To be or NFT?

If there’s one consistent lesson to be learned from Blockchain and crypto is that the enabling technology often outpaces our understanding of the viable use case, commercial application or sustainable business model. For example, smart contracts have only recently proven their value with the rise of decentralized finance (DeFi). Even then, they are not perfect and if not well-coded can result in hacks, losses or other damage. Plus, until scaling (transaction throughput) and gas fees (transaction costs) are properly resolved, mass adoption is still some way off.

CryptoPunk #7523 (Image sourced from Reuters)

The latest crypto phenomenon is the market for NFTs (non-fungible tokens). Artworks in the form of digital files are being created, auctioned and traded for serious (or very silly?) amounts of money – just Google EtherRock, Beeple, CryptoPunk or Rare Pepe for recent examples.

NFTs are not just confined to digital art – animation, video, music and text are all being created in the form of NFTs. In addition, NFTs are being minted to represent ownership or other IP rights for physical artworks, real estate assets, collectibles and luxury goods.

Why would anyone pay the best part of US$12m for the original digital file of CryptoPunk #7523, a copy of which I have displayed above?

Perhaps we need to consider the following:

First, the image above is simply a low-res web image, easily reproduced via copy and paste – it’s not the “real” image as represented by the code or digital file embedded in the NFT. The original file is owned by the NFT buyer, and if it is an edition of one, then that is the only authentic version. Scarcity (as well as kudos) is a key market driver in NFTs – but only if someone else attaches financial value to the work (just as in any art market).

Second, owning the NFT does not necessarily mean you own the copyright or other rights associated with the art work. (I may own a Picasso painting, but I don’t own the image contained in the work.) So, apart from holding an NFT in your digital wallet or displaying it in a virtual art gallery, the only right you have is to re-sell the work. This means you can’t commercialise the image for t-shirts, on-line redistribution or reproduction (unless the owner has agreed to grant such rights within the NFT). (My use of the image here would be covered by the “fair use” principle, for the purposes of illustration and/or critical analysis.)

Third, unless you are able to export the NFT from the marketplace or platform that sold it, the NFT may “vanish” if the platform goes offline for any reason. (Doubtless, platforms need to enable token transfers to other market places and to users’ own digital wallets, otherwise there could be a lot of stranded and/or worthless NFTs in years to come.)

Fourth, the creator of the original work may be entitled to a % of the resale value of the NFT. This is obviously an important consideration for artists and other content creators, and I see this as a positive development. By extension, musicians, authors, film-makers and designers can more easily track and control the downstream revenue generated by the use and licensing of their works by third-party marketplaces, streaming platforms or 3D printing and fabrication services.

Fifth, NFTs support improved authentication, provenance and chain of ownership, as well as bringing more transparency to the world of art auctions – valuations, bidding and prices could all be hashed on the Blockchains that track the NFTs.

Finally, if NFTs are seen as a form of bearer bond (linking ownership to whomever controls the token), they could also be used to package up a portfolio of different crypto or digital assets, and auctioned as a single lot. The buyer could then unlock the disparate assets, and combine them into subsequent bundles – bringing a new dimension to block trades and the transfer of large bundles of stocks.

Next week: I got nothing

 

Accounting for Crypto

The period leading up to June 30 saw the usual raft of end of financial year updates, special offers and reminders from equipment suppliers, business service providers, accountants, tax specialists and even the ATO itself.

Crypto is certainly getting a lot of attention in Australia at the moment.

First, there is a Senate Select Committee on Australia as a Technology and Financial Centre, including “opportunities and risks in the digital asset and cryptocurrency sector”. The Select Committee is also looking at ways to define and/or potentially regulate crypto assets.

Second, ASIC has launched a public consultation process on crypto ETFs. This follows a desire from the regulator for more policy guidance from the Federal Government on the “regulatory perimeter” for crypto assets.

Third, the CPA published an op ed on the need for more clarity in crypto asset accounting. Not just in Australia, but across the world of International Financial Reporting Standards.

