Saturday, September 26, 2015

Jon Matonis: "Banking cartels could use private blockchains as blockades"

By Ian Allison
International Business Times
Monday, September 21, 2015

Bitcoin has boldly blazed a trail for a seamless global financial system, open to anyone on the planet. But this is not a proposition that banks are naturally disposed to.

Some people may say Bitcoin has solved a particular value transfer problem and this should not be conflated with what banks are planning to do with blockchain technology.

However, it could be argued that the highly regulated and exclusive nature of banking has allowed this industry (for the time being) the luxury of analysing its own disruption and formulating ways to manage this, in a manner not afforded to taxi drivers or hotels and B&Bs.

The economist Jon Matonis, the former executive director of the Bitcoin Foundation, believes banking cartels obsessing about private blockchains must answer a fundamental question: "Are these private blockchains going to be able to be used against smaller financial institutions or weaker nations to institute a blockade, just as SWIFT and CHAPS are able to do today?"

As the only global payments settlement network, Swift has blocked Iran from participating; Russia was threatened with being blocked; and Israel was also threatened with a block.

"If countries can be blocked out of the payments system because they are in a politically incorrect part of the world, then they would also be able to be blocked out of something that's a permissioned blockchain.

"We haven't really changed anything then if it's not open access, if all they have done is recreated the cartel.

"They cannot answer that a permissioned blockchain won't be used against smaller financial institutions for purposes of a blockade. The primary Bitcoin blockchain would route around that."

Matonis pointed out that this has prompted both Russia and China to construct their own Asian version of Swift over the past three years. Apparently, the China International Payment System (CIPS) is slated for roll out in 2016.

"They recognise the power that Swift holds. Led by Russia and China, they are building their own consortia to rival Swift, so that they will have a parallel alternative in case Swift decides to block access."

Disruption management

"The banking industry, the financial institutions, they have the luxury of sitting around today and actually analysing their own disruption," noted Matonis.

"This is what this Bitcoin/blockchain stuff is – 'look, we are analysing our own disruption. Now how do we want to be disrupted? Bring it in-house?

"Disruption doesn't work that way. It comes from the outside not the inside. If you look at Airbnb and Uber - Airbnb is the largest lodging company in the world and they don't own a single property. Uber is the largest taxi service in the world and they don't own a single car.

"Uber came up with the underlying technology to attack from another vector and it's the same thing that is going to happen with the banking industry, the banks just haven't accepted it yet.

"They will be disrupted in the same way by an outside technology and they are not going to be able to usurp the underlying technology and disrupt themselves from within because it will completely change what they are.

"In the future, the largest financial network may not be bank-owned at all and the most circulated currency may not be government issued."

Blockchain made the mainstream financial press last week with the announcement that the R3 initiative had nine big banks onside to create common standards for distributed ledger build out.

Matonis said: "Evolving towards a bank-wide standard for blockchain appears to be a replication of how Swift came into being; Visa did the same thing on the retail payments and was originally a bank-owned network.

He said: "If they are going to experiment on this stuff it makes sense for each one of the banks to pay one ninth of the cost instead of the full cost. That's where the true cost savings are?"

Some critics take an extreme view that all private blockchains are creating is another MySQL or shared database.

"Many fintech executives mistakenly view private blockchains as off-the-shelf products whereas they are rather 'byproducts' of a highly-valued native token with massive network effect - bitcoin. Bitcoin is not created to get more chain. The blockchain is created to get more coin."

However, Matonis does see value in the experimentation: "I think that they can achieve some cost savings. And actually I think that there is some benefit for banks doing these blockchain experiments because it prepares them for the future.

"They will already be orientated towards blockchains, they will be able then to eventually leverage what is the strongest most secure decentralised network - that of Bitcoin, where they could actually have value reside on it, and we end up in a world where there is a hybrid approach of private blockchains and the public global Bitcoin Blockchain."

Matonis favours a future state in which Bitcoin works as a settlement network at a higher level, implying that the primary blockchain would not handle every small transaction.

Digital gold

In this respect Bitcoin could be treated more as a reserve asset the way that gold is treated among nations today. Gold eliminates counterparty risk and as such is the ultimate settlement. A lot of countries, such as Germany for example, are repatriating their gold because they don't want it all to be in New York, Matonis pointed out.

"Bitcoin would take on a reserve asset role similar to gold. It would be a reserve currency asset class that countries would have on their balance sheets. It's digital gold; gold is analogue Bitcoin because gold can't be stuffed through a wire."

He said smaller transactions can be handled by a system like the Lightning Network. "Coinbase is already settling transactions between members, so every single thing doesn't have to be on the primary Bitcoin blockchain, because it's not always going to be free.

"The people who want these bigger blocks like the XT people, they want to extend the subsidy for free transactions longer by putting many, many micro-transactions on there even like for pennies.

"All that is a subsidy - it's not actually free. It's just that it's being subsidised by the larger blocks which are paid for ultimately by the transaction validators in the form of increased capacity, increased storage, increased bandwidth."

Matonis said people see the need to extend this "subsidy" for free transactions because Bitcoin has not reached critical mass.

"They look at it as a PayPal, Facebook thing where the end result is to get every single person in the world using it for their daily transactions.

"But it could be behind the scenes at a large scale settlement level. Individual people may not even need to know that they're using it but ultimately it's been settled that way."

Returning to the question of permissioned blockchain hype, Matonis concluded: "The cynical side of me would say that we should call private blockchains what they really are - wealth transfer mechanisms from banks to fintech consultants."