Coining a new phase: how digital assets will change us

As major technologies advance, how do we begin to understand the way they will change our lives?

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The changes taking place with digital assets could be as pivotal to the global economy as the invention of coinage in 630 BCE.

"Coins changed the world. A more accessible, stable and controllable form of value, it was quickly copied by the Greeks and Romans, leading to thriving economies and cultures.”

Digital assets are a representation of any asset on blockchain and blockchain-based technology is poised to transform the way we trade anything of value – from digital currencies, art and music, to houses, cars, and carbon credits.

As history shows, what form ‘value’ takes has always evolved, taking on new and more efficient - media as technology advances. The ancient Kingdom of Lydia created the world’s first coins: portable, durable and transportable, these coins were used to pay armies in lieu of land, grain and animals. This avoided the inefficiencies that came with bartering such commodities, which could be easily wiped out by disease or invasion.

Coins changed the world. A more accessible, stable and controllable form of value, it was quickly copied by the Greeks and Romans, leading to thriving economies and cultures. Initially, many were baffled by the concept of coins, but those worries quickly dissipated. Suddenly, Empires could raise standing armies that received regularised wages, implement tax systems, and enhance trade and diplomacy with other groups. Coins not only improved social mobility, but it also created a common language. 

Similarly, this is how we should be thinking about the global impact of digital assets – a major transformation in how we move money and goods.

Need for understanding

Just like the original coins not everyone knows how digital assets work and the difference between Blockchain and  Bitcoin,” which is like saying that the internet is the equivalent to email.

Bitcoin and other digital currencies are a type of asset that can be represented and traded over blockchain, much like how email is just one type of correspondence that can be sent and received over the internet.

Blockchain is the infrastructure – an innovative way of tracking people’s assets and transactions in in a single shared ledger. This is unlike current financial systems, where banks and other intermediaries keep separate ledgers that must be updated according to money going in and out of each account on their books. This administrative work is why there are delays processing international payments.

With blockchain, the use of a shared ledger means payments can be recorded instantaneously for all accounts, enabling real-time settlements at much lower cost, whether domestic or cross-border. Sending money across the world becomes as fast and convenient as sending an email.

Another revolutionary feature is that digital assets are programmable. This means payments or swaps using digital assets, can be automated according to pre-set conditions, allowing a new level of economic efficiency to be applied to any industry.

For example, this feature is already being leveraged by many brands and artists around the world. For example, artists are converting their digital art into digital assets (or ‘NFTs’) on blockchain, allowing them to automate the instantaneous distribution of royalties back to their wallet upon each resale of the asset. This creates an entirely new revenue line.  

Converting something into a digital asset – also known as ‘tokenisation’ in the lingo of the sector – makes that asset vastly more accessible and efficient to buy, swell or swap.

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Real life impact

So how is growth in digital assets playing out? Who are the players that will emerge changed by this revolution?

Although it’s still early days, the adoption of digital assets is already outpacing the adoption of the internet in the late 90s and early 2000s.

In Australia, 23 per cent of the population – or almost one in four people – already own a type of digital asset. Globally, the Asia Pacific leads the way, with user penetration already at 46 per cent of the region’s population. By 2025, this figure is expected to hit 58 per cent.

These figures are impressive, given billions of individuals in this region are unbanked and are ready and willing to turn to digital assets.

This is also a quickly evolving space.

In the retail segment, the typical user is young, tech savvy, and open to experimentation. But better regulations and management practices are being developed globally for the digital asset sector, bringing more confidence and certainty to the market for a wider range of consumers.

With growing understanding of how people can leverage digital assets, usage will move beyond speculative investments and bitcoin. At some point, anyone could decide to ‘tokenise’ something they own into a digital asset, where they can easily track, trade, or even rent it out to individuals and businesses elsewhere in the world.

What might people convert? It could be a limited edition gaming avatar, a 4K video clip from a Taylor Swift concert, the deed to a property. Entirely new markets might pop up, unlocking trillions in assets, and democratising new types of investment opportunities.  

In the wholesale segment, that involves large institutions such as banks, central banks, insurers, and super funds, this is where the most significant and immediate transformation is occurring. Digital assets are fast becoming the invisible engine in the future of banking.

The ability to enable programmable payments, real-time settlements, and therefore automated reconciliations, is a remarkable time and cost-saver for businesses. Here, the use of blockchain and digital assets will sit in the back end, so the ultimate customer may not realise they’re being used – only that their banking experience is more efficient than usual. 

Despite some concerns with the immaturity of this new market, its size doubled in 2023 from around $830 billion to $1.5 trillion. So, it will be fascinating to watch where this trend takes us next.

User interest and demand in digital assets is clearly growing. Will it be the sort of paradigm shift we saw with the invention of coins or the internet?

Cindy He is Manager of Industry & Innovation with ANZ Institutional

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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