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As distributed ledgers diversify, DTCC will expand projects

But as use cases proliferate for distributed ledgers, so do vendors, coding languages, and the number of emerging intermediaries.

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New York-based Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation, which processes hundreds of millions of financial transactions every day, is considering a dozen more pilot programs to use blockchain, in addition to ongoing projects for putting repurchase agreements and credit-default swaps on the new technology.

Robert Palatnick, chief technology architect and managing director at the DTCC’s office in nearby Jersey City, New Jersey, says the firm’s efforts in developing blockchain solutions is as much about trying to ensure continuity in how the technology develops as much as solving particular operational problems.

He sat down with DigFin to explain the firm’s implementation of distributed-ledger technology (DLT), in which blockchain is separated from its roots as the infrastructure for bitcoin, and made into a tool to serve a variety of enterprise needs. [And click here to listen to our podcast about DTCC and blockchain.]

Even within DTCC, DLT is being put to different uses, with different technology partners. A variety of specialists are trying to ensure DLT works among a diverse set of counterparties. Just as DLT promises to clear out a lot of steps and back-office providers, new ones are popping up to make the new technology work.

“There’s a whole new ecosystem of intermediaries emerging,” Palatnick said, including exchanges, digital wallets, vendors providing integration services, and other specialists promising means of getting different ledgers to speak to one another.

Many distributed ledgers
The prospect of DLT becoming fragmented may be unstoppable, but DTCC sees part of its job to mitigate the trend. “Our strategy is to be a leader in driving blockchain technology interoperability because it’s consensus-based, and so it doesn’t make sense to have silos,” Palatnick said.

To that end, DTCC is both a pioneer in implementing DLT, as well as a contributor of code to both solutions under open-sourced Hyperledger programs, and to Enterprise Ethereum Alliance, two of the major umbrellas under which DLT is being developed for commercial use.

“We’re likely going to be in a world of many distributed ledgers,” Palatnick said. “What’s going to be the standard? How do we ensure interoperability among them? And where is there going to be a need for governance? The challenge of an ungoverned, decentralized ecosystem is that it still requires governance. Smart contracts are still only as good as the people who program them.”

The DTCC’s membership of banks and other financial institutions has tasked it with trying to play a role as a responsible governor even as DLT solutions proliferate, and this is one reason why DTCC is implementing its own DLT projects.

Manual control

Governance includes protecting the system, from both mundane problems and from crises. For example, DTCC has to process securities and insurance contracts that were written decades ago. If a settlement date turns out to hit a new public holiday, or some other detail goes awry because no one thought of it, someone has to be prepared to intervene to ensure the transaction is processed correctly. The same goes for a flash crash that paralyzes markets. “There needs to be a person in charge in case there’s a surprise,” Palatnick said.

One way a responsible entity carries out such duties is by having a role in the permissioning process – agreeing who can be on a decentralized ledger, overseeing the KYC process, validating the nodes of technology vendors, and ensuring the system is free of malware. DTCC already does this in its traditional networks, but it’s harder to confirm a given DLT is compliant and safe.

He is, however, upbeat about DTCC’s implementing its projects for repo and CDS, noting the firm is on track to have the CDS project go live in the second half of 2018. As a technologist, the advent of blockchain is an exciting development. “It’s cool that all of this is happening now,” he said.

Industrial scale
The firm is in discussions with members about a variety of use cases for DLT, but adopting the technology is not straightforward. DLT is inspired by the crypto-currencies that needed blockchain to be mined, validated and traded. But transacting bitcoin is not the same as processing assets – securities, swaps, loans, insurance contracts – that involve corporate actions and other ongoing events that must be acted on ‘off the chain’.

On the other hand, DLT has the potential to enhance DTCC’s mission as operating a central ledger, as depository and register of securities and swaps. The decentralized nature of blockchain means the current infrastructure required to communicate and interpret messages among each user’s database can be merged into a common ledger. Users would no longer maintain their own database, but would operate a node on the shared one, provided they meet DTCC’s infrastructure, compliance and safety standards. So far, DLT hasn’t operated at industrial scale, but that’s what DTCC’s pilot programs are testing.

Palatnick says there are other problems that DLT cannot address, especially reporting. Distributed ledgers are a technology to record transactions, immutably and securely. But DLT can’t provide analytics, search, or reporting, which is a necessary part of processing trades. So shifting operations to DLT creates a new problem, one that requires advances in artificial intelligence and big data, which DTCC is also pursuing with third-party vendors.

