In 2015 I met with many technology leaders in the world's biggest banks. In an attempt to keep abreast of the ever changing world of technology and finance, I always ask my clients the same question: “Where will you be investing your time and money this year?”
Reflecting on those discussions there were four common themes that seem to be causing headaches for the big banks:
Regulation and compliance (specifically the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive, or MiFID)
Digital transformation and the threat of further digital disruption
All four are clearly important, but blockchain and cryptocurrencies particularly intrigue me. What role will blockchain and Bitcoin play in the world of corporate banking? Exactly how will the financial services sector embrace them?
When I attended the European Trading Architecture Summit (ETAS) in Canary Wharf last November, I was delighted to see ‘Bitcoin, blockchain and the future of digital currency’ on the agenda. The delegate list for ETAS consisted of senior architects and managers from leading financial institutions. This would undoubtedly be my opportunity to find out how blockchain is set to revolutionise banking, wouldn’t it? After a two hour debate I left with more questions than answers.
During the discussions, delegates were encouraged to post their questions online; these were then displayed on a big screen. Interestingly, every one of the questions was posted anonymously. Even amongst a distinguished audience of experienced technology professionals, there are still questions around the impact of cryptocurrencies and the use of distributed ledgers that people are perhaps embarrassed to ask.
The panel gave us an interesting anecdote relating to virtual currencies. Apparently there is a London-based restaurant that allows you to pay for your burger in Bitcoin. If you choose to pay in Sterling, the £10 burger you bought in 2014 cost the same in 2015. However, use Bitcoin and the price will have fluctuated violently in that 12 month period (Source: xe.com).
Pros and cons
In the highly regulated world of financial services you can understand why this would immediately cause a headache. Instability is a concern and virtual currencies have not stood the test of time compared to the likes of Sterling.
The conversation moved on to decentralised distributed ledgers. Will blockchain-style technology revolutionise banking infrastructure? In the future, can we expect to buy a new home using this technology; will we be trading shares and trading currencies through a peer to peer network? Again, there’s no clear answer as yet.
The benefits of this technology are widely reported; the spread of risk, the security and transparency are but a few. The fact that tens of billions of pounds of cost savings could be made in infrastructure costs (relating to cross border payments) means nobody in banking can ignore this topic.
One brave audience member did raise their hand with a question: "Among the big banks, who’s going to be the first to roll out their own blockchain?" It was perhaps a little naive of me to think there would be a single global player to lead the charge, but I held my breath in anticipation of whether it would be JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley. The panel didn’t pick a winner; the fact is there needs to be collaboration for it to work.
Open Ledger Project
The Linux Foundation are overseeing an open source project where many of the world’s leading banks and technology companies will build their own blockchain. The de-regulated virtual world of Bitcoin and blockchain may appeal to the masses, but for big business to adopt it, these companies will have to work together. The Open Ledger Project (as it’s known) will not be controlled by a single firm but will give its investors control, something they do not have over blockchain.
After two hours of debate, I left without a clear view of exactly what the future holds. That’s not to say the panel members lacked knowledge of the topic. The panel gave us fantastic insight into this virtual world, as well as facts, figures and questions that the world of finance will need to work out for itself. Will we ever see it’s full potential? To find out, you’ll need to polish your crystal ball.
As a consultancy at the forefront of technology, we have set up our own cryptocurrency to be used by our employees to purchase their bacon sandwiches every Friday morning. The FryDay bacon sarnie run has been part of Scott Logic life for many years, but using our own Bitcoin network we will shortly be making these purchases from our smartphones. It’s a project we have assigned to our current graduate intake and it would be no surprise if the team found themselves developing such solutions for our financial services clients in future.
The general aim (as well as easing our employees’ Friday morning hunger) is to bring the company up to speed with the practical sides of cryptocurrencies (such as Litecoin and Bitcoin) and make it commonplace in the working environment.
In 2016, I’ll continue to challenge my clients and ask where they’ll be investing their time and money, perhaps over a Bitcoin burger or a bacon sandwich paid for in Scottcoins.