In the blockchain era, the basic components of the banking industry infrastructure are going through fundamental changes. Commercial banks operating on fiat currencies and clearing networks will inevitably undergo fundamental changes consequently. Only by clearly understanding this development trend can commercial banks adopt appropriate strategies and become winners in the new market structure brought about by this paradigm shift.
Blockchain and cryptoassets are fundamentally changing the current banking infrastructure as well as all market organizations and business processes on top of it. Commercial banks, the basic components of the financial market, bear the brunt of this market paradigm change. In the internet age, commercial banks have already been impacted because of the free exchange of information. Blockchain technology is bringing free exchange of value. It is accelerating this process of financial dis-intermediation. Commercial banks, as financial intermediaries, will gradually lose its relevance in providing financial services. Like a bookstore in the internet era, if a commercial bank does not adopt the appropriate measures, it will certainly be replaced. Fortunately, it is still in the early stage of the blockchain era. If commercial banks understand clearly where the trend is going, adapt to instead of trying to hinder this trend, they can still become one of the winners in the new market structure.
This paper analyzes the changes blockchain and cryptoassets bring to the banking industry and makes recommendations on the coping strategies commercial banks can adopt.
1, The Impact of internet on Banking
Bill Gates once famously said: "Banking is necessary, banks are not." What he means is that the information revolution brought about by internet has caused many banking services to be completed by internet technology, so there is no need for a banking institution to conduct banking business in the future.
The development in the past few decades has shown that internet technology has indeed had a huge impact on the banking industry. In retail banking, the emergence of online banking has made it unnecessary for people to go to bank branches to get banking services. The emergence of the mobile internet banking has further accelerated this process. People, especially young people, can conduct banking business anytime and anywhere through a mobile app. The development of online banking has led to a significant reduction in bank branches. In the banking business to corporates, various types of financial service companies belonging to enterprises have appeared. These companies focus either on supply chain financing or consumer financing. Since these companies have information advantages over banks, they can provide their clients with more cost effective financial services. Such companies are able to serve market segments that have not been served by traditional financial institutions, and also some other market segments that are being served by banks.
The development of the internet has also prompted the emergence of a new type of banking institution, which is a direct selling bank. These direct-selling banks do not have physical branches. They focus on using internet and communication technologies to provide banking services. Because they do not have the cost of physical outlets, these direct-selling banks can offer a more cost-effective service than traditional banks. Direct banks therefore are also obtaining market shares from traditional banks.
The development of the internet also provides opportunities for other industries to enter into the banking sector. The most typical representatives in this regard are Alipay and WeChat Pay. Both companies started to provide financial services to their vast customer base they had built up providing other internet-based services. Because of their huge customer base and the two companies’ appropriate use of information technology, they can provide a more convenient and cost-effective way of banking service to their customers. These companies have been consistently taking market shares away from traditional banks in the last decade.
The impact of the development of internet technology on banking has been so strong that the CEO of Capital One believed that his company's most strong competitors are not other banking institutions, but internet companies. Therefore, he pushed his company further to become a technology driven bank.
The impact of the internet on the banking industry is based solely on free exchange of information. Whether it is a corporate financial services company, a third-party payment company or a direct-selling bank, their strengths come from owning information and the ability to reduce the cost of information exchange. Because of their advantages in this regard, they already have had a huge impact on traditional banks. Blockchain and cryptoasset technology can help people realize free exchange of value between each other, which will fundamentally change the foundation of existing banking business. This is the real tsunami for the current banking industry.
2, It All Started with Bitcoin
Bitcoin was born in early 2009. At the same time, the underlying technology blockchain that supported the circulation of Bitcoin was also born. Blockchain supports Bitcoin's direct transactions between accounts. It ensures that these transactions are completed without errors. Bitcoin and blockchain thus provide a new mechanism for currency generation and circulation. These technologies inspired later development that further improve the capabilities of blockchain and cryptoassets. It is important to point out that the subsequent developments of Bitcoin and blockchain moved in different directions. Blockchain has been found to have a broader and far-reaching impact. The later development of blockchain and cryptoassets actually has a negative impact on the market acceptance of Bitcoin (See my article in Chinese, Blockchain Has Developed at the Expense of Bitcoin).