CDS warehouse: full replacement
In the case of credit default swaps, DTCC is completely replacing its CDS warehouse (a repository and reporting service) with DLT, without disrupting day-to-day operations. With distributed ledger, DTCC is also moving processing to the cloud, working with a third-party vendor, in order to have the computing power necessary to handle huge volumes.

The challenge is to replace the DTCC’s system, but not how it connects with counterparties (banks). So it is adding what Palatnick terms ‘translation layers’ so that banks can continue to submit trades while developing their own technology stack, enabling them to adopt nodes on the CDS distributed ledger. Banks will also need to migrate CDS processing to the cloud, although they can use any vendor that can handle scale, or use on-premise cloud computing.

This is not straightforward, however. “We’re learning what’s important to put on the chain in smart contracts, and what shouldn’t go there,” Palatnick said.

Once the CDS warehouse is fully shifted to DLT, however, DTCC and its members can add asset classes and functionality. One reason why DTCC is on track to go live in 2018 is because credit default swaps are well-defined, standardized instruments. The data quality is high. The challenge is therefore about the migration to DLT and the cloud.

Repos: changing business models
The repo project is a different matter. The initial business case for DLT was to take the starting leg of repo transactions and net it. Banks use repo on an overnight basis, swapping cash for securities, to ensure their daily liquidity needs. Banks calculate their overnight funding requirements and execute the start leg each morning.

Palatnick says this is not about smoother processing for its own sake. In fact, DLT is slower than how US Treasuries are settled now, which is instantaneous. But because DLT allows all parties to see the information at the same time, it means trades can be netted.

“The long-term goal of this project is to take new repo in the morning and net if off the previous night’s transactions,” Palatnick said. “There could be multiple nets throughout the day.” In this way, if all relevant parties know a trade is on, they could execute it later in the day, meaning they don’t have to do everything in the morning. Settlement times and processes could be changed to respond to new trading patterns, as banks use this mutual real-time information to be more precise in their liquidity management. “Banks will be able to manage their daily liquidity more efficiently. That is very compelling to big firms,” Palatnick said.

But whereas with CDS, the DTCC is replacing its current mainframes to process trades, with repo it is adding DLT on top of its existing platform. The extent to which it replaces the systems banks use to connect and enter trades to DTCC will depend on how much benefit they think DLT will give them in liquidity management. So this project is likely to evolve as banks test the limits of DLT’s ability to help them change their entire daily operations.

Vendor risk
These two projects, along with the others on the whiteboard, show why DTCC is working with different vendors in DLT. “The challenge is that there is no single ledger,” Palatnick said. “Each vendor is different.”

For example, DTCC works with Axioni, a blockchain developer, on its CDS project because the vendor’s service includes integration. But other vendors just provide the software, and leave integration to their clients.

“Open-source software is important because decentralizing the ownership of databases doesn’t make sense if you then put all the risk on the viability of a single vendor,” Palatnick said. Each vendor has its own technology stack to run and license software, and even in an open-source environment, there will be certain vendors that provide the majority of code.
“The vendors are the risk,” Palatnick said.

That is why DTCC is putting such store in standards and interoperability as it pursues various DLT projects. Financial institutions prefer to work with different vendors using different programming languages and business models, and this helps foster competition and innovation. “We’re trying to find the model in which ledgers can talk to one another,” Palatnick said.

Capital Markets

What Citi Ventures’s incubator seeks in Asia

Victor Alexiev, the regional lead at D10X, talks about the technologies transforming institutional business.

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Victor Alexiev, D10X

Victor Alexiev is Singapore-based Asia-Pacific lead for Discover 10X (D10X), the new product incubation arm of Citi Ventures. He joined in 2018 and now covers incubation, programs and strategic partnerships for Citi’s institutional clients group.

D10X launched in the U.S. in 2016 to foster innovation from within the bank, encouraging lean-startup thinking as well as coordinating third-party build, buy or partnership decisions with other parts of the bank and its clients.

The following is a transcript of an interview with DigFin, which has been edited for style and conciseness.

DigFin: What kind of innovative models are you trying to develop?

Victor Alexiev: In Asia, it’s about new products and new services in the ICG [institutional] part of the franchise, so the projects we work on are mainly B2B and B2B2C. We’re not just looking internally. We also try to partner with technology companies as we find pain points they address.

What kind of business models are you looking for in this region?

Finding solutions for Citi’s markets, commercial and investment bank business.

Why not for the consumer side, which is such a big part of Citi’s P&L?

