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Here's where big banks stand on blockchain

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

In case you haven’t heard, blockchain is all the rage lately on Wall Street, whereas bitcoin, the digital currency that blockchain came along with in 2009, is suddenly very uncool.

Blockchain, by the way, is the decentralized, peer-to-peer, open-source, distributed ledger technology that underlies bitcoin. (Check out our video explainer on blockchain.) The bitcoin blockchain is just one use case of the technology; lately the idea of utilizing the same technology, apart from cryptocurrency, has become popular. As Bloomberg’s Matt Levine wrote earlier this month, “If you are any sort of self-respecting financial or finance-adjacent professional these days, you had better be inserting the word ‘blockchain’ into random sentences to prove that you're up to speed.”

Indeed, banks and financial services have certainly hopped aboard the blockchain train. But behind public press releases about initiatives and blockchain experimentation, executives at these companies differ greatly in their thinking on the technology and their faith in it.

Father-and-son team Don and Alex Tapscott, both business strategy consultants, have a new book out today called “Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin is Changing Money, Business and the World.” A more apt title might hedge that the technology “could” change the world, but the book makes a convincing case for why blockchains might revolutionize the financial sector. (And and many other sectors, but for now, the excitement is starting with finance.) For their research, the Tapscotts spoke to numerous people in banking.

Alex Tapscott says people in banking fall into four categories right now in their attitudes about blockchain. It’s worth including here his full explanation, as told to Yahoo Finance:

“There are still a few who are generally afraid of this or don’t fully buy into it, but are trying to learn more. That’s increasingly a minority. More people these days fall into a second category, which is they see this as an opportunity to reduce cost in their existing business. That’s interesting. But for us, the bigger opportunity, and I think increasingly more financial services firms fit into this, is to say, How can we use this new technology platform to fundamentally reinvent our business? If billions of people in the world don’t have access to financial services, maybe we can be the ones to harness this new technology to offer them the same services we offer our existing clients. Now, there’s a fourth category of course: if you’re a bank that thinks this is all nonsense, I would highly recommend you at least upgrade to fearful. Because this change is happening.”

Well, blockchain believers may say the change is happening. And there are signs that is the case. To cite just two examples: More than 45 banks have signed on to blockchain consortium R3 CEV, including Goldman Sachs (GS), JPMorgan (JPM), and Bank of America (BAC), to test out blockchain tech for their transaction-settling processes; and blockchain startup Chain recently announced it had completed a blockchain-for-banking product and revealed Citi (C), Visa (V), and other heavy-hitters as launch partners.

But bitcoin believers (and yes, there are still many) say that the concept of closed, permissioned blockchains, without digital currency, doesn’t make much sense. At most, bitcoin executives say, it can improve back-office I.T. functions of banks, which is a rather unsexy proposition for a technology that can do much more. Some are hopeful that blockchains can eventually deliver a decentralized form of all kinds of technology platforms, including, say, Uber. “It’s the disruptors themselves that stand to be disrupted,” Alex Tapscott says, describing the possibility of a "super Uber" that cuts out the middleman operator.

As Don Tapscott explains, banks should be thinking bigger than they are. They ought to be aiming to revamp their systems entirely, rather than simply to improve efficiencies and reduce costs. “The blockchain is the biggest innovation in computer science in a generation, we think," he says. "And what it represents is the Internet of value. We’ve had the Internet of information for several decades. But when it comes to exchanging value—not just money, but music or loyalty points or stocks or bonds—you can’t do that in a peer-to-peer way without a powerful intermediary. This has resulted in a situation where powerful intermediaries are capturing all the value of the digital age."

That phrase, the "Internet of value," or something very close to it, has been used before to describe bitcoin and the blockchain. In fact, it’s the subject of an ongoing dispute between a prominent “cloud money” startup and an equally prominent figurehead within the bitcoin community. The latter, Andreas Antonopoulos, argues that “Internet of Money” is the best phrase to describe the promise of bitcoin, and that no one company ought to be using it as a corporate slogan.

Balaji Srinivasan, a partner at mega-influential VC firm Andreessen Horowitz and the CEO of bitcoin software company 21.co, has a similar idea for bitcoin, and is skeptical of the “blockchain minus bitcoin” fad. His vision: To create a “machine economy” in which computers can pay each other seamlessly in bitcoin.

As the Tapscotts do make clear in their book, we are still in the early days of this space. It is so early, in fact, that much of the mainstream media only covers this industry when there are salacious new reports of who might be the real Satoshi Nakamoto, the creator of bitcoin. They are missing what is really going on here, but they still have ample time. In the simultaneous races to innovate in both bitcoin and blockchain, there is not yet any clear victor.

The Blockchain Revolution is available now. Watch the above video for a more in-depth discussion about the book with its authors.


Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering technology and sports business. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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