Australia’s Blockchain Roadmap

The Australian Government recently published its National Blockchain Roadmap – less than 12 months after announcing this initiative. While it’s an admirable development (and generally, to be encouraged), it feels largely aspirational and tends towards the more theoretical rather than the practical or concrete.

First, it references the US Department of Homeland Security, to define the use case for Blockchain. According to these criteria, if a project or application displays three of the four following requirements, then Blockchain technology may offer a suitable solution:

  • data redundancy
  • information transparency
  • data immutability
  • a consensus mechanism

In a recent podcast for The Crypto Conversation, Bram Cohen, the inventor of the BitTorrent peer-to-peer file sharing protocol, defined the primary use case for Blockchain as a “secure decentralized/distributed database”. On the one hand, he describes this as a “total oxymoron; on the other, he acknowledges that Blockchain provides a solution to the twin problems of having to have trusted third parties to verify transactions, and preventing double-spend on the network. This solution lies in having to have consensus on the state of the database.

Second, the Roadmap speaks of adopting a “principles based but technology-neutral” approach when it comes to policy, regulation and standards. Experience tells us that striking a balance between encouraging innovation and regulating a new technology is never easy. Take the example of VOIP: at the time, this new technology (itself built on the newish technology of the internet) was threatened by incumbent telephone companies and existing communications legislation. If the monopolistic telcos had managed to get their way, maybe the Post Office would then have wanted to start charging us for sending e-mails?

With social media (another internet-enabled technology), we continue to see considerable tension as to how such platforms should be regulated in relation to news, broadcasting, publishing, political advertising, copyright, financial services and privacy. In the music and film industries, content owners have attempted to own and control the means of production, manufacture and distribution, not just the content – hence the format wars of the past in videotape, compact discs and digital file protocols. (A recurring theme within  Blockchain commentary is the need for cross-chain interoperability.)

Third, the Roadmap mentions the Government support for Standards Australia in leading the ISO’s Technical Committee 307 on Blockchain and DLT Standards. While such support is to be welcomed, the technology is outpacing both regulation and standards. TC 307 only published its First Technical Report on Smart Contracts in September 2019 – three years after its creation. In other areas, regulation is still trying to catch up with the technology that enables Initial Coin Offerings, Security Token Offerings and Decentralized Autonomous Organizations.

If the ICO phenomenon of 2016-18 demonstrated anything, it revealed that within traditional corporate and market structures, companies no longer have a monopoly on financial capital (issuance was largely subscribed via crowdfunding and informal syndication); human capital (ICO teams were largely self-forming, self-sufficient and self-directed); or networks and markets (decentralized, peer-to-peer and trustless became catch words of the ICO movement). Extend this to DAOs, and the very existence of, and need for traditional boards and shareholders gets called into question.

Fourth, the Roadmap makes reference to some existing government-related projects and initiatives in the area of Blockchain and cryptocurrencies. One is the Digital Transformation Agency’s “Trusted Digital Identity Framework”; another is AUSTRAC’s “Digital Currency Exchange” regulation and registration framework. With the former, a more universal commercial and government solution lies in self-sovereign identity – for example, if I have achieved a 100 point identity check with Bank A, then surely I should be able to “passport” that same ID verification to Bank B, without having to go through a whole new 100 point process? And with the latter, as far as I have been able to ascertain, AUSTRAC does not publish a list of those digital currency exchanges that have registered, and exchanges are not required to publish their registration number on their websites.

Fifth, the need for relevant training is evident from the Roadmap. However, as we know from computer coding and software engineering courses, students often end up learning “yesterday’s language”, rather than acquiring flexible and adaptable coding skills and core building blocks in software development. It’s equally evident that many of today’s developers are increasingly self-taught, especially in Blockchain and related technologies – largely because it is a new and rapidly-evolving landscape.