Due to its own design problems, Bitcoin did not develop into an electronic cash as Nakamoto had intended, but actually developed into a virtual digital asset. But Bitcoin's production mechanism, acquisition mechanism, and the underlying circulation mechanism have inspired various innovations since then.
In the development of blockchain, Ethereum is the second milestone after Bitcoin. Ethereum is a blockchain technology that supports a Turing complete computing environment and data structure smart contract with more complex attributes and functions. Smart contract was later discovered that it could be used to customize more complex financial products. Blockchain started to support more complex financial products like stocks and account receivables. It is no longer limited to only support the circulation of currency.
3, The Impact of Blockchain on the Banking Industry Just Started
The advent of Bitcoin and its underlying blockchain technology provide us with a distributed computing model and cryptoassets. The successful operation of Bitcoin has demonstrated the enormous potential of these two technologies. In the banking arena, blockchain technology and cryptoassets are fundamentally changing the banking industry’s infrastructure. People can start exchanging value directly between each other without the need for financial intermediaries like commercial banks and clearing houses. This direct and free exchange of value will have a greater impact on the banking industry than the internet.
Libra, the recent stablecoin project led by Facebook, is a milestone in this development trend (See my research report, A Business Analysis of the Libra Project). The Facebook social network itself has 2.7 billion users worldwide. Its application clients Facebook App, Instagram and WhatsApp are the gateways for users worldwide to use the internet. Facebook itself has the tremendous ability to promote a stablecoin and its underlying blockchain globally. In addition, the organization that promotes this stablecoin is not just Facebook. The organization that promotes this stablecoin will be an association of 100 members. Association members will hold the same equity in this association and adopt a democratic approach to governance. Calibra, the company founded by Facebook for this project, will be only one of the 100 members. Therefore, the organization's organizational mode of operation is very democratic, and the association’s decisions will be made collectively by members. Among the members who have joined, there are leaders in fields related stablecoins such as Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, Stripe, Uber and Lyft. It is expected that future members will be worldwide companies similar to existing members. As a result, the association will greatly advance the stablecoin and its underlying clearing infrastructure on a global scale. The development of this project will therefore impact the global banking infrastructure, as well as commercial banks running on top of this infrastructures.
4, The Current Banking Industry Infrastructure
The foundation of banking industry is currency and the clearing network that supports its circulation. Most of the currencies in the world today are the fiat currencies issued by sovereign governments based on its credit. Since the credits of different governments are different at different times, the value of a fiat currency is not always stable. The government’s fiscal policy and monetary policy directly determine the stability of its fiat currency. Among the current mainstream fiat currencies in the world, US dollar occupies an absolute dominant position. US dollar is based on the credit of US government. However, US government has different policies at different times, which directly affect the value of dollar. The most typical period is that the US government has incurred a lot of expenses to support the Vietnam War, which has led to a sharp depreciation of US dollar.
Of the total amount of fiat currency issued, the amount issued directly by central bank is only a small fraction. Most of the currency in the market is generated by commercial banks through credit loans. For example, of all the British pounds in the market, only 3% is issued by the British Central Bank, the remaining 97% is created by commercial banks through credit loans. Because of the important role of commercial banks in financial and economic life, it is strictly regulated and protected by government. Commercial banks therefore have a privileged position in economic life.
One of the monetary theories is the Chicago School. The main advocates of this school are some of the famous scholars at the University of Chicago in the 1930s. The Chicago School proposed to eliminate the ability of commercial banks to create money through credit loans and to return the right of money creation to central banks. In this way, money oversupply in the market can be avoided, and so are the financial crisis and economic crisis. The Chicago School's views have recently been re-advocated, particularly after the financial crisis of 2008. Representatives of these economists are Michael Kumhof who currently works at the Bank of England, Miguel Á. F. Ordóñez, former president of the Bank of Spain, Ole Bjerg, professor at the University of Copenhagen, and Martin Wolf, chief economic critic of the Financial Times.
Some new money theories have emerged based on the Chicago School. The most influential one is the Pawnbrokers for All Seasons theory proposed by former Bank of England Governor Mervyn King (See my article in Chinese, Stablecoin and Mervyn King’s Pawnbrokers for All Seasons Theory). This theory requires commercial banks to pledge their assets to the central bank as collaterals. The central bank determines the vale of this collateral and determines the amount this bank can make loans. In this way, the central bank can continuously reduce the leverage of existing commercial banks and control the lending quota of commercial banks to a reasonable level. With commercial banks’ leverage ability to create money under control, one major reason of financial crisis is thus removed.