None of this should be surprising, as governments, regulators, tax authorities, professional bodies and institutional investors are still struggling to comprehend this new asset class, and the technology that underpins it.

Do crypto and digital assets represent currency, commodity, real estate, software license, network membership, utility access, payment mechanism, store of value, financial security, or unique property rights? Depending on the design, use case and origination of a token and its economic properties, the answer could be “yes” in each case – albeit not all at the same time.

In my consulting work with Brave New Coin, I get to speak to clients on a daily basis about their own crypto activities – be they exchanges, asset managers, accountants, tax authorities, regulators or investors. A lot of the discussion involves education – helping them to make sense of the technology and its potential. Some of the time they are simply asking our advice about how to address a particular issue, or they need a recommendation for a custodian or broker. A few share the regulatory challenges they face, and seek our perspective in how to navigate them. Others need more technical help, in building software solutions, or with on-chain analysis and wallet tracking (even though “free” block explorers already do a pretty good job in that regard). While many simply need a source of market data and indices for price discovery and NAV calculations, or a process to capture and track the crypto equivalents of corporate actions.

If anyone wonders how we are doing to make the reporting of crypto holdings as simple as equities or fixed income assets, my own experiences suggest we have a way to go. Legacy accounting and portfolio tools struggle with crypto: for example, can they calculate to 8 decimal places? how do they deal with an air drop? and how do they distinguish between Ether and Ethan Minerals (both use ETH as their ticker symbols), or Cardano and Adacel Technologies (both use ADA). And if I am an accountant, auditor, financial planner or adviser, how can I make sure I understand my clients’ portfolio of crypto investments, if I don’t have the appropriate tools?

Next week: Goya – allegories and reportage for the modern age

Notes from Blockchain Week

Blockchain Australia, the national industry body, recently organised the first National Australian Blockchain Week – a mix of on-line and in-person events, hosted in Sydney and Melbourne. Overall, it was an impressive line up of speakers and topics, featuring key local figures and presenting some intriguing announcements from politicians, regulators and practitioners alike.

The recurring themes were: Regulation, Tax and Innovation.

Despite past pronouncements about adopting a light-touch regulatory regime when it comes to Blockchain technology, the absence of definite regulation risks stifling innovation and/or driving projects overseas to more receptive jurisdictions. (Irony of the week #1: contrast this with the early and positive regulatory engagement with Digital Currency Exchanges (DCE) and other market participants in Australia, not to mention previous progress in removing the absurd GST treatment on the purchase and sale of cryptocurrencies).

Now, the industry is (once again) asking policy makers: to clarify the law as it relates to decentralised protocols, digital assets and utility tokens; to streamline the confusing and over-complex tax system as it applies to DeFi: and to define a specific regulatory boundary (rather like the UK’s FCA perimeter) within which crypto assets need to be regulated. Sadly, the latter is extremely hard to acheive thanks to the very broad definition of “financial product” within the Australian Corporations Act.

Throughout the four days, there were several highlights: Senator Bragg’s keynote speech on driving the policy agenda to bring clarity to regulators and markets alike; a progress report on the National Blockchain Roadmap; tax and legal updates from Joni Pirovich and Michael Bacina; a showcase of local Blockchain start-up projects (more on that next week); and a couple of enterprise presentations on the ASX’s DLT replacement for CHESS and the Blockchain-based insurance project between the R3 consortium and Grow Super. But apart from a couple of other Blockchain-in-business sessions, there was a noticeable absence of corporates, major banks, traditional financial services and institutional investors.

There was a lot of commentary around the fact that many Blockchain businesses and crypto projects still find it challenging to access regular banking facilities in Australia (Irony of the week #2: Westpac’s windfall from the recent Coinbase IPO). There was also a lot of discussion about the need for investor education before crypto and digital assets can go “mainstream” – which I find surprising when plenty of people seem to be finding their way without any help from traditional financial advisors, and yet no-one is required to educate themselves before their money is put into compulsory superannuation or real estate assets. Even where crypto assets are being included in retail investor products, the allocation is very modest and is being transacted offshore (see Raiz’s 5% allocation via the US-based Gemini Trust). Why not use one of the several established and well-run exchanges, crypto funds and OTC providers here in Australia?

