Blythe Masters, the former head of commodities at JPMorgan, became the CEO of Digital Asset Holdings about a year ago and she has been on a tear through Wall Street talking up a recordkeeping technology called blockchain.
Blockchain is most famously tied with the digital currency BitCoin. It isn’t actually part of the digital currency. It is commonly known as a type of public ledger, a recordkeeping system, if you will. It is conceptually simple, but technologically very advanced. The idea is to have one central accounting system for all transactions where the whole world can see. In this way, embezzling is more difficult to do. One can’t only be financially savvy, but also be technologically so. Not just a little but a lot. Because blockchain is central ledger for transactions, there is an external reference that is common to the buyer and seller. So, when a customer tries to buy something from a seller, the currency portion of the transaction (payment), goes through the blockchain, which verifies that the currency is in the buyer’s account and no one else on the blockchain is supposed to have it.
It makes every penny into a unique penny. We have a unique number on all paper bills in the United States, but that unique number really isn’t used for common transactions. This provides that extra security.
Masters is leading the idea that blockchain technology can be brought to Wall Street. Most senior investment bankers are skeptical. Of course, they are. Most senior investment bankers don’t understand blockchain or BitCoin. And, when they do, they generally know as much as you, my reader, because you now have read my previous paragraphs. To Masters, it is a no brainer. Here’s a technological tool that reduces counterparty verification which should, in theory, reduce the number of days it should take to clear a trade, thereby reducing cost.
The risk, aside from bank management not even understanding the significance of this technology, is the risk of systemic fraud or glitch. But one thing we’ve learned over the last century as we’ve centralized many of our transactional activities is that it greatly reduces the inherent risks of transactions, but because of the way our laws allow for increased risky behavior when risk has been reduced, it will likely increase the residual risks. There are a number of examples of this. When all trading goes through fewer routes to their eventual transactions, there are fewer route that need to be monitored and therefore monitoring and surveillance can improve. But when there are losses, they are usually big because the glitches are systemic or categorical. The Flash Crash it an example of centralizing and automating trades through fewer pipes led to big and quick irrational dive of the market.
I for one is a proponent of the BlockChain. I am not the person to discuss the potential economic consequences of this, but it would be the next step in the evolution of the Depository Trust Company, the central counterparty in US capital market trading.
Marcus Maltempo is a compliance professional with more than a decade of experience helping banks, law firms and clients manage investigations and regulatory responses. He is a member of ACAMS and ACFE.