APAC Blockchain Conference

The 2nd APAC Blockchain Conference was held in Melbourne last week. According to the organisers, the previous event attracted about 150 people. This year, registrations were around three times as many. The Blockchain story is only just beginning, if the level of interest and the range of conference topics are anything to go by. Here are a few random observations from the two-day event.

A story is just what we got from Robert Kahn, speaking on the role he played in developing the TCP/IP protocol, and the evolution of “Digital Object Architecture” as a way to identify any type of data, regardless of the technology used to create, store or retrieve it.

From NEO founder Da Hongfei we heard about dBFT (Delegated Byzantine Fault Tolerance), and ANZ’s Nigel Dobson outlined the use of Blockchain and DLT (distributed ledger technology) to remove transaction inefficiencies in commercial property lease guarantees. Civic Ledger CEO Katrina Donaghy talked about her work on “Civic Commodities” (government-issued permits and licenses) and “Sustainable Commodities” (water trading, patent registrations).

Gingkoo CEO William Zuo and Novatti‘s Blockchain Head Peter Christo introduced their collaboration on a Blockchain-based cross-border payment platform. There was a presentation on Hcash by Andrew Wasleyewicz, which talked about the “7 H’s” of their solution. While the quirkiest (and possibly most engaging/authentic presentation of Day 1) came from ConsenSys‘s Blockchain expert Lucas Cullen, who told us “7 Reasons Why Not To Use Blockchain Technology” (compulsory listening for any hapless corporate CTO under board pressure to come up with a DLT strategy…).

In between was Data 61‘s Zhu Liming who talked about some of the wider implications and opportunities for Blockchain in his capacity as Chair of the Australian Blockchain and DLT Standardisation Committee. There were also some insights from Gilbert & Tobin‘s COO Sam Nickless on how lawyers must embrace the new technology to avoid becoming disintermediated.

A diverting interlude from economist Lord Desai suggested that “Bitcoins are not coins, and cryptocurrencies are not currencies”. Many might agree, but we already know they are a new asset class in their own right, and need to be treated as such.

Standards (both technical and regulatory) were the topic of a panel discussion comprising mainly lawyers and regulators. The remaining panels on Day 1 (representing commerce and industry) addressed key themes of Blockchain scaling, interoperability, privacy, security and commercial deployment.

Day 2 began with an interesting keynote from former ASIC Chair, Greg Medcraft, now at the OECD. Mr Medcraft is no stranger to the debate on cryptocurrencies and ICOs, but chose to focus his remarks on the benefits, risks and opportunities for Blockchain. On the plus side, Blockchain can reduce the number of intermediaries in a transaction, it provides traceability and transparency, it increases the speed of payments (and reduces the cost), it offers data security, and it provides greater access to markets (e.g., SME supply chains). He foresees fiat and asset-backed digital currencies, and government support for Blockchain solutions in areas such as identity, provenance, supply chain and AML. Plus, for consumers, there should be greater trust and security, better financial access and inclusion, lower costs and better products. Key risks remain, however, in data privacy, security (ID, authentication, cyber-attacks), and consumer and investor protection. Policy makers need to be pro-active and forward-looking, keep up to date on these rapid developments, and co-ordinate across industry, sectors and globally. Citing some of the issues associated with ICOs, Mr Medcraft then urged regulators to exchange information with their counterparts and identify best practice, avoid regulatory arbitrage, create greater legal certainty, and raise awareness of the risks and rewards.

Victor Wang from the China Wanxiang Group followed up with a presentation that re-cast Blockchain as a new economic model, drawing on his reading of “Das Kapital”, and introduced the concept of GBP (“Gross Blockchain Product”). According to this theory, Blockchain is a means to redistribute and reallocate resources and assets; it is transforming the cost of transactions and value exchange; it is creating new assets; and it is building new products and services, as well as the delivery mechanism itself.

We heard from Zuotian Luan of Fortuna Blockchain on the future of OTC derivatives, and how decentralized exchanges are addressing legacy problems of counter-party and credit risk, operational efficiency, and lack of liquidity. He sees a “decentralized margin system” as a long-term solution that will reduce the costs of posting and managing collateral on traditional OTC exchanges.

There was an interesting discussion on the future of capital markets themselves, reflecting the perspective of traditional exchanges, clearing houses and custody providers, plus tZero. (As an aside, I was pleasantly surprised to see so many representatives of the “back office” at the conference, including trust banks and share registries. However, there didn’t appear to be anyone from the brokerage or advisory side, and no-one from the ASX, even though their Blockchain project to replace/enhance CHESS has been widely lauded as being in the vanguard of this new technology.)