Regarding the potential offshore brain drain, much was made of the work that Singapore is doing to attract Blockchain and crypto businesses. But I think the focus on Singapore risks overstating the situation there, and overlooks what is actually happening (and could happen) in Australia. For example, while Singapore may have more favourable tax arrangements for new Blockchain projects, I understand that ordinary retail investors don’t have access to crypto funds (not even ETPs). The Singaporean issuance of digital assets via tokenisation has to be done via an SPV structure. And while many ICOs have been issued from Singapore, they could not be marketed to local investors. At least Australia has a robust DCE sector, e.g. Independent Reserve, BTC Markets, and Bit Trade (now part of Kraken); early on we saw some very successful retail products such as CoinJar; and the local industry continues to nurture innovative decentralisation projects – we just need to sort out those “policy settings”, and give more encouragement to local entrpreneuers and innovation. (Irony of the week #3 – when former ALP politician and self-styled crypto OG, Sam Dastyari, was asked if the private equity fund he works for was investing in Blockchain or crypto, there was a deafening silence…)

Finally, one of the main benefits of Blockchain Week has been to entice people out of hibernation, and to attend in-person events after months of lock-downs and restricted movement. It felt good to be back.

Next week: Blockchain Start-up Showcase

Startupbootcamp – Melbourne FinTech Demo Day

Taking its cue from some of the economic effects of the current pandemic, the latest Startupbootcamp Melbourne FinTech virtual demo day adopted the theme of  financial health and well-being. When reduced working hours and layoffs revealed that many that people did not have enough savings to last 6 weeks, let alone 6 months, lock-down and furlough have not only put a strain on public finances, they have also revealed the need for better education on personal finance and wealth management. Meanwhile, increased regulation and compliance obligations (especially in the areas of data privacy, cyber security and KYC) are adding huge operational costs for companies and financial institutions. And despite the restrictions and disruptions of lock-down, the latest cohort of startups in the Melbourne FinTech bootcamp managed to deliver some engaging presentations.

Links to each startup are in the names:

Datacy

Datacy allows people to collect, manage and sell their online data easily and transparently, and gives businesses instant access to high quality and bespoke consumer datasets. They stress that the data used in their application is legally and ethically sourced. Their process is also designed to eliminate gaps and risks inherent in many current solutions, which are often manual, fragmented and unethical. At its heart is a Chrome or Firefox browser extension. Individual consumers can generate passive income from data sales, based on user-defined permissions. Businesses can create target data sets using various parameters. Datacy charges companies to access the end-user data, and also takes a 15% commission on every transaction via the plugin – some of which is distributed to end-users, but it wasn’t clear how that works. For example, is it distributed in equal proportions to everyone, or is it weighted by the “value” (however defined or calculated) of an individual’s data?

Harpocrates Solutions

Harpocrates Solutions provides a simplified data privacy via a “compliance compliance as a service” model. Seeing itself as part of the “Trust Economy”, Harpocrates is making privacy implementations easier. It achieves this by monitoring and observing daily regulatory updates, and capturing the relevant changes. It then uses AI to manage a central repository, and to create and maintain tailored rules sets.

Mark Labs

Mark Labs helps asset managers and institutional investors integrate environmental and social considerations into their portfolios. With increased investor interest in sustainability, portfolio managers are adopting ESG criteria in to their decision-making, and Mark Labs helps them in “optimising the impact” of their investments. There are currently an estimated $40 trillion of sustainable assets under management, but ESG portfolio management is data intensive, complex and still emerging both as an analytical skill and as a practical portfolio methodology. Mark Labs helps investors to curate, analyze and communicate data on their portfolio companies, drawing on multiple database sources, and aligning to UN Sustainable Development Goals. The founders estimate that there are $114 trillion of assets under management “at risk” if generational transfer and investor mandates shift towards more ESG criteria.

