Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Big Banks And Blockchain

After the crypto run up of 2013, every major bank decided it needed to do something about cryptocurrencies and blockchain. The way many banks responded to this disruptive technology was:
Step 1. Set up a special internal "blockchain group". 
These groups were supposed to explore how banks could make use of blockchain. The cryptocurrencies themselves were largely viewed as speculative and the "interesting parts" were blockchains and distributed ledgers as technologies.

Step 2. Have the blockchain group focus on building private chains. 
Focus at most banks was on private chains and more recently some smart contract work. Nothing was adopted or launched, it was more R&D and prototyping.

Step 3. Have the CEO brag about blockchain group, then do nothing.
When asked by bank's Board of Directors about crypto, the CEO could point to the largely impotent blockchain group and say "we are all over this blockchain thing!!". The Board would break into polite applause and the topic would quickly move on to something more important, like FX risk being hedged and what fancy restaurant to convene to for martinis post-board meeting[1].

It's the Currencies Stupid!
In the last 6 months, large banks & brokerages have started to wake up to the other side of crypto - in particular the currencies themselves[3]. This is largely driven by high net worth clients, pension funds, and others, starting to ask the asset and wealth management divisions of banks how they can participate in BTC (bitcoin), ETH (ethereum), and other cryptocurrencies.

Banks now have an incentive to adopt cryptocurrencies - if it becomes part of the basket of assets they manage for a client, they can take an annual cut. For example, if a bank charges 0.5% of AUM (assets under management) and a client wants to put 5% of their assets into crypto, the bank has a strong incentive to manage it for their client. If the bank pushes the client out to third party sites or wallets, the bank is loosing the 0.5% a year they charge for assets directly under management.

In order to be able to meet the demands of their clients, banks are looking for solutions that allow their clients to participate in BTC et al. in a way that the bank directly manages and controls (or, at a minimum, that the bank can charge for).

The following products need to be built for financial institutions to fully adopt cryptocurrencies:

Mutual funds and ETFs: Financial products that allow people to easily buy a basked of crypto currencies.
Major banks would love to enable their interested clients to buy into a mutual fund or single currency tracking fund as part of their AUM basket alongside various baskets of stocks, bonds, and gold. This prevents the need for them or their client to think about the new crypto hotness and instead the mutual fund can add or drop positions over time. Recent funds for high net worths include Grayscale, ICONOMI, PRISM, the Token Fund, and others.

In parallel a number of efforts to create the first crypto ETF have been ongoing.

Crypto custody / wallet / cold storage.  When talking to private wealth managers about their crypto needs there is strong interest in a wallet where they can store their client's cryptocurrencies, track changes in value for clients, and of course charge their % of AUM. Obviously Coinbase has done amazing work in providing a wallet and cold storage for individuals and have made some interesting moves like their recent Fidelity integration. In parallel, companies like Xapo were founded with the original intention of provided a bitcoin vault. However, from discussions I have had with the wealth management community, there is still not a comprehensive solution in this area.

Hedge funds.
The pioneering early hedge fund of the industry Metastable, and more recently Polychain, have pioneered the crypto hedge fund market. There are a dozen new entrants coming, many of them likely to be crappy.

The banking and brokerage industry would benefit from additional high quality long funds as well as algorithmic trading funds that their clients can participate in, and can be sold to high net worth investors as part of a basket of goods.

Intriguingly a lot of the crypto trading at hedge funds started as young employees trading crypto for their own accounts. This will likely change soon with bank's internal hedge funds also participating directly in the crypto market.

Derivatives exchanges.
As people buy and sell different cryptocurrencies the ability to create complex hedges, options and derivatives becomes increasingly important. This can both dampen volatility in a position as well as create leverage on capital. For both market liquidity to accelerate, and hedge funds to thrive a strong derivatives broker and market needs to emerge. As an example, LedgerX recently received US CFTC (Commodity Future Trading Commision) approval to move ahead in this market. There will likely be more entrants here soon.

With the above product areas fleshed out, we will see an accelerated adoption of cryptocurrencies due to accelerated (and finally real) adoption in the banking and brokerage world.

[1] I tend to imagine board meetings at global banks always ending with martinis for some reason[2]. At least I hope this is what happens, in which case I would be interested in joining a top 5 bank's board. As an aside, New York tends to have much better martinis than San Francisco. I guess most people drink bourbon or rye whiskey these days so this point is moot. As an aside to this aside: Boston has a surprisingly good martini tastiness/per capita ratio.

[2] I also picture all the board members wearing pin striped suits and monocles, sort of like the Monopoly Man.

[3] Blockchains and smart contracts will still change our financial system outside of core cryptocurrencies, it will just take longer.

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