federal level.”

“The U.S.’s focus on blockchain technology thus far has been compliance and taxes. Cryptocurrencies cannot reasonably be used for everyday transactions since they are still treated as property, and are thus subject to capital gains taxes.”

Indeed, the regulatory situation in the United States seems to be hampering the adoption of crypto in a serious way. Michael Wasyl, who serves as a managing partner at DeerCreek, said to Finance Magnates in a report last week that the pieces of crypto-related legislation that are currently moving through congress “do not address the regulation that advocates had been asking for in a significant way.

Michael Wasyl, managing partner at DeerCreek.

“Advocates are looking for regulation that will allow for these technologies to be used in daily life,” he explained. “[…] However, the proposed legislation would likely limit exploration instead of providing harmony and a nuanced approach. The US must be at the forefront of financial innovation, and fear-driven legislation will not help us get there.”

“It will likely take several years before any type of federal program for national identity on blockchain comes to fruition.”

Therefore, “in the short term, it is unlikely that the US government adopts any national policies using blockchain,” Casazza said. “Still, the US government hasn’t completely avoided experimentation with blockchain: Currently, the US government is only attempting small pilot programs using permissioned chains.”

All the same, however, Casazza believes that “it will likely take several years before any type of federal program for national identity on blockchain comes to fruition.”

However, there are certainly some extra-government initiatives to build a United States CBDC–just yesterday, the formation of the “Digital Dollar Foundation” was announced by former Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) Chairman J. Christopher Giancarlo, former LabCFTC Director Daniel Gorfine, and investor Charles Giancarlo.

According to CoinDesk, “the not-for-profit organization has a multi-part plan to first create potential designs and proposals; convene economists, lawyers, academics, technologists, and others to evaluate these designs; and create a framework for testing the new system, all with the goal of making dollar transactions as seamless as a text message.”

Acceleration in innovation–the more countries that adopt blockchain, the more countries will adopt blockchain

However, the rate of innovation in national blockchain and crypto initiatives could continue to accelerate as time marches on. Eric Benz said that “as we have seen in previous years, there is no cycle different from one another. This particular technology cycle for blockchain and crypto is exactly in line with others over the years.“

“The technology itself is only ten years old, and we have yet to see true enterprise adoption–which will happen very soon,” he continued. Why does he believe this? “With all the uncertainty in today’s world, people are looking for not only innovative but transformative technology to make what they do more efficient and to cut down on costs. Blockchain and crypto will become an integral part of our daily lives in the coming decade.”

Indeed, the drive for efficiency, safety, and lowering costs has caused an unprecedented increase in the pace of innovation: “our world has advanced so much over the past century, and this won’t be changing for the next century to come,” Benz said.

“We are a direct result of innovation and transformative technologies, and this will merely continue. The economy for every nation is an important one, and as the years have passed, nations all over the world have stepped up and adopted what they could, and this will not change.”

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