4.2. Clearing network
Another foundation for the banking industry is the underlying clearing and settlement network. This network is usually owned by banks within one jurisdiction. Money transfers between banks are done through a centralized clearing house. This clearing institution guarantees the data accuracy. The transfer transactions between banks are based on the data in this centralized clearing house.
When users transfer money between different fiat currency areas, a centralized clearing network is also required to ensure the accuracy of the transfer data. The most famous of these institutions is Swift. Anyone who has made a cross-border remittance can notice that one of the fees charged by the bank is the Swift service fee.
These centralized clearing companies were built with the technical capabilities of their time. The computing mode of these clearing houses is therefore the overnight and batch net clearing mode. This model was clearly a very big improvement at the time, both in terms of business efficiency and cost. However, with the development of economic activities, the continuous improvement of technological capabilities and the continuous reduction of costs in other aspects in the past few decades, such model is becoming more and more obsolete. Organizations like Swift are even more out of place. This centralized clearing model has become an urgent problem to be solved.
4.3. Commercial Bank
In the existing financial world, a person deposits his money in a commercial bank. The bank gives this customer fixed interests. Among all services provided the bank, one of them is payment service. This service is seemingly free. Since customer’s money is deposited in the bank, the bank can make rules on how the money in the customer’s bank account is used. For example, bank can limit a customer on how much money he can withdraw from his account in one day. Under extreme situations, bank can even freeze a customer’s money. The customer then cannot use his own money.
The business basis of a commercial bank is the customer deposit it receives. Based on these deposits and using the leverage allowed by local financial supervision, commercial banks make profits by providing loans. Credit loan business is the main source of profit for commercial banks.
5, The Impact of Blockchain on the Banking Infrastructure
5.1. Changes in currency
Bitcoin's coinage model is a model that everyone can participate and it is fair to everyone (See my article in Chinese Bitcoin, the Forerunner of Everyone's Coinage). Anyone in any corner of the world can participate in the process of Bitcoin coinage as long as he can provide ledgering services. The current fiat currency can only be minted by sovereign governments and their commercial banks. Other institutions and individuals are unable to participate in this coining process and therefore cannot obtain the proceeds from the coinage. Such a coinage tax revenue may be very large. One can see this by just taking a look at the dollar’s coinage tax.
In the past two years, there have been various attempts to make stablecoins using blockchain and cryptoassets. The algorithm-based coinage projects have not worked very well. The current widely adopted stablecoin coinage model is the coinage mode of collateral. Collaterals currently used in this method are usually fiat currencies. Such projects include USDC, PAX and GUSD. These stablecoins are pegged to US dollar on a one-to-one ratio and are based on the equivalent US dollar amount collateralized. For ordinary users, as long as they can put in dollars as collateral, they can participate in minting such stablecoins. In terms of fairness of coinage, this mechanism is an improvement over that of existing fiat currencies. However, since the collaterals can only obtain fixed interest from custodian banks, the coinage tax obtained this way is very negligible or even negative.
The most well known efforts in the development of stablecoin should be those bank-led stablecoin projects. Such projects include JPM led by JP Morgan and USC (Utility Settlement Coin) led by UBS. Among the these stablecoin projects, the USC project is expected to be more accepted by the market than JPM, not only because of more bank support, but also because of a business organization model that is more in line with blockchain application development (See my article in Chinese, Fnality, a Milestone in the Evolution of Financial Market Infrastructure). These two stablecoins will first be applied in the clearing and settlement between banks. Such an application is essentially more like a tool than a currency. However, these two stablecoins can be further promoted and applied in the retail payment market.
The Libra stablecoin is based on fiat currency and short-term Treasury bonds collaterals. Its price is pegged to a basket of fiat currencies. The Libra stablecoin is thus an improvement in terms of accepted collaterals and price pegging mechanism compared to existing stablecoins. The Libra Association accepts ordinary users to participate in coinage through authorized dealers. In fact, the association can further adopt the DeFi model to support distributed coinage. This coining process can further reduce the coinage threshold and allow more ordinary users to participate in the coinage. However, since the Libra stablecoin will be part of the financial infrastructure services, the governance mechanism of this association is democratic, and this association will certainly be strictly regulated by the major financial regulatory agencies around the world, so the coinage tax in this area will not generate an excessive return.
