Cryptocurrencies and their underlying blockchain technology are being touted as the next-big-thing after the creation of the internet. One area where these technologies are likely to have a major impact is the financial sector. The blockchain, as a form of distributed ledger technology (DLT), has the potential to transform well-established financial institutions and bring lower costs, faster execution of transactions, improved transparency, auditability of operations, and other benefits. Cryptocurrencies hold the promise of a new native digital asset class without a central authority.

So what do these technological developments mean for the various players in the sector and end users? “Blockchains have the potential to displace any business activity built on transactions occurring on traditional corporate databases, which is what underlies nearly every financial service function. Any financial operation that has low transparency and limited traceability is vulnerable to disruption by blockchain applications. DLT is therefore both a great opportunity and also a disruptive threat,” according to Bruce Weber, dean of Lerner College and business administration professor, and Andrew Novocin, professor of electrical and computer engineering, both at the University of Delaware.

Earlier this year, Weber, Novocin, and graduate student Jonathan Wood conducted a literature review on cryptocurrencies and DLT for the SWIFT Institute. Based on this review, the SWIFT institute recently issued a grant to conduct new research on DLT and cryptocurrencies in the financial sector. Weber and Novocin noted that just as disruptors like Amazon, Google, Facebook and Uber built software platforms and thriving businesses thanks to the connectivity provided by internet standards, next-generation startups will build new services and businesses with blockchains. “Many pundits expect blockchain, as a distributed technology, to become the foundation for new services and applications that have completely different rules from those running on hierarchical and controlled databases. Cryptocurrencies are an early example but many others will follow,” they added.

The Value of the Blockchain in the Financial Industry

Kartik Hosanagar, a Wharton professor of marketing and operations, information and decisions, pointed out that the financial services sector is full of intermediaries such as banks that help create trust among transacting parties like lenders and borrowers. Blockchain, he said, is a mechanism to create trust without centralized control. “The power of eliminating intermediaries is the ability to lower transaction costs and take back control from powerful financial intermediaries.”

Regarding cryptocurrencies, Hosanagar pointed out that most of the value today is tied to speculative buying rather than actual use cases. But having a currency without a central authority offers “certain unique kinds of protections especially in countries with troubled central banks.” For example, Venezuela’s currency is rapidly losing value. For people who stored their savings in crypto, there was greater protection against such rapid currency devaluations. “Of course, cryptocurrencies have their own instabilities, but they aren’t tied to actions by central banks and that’s particularly relevant in countries and economies where citizens don’t trust their governments and central banks,” he said.

“Any financial operation that has low transparency and limited traceability is vulnerable to disruption by blockchain applications.” –Bruce Weber and Andrew Novocin

Hosanagar expects the first wave of applications to be rolled out in “private” blockchains where a central authority such as a financial institution and its partners are the only ones with the permission to participate (as opposed to public, permissionless blockchains where participants are anonymous and there is no central authority). Applications in the private blockchains, he said, will be more secure and will offer some of the benefits of decentralized ledgers but will not be radically different from the way things work at present. However, over time, he expects smart contracts (self-executing contracts when requirements are met) to be offered on public blockchain networks like Ethereum. “When securities are traded, intermediaries provide trust, and they charge commissions. Blockchains can help provide such trust in a low-cost manner. But trade of securities is governed by securities laws. Smart contracts offer a way to ensure compliance with the laws. They have great potential because of their ability to reduce costs while being compliant,” says Hosanagar.

According to Weber and Novocin, one area ripe for transformation is reaching consensus on important benchmark rates and prices. At present, they point out, different proprietary indexes are used to determine interest rates and the price of many mainstream assets. Blockchain can transform this. “Think of the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) and the recent scandals involving manipulation of benchmark values when they are controlled by a single entity that may not be capable of detecting false or fraudulent data. Blockchain could provide greater transparency around the process of creating agreed upon reference prices, and allow more people to participate in the consensus process.”

Weber and Novocin expect that in some areas intermediaries will find their roles reduced as blockchain allows for automation through greater transparency and traceability. In other areas, intermediaries will find themselves well-placed to take advantage of changing needs of their clients, as firms will need help to manage the shift to new standards as well as the greater complexity of open and traceable blockchain infrastructure. Intermediaries in areas that could potentially be disrupted, they said, “should get involved with projects seeking to set the standards, so that they can stay informed and position themselves to profit from becoming the leaders in the operations of the new markets that will emerge.”