Finally, the Roadmap has identified three “showcase” examples of where Blockchain can deliver significant outcomes. One is in agricultural supply chains (to track the provenance of wine exports), one is in education and training (to enable trusted credentialing), and one is in financial services (to streamline KYC checks). I think that while each of these is of interest, they are probably just scratching the surface of what is possible.

Next week: Brexit Blues (Part II)

 

Life After the Royal Commission – Be Careful What You Wish For….

In the wake of the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Financial Services Industry (aka the Hayne Report), one of the four major banks announced that it would be removing bonus payments for its front line tellers. This was supposedly in line with Hayne’s proposal that performance-linked remuneration, financial incentives and sales commissions in the financial services industry need to be restructured.

Image sourced from Small Caps

This prompted a mixed reaction among the public, based on some of the comments I have read on social media. Some felt that the tellers were being made scapegoats for the banks’ bigger failings – others felt that this was an inevitable outcome from the banking backlash.

Personally, I believe the announcement is potentially just one of the many likely “unforeseen consequences” to come out of the Royal Commission – I’m not saying this particular decision is good or bad, just that we need to be aware of what’s likely to happen based on Hayne’s key recommendations. Be careful what you wish for. And, as an underlying theme to this whole debate, let’s not forget that most Australians are shareholders (directly or indirectly via their Super) of the Four Pillar Banks (one of the greatest government-endorsed and legislatively protected market oligopolies around which also helped steer us through the GFC relatively unscathed….).

So, what else might we see?

First, as with financial advice, residential mortgages will move to a “buyer pays” model. Brokers would not be able to receive commissions from mortgage providers or other intermediaries based on the products they sell, recommend or refer – instead, mortgage applicants will be expected to pay for the services of a broker, who will therefore be under an obligation to find the best product for their client. But removing trailing commissions and other conflicted remuneration may also mean that brokers could seek to earn additional fees from their mortgage clients by re-contacting them a year or so later (with permission, of course) to inform them of a better deal. (Even now, lenders are not explicitly obliged to let existing customers know if they have a newer product that may be better for them). Some estimates suggest that fee-for-service will add about $3,000 to the initial cost of applying for a mortgage. Whether this will also lead to more competition among mortgage providers (who will no longer have to pay broker commissions) is not clear.

Second, the increased focus on acting in the best interests of the customer may result in placing all financial planners, brokers, advisors, insurers, and banks (and their officers, agents and employees) under a fiduciary duty of care to their clients – even if they are not directly managing specific assets, selling a specific product or advising on specific services or financial strategies. In other words, advisors etc. will be deemed to have taken ALL of a client’s needs and circumstances into account. (This is largely the result of the miss-selling of financial products, and the charging of fees for “no service”, by banks and their retail wealth management arms.)

Third, the increased cost of compliance will disproportionately impact smaller financial institutions such as credit unions, member-owned banks and other mutual societies, who came through the Royal Commission pretty much unscathed. Those costs will need to be passed on, to customers and members. Of course, there has also been some political debate around the need for some sort of banking levy – which will ultimately be passed on to shareholders or customers (who are often the same people…).

Fourth, and related to the above, the separation of roles between those superannuation trustees who act as both fund trustees and as responsible entities of managed investment schemes will have a knock-on effect in terms of operating and compliance costs. Such dual-regulated entities will have to decide whether to focus on their trustee role, or appoint a separate and independent responsible entity in respect of the asset management.

Fifth, the higher compliance and regulatory obligations may deter or inhibit more competition – either from new market entrants from overseas, or from local start-ups. The recent restricted ADI model (aimed at enabling challenger or neo-bank brands) has not exactly seen a raft of applications, and off-shore banks tend to come and go in successive waves, largely driven by market conditions. If lending standards are further tightened, it may be less attractive for foreign firms to set up local operations. In fact, there have been calls to force some smaller superannuation funds to merge with larger funds, or exit altogether for reasons of scale and efficiency – potentially taking out some of the competition in that sector. And if mortgage brokers have to move to a fee-for-service model, it will likely force some providers to exit the industry, as happened with the FOFA reforms in financial planning and wealth management.

