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   

 

 

More on #FinTech, #Bitcoin and #Blockchain in Melbourne

The Melbourne FinTech community brought together a bunch of interested parties recently to find out what’s happening locally in Bitcoin and Blockchain. Organised by the Melbourne Bitcoin, FinTech and Silicon Beach Meetups, and hosted by the Melbourne Bitcoin Technology Centre (MBTC), the evening was part open house, part info sharing, and part pitch night.

BitcoinThe MBTC is now a recognised hub for Bitcoin and Blockchain activities, and currently hosts around a dozen startups within its co-working space. Offering a “full service” facility (it even has a Bitcoin miner on site), complete with staffed reception, meeting rooms, event space, a pod cast studio and an outdoor barbecue area, it’s something of a hidden gem in Melbourne’s Southbank. Regulars also get to attend Bitcoin “swap meets”…..

Last week’s event also featured a number of micro-pitches from Bitcoin and Blockchain startups, a few of the MBTC staff and tenants, and a couple of student projects from RMIT.

Given this was almost “speed pitching“, it’s probably not appropriate to go into too much detail:

  • Toodles – a dating app on a decentralized network, using a Blockchain solution for additional security and privacy
  • Blockfreight – the Blockchain for global freight, enabling cargo containers to be shipped around the world with minimal legacy documentation, based on smart contracts, RFID and Blockfreight tokens
  • blockTRAIN – a training provider and consultancy on Blockchain, smart contracts and digital currencies
  • Bitcoin Buskers v2 – sort of MySpace/Bandcamp/SoundCloud for Buskers, to promote their merchandise and to secure international festival bookings, all powered by Bitcoin
  • ACX – Australian Crypto Exchange, offering the largest single Bitcoin order book in Australia
  • Bitcoin Group – explaining that most Bitcoin mining is currently done in China due to cheaper electricity
  • Antstand – portable laptop stand (which you can buy with Bitcoin!)
  • Think Bitcoin – providing consulting and education services, particularly in schools
  • Lyra – an app to track and reduce your personal environmental impact, sort of Fitbit and Smart Meter combined
  • ImagineNation – innovation consultancy, backed by training and coaching, and featuring a 2-day startup game to help organisations transform cultural mindsets around agile, lean, design thinking, UX and incubator/accelerator concepts
  • Brave New Coin – the “Bloomberg for Bitcoin”, providing market data (prices, rates, indices, news) for Bitcoin and other digital currencies*

With the next Bitcoin halving due soon, and a significant uptick in FinTech, Blockchain and Digital Asset investments announced during Q2, this sector is going to look very interesting for some time to come, and it’s good to know that Melbourne, whose fortunes were founded on gold, is staking a claim in these new asset classes.

* Declaration of Interest: I have recently joined the team at Brave New Coin as Head of Business Development – more news to follow….

Next week: University Challenge – Startup Victoria’s Student Pitch Night

Latest #FinTech Round-Up

The first quarter of 2016 has seen some significant FinTech developments in Australia. It feels the sector has finally “come of age”, at least in terms of government policy, as well as some significant deals. For anyone who may have missed the action, here is a very brief round-up:

FinTech_AustraliaThe formation of FinTech Australia as an umbrella group in late 2015 was seen as an important step in reducing inter-state rivalry. Following its first AGM in March, hopefully it will help the industry to attract further visibility, gain critical mass and co-ordinate the debate around legislation, funding, compliance and regulatory licensing, as well as fostering innovation and collaboration.

At the same time, the Federal Government has established the FinTech Advisory Group composed of some heavy hitters and key influencers. One of the first outcomes has been the Treasury’s response to a number of regulatory changes that the industry is prioritizing.

Having spoken to several members of both the Advisory Group and the FinTech Australia Committee, there is a clear sense that the industry has finally “broken through” to get on the ideas and innovation agenda.

FinTech Melbourne hosted a very interesting Meetup on Women in Fintech, set against the backdrop of the continuing gender diversity debate (in particular, across tech startups). An all-women panel comprising Charlotte Petris from Timelio and Jemma Enright from MoneyBrilliant, and facilitated by Anita Kimber from EY, explored some of the opportunities and challenges (and the struggles along the way) of being a startup co-founder, their experiences of launching new businesses and products, and how they go about hiring the right talent and building great teams.

