Six Banks Join UBS's “Utility Coin” Blockchain Project
Here’s a piece of news that the remaining human members of Wall Street’s FX sales and trading desks probably don’t want to hear.
According to the Financial Times, six of the world’s largest banks have decided to join a blockchain project called “utility coin” that will allow banks to settle trades in securities denominated in different currencies without a money transfer. What’s worse, the banks expect to begin live-testing the project late next year.
Here’s the FT:
“Barclays, Credit Suisse, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, HSBC, MUFG and State Street have teamed up to work on the “utility settlement coin” which was created by Switzerland’s UBS to make financial markets more efficient.
The move comes as the project shifts into a new phase of development, in which its members aim to deepen discussions with central banks and to work on tightening up its data privacy and cyber security protections.”
The project’s managers say they’ve already involved representatives from various central banks…
“Hyder Jaffrey, head of strategic investment and fintech innovation at UBS, said: “We have been in discussions with central banks and regulators and we will continue that over the next 12 months with the aim of a limited ‘go live’ at the back end of 2018.”
Here’s a brief explanation of how it’s expected to work , courtesy of the FT:
“The utility settlement coin, based on a product developed by Clearmatics Technologies, aims to let financial groups pay each other or to buy securities, such as bonds and equities, without waiting for traditional money transfers to be completed.
Instead they would use digital coins that are directly convertible into cash at central banks, cutting the time, cost and capital required in post-trade settlement and clearing.
The coins, each convertible into different currencies, would be stored using blockchain, or distributed ledger technology, allowing them to be swapped quickly for the financial securities being traded. Existing members of the project are Deutsche Bank, Banco Santander, BNY Mellon and NEX.”
Initially, utility coin will be used primarily for interbank payments, the banks told the FT. Say two institutions owed one another sums denominated in two different currencies. They could settle those payments in utility coin instead of routing payments through an interbank broker. This will only hasten the declining employment of human currency traders, as fewer trades executed via traditional systems means even less business and even more pressure to automate.
To be sure, even after the “utility coin” system is up and running, a broader use-case could still be years away. As the FT notes near the end of the story, the coins can only be used to settle trades involving securities that are trading on a blockchain. While a few companies (notably Overstock.com) have successfully issued blockchain-based assets, it could be years – or even decades – before blockchain systems supplant the current market infrastructure.
“Before the coins could be used for settling securities trades, he said the securities themselves will need to be transferred to blockchain systems, otherwise the benefits of speed and reduced capital requirements will be lost.”
Assuming it happens at all. Even if the changeover were to be gradual, it would still require the cooperation of banks, exchanges, brokers, clearing houses etc. This remains unfeasible from a technology perspective. And even once blockchains can reliably achieve economies of scale, any kind of transition would probably take years.