Sixth, at the level of corporate governance, boards of financial services providers will need to be mindful of their duty to act in the best interests of the company – which has traditionally meant the share holders – and the increased duty of care towards their customers, which may at times be at complete odds. Non-executive directors willing to serve on the boards of banks and insurers may also be harder to find, at a time when there is already a high concentration of directors who sit on multiple boards across Australia’s biggest companies. So, board diversity may be even harder to achieve, especially if non-executive directorships become subject to even greater formal qualification, to ensure board members have appropriate professional experience, industry knowledge and technical expertise, as well as financial competence and risk management skills.

Finally, all this is happening as we face something of a credit squeeze (thanks to increased lending standards and greater provisioning for risk-weighted assets) heightened economic uncertainty (slowing GDP growth, lower productivity, wage stagnation, falling property prices), and an upcoming General Election campaign during which the Hayne Report will be held up as a key reason for why “things have to change”. The irony being that, except in a few areas, the complaints aired and wrong-doing uncovered during the Royal Commission could have been addressed by the regulators and enforcement agencies via existing laws on financial services, prudential standards, and general consumer protection (unfair contract terms, unconscionable conduct, deceptive and misleading behaviour). Plus, the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (which combines the remit of the former Financial Ombudsman Service, the Credit and Investments Ombudsman and the Superannuation Complaints Tribunal) has a wide jurisdiction over consumer complaints relating to Credit, Finance and Loans, Insurance, Banking Deposits and Payments, Investments and Financial Advice, and Superannuation. And as with most External Dispute Resolution agencies, AFCA and its predecessors have an obligation to report on systemic issues within their industry.

Next week: Pitch X

Culture Washing

Banks, Parliament, Cricket Australia, Political Parties, religious bodies, the ABC – the list of national institutions that have come under fire for failed governance and even worse behaviour continues to grow. Commentators are blaming a lack of “culture” within these organisations.

Some Boards end up washing their dirty laundry in public….. Image Source: Max Pixel

Already we are seeing a “culture” movement, which will inevitably lead to “culture washing”, akin to “green washing”, and other examples of lip service being paid to stakeholder issues.

Just this past week, the interim report of the Banking Royal Commission prompted the Federal Treasurer to say that banks need a “culture of enforcement and a culture of compliance”. I can already imagine the “culture checklists” and the “culture assessment” surveys and feedback forms….

There are consulting firms building “culture risk” assessment tools. There may even be some empirical evidence to suggest that companies with better employee engagement and “culture” can generate better share price performance. Even the AICD is getting in on the act with its upcoming directors’ update on how boards can gain “insights on culture”, and how to set the “tone from the top”.

(Actually, all any director needs to do to monitor the “culture” of their organisations is to track social media and sites such as Glassdoor, Whirlpool, Product Review, etc..)

But corporate and organisational “culture” is organic, and cannot be built by design. It is a combination of strong leadership and core values that everyone in the organisation is willing to commit to and adhere to. It also means ensuring that everyone knows what is expected of them, and the consequences of failing to meet those standards are clear.

As for employee engagement surveys, one of my colleagues likes to say, “The only question to ask is: ‘Would you recommend this organisation as a place to work, and if not, why not?’” Another colleague regularly says to his own teams, “If this is no longer a fun place to work, then let me know”.

Next week: Why don’t we feel well off?

 

Banks under the spotlight (again)

About 6 months ago, I posted a blog on the current state of banking and financial services. It was published before the proceedings at the Royal Commission got underway, and since then we have heard a litany of complaints of malpractice and other inappropriate behaviour by some of our major financial institutions. We have also seen the publication of the Prudential Report into the CBA, commissioned by APRA. But despite the horror stories, is anyone really surprised by either of these findings?