Kevin Werbach, Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics, and author of a forthcoming book The Blockchain and the New Architecture of Trust,  said that it’s usually not helpful to focus on what aspects of a major existing market will be “transformed” or “disrupted” by new technologies. Important technologies, he said, are far more likely to be integrated into the system than replace it. According to Werbach, while some firms will fail to make the transition and some new ones will take hold, “over the long-run, virtually every historic innovation that eliminated some forms of intermediation also created new forms.”

Blockchain will reduce the massive duplication of information that creates delays, conflicts and confusion in many aspects of financial services, Werbach added. For example, when a syndicate of lenders participates in a loan, having one shared ledger means they don’t all need to keep track of it independently. International payments and corporate stock records are other examples where there are huge inefficiencies due to duplicate record-keeping and intermediaries. “End users won’t see the changes in the deep plumbing of financial services, but it will allow new service providers to emerge and new products to be offered,” said Werbach.

Using Blockchain in Finance: Bumps Along the Way

Angela Walch, professor of law at St. Mary’s University School of Law and a research fellow at the Centre for Blockchain Technologies at University College London, offered another perspective. She said there is a lot of excitement about blockchain as a distributed ledger technology for the financial sector because many believe that it offers a better, more efficient and more resilient form of recordkeeping. However, making use of the blockchain is not as simple as just buying new software and running it. “Blockchain technology is, at core, group recordkeeping. To reap its full benefits, one needs all the relevant members of the group to join the system. This requires collaboration with and across businesses, which is a potentially big hurdle, and may be the hurdle that most limits adoption.”

Governance is the biggest challenge in decentralized organizations, said Weber and Novocin. Members participating in a blockchain-supported financial function may have misaligned incentives, and can end up in gridlock, or with a chaotic outcome. They cite the example of the ‘DAO Hack,’ which was the first prominent smart contract project on the Ethereum network to suffer a large loss of funds. The Ethereum community voted to conduct a hard fork (a radical change to the protocol that makes previously invalid blocks/transactions valid or vice-versa) — reversing the transactions after the hack and essentially refunding the DAO investors. This was in effect a breach of Ethereum’s immutability and it left a sizeable minority of the community bitterly dissatisfied. This group viewed the Ethereum community as forsaking its commitment to immutable, permanent records. They refused to acknowledge the hard fork, and maintained the original Ethereum blockchain, now known as Ethereum Classic (whereas the forked version supported by the Ethereum Foundation is simply Ethereum).

“The power of eliminating intermediaries is the ability to lower transaction costs and take back control from powerful financial intermediaries.” –Kartik Hosanagar

“Distributed organizations serving an open community need to take care to design their governance systems, incentive structures and decision-making processes to create consensus without unduly slowing down the decision-making,” said Weber and Novocin. “Scenario planning or war gaming are worth exploring at the beginning of blockchain projects. Forward planning enables organizations to swiftly respond in a predictable way that is supportive of stakeholders. Publicizing these plans in advance can also build trust and user confidence.”

Cryptocurrency Risks

Werbach listed a variety of risks and vulnerabilities related to cryptocurrencies: Bitcoin has shown that the fundamental security of its proof-of-work system is sound, but it has major limitations such as limited scalability, massive energy usage and concentration of mining pools. There has been massive theft of cryptocurrencies from the centralized intermediaries that most people use to hold it, and massive fraud by promoters of initial coin offerings and other schemes. Manipulation is widespread on lightly-regulated cryptocurrency exchanges.

For example, roughly half of Bitcoin transactions are with Tether, a “stablecoin” that claims to be backed by U.S. dollars but has never been audited and is involved in highly suspicious behavior. Money laundering and other criminal activity is a serious problem if transactions do not require some check of real-world identities. “There are major efforts to address all of these risks and vulnerabilities. Some are technical, some are business opportunities, and some are regulatory questions. There must be recognition among cryptocurrency proponents that maturation of the industry will require cooperation in many cases with incumbents and regulators,” added Werbach.