MassUp

MassUp is a digital white label solution for the property and casualty insurance industry (P&C), designed to sell small item insurance at the consumer point-of-sale (POS).
Describing their platform as a “plug and sell” solution, the founders noted that 70% of portable items are not covered by insurance policies, and many homes and/or contents are either uninsured or under-insured. MassUp is intended to simplify the process (“easy, accessible, online”), and will be launching in Australia under the Sorgenfrey brand in Q2 2021. For example, a product known as “The Flat Insurance” will cover items in and out of your home for a single monthly premium. As MassUp appears to be a tech solution, rather than a policy issuer, underwriter or re-insurer, I couldn’t see how they can achieve competitive policy rates both at scale and with simplicity (especially the claims process). Also, as we know, vendors love to “upsell” insurance on tech appliances, but many such policies have been seen to be redundant when considering existing statutory consumer rights and product warranties. On the other hand, short-term insurance policies (e.g., when I’m traveling, or on holiday, or renting out my home on AirBnB) are increasingly of interest to some consumers.

OnTrack Retirement

Ontrack provides B2B white label digital retirement planning solutions for financial institutions to help their customers in a more personalised way. There is a general consumer reluctance to pay for financial advice, but retirement planning is deemed too complicated. Taking an “holistic” approach, the founders claim to have developed a “best in class simulation engine” – founded on expected retirement spending priorities (rather than trying to predict the cost of living in 20 years’ time). Drawing on their industry experience, the founders stated that a key challenge for many financial planning providers is getting members comfortable with your service. I would also add that reducing complexity with cost-effective products is also key – and financial education forms a big part of the solution.

In Australia, the past 10 years has seen a major exit from the financial planning and wealth management industry – both at the individual adviser level (higher professional qualification requirements, increased compliance costs, and the end of trailing sales commissions in favour of “fee for advice”); and at the institutional level (3 of the big 4 banks have essentially withdrawn from offering financial planning and wealth management services). At the same time, there have been a number of new players – including many non-bank or non-financial institution providers – offering so-called robo-advice and “advice at scale”, mainly designed to reduce costs. In addition, the statutory superannuation regime keeps being tweaked so it is increasingly difficult to plan for the future, with the constant tax and other changes. Superannuation (a key success story of the Keating government) is just one of the “pillars” of personal finance in retirement: the others are the Commonwealth government aged pension (means-tested), personal wealth management (e.g., investments outside of superannuation); and retirement housing (with the expectation of more people opting to remain in their own homes). I would also include earnings from part-time employment while in “retirement”, as people work longer into older age (either from choice or necessity) – how that aligns with the aged pension and/or self-funded retirement is another part of the constantly-shifting tax and social security regime.

Plastiq.it

This product describes itself as a customer data platform that powers stored value, and was described as a “Safe harbour” solution (I’m not quite sure that’s what the founders meant in this context?). According to the pitch, consumers gain a fair and equitable outcome (consumer discounts), while retailers get targeted audiences. The team have created a vertically integrated gift card platform (working with MasterCard, Apple Pay and GooglePay), and launched JamJar, a cashback solution.

RegRadar

Similar to Harpocrates (above), RegRadar is a regulatory screening platform that helps companies “to set routes and avoid crashes”. The tool monitors regulatory changes (initially in the financial, food and healthcare sectors) and uses a pro-active process to developing a regulatory screening strategy, backed by analysis and a decision-support tool.

Having worked in legal, regulatory and compliance publishing for many years myself, I appreciate the challenge companies face when trying to keep up with the latest regulations, especially where they may be subject to multiple regulatory bodies within and across multiple jurisdictions. However, improved technology such as smart decision-support tools for building and maintaining rules-based business systems has helped enormously. In addition, most legislation is now online, so it can be searched more easily and monitored via automated alerts. Plus services such as Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis can also help companies track what is currently “good” or “bad” law by tracking court decisions, law reports and legislative updates. 

Next week: Goodbye 2020