bluenotes debate: blocks, banks & bits

Unless you’ve been living under a rock –and we mean a big rock – you’ll have noticed a significant part of the financial services zeitgeist lately has been dedicated to the wonderful world of blockchain and cryptocurrencies – with all its faults and opportunities.  

So as the hype train builds exponentially, how will banks make effective use of the technology? To find out we sat down with four experts in the field - ANZ Banking Services Domain Lead Nigel Dobson, Head of Wholesale Digital Transformation Leigh Mahoney, Head of Core Trade, Institutional Hari Janakiraman and Technology Manager, Group Technology Heshan Peiris.

Below is an edited version of the discussion. You can listen to the full conversation in the podcast below. We started by asking them about the leading technologies in the blockchain space.  

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HP: I think when blockchain was first popularised a lot of companies, both tech and non-tech, entered a bit of a race to figure out what works best.

The good thing is almost all of these are open source with a lot of people contributing it. The best part is it’s all been a community effort with no one person claiming total credit for the success of the technology.

Personally I feel like hyperledger is ahead of the game right now. I mean that's a personal opinion. Some people might say something like Quora is ahead of the game.

"I actually don't know whether we're using the technology today we will end up using in two years’ time or five years’ time.” - Mahoney

A lot of companies, a lot of banks, a lot of non-financial companies are actually using other blockchain implementations. The good thing is all of these implementations are actually trying their best to become enterprise ready. That's a good thing.

When we started our journey as ANZ almost all of these were as proof of concept but now they have turned around and said ‘ok this is a technology we can actually go to market with.’

From a proof of concept enterprise does a few things that we need to consider like higher security concerns, performance, scalability - all these things matter when you go into an enterprise-grade implementation. 

There are non-blockchain distributed ledger technologies coming in to the picture as well.  I think they're still at a research stage but that's very interesting. I think Hashgraph is one of those things out in the market right now.  

I think they have solved one problem that every other blockchain implementation has been lagging on and that’s scalability.

At the end of the day mainstream adoption means everything you ever do with cash or currency is backed by cryptocurrency. If you think in that scale you can’t go at a transactions-per-second speed of around 100 or 200. You're thinking hundreds of thousands per second.

I mean if you want every single transaction every single Australian would ever do ever backed up by a blockchain you need to get a level of maturity in its implementation. I think we need to explore areas where scalability is at the heart of the technology and I believe that’s where blockchain is headed.

LM: Especially when you look at the trade-supply chain. I mean that’s a phenomenal amount of transactions which would have to get processed for this technology to succeed. If you look at bitcoin at the moment it is only processing about 150,000transactions a day.

HP:  That’s right. That amounts to about seven a second.

LM: Yeah, at a cost of anywhere between $US100 to $US170 dollars a transaction. And the transaction confirmation isn’t seconds like we'd expect - it's many minutes.

Customers won’t want to buy something and then sit down for 156 minutes waiting for the payment to confirm. They’ll walk out of the store.

When we look at scalability I think this is really one of the things we look for. We look at hyperledger and feel the fabric is built for large-scale industrialised financial services. But you know I actually don't know whether we're using the technology today we will end up using in two years’ time or five years’ time.

I actually think at some point they'll converge into something different. Maybe a combination of Hashgraph, Hyperledger and other things.

ND: I'm sure that's true. Nothing we've done in our relatively contained pilots and in experiments has involved currency or coin or tokens or whatever but these make the news every day.

We're seeing you can trade all manner of crypto currencies but also issue your own. You can issue an initial coin offering and fund whatever venture you might have which is built supposedly around some sort of blockchain technology.

This is a fascinating new way of attracting investors in the first instance and also perhaps a really interesting way of funding a new business almost from nothing. But there is such fervor around this space.  What are your thoughts?

LM: There are a number of countries which are actually looking at banning cryptocurrncies. I'm not quite sure whether we should get excited about it all yet. I mean obviously in areas where it's appropriate it's a legitimate form of raising.

ND:  I admit I'm also fascinated by the prospect - but is it real money?

HP: Well it's perceived value. I mean the concept of money, I mean if you go back to the creation of currency it's actually all perceived value. I mean, how much do you think the Australian dollar is worth? It's supply and demand - basic economics.

If create something out of thin air and all of us believe there's perceived value in it, then, yeah, it becomes something like valuable gold. If we all agree that gold is not valuable anymore and then no one would really care about gold.

ND: But I can make my wife lovely jewellery out of gold - I can't make her anything out of bitcoin.  Hari what do you think?

HJ: Being probably the least technology oriented person here, what amuses me and also worries me sometimes is the hype.

There are so many companies which have said they are going to get into the blockchain business and you see their share prices just skyrocket.

The latest one which amused me was Bananacoin. The value of the token and is it linked to the underlying price of bananas, which is fair. But then is a promise the value of the coin will rise, but how is it going to rise if the price of bananas fall?

I see a lot of those types of speculations which we need to be careful about. But the one good thing to come from this hype is it has encouraged different players to come and work together.

From an international trade perspective that has really enabled banks which previously would not necessarily like to come and sit together to solve common problems.

But do we need so many cryptocurrencies? I'm not sure.

Shane White is senior production editor at bluenotes

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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