5.2. Changes in the clearing network
Soon after the news announcement of the IBM World Wire, I wrote an article (See my article in Chinese, Clearing House, the First Victim of the Blockchain Era) saying that the replacement of existing clearing network between banks by blockchain now began. This process will first begin with the remittance settlement between countries and gradually transition to clearing of bank transactions within one country. I also mentioned in my Libra project research analysis report that one of the biggest values of the Libra project may be its clearing network. It is likely to have more lasting value than the Libra stablecoin itself. In terms of functionality, this clearing network not only supports the circulation of money, but also supports the circulation of more complex financial products such as stocks and accounts receivable. So the underlying clearing network supports more than just money transfers between retail customers, and it can support more complex financial product transactions. The Libra white paper states that this underlying clearing network will be a simple financial infrastructure. But this financial infrastructure is certainly not limited to just supporting digital currency transfers between retail customers.
Since this underlying clearing network supports the circulation of stocks based on smart contracts, this chain may not only be limited to the banking sector, but also to the securities sector. I have always believed that the future digital financial world will be a unified digital financial networked ecosystem (See my article in Chinese, Unified Security Exchange and Banking Ecosystem). There will be no distinction between the current securities industry and the banking industry. The Libra underlying chain is likely to evolve into an underlying chain that supports such a unified digital financial networked ecosystem. Of course, the Libra underlying chain needs a lot of technical improvements before it can support such an ecosystem on a global scale.
Libra's clearing and settlement chain has been globally oriented since its inception. This is fundamentally different from current clearing networks which were designed to support only currency circulation within one jurisdiction. In the current situation, when one fiat currency is used in another fiat currency market, the clearing networks of the two places need to be integrated first. The Libra clearing chain and stablecoin are not confined to any national boundaries. It supports the use of stablecoin globally and the direction transactions between accounts. Such a clearing and settlement process is much more efficient and cost-effective than the existing regional and centralized clearing systems.
5.3. Impact on commercial banks
The business basis of a commercial bank is the deposits customers put in the bank. But in the future blockchain-based digital finance world, user's stablecoins are stored in his own address on the chain. Users are thus free to use their stablecoins without being restricted by institutions such as commercial banks. If a user wants to get some returns on his idle stablecoins, he can choose from various funds on the chain. Therefore, in terms of obtaining users’ stablecoin deposits, commercial banks will have to compete with various funds on the same chain.
In terms of supporting user payments and remittances, the underlying chain supports direct transfers between accounts, so there is no longer a need for a clearinghouse between banks to support this process. A major service provided by commercial banks is therefore replaced by blockchain.
Due to the changes mentioned above, the future commercial banks and the underlying financial market infrastructure will undergo through a paradigm shift. The information revolution brought about by the internet has only had an impact on the commercial banking business in terms of quantity. The value exchange brought by blockchain will fundamentally change the functions of commercial banks.
6, Barbarians at the Gate
When a new technology emerges, it can have a subversive impact on some industries. Such cases are numerous in the internet age. The traditional retail industry was impacted by the e-commerce industry represented by Amazon. The traditional film industry was hit by video streaming sites represented by Netflix. The traditional mobile phone industry was impacted by Apple. The impact of internet on banks is still an on-going process. A common theme among these cases is that traditional industries are hit by companies from outside of the industry. Such an experience will also appear in the era of blockchain. Forces outside the traditional banking industry are taking advantage of the opportunities brought about by internet and blockchain to enter into the traditional banking arena with lower cost and more efficient financial services. Such companies are just like the barbarians at the gate of traditional banking industry.
In the era of blockchain, this trend has actually begun before Facebook's Libra project. Two very representative cases are Bakkt, and CENTRE which is jointly supported by Coinbase and Circle.