We do have D10X in our consumer business for North America, but not in Asia, at least not at this stage. In Asia, consumer fintech and quite fragmented and competitive, and my personal view is that you will need to put in a lot more resources in order to achieve meaningful results.

Is innovation within a huge bank, particularly if you’re focused on B2B – is that an oxymoron?

Yeah, a lot of people think that innovation with corporations is too slow. It’s true in part, as we have to go through a lot of compliance, sourcing and H.R. checks. But we’re looking after companies and people’s money. But once you identify a product fit, you scale much faster. I’m here to build something meaningful within a large institution that has a global footprint.

Within B2B, what kind of ideas are you looking at?

Most projects are new models of customer engagement. Our most public project that was built and rolled out via D10X is Proxymity, an end-to-end proxy voting platform offered to custodians, that directly connects issuers and investors in real time.

Customer engagement sounds very, um, consumery.

A lot of corporate and institutional business platforms for banks is clunky. Or it’s based on business models that just seek to skim basis points by processing large volumes. What will next-generation banking look like? What happens if banks become platforms for others to create value? What do direct-to-consumer models look like for our transaction or investment banking?

So even at the corporate level, you need better customer engagement.

That’s right. For example, an increasing number of clients want to consume our products via an API instead of calling our salespeople. We’ll still need salespeople but we have to be realistic that our evolving client expectations demand a different experience.

What does engagement mean? Can you give me an example?

We’re finding, for example, that buy-side clients are less interested in reading a full research report. But they’re very interested in parsing the underlying data that made that report. Decisions are becoming more quant-driven, so we don’t need to offer as many products. It’s about helping our clients make data-driven decisions and providing them with data-driven products

Is that just a matter of better product design?

No, it means we need to transform the entire organization, to be an end-to-end digital driver – “customer engagement” can’t be just about our front office. “Digital” is about culture and people.

I often hear about banks changing their culture, changing the ways they do business, the mindset – yet the rhetoric doesn’t describe the reality. At best it’s a partial change.

There’s an increasing urgency within banks in general. Margins are thinning, and there is a realization, or a willingness, to transform. We’re trying to speed up the process by providing examples of what “good” looks like.

Where have you implemented new solutions so far in Asia?

Initially we rolled these out in our markets and securities services business. We focused on custody, securities services, equities, and foreign exchange. Gradually we’re bringing new technologies to spread products, corporate banking, investment banking and transaction banking. 

And within those divisions, what parts of Citi are you focused on? Operational efficiencies?

Efficiency is important but lots of departments are already looking at this. I also see at other banks a lot of innovation labs doing proof-of-concepts that may not reflect the actual business needs. The projects I work on all have separate, independent P&Ls, and are focused on client-centered new value creation.

You had mentioned client engagement at the institutional level. What are your clients asking help with?

Long-only funds want data to help them with things like modeling ESG portfolios (for environmental, social and governance standards). More short-term trading clients want data-centered models to take faster data-driven decisions.

We explore questions like what do next-generation pension funds look like? What about insurance? How do we support sovereign funds in managing impact-oriented portfolios?

You’re not big on blockchain consortiums and such?

We are, if it meets business needs. We participated in Komgo, a blockchain consortium for documentation in letters of credit that finance commodities trades.

What are the particular technologies that you’re trying to adopt?

Machine learning, APIs and blockchain are the three deep, transformative domains. For these to flourish requires a bigger internal transformation, a broader regulatory understanding of them, and a cultural mindset change.

That’s a lot. Any anecdotes you can give, to make that a little more concrete?

We’re about to publish with ASIFMA a white paper on STOs [securities token offerings] exploring what it would take to make these go mainstream. Our takeaway was interoperability. A fintech can issue a real-estate token, say, in their local jurisdiction, operating under the same local regulation for securities or property. But how do you open that to international investors, or institutional investors, or create a global marketing capability? The complexity quickly goes up. The same goes for, say, using A.I. with certain clients for real-time pricing and execution of F.X. or overnight collateral. What does that mean, how could it change the market? We’re exploring use cases, doing experiments – to do it right, we have to get out of the lab.

Are you finding lots of B2B technology companies in Asia who fit into these needs?

There are few startups that are enterprise-ready, globally scalable and that could deal with our clients. They need to be either close to the customers – meaning they already have insight, client integration of lots of data – or have differentiated tech that it is scalable, high performance, and can help banks solve specific problems.

But I’m bullish on tech in Asia. We’re seeing the dawn of Asian tech: the technology itself is maturing as companies shift from copy-and-paste to developing more core tech. And we’ve seen more B2B fintech move from trying to compete with us to partner with us.