Meanwhile, in London, The FINTECH Book was being launched, which includes a contribution written by DragonBIll‘s Melbourne-based CEO, Luke Hally.

Over at the MBTC , the Melbourne Bitcoin Meetup group hosted Brave New Coin‘s CEO, Fran Strajnar. Fran gave a detailed presentation on the market news, financial data and analytical infrastructure that Brave New Coin is building to support crypto-currencies and block chain technology, including the new Bitcoin Weighted Average Price (aka B-WAP). This new analytic will likely prove to be a key component for real-time and historical pricing data on specific bilateral transactions (e.g., calculating end of day evaluations or annual tax reconciliations), as well as providing underlying reference data (e.g., for index-linked instruments and associated derivatives, swaps, options and forwards). Exciting stuff indeed!

Finally, ASIC, as part of its work in building a more supportive regulatory environment (under its Innovation Hub) has announced a bilateral agreement with the UK’s FCA on greater co-operation between the respective market regulators, that may lead to mutual recognition for FinTech companies. Another similar deal is being explored with Singapore.

Next week: 4 more #startup hopefuls pitch at Startup Victoria

 

Assessing Counterparty Risk post-GFC – some lessons for #FinTech

At the height of the GFC, banks, governments, regulators, investors and corporations were all struggling to assess the amount of credit risk that Lehman Brothers represented to global capital markets and financial systems. One of the key lessons learnt from the Lehman collapse was the need to take a very different approach to identifying, understanding and managing counterparty risk – a lesson which fintech startups would be well-advised to heed, but one which should also present new opportunities.

In Lehman’s case, the credit risk was not confined to the investment bank’s ability to meet its immediate and direct financial obligations. It extended to transactions, deals and businesses where Lehman and its myriad of subsidiaries in multiple jurisdictions provided a range of financial services – from liquidity support to asset management; from brokerage to clearing and settlement; from commodities trading to securities lending. The contagion risk represented by Lehman was therefore not just the value of debt and other obligations it issued in its own name, but also the exposures represented by the extensive network of transactions where Lehman was a counterparty – such as acting as guarantor, underwriter, credit insurer, collateral provider or reference entity.

Before the GFC

Counterparty risk was seen purely as a form of bilateral risk. It related to single transactions or exposures. It was mainly limited to hedging and derivative positions. It was confined to banks, brokers and OTC market participants. In particular, the use of credit default swaps (CDS) to insure against the risk of an obiligor (borrower or bond issuer) failing to meet its obligations in full and on time.

The problem is that there is no limit to the amount of credit “protection” policies that can be written against a single default, much like the value of stock futures and options contracts being written in the derivatives markets can outstrip the value of the underlying equities. This results in what is euphemistically called market “overhang”, where the total face value of derivative instruments trading in the market far exceeds the value of the underlying securities.

As a consequence of the GFC, global markets and regulators undertook a delicate process of “compression”, to unwind the outstanding CDS positions back to their core underlying obligations, thereby averting a further credit squeeze as liquidity is released back into the market.

Post-GFC

Counterparty risk is now multi-dimensional. Exposures are complex and inter-related. It can apply to any credit-related obligation (loans, stored value cards, trade finance, supply chains etc.). It is not just a problem for banks, brokers and intermediaries. Corporate treasurers and CFOs are having to develop counterparty risk policies and procedures (e.g., managing individual bank lines of credit or reconciling supplier/customer trading terms).

It has also drawn attention to other factors for determining counterparty credit risk, beyond the nature and amount of the financial exposure, including:

  • Bank counterparty risk – borrowers and depositors both need to be reassured that their banks can continue to operate if there is any sort of credit event or market disruption. (During the GFC, some customers distributed their deposits among several banks – to diversify their bank risk, and to bring individual deposits within the scope of government-backed deposit guarantees)
  • Shareholder risk – companies like to diversify their share registry, by having a broad investor base; but, if stock markets are volatile, some shareholders are more likely to sell off their shares (e.g., overseas investors and retail investors) which impacts the market cap value when share prices fall
  • Concentration risk – in the past, concentration risk was mostly viewed from a portfolio perspective, and with reference to single name or sector exposures. Now, concentration risk has to be managed across a combination of attributes (geographic, industry, supply chain etc.)