Image: Jacob Edward; Source: Flickr; Some Rights Reserved

Some have suggested that our banking culture is largely to blame – but to me, that is somewhat simplistic, since I don’t think that the culture within our banks is so very different to that of other large companies or statutory corporations. (But I will explore this topic in a future blog.)

We have a love-hate relationship with our financial institutions, especially the 4-pillar banks. The latter have continued to be regarded as some of the most stable, profitable and prudent banks in the world – they are probably among the top 30 banks globally based on their credit ratings. Moreover, during the GFC, it was largely agreed that, despite their participation in complex financial products such as mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations and credit-default swaps, the big 4 banks helped to prevent a total meltdown in the local capital markets because they had reasonably strong balance sheets, and they worked closely with the RBA to avert the full effects of the GFC.

In fact, so enamoured are we of our banks that, despite the Royal Commission, the banks will not face significant regulatory reforms. One economist at a major fund manager I spoke to suggested that even an in-coming Labor Government would have to confine itself to some sort of bank tax. Anything that would undermine the 4-pillar policy (such as increased competition, rationalisation or foreign ownership) would likely be seen as unacceptable in the current political environment. In addition, since the financial sector makes up such a significant part of the market capitalization of the Australian stock market, most voters hold shares in the banks, either as direct or discretionary investments, or through their superannuation fund. Impacting the financial performance of the banks will have a knock-on effect for customers and shareholders alike.

Despite the relative strength of Australia’s financial services regulatory regime, it’s clear that part of the blame for the current malaise lies with the regulators themselves. None of the transgressions complained of at the Royal Commission or uncovered by APRA’s report on CBA suggest that new regulation is needed (unless we are talking about structural reforms…) In the wake of the GFC, and in line with global banking standards, banks have had to adjust the levels of risk-weighted capital they hold, and meet more onerous compliance costs – as well as rein in riskier lending practices. Yet, it feels like the regulators have not been as vigilant or as pro-active as they might have been – or there is such a “checklist” mentality towards compliance and risk management that banks and their regulators have lost sight of the substance of the law, not just the form.

Having read the APRA report on the CBA, there are a number of issues which need to be addressed, as I suspect that they are replicated (in whole or in part) among the other major banks:

  • All of the incidents covered by the APRA report occurred since the GFC – so, maybe increased compliance obligations are not the answer to these problems, but better supervision and enforcement?
  • Technology is only mentioned about a dozen times in the report – and technology was placed very low in the organizational framework for CBA’s Better Risk Outcomes Program (BROP) – yet banks are increasingly becoming technology businesses
  • Decision-making was seen as being too slow and too reactive, in part due to a collegiate and collaborative environment (surely, the signs of a positive culture?)
  • I would suggest there was a lack of external or independent input at the executive and even board level, and an over-reliance on in-house technical experts – especially in the areas of IT and risk
  • Further, the typical silo structures within large, complex organisations like banks, are the result of an over-emphasis on products and processes, rather than on customers and outcomes. To quote the APRA Report:

“…too many handoffs between silos and layers, with accountability often not clear enough and agreements hard to reach…”

  • Equally, a lack of delegation (especially to front line and customer facing staff) only compounds the lack of empowerment, accountability and transparent decision-making

Despite the strength of the 4-pillar banks and the market share they command, they face disruption and disintermediation from digital platforms, Blockchain technology, decentralized applications, P2P solutions and challenger brands. In fact, banks will increasingly become the digital custodians of our financial data – we will end up paying them to manage our data (rather than simply charging us transaction fees). Banks will also need to restructure their products and services around our personal financial needs and obligations according to our stage of life and other circumstances (rather than simply selling us products), along the lines of:

  • Essential – housing, living, education, health, retirement
  • Mandatory – superannuation, taxes
  • Discretionary – investments, holidays, luxuries

That way, banks will also have a much better “whole of client” view of their customers, rather than the current product bias.

Next week: Culture Washing