More musings on ICOs and cryptocurrencies

In the same week that SEC launched a spoof ICO (was anyone really fooled?), I attended two informational sessions about cryptocurrency that revealed much about the ignorance, greed, fear and misinformation that continues to plague this new asset class. Thank goodness that rational thinking still prevails…Much of the public dialogue around Blockchain, bitcoin and cryptographic assets has been along the lines of:

1. Everyone and their dog is trying to sell ICOs; so

2. FOMO is driving trading momentum; but

3. Price volatility deters many institutional investors; while

4. Regulators don’t really know what, where or how to regulate the industry.

But out of this uncertainty, clarity will emerge in the form of a new asset class, with appropriate regulatory structures, disciplined markets, and sophisticated investment products.

The first session I attended, described as a “Beginners’ Guide to Cryptocurrency”, felt a bit like one of those “get rich quick” seminars, where greedy (but unsuspecting) punters are sold the dream of timeshare apartments and highly leveraged equity warrants. While I can’t blame the audience (some of them knew no better), I would take issue with the presenter – the CEO and founder of a company in the process of launching an ICO. Admitting that they had limited technical knowledge of Blockchain, cryptocurrencies and token sales, the presenter also revealed limited knowledge of securities regulations and tax legislation when it comes to crypto and ICOs.

Meanwhile, the second session I was invited to attend (featuring representatives from brokers, exchanges, fund managers, Blockchain platforms and compliance experts) was far more informed. Even though some of the topics covered are still full of hypotheticals, the speakers all gave credible accounts of their respective positions. Compared to the first session, this forum gave me far more confidence that there are experts out there who know what they are talking about.

When it comes to cryptocurrencies and digital assets, I think the a reason why regulators, policy makers, traditional capital markets and advisers are often bamboozled is this is the first asset class in decades (if not centuries) that has not relied on a trickle down effect (in terms of production, distribution and exchange). In theory, anyone with access to Satoshi’s white paper, and who was capable of deploying the open source code, and who maintained a suitable CPU could have started mining, accumulating and trading bitcoin – and all without leaving their own home. And while it still forms a small proportion of total global capital assets, this industry has grown exponentially in less than 10 years.

Having developed the technology, identified the value proposition and established the asset class, the industry is now waiting for the appropriate regulatory tools so it can get on and build the infrastructure – from security tokens to atomic swaps, from Blockchain interoperability to custody solutions, from robust wallet integration to self-sovereign digital identity management.

Next week: Fear of the Robot Economy….

 

 

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

 

 

The year ahead in Blockchain, crypto, FinTech….

I’m approaching my second anniversary working within the Blockchain and digital currency sector, but already it feels like a lifetime – such has been the pace at which the industry has grown and evolved.

The number (and size) of Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) in 2017 was staggering. The cryptocurrency markets were equally breathtaking for their price gains (and corrections), matched only by the speed and extent to which some regulators responded. It was a rollercoaster ride, but by the end of the year, it’s fair to say this new asset class had finally arrived.

(For a round-up of 2018 forecasts and predictions for the sector, my colleagues at Brave New Coin have been publishing some handy guides.)

My personal (but far from unique) view on cryptocurrencies in general is that they represent a new asset class. As such we are seeing huge opportunities for investment and innovation, backed by Blockchain and other decentralized and distributed ledger technologies (DLT), as well as some truly innovative and disruptive solutions. There is still some hype, and considerable asset price volatility, plus pure investor speculation; but there are some great projects out there building solid business models; and sound investment cases for network protocols, industry utilities, scalable solutions and core platforms.

In 2018, I expect to see one or more of the following developments:

  1. A fully deployed, government-backed Blockchain project that will change the way citizens engage with public services
  2. A truly decentralized autonomous organisation that learns to make decisions for itself  (based on a set of dynamic, self-replicating governance rules) as to how resources are allocated, stakeholders are rewarded and participants are incentivized (for all its faults, the DAO was possibly the first new corporate structure since the joint stock company)
  3. Following Japan’s lead, more governments will recognise cryptocurrencies as legal forms of payment, while at least one Central Bank will issue a public digital currency as a form of legal tender (not just an inter-bank instrument)
  4. Traditional securities (equities, bonds, commercial paper, asset securitization) will be issued in the form of digital tokens (via a new form of Token Issuance Program) leading to wider distribution, fractional ownership and reduced cost of capital raising, plus streamlined share registry and custodial services, thanks to DLT
  5. Likewise, “traditional” digital tokens will be issued as formal securities, backed by new types of financial products, allowing for greater financial innovation and funding flexibility
  6. At least one crypto-backed ETF will list on a major exchange, along with more crypto-derivatives such as swaps and options.
  7. One or other crypto-currency will be adopted as a day-to-day payment solution for micro-payments

Only two or three years ago, none of the above seemed very likely, or at least not in the short-term. Today, there are multiple initiatives working across each of these trends. So this is not a case of “if”, but “when”.

Enjoy the ride!

Next week: Bring Your Own Change

 

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