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Capital Markets

Hope for handling corporate actions?

The industry is shifting from evolutionary fixes to transformational change.

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Photo: Markus Spiske on Unsplashed

DigFin moderated a webcast last week on the topic of using new tech to handle the thorny old problem of processing corporate actions. Mention “corporate actions” and you mostly have ops and tech people at financial institutions reaching for aspirin, or something stronger.

Corporate actions are anything a publicly traded company does that impacts its securities, debt or equity. Even straightforward things like a stock split come in all different flavors. There’s no one cone to hold all this ice cream. Banks, brokers, fund managers, and trading venues have invested zillions into processing transactions, but corporate actions is always “the poor cousin”, as Dean Chisholm, Hong Kong-based COO for Asia Pacific at Invesco, put it during the webcast. And because of the complexity, vendor solutions have been too expensive.

Mention ‘corporate actions’ and you have ops and tech people reaching for aspirin, or something stronger

But the industry can’t ignore corporate actions. Alan Jones, Singapore-based head of business development for Asia at SmartStream Technologies, pointed out that corporate actions today represent the highest point of risk to operations. As firms look to scale their businesses – with new markets, new products to handle, and an ever-increasing variety of actions to handle – they need to deal with this final barrier to straight-through processing. Do that, they can then begin to add value, like analytics on top that can give investment firms, for example, a view as to how good a job their service providers are doing.

The good news is that technology is evolving to the point that automating corporate actions is looking possible. The biggest enabler is cloud computing. Cloud isn’t just about saving on cost, noted David Fodor, Sydney-based head of business development for financial services at AWS. It’s about scalability and flexibility. Moving to cloud computing is the precursor to handling the vast amounts of data required to come to grips with something like corporate actions.

There’s no one cone to hold all this ice cream

Cloud is just a starting point, though. One challenge is that corporate actions involves many players, said Satyan Patel, senior VP for global client development at Hong Kong Exchange. Stock markets like HKEX connect to depositories, custodian banks, securities brokers, data vendors and investment firms. And then you have the issuers themselves, whose announcements are often in the form of unstructured data (like text on a PDF). The good news is that, beyond firms’ own IT spend, the finance industry is gradually adopting new standards, like ISO 20022 for messaging. That will help reduce the amount of unstructured data.

However that still leaves a lot of data of questionable integrity out there, which defies manual processing. Francis Breackevelt, chief operations head for Asia at BNY Mellon, in Singapore, said the full range of new technology needs to be brought to the fore. Whereas for years, transaction processing was an evolutionary process, he thinks the industry is at a point of major change. From simple robotics to natural-language processing and other forms of artificial intelligence, firms are on the cusp of tackling the variety of corporate announcements. They are looking at distributed-ledger technology to enable industry-wide processing.

Corporate actions processing isn’t going to be solved like flipping a switch. It requires a critical mass of industry player involvement, guidance from regulators, confidence in the data, greater adoption of enabling tech like cloud, and successful implementation of A.I. Then all of that needs to be implemented to the extent great enough to bring processing costs down, a lot. But fintech is making possible the goal of automating corporate actions in a way that until now has been just a dream.

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Capital Markets

Stablecoin weighs Anchor for investing in economic growth

“Everything has a unit of value, except money,” says Anchor founder Daniel Popa.

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Anchor AG, a financial services company, is about to launch a dual-token stablecoin that is intended to give investors exposure to economic growth removed from the vagaries of currencies and commodities.

The company is calling for currency traders, hedge fund managers, and private investors to test its Anchor coin in advance of its inaugural listing on Japan’s digital exchange, Liquid, in September.

Anchor is domiciled in Zug, Switzerland. Its founder and CEO, Daniel Popa, is a serial entrepreneur who was born in Romania under its Communist regime but was raised in the U.S.

Most stablecoins are mapped to gold or a fiat currency,” he told DigFin. “But currencies are all depreciating, whether it’s due to monetary policy, quantitative easing, inflation, whatever. It doesn’t matter how you peg a currency when the U.S. dollar has lost 50% of value over the past 30 years [to gold] and 98% over the last century.”

Reimagining stablecoins

A relative latecomer to bitcoin, he wondered how a stablecoin could be created that would bypass inflation altogether. Other business interests kept him from commercializing his ideas until 2018 when he devoted his efforts fulltime to what became Anchor.

The company has developed a proprietary algorithm that generates an index that Popa describes as “non-flationary”, denominated in “monetary measurement unit”, or MMU, whose value is derived from many inputs.