Finally, a quick plug for my colleague, Fran Strajnar, CEO and co-founder of Brave New Coin who moderated a panel on ICOs. I think he summarized the tone of the discussion really well, when he said this is probably the only financial services sector that is asking for regulation. “Tell us the rules and let us get on with the job.”

Next week: Tech Talk on Crypto

 

 

Bitcoin – to fork or not to fork?

Anyone following the crypto-currency markets this past two weeks will be fully aware that this has been a turbulent time for Bitcoin and other blockchain assets. First, the SEC published its Report on the DAO.  Second, there was a significant arrest in connection with the Mt Gox failure. And third, Bitcoin underwent a fork which has resulted in a new version, known as Bitcoin Cash. Meanwhile, at the time of writing, the price of Bitcoin itself is testing renewed highs, and continues to enjoy a 3-month long rally.

What implications do each of these developments have for the digital asset industry?

Photo by Andre Chinn – Image sourced from Flickr under Creative Commons

The Mt Gox-related arrest came as Japanese authorities began separate criminal proceedings against the former head of the failed exchange. These developments underscore two things: 1) as with any complex financial fraud investigation, bringing the culprits to justice takes time. 2) exploiting the financial system for ill-gotten gain is not exclusive to crypto-currencies – just ask investors in Australia’s CBA bank how they feel about losing nearly 4 per cent of the value of their shares in one day on the back of a money laundering scandal.

It also means that as regulators play catch-up, exchanges, brokers and other participants in the crypto-currency markets will need to ensure that they are updating their security and privacy systems (to prevent future hacks) while ensuring they comply with AML/KYC/CTF provisions. No bad thing, to instil confidence and trust in this emerging asset class, which is entering a new phase of maturity.

The SEC Report on the DAO, meanwhile, has put ICO’s (Initial Coin Offering) and TGE’s (Token Generation Event) on notice that in some cases, these products will be treated as securities, and will be subject to the same regulation as public offers of shares etc. As a result, token issuance programs will need to structure their sale processes to be either fully compliant with, or exempt from, the regulations; at the very least, they must remove any suggestion that these tokens are capable of creating security interests in financial or dividend-bearing assets, unless that is the express intention. (In some cases, these tokens are sold as membership services, software and IP licenses, or as network access permits. Any “return” to the buyer comes from the network value effects, service discounts or user rewards, similar to frequent flyer schemes and customer loyalty programs.)

Again, this suggests a coming of age for digital assets, and a growing maturity in the way token sales can be used as an alternative to VC funding and other traditional sources of raising operating capital and project financing.

The Bitcoin fork was hugely anticipated, with a mix of fear and excitement – fear because of the unknown consequences, excitement at the prospect of Bitcoin holders getting “free money” in the form of “Bitcoin cash“, via a 1:1 issue. Without getting into the technical details, the fork was prompted by the need to increase Bitcoin’s blockchain processing speed and transaction capacity; and while nearly everyone connected to Bitcoin’s infrastructure agreed on the need to accelerate block performance, there was a schism as to how this should be achieved. Some exchanges said they would not recognise the new currency, and only some Bitcoin miners said they would engage with it (especially as the cost of mining the new asset was more expensive than Bitcoin core). In addition, most exchanges were advising their customers not to attempt performing any Bitcoin transactions for several days, before and after the fork, until the system settles down again.

In the aftermath of the fork, at least one more exchanges has said it will probably offer some support Bitcoin cash; while due to the nature of the fork, Bitcoin cash’s own block processing time was something like 6 hours – meaning transactions could not be confirmed, and holders of the new asset could not easily transfer or sell it, even if they wanted to. It feels like a combination of a liquidity squeeze, a trading halt, and a stock split resulting from a very complex corporate action.

So far, the value of Bitcoin has held up, while the value of Bitcoin cash has steadily declined (despite an early spike), almost flat-lining to less than one-tenth of the value of Bitcoin:

Relative value of Bitcoin cash (BCH) to Bitcoin (BTC) – Market Data Chart sourced from Brave New Coin

I’m not a “Bitcoin absolutist“, as I think different currency designs and technical solutions will continue to emerge based on specific use cases. These products will continue to co-exist as markets come to understand and appreciate the different attributes and functionality of these digital assets.

