In a matter of months, this