Like another project in the making, Facebook’s Libra, Anchor’s algorithm uses inputs from leading world currencies and major bond-market yields. But unlike Libra, Anchor’s most important input is GDP movements from 190 countries, using data sourced from institutions or companies such as the World Bank and Bloomberg. “This gives it intrinsic stability,” Popa said, in contrast to other stablecoins.

It’s really telling you the value of the dollar or the yen, without any government influence

Daniel Popa, Anchor

The index data tracks back 25 years to when Eastern European countries ditched Communism and joined the liberal world. Since then, global growth in real terms (adjusted for inflation) has been 0.4% to 0.5%, on a 25-year average (or around 2.5% per annum in notional terms). Popa says Anchor’s value is tied to this absolute economic growth, instead of the vagaries of fiat currencies or commodities (whose value also vary over time against the dollar, making them unpredictable).

Anchor versus Dock

Anchor’s value will have to be managed actively. The company’s plan is a dual-currency launch. First is the Anchor coin itself, which Popa describes as a “payments token”, built on the Ethereum blockchain. The plan is to issue 700 million tokens on Liquid, with MMU currently trading at about 79 U.S. cents to one Anchor; the company is aiming to raise a total of around $600 million.

This money will go to seeding a fund that will invest in currencies and bonds to stabilize the Anchor token (ANCT), as will any returns on investment. As those investments gain in value over time, they will support an increase in value of Anchor tokens. The fund will be actively managed by Anchor to cover market events.

One of the vulnerabilities of stablecoins is that they can be broken in severe market conditions. Anchor is therefore launching a second Dock Token, which Popa describes as a “utility token”. ANCT is the main payments or currency token, while DOCT is utility token used systematically to buy or sell ANCT to maintain its price to MMUs. DOCT’s algorithm is built to provide incentives to ANCT users to contract or expand the supply of ANCT.

Dock Tokens are not tradable on exchanges, but serve as the gateway to access Anchor Tokens: upon purchasing DOCT, users automatically agree to its terms and conditions that build in this rebalancing mechanism, in return for benefits such as discounts when new ANCT is being minted.

“The Anchor token gives you a financial anchor in choppy waters,” Popa said. “When there’s a storm, we ask users to Dock their boat, and we burn the excess tokens in what we call a contraction phase. In other periods we ask users to expand the market.” He says this is just one of several tactics devised to maintain the stability of ANCT.

Measuring money

Popa declined to detail how the company defines a payments token or a utility token, saying he didn’t want to be drawn on legal issues. The company’s legal team is confident the firm is in compliance with Swiss regulations, and it will seek licenses in other jurisdictions where necessary. One of the company’s goals is to expand to other markets, with Asia a priority.

Popa, who has founded and run large-scale businesses before, wants to see the company grow quickly. It now counts 30 developers on staff, based around the world, a number he hopes will rise to 200 over the next 24 months. The priority is to grow the stablecoin and its ecosystem, with more traders using the associated Anchor app. This by itself won’t generate much in the way of revenues, but a critical mass of users would enable Anchor to launch financial services on its wallet (similar to how Libra would offer credit and other services via its Calibra app).

Popa says he hopes Libra also gets off the ground, which has many structural similarities but is fundamentally valued on fiat currencies. “The more participants, the sooner we get mass adoption of cryptocurrencies and stablecoins,” he said, adding that he expects other big corporations to enter the fray.

If the project gains currency (ba-dum-dum) then its biggest risk would be that global growth slows down. Against a backdrop of buffers against further exploitation of natural resources, climate change, and aging demographics in the world’s leading economies, is Popa worried about this?

He says no, noting that for decades growth has been constant. Even in 2008, when most countries fell into recession, aggregate business growth grew year-on-year. Moreover, he says, a momentary fall in growth would be smoothed over by the algorithm’s cumulative calculations of growth since the 1990s.

What excites him the most is how this calculation can be used. The firm’s website has a simulator measuring MMU against 19 fiat currencies plus bitcoin and Tether, going back to 2012. “It’s really telling you the value of the dollar or the yen, without any influence by a government,” Popa said.

He says the purpose of MMU is not a stablecoin per se, but to serve as a unit of monetary measurement. “Everything has a measure of unit value,” he said, noting physical phenomena such as distance, volume, pressure and so on. This endows these categories with predictability and stability.

“Everything has a unit of value, except money,” Popa said. The challenge he faces is that money is a social phenomenon, subject to human agreements rather than physical or mathematical laws of nature. Has digital finance changed that?

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As distributed ledgers diversify, DTCC will expand projects