As a consequence of recent events, some new token projects are refining the design of their issuance programs, more legal opinions are being commissioned, and raise targets are being adjusted in light of the current climate. But the number of new projects coming to market shows no sign of abating, and the better projects will have successful and sustainable sales. The total market cap of all digital assets is now well over $100bn (although the data reveals something of an 80:20 scenario – the top few assets account for the bulk of that value); and more institutional investors and asset managers are taking a greater interest in this new asset class.

NOTE: The comments above are made in a purely personal capacity, and do not purport to represent the views of Brave New Coin or any other organisations I work with. These comments are intended as opinion only and should not construed be as financial advice.

Next week: Bringing Back Banter   

 

 

Spaceship launches the future of superannuation

Backed by some stellar names in the tech and startup worlds, Spaceship describes itself as a superannuation fund designed to “invest where the world is going, not where it’s been”. Squarely aimed at 18-35 year-olds (and savvy people in their 40s and 50s….), it is the brainchild of Paul Bennetts (a Partner at AirTree Ventures), Andrew Sellen (ex-Marketing Manager at Australian Ethical Investments) and two tech co-founders, Dave Kuhn and Kaushik Sen. Their central thesis is that global tech stocks are the future, and that these assets should form a greater part of a fully diversified portfolio, with a 10-year plus investment horizon.

spaceship-logo-03I first connected with Paul a couple of years ago, when I was working with a legal technology startup that was an early graduate of the Melbourne Accelerator Program. He was interested in what we were doing at Ebla, but the company was at too early a stage for him to invest in. But I’ve kept an eye on what Paul has been doing since, and have followed the Spaceship story quite closely. We last caught up very briefly during a recent roadshow event in Melbourne, as part of the Spaceship beta launch.

Any new superannuation brand, especially if it is neither an industry fund nor a retail fund backed by a major financial institution, is going to struggle to attract members: the industry and public sector funds have the benefit of workplace incumbency (sometimes backed by industrial awards), and the big retail funds have extensive distribution channels via advisor platforms, dealer groups and financial planners. As for corporate superannuation funds, in my experience, many of these employer-run funds are often a re-badged or customised version of an existing retail fund, or a highly outsourced business that retains the company name for brand recognition among employees.

Spaceship is challenging the market by using technology (and very targeted marketing) to streamline the recruitment and on-boarding process. As evidence of its marketing success, Spaceship claims to have built a waiting list of 12,000 prospective members in just 30 days, mostly through social media and word-of-mouth. And as evidence of its success in attracting “smart” money, witness some of the big names who have backed the venture as investors, or joined as members themselves.*

Not surprisingly, Spaceship is also developing some interesting content marketing and social media tactics to drive member engagement. This includes thought leadership on portfolio diversification, understanding investment horizons, accessing investments in early-stage tech companies, and investing in tech brands that its members love and use.

But while much of the media coverage for Spaceship has been positive, it has already drawn detractors (almost in the same breath…). Some of the latter reckon that it won’t achieve necessary scale to be sustainable (in light of APRA moves to drive consolidation among smaller funds), it will be highly concentrated in its exposure to tech stocks (which have a tendency to be more volatile), and without face-to-face contact with members, it will be harder to drive customer engagement.

Given that, following some delays, Spaceship does not launch to the general public until the end of this month (it is still running a waitlist), it’s probably a bit churlish to say it is doomed to failure before it has even really begun. Equally, having worked in financial market research myself, I have met with a number of industry, public sector, retail and corporate superannuation funds who cite member engagement and retention as one of their biggest challenges. The main issue is this: how do you interest an 18-year old in something from which they won’t derive any benefit for at least 40 years?  And once you have got their attention, how do you sustain that interest over the lifetime of their membership and into retirement?

Now technology is having a larger part to play in disrupting the superannuation industry, and changing the way members interact with their fund. As the COO of a major industry fund said recently at a FinTech Victoria event, “consolidating your super balances is only three clicks away” (to which Spaceship, replied “it’s now only one click!”). But it’s not enough to have a smart phone app to check your balances, switch investment options or make voluntary contributions. Members are looking for other services, such as financial education, estate planning, insurance, loans and mortgages, and tailored advice. Plus, they expect much more streamlined processes and pro-active member support.

I suspect that a key factor that will likely contribute to Spaceship’s potential success is the growth of the gig economy:

First, with more people working as freelancers, contractors or becoming self-employed, they will have no ties to a fixed workplace or a single employer – so they will be drawn to a fund product that appeals to their independence and flexibility.

Second, much of the gig economy lies in the tech and startup sectors, so again, prospective members might well be looking for a fund that invests in what they are interested and involved in themselves.