Implications for Counterparty Risk Management

Since the GFC, market participants need to have better access to more appropriate data, and the ability to interrogate and interpret the data, for “hidden” or indirect exposures. For example, if your company is exporting to, say Greece, and you are relying on your customers’ local banks to provide credit guarantees, how confidant are you that the overseas bank will be able to step in if your client defaults on the payment?

Counterparty data is not always configured to easily uncover potential or actual risks, because the data is held in silos (by transactions, products, clients etc.) and not organized holistically (e.g., a single view of a customer by accounts, products and transactions, and their related parties such as subsidiaries, parent companies or even their banks).

Business transformation projects designed to improve processes and reduce risk tend to be led by IT or Change Management teams, where data is often an afterthought. Even where there is a focus on data management, the data governance is not rigorous and lacks structure, standards, stewardship and QA.

Typical vendor solutions for managing counterparty risk tend to be disproportionately expensive or take an “all or nothing” approach (i.e., enterprise solutions that favour a one-size-fits-all solution). Opportunities to secure incremental improvements are overlooked in favour of “big bang” outcomes.

Finally, solutions may already exist in-house, but it requires better deployment of available data and systems to realize the benefits (e.g., by getting the CRM to “talk to” the loan portfolio).

Opportunities for Fintech

The key lesson for fintech in managing counterparty risk is that more data, and more transparent data, should make it easier to identify potential problems. Since many fintech startups are taking advantage of better access to, and improved availability of, customer and transactional data to develop their risk-calculation algorithms, this should help them flag issues such as possible credit events before they arise.

Fintech startups are less hamstrung by legacy systems (e.g., some banks still run COBOL on their core systems), and can develop more flexible solutions that are better suited to the way customers interact with their banks. As an example, the proportion of customers who only transact via mobile banking is rapidly growing, which places different demands on banking infrastructure. More customers are expected to conduct all their other financial business (insurance, investing, financial planning, wealth management, superannuation) via mobile solutions that give them a consolidated view of their finances within a single point of access.

However, while all the additional “big data” coming from e-commerce, mobile banking, payment apps and digital wallets represents a valuable resource, if not used wisely, it’s just another data lake that is hard to fathom. The transactional and customer data still needs to be structured, tagged and identified so that it can be interpreted and analysed effectively.

The role of Legal Entity Identifiers in Counterparty Risk

In the case of Lehman Brothers, the challenge in working out which subsidiary was responsible for a specific debt in a particular jurisdiction was mainly due to the lack of formal identification of each legal entity that was party to a transaction. Simply knowing the counterparty was “Lehman” was not precise or accurate enough.

As a result of the GFC, financial markets and regulators agreed on the need for a standard system of unique identifiers for each and every market participant, regardless of their market roles. Hence the assignment of Legal Entity Identifiers (LEI) to all entities that engage in financial transactions, especially cross-border.

To date, nearly 400,000 LEIs have been issued globally by the national and regional Local Operating Units (LOU – for Australia, this is APIR). There is still a long way to go to assign LEIs to every legal entity that conducts any sort of financial transaction, because the use of LEIs has not yet been universally mandated, and is only a requirement for certain financial reporting purposes (for example, in Australia, in theory the identifier would be extended to all self-managed superannuation funds because they buy and sell securities, and they are subject to regulation and reporting requirements by the ATO).

The irony is that while LEIs are not yet universal, financial institutions are having to conduct more intensive and more frequent KYC, AML and CTF checks – something that would no doubt be a lot easier and a lot cheaper by reference to a standard counterparty identifier such as the LEI. Hopefully, an enterprising fintech startup is on the case.

Next week: Sharing the love – tips from #startup founders