Bakkt's vision is to provide a global network of digital asset generation, storage, trading and distribution. Bakkt is more than just an exchange that offers bitcoin derivatives trading service. It planned to offer its customers retail payment service using bitcoin from very beginning. To achieve this goal, it made extra efforts to win Starbucks’ cooperation. (See my article in Chinese, Is Bakkt's Pursuit of Starbucks Worth It?). The cooperation between the two companies aims to provide a combined service to their customers’ digital assets payment and trading needs. The separation of current retail payment and security exchange thus does not exist. On top of the infrastructure thus built, Bakkt can provide more financial services based on digital assets, an area which has been belonging to traditional banks. The current Bakkt strategy, however, is not perfect. One of the important missing components is stablecoin (See my article in Chinese, Stablecoin, the Missing Part of Bakkt’s Strategy). The lack of stablecoin will not only affect the Bakkt’s own exchange business, but also its efforts in retail payments service.
CENTER, which is jointly supported by Coinbase and Circle, is also an effort to enter the traditional banking field from outside the industry. The two companies are leaders in digital currency trading and global retail payments, respectively. CENTER supports dollar based stablecoin USDC (See my article in Chinese, Why Does USDC Supported by Circle and Coinbase Can Develop into a Real Stablecoin?). Another very important reason is the organization model of CENTER. It is also open in nature. Its purpose is to attract more members to join. So CENTER has an advantage in the key areas of its strategy and has made right choices. CENTER is also likely to implement digital asset-based payment and transaction services on a global scale. In particular, if CENTER is able to establish an open underlying clearing network and circulate its stablecoin USDC on it, it is then fully equipped with the infrastructure needed to conduct banking business on a global scale.
The Libra project led by Facebook has made a big leap forward in this ongoing process. Libra and similar stable projects that will certainly emerge in the future are not only a huge challenge to the existing banking industry, but also a huge challenge to the global financial infrastructure. This is why, soon after the announcement of the Libra project, it immediately caught the attention of global financial regulatory bodies, and immediately forced global financial regulators to consider necessary measures. Therefore, it can be said that the Libra project has greatly promoted the process of global financial digitization.
Given the disruptive nature of blockchain and cryptoassets, companies in the existing banking and securities industries can only use them to optimize efficiencies within the confines of existing market structure. They cannot fully release the potential of these technologies, which will for sure bring fundamental changes to these industries. In the banking sector, the blockchain was first applied to clearing between banks. This application is only an improvement in efficiency, not a fundamental change to the banking industry. In the securities industry, the newly established SIX Digital Exchange selected R3's Corda after evaluating the clearing solutions based on DLT in the market. Corda is a distributed ledgering technology inspired by blockchain within the scope of existing regulatory systems and business practices. It also supports the structure of the existing securities market and is able to meet existing securities regulatory requirements. It is in essence also an improvement of efficiency, not a fundamental change to the current securities market structure. Compared to the full value of blockchain and cryptoassets can bring the securities industry (See my article in Chinese, The Twilight of the Nasdaqs), the value that the SIX Digital Exchange tapped by using Corda is just a tip of the iceberg.
Companies that can take advantage of blockchain and cryptoassets to fundamentally change existing financial market structures and business processes must come from outside the industry. They can leverage the power of blockchain and cryptoassets to provide more efficient and cost-effective financial services to their customers. Compared to the free exchange of information based on the internet, the free exchange of value based on blockchain will have a broader and far-reaching impact on the current society. The resistance from existing interests naturally will be greater. The adoption process of this advancement therefore will be a longer process than the application of internet.
7, Commercial Banks’ Coping Strategies
7.1. Future unified financial networked ecosystem
The future digital financial world must be an integrated networked ecosystem. The foundation of this ecosystem must be blockchain. Assets and equities in reality will be generated, stored, circulated and traded in this ecosystem in digital forms. Digital stablecoins are also generated and distributed in this ecosystem. Different institutions provide corresponding functions in this ecosystem, including listing of assets, asset custody and asset management. These functions correspond to existing investment banks, custodians, banks and funds, respectively. The payment function currently provided by banks will be provided by the network. Stablecoins will exist in two forms. One is the digital stablecoin issued by central banks based on their credits, and the other is a stablecoin issued in the market in a distributed manner and based on digital asset collaterals (See my article in Chinese, Predicting the Development Direction of Stablecoin Based on Monetary Theories) . Banks will have to compete with fund companies to manage customers’ digital assets.
It can be seen that the ability of commercial banks to obtain users' digital currency deposits will be greatly challenged. So what can commercial banks do in this new market structure?