Third, if we are all expected to live and work longer, and if we are going to have to rely more on our own accumulated retirement assets, a fund that fully aligns with this long-term investment philosophy is hopefully going to be better placed to help us meet our financial goals.

Of course, it’s worth remembering that the Australian superannuation industry is both large ($2.1tn in assets as at September 2016, and the 3rd largest pool of pension funds in the world), and highly regulated (for very good reason). Equally, it has been slow to adapt to a changing economy and to different market factors, and is increasingly dominated by just a few big funds. Among some large industry funds, there is almost a cosy, symbiotic relationship between their members (who work in say, construction, energy, mining) and some of the assets the funds invest in (infrastructure, buildings, utilities). (But that may prove to be Spaceship’s USP – representing members who work in the tech sector?)

Although the Australian superannuation and managed funds sectors have established strong capabilities in administration, trustee, custody and asset management services, many of these back-office operations run on legacy IT systems which are potentially ripe for disruption. Plus, while government initiatives look for ways to attract more offshore institutions to place their assets with Australian fund managers, under various financial passport arrangements Australian institutions can invest in offshore funds domiciled and managed in key investment centres such as Luxembourg and Singapore.

Finally, new entrants to the superannuation industry are less likely to be reliant on incumbent and legacy service providers, and more able to take advantage of emerging technologies such as blockchain solutions (distributed ledger platforms), and fully integrated end-to-end CX (mobile apps and tools).

* Declaration of interest and disclaimer: I was successful in signing up to Spaceship in beta/waitlist, and have allocated a small portion of my own super to the fund. I do not have any other commercial connection with Spaceship or its founders. I have not been paid to write this article, nor should it be construed or interpreted as financial advice – it has been provided for general information only. BE SURE TO SEEK YOUR OWN INDEPENDENT FINANCIAL ADVICE BEFORE MAKING ANY FINANCIAL INVESTMENT.

Next week: Gaming/VR/AR pitch night at Startup Victoria

A Tale of Two #FinTech Cities – Melbourne vs. Sydney….

Inter-city rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney is nothing new. The fact that neither city is the national capital only adds to the frisson. The usual debates as to which is the better for sport, culture, beaches, food, weather, property prices, live music, public transport and coffee normally mean Melbourne edges out Sydney in most categories. (But then, I’m probably biased – however, having lived and worked in both, I think I am reasonably objective.)*

When it comes to startups, and FinTech in particular, the debate is beginning to hot up. At a recent FinTech Melbourne Meetup the topic was “is there room for both?”. The speakers, Toby Heap for Sydney, and Stuart Richardson for Melbourne, remained tactful and diplomatic, as it’s not really appropriate to talk about which is better – more a case of choosing “which is the right location for your own particular FinTech”. So, the debate avoided mere point-scoring, and tried to establish some commonalities, as well as provide some considered views on the benefits inherent within the key differences.

Both cities have a growing reputation for startup success, built on some core foundations: groups of angel investors and VC funds with an increasing FinTech focus; several accelerator programs, incubators and co-working spaces; and a community of founders and aspiring tech entrepreneurs.

From an industry perspective, two of the four Pillar Banks are headquartered in Sydney, and two in Melbourne. More insurers have their HQ’s in Sydney compared to Melbourne (apart from health insurance, where Melbourne hosts the largest market providers), while Tier 2 and regional banks (by their very nature) are more likely to be located outside either city (not including wholly owned brands of the Big 4).

As for pension funds and asset management, particularly in relation to Australia’s superannuation sector, Melbourne is clearly the bigger player, particularly for the largest industry funds (based on their historical links to the trade union movement). In addition, Melbourne is home to some substantial family offices, as well as specialist asset managers, including overseas firms. After all, Melbourne’s establishment wealth comes from the nineteenth century gold boom.

When it comes to markets, Sydney wins out by virtue of housing the main equities exchange, as well as being a hub for futures, fixed income and forex. Sydney also hosts more investment banks, including local branches of foreign players.

In some respects, the differences can be likened to the market roles and dynamics of London vs Edinburgh, New York vs Boston, Frankfurt vs Munich, or even Hong Kong vs Singapore, for example.

For me, however, the key distinction between Sydney and Melbourne can be summarised as: “Sydney trades, Melbourne invests”.

* Note: Content in Context is taking a well-deserved break. Starting this week, the next few posts will feature some brief blogs on different aspects of FinTech. Normal service will be resumed in early November

Next week: do we need a #FinTech safe harbour?