Hosanagar cautions that while decentralization offers significant value — and a significant number of miners/validators must verify the transaction for it to be validated — it is still susceptible to collusion. If one or a few companies running lots of miners/validators in a small network collude, they can affect the sanctity of the network. The big risk with cryptocurrencies, he added, is that most activity as of today is ultimately tied to speculation. It’s important for cryptocurrencies to discover a “killer app soon so there is some underlying value created beyond speculation of its future value,” Hosanagar concludes.

The Way Ahead?

Given all these challenges, what is the current mindset in the financial sector towards adopting these new technologies? And, importantly, should one push for wide acceptance and deployment, or is there need for them to stabilize first?

According to Werbach, “It’s not an either-or” choice. Cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology in general, he noted, are immature currently. However, there are some areas where they are already able to be deployed effectively. The best way to work through today’s problems, is “to build working systems and see where difficulties arise,” Werbach said. Looking ahead, integration with law, regulation and governance will be critical. Blockchain and cryptocurrencies represent a new form of trust, he added. They will only succeed if they become sufficiently trustworthy, beyond the basic security of the distributed ledgers. “Law, regulation and governance are three major mechanisms to produce trustworthy systems that scale up to society-wide adoption. We need to find ways to address the legitimate concerns of governments without overly restricting the innovations that blockchain technology enables. I’m optimistic about that process over time.”

“We need to find ways to address the legitimate concerns of governments without overly restricting the innovations that blockchain technology enables.” –Kevin Werbach

Walch noted that while there are claims that some consortia are putting ‘blockchain’ systems into production, in many cases it appears that what they are calling a blockchain bears little to no resemblance to the original blockchain technology behind Bitcoin. In many instances, she said, existing shared databases are being called ‘blockchain’ for marketing purposes. “If people do use something they call DLT or blockchain technology in important financial systems, my hope is that they make the decision based on actual capabilities of the tech rather than its widely hyped and generally overstated capabilities,” Walch said. “Permissioned blockchains, which are the variation most likely to be used for financial systems recordkeeping, are very different from public blockchains like Bitcoin or Ethereum. I hope that a more modest and accurate understanding of the actual characteristics of permissioned blockchains sinks in before they are widely adopted.”

Regarding cryptocurrencies or cryptoassets, Walch said that the financial sector’s interest is “less about recordkeeping and more about a new financial asset that it can make money off of.” She pointed out that at present there is no clarity on how power and accountability work in these systems. The ongoing operation of crypto systems and the value they embed and support is reliant on the competence of, and ethical behavior by, unaccountable software developers and validators. “The financial sector believes it understands and can manage the risks of cryptoassets, but I am less certain and worry that hubris and greed are driving the push to create cryptoassets as a real asset class. This has been a bad mixture in the past,” says Walch. “I think it would be more responsible to let cryptosystems exist on their own for a while longer to let more of the kinks get worked out — if they can be; I’m not sure the governance ones can — rather than to rapidly integrate them into the financial system as we seem to be doing.”

“I … worry that hubris and greed are driving the push to create cryptoassets as a real asset class.” –Angela Walch

Conversely, Weber and Novocin feel that the financial industry is cautious about the new DLT technology. According to them, to build confidence in new blockchain systems there needs to be transparency around how the processes work and what the benefits are, and in order to secure adoption, they need to be straightforward to use. “Pundits have drawn parallels to the open source Linux operating system. Although only a few individuals use Linux directly, it quietly runs the vast majority of servers and cloud processors across the world. Similarly, early adoption of blockchain will likely happen in the background of business processes. Companies should get involved now, even if it is just to experiment with the concepts. By gaining familiarity with these new tools, they will be ready as the space continues to develop.”

Weber and Novocin expect that in the next few years, many more businesses will implement private blockchains to improve the transparency and traceability of their financial operations, supply chains, inventory management systems and other internal business systems. Clearer standards will be adopted and a few high-profile projects will emerge. Meanwhile, they said, R&D will continue among the many decentralized blockchain projects to invent more scalable public ledgers whether it be blockchain, Tangle, Hashgraph or something new. “Work is needed on better and more efficient consensus models, whether it be a new form of proof-of-stake or proof-of-work, or something else. There are many established groups, startups, companies and research teams that organizations can join, partner with, or support in order to contribute to research and expand their capabilities.”

This article is part of an editorial collaboration between Knowledge at Wharton and the SWIFT Institute