7.2. What digital financial services are used?
The strategies that banks in different regions and at different stages of development can adopt are completely different. In markets with the strongest existing financial power, the coping strategies that commercial banks can adopt are very limited. This is due to the stricter regulation they are subject to. Also, commercial banks’ own centralized computing systems are also intertwined with the existing market infrastructure. Therefore, for these commercial banks, they have to act collectively. There isn’t really much one single commercial bank can do.
For a commercial bank in a small economy, it can make choices based on the characteristics of the economy in which it is located.
First, all future assets and interests will be in digital form. So the first step in the development of the digital financial world is to digitize assets and interests. This work is now done by investment banks. Can commercial banks be allowed to do this in the future? This will depend on changes in the regulatory policies of the location of the commercial bank.
Second, the response that commercial banks can adopt is to use a stablecoin. Such a stablecoin may be a global currency such as Libra or a stablecoin based on a fiat currency. However, whether or not to adopt a digital stablecoin depends on whether there is need in the market. For an economic region with a circulation of a variety of fiat currencies, the use of a digital stablecoin will facilitate the circulation of the local economy, thus bringing more business opportunities to commercial banks.
Third, in terms of a clearing infrastructure based on DLT, no single commercial bank can do this by itself. It must work with other commercial banks (even companies outside the banking industry) to develop an open financial infrastructure. Such an underlying infrastructure will not have a direct and significant impact on the business of a commercial bank, but it will make the commercial bank run on a more solid foundation. More importantly, the clearing infrastructure will move from the current centralized mode to a distributed mode, so companies that are the first to adopt this financial infrastructure and become part of the alliance ecosystem will run on a more solid foundation. As this ecosystem develops, companies outside the ecosystem will be difficult to survive. This is the case for banks in the same jurisdiction. The same is true of professional basketball teams within the NBA League market.
7.3. Matching digital financial services with actual needs
Such a migration is obviously a gradual process. Commercial banks that can see the future direction of development and manage the transition process properly can develop along the trend.
The key to managing this transition process is to match the actual market needs with appropriate digital financial services. The premise of this match is to fully understand the areas current financial institutions do not serve well. Such an area may be an unbanked and underbanked group that has always existed (such a group may be a very large group depending on the region), or it may be an emerging area with very strong demand such as e-commerce in the internet age, or it may be a current rapidly growing field such as cryptocurrency trading. Only by first clearly identifying such areas, can commercial banks consider adopting corresponding digital currency strategies, continuously expanding the foundation and capabilities, and gradually developing toward the ultimate goal.
7.4. One most applicable digital financial application
For commercial banks in many regions, one feasible application of digital financing is to serve the currently unbanked and underbanked people. Such a group is also the group that the Libra project claims to serve. Such groups are currently prevalent throughout the world, especially in developing countries. This group is characterized by a large number of users, a small amount of one single financial service, limited repayment ability, and difficulty in obtaining applicant’s credit. For existing financial institutions, one reason for not being able to provide services to this group is that the costs and risks are too high, so it is difficult to operate the business as a long-term business.
Based on the blockchain-based clearing network and the stablecoin, and in combination with new business models, commercial banks can begin to provide financial services to such customer groups. On such a clearing chain, each user has a real identity. Relevant information provided for access to financial services is recorded on the chain. Because the information on the blockchain cannot be tampered and can be viewed by users around the world, each user is responsible for the authenticity of the information they upload. This will significantly reduce the cost of credit checking for financial institutions. Users can therefore gradually build up their credits on the chain. Given that this chain can be used by all financial institutions in the world, the chances of a user getting a loan are greatly increased. This will form a positive cycle. Users who have a good credit but do not currently have access to financial institutions can obtain financial services this way. As this ecosystem continues to evolve, there will be more financial services for users who do not currently have access to financial services (See my article in Chinese, How To Use Blockchain To Bring Paradigm Shift To the Global Personal Loan Business).
In addition to serving unbanked and underbanked user groups, commercial banks can also gradually adopt blockchain technology and encrypted digital currency in other business areas to gradually implement this migration process. Given the global nature of blockchains and encrypted digital currencies and its characteristics beyond the current banking boundaries, commercial banks actually have more options to achieve this goal. For newly established commercial banks in jurisdictions that support the application of blockchains and cryptoassets, this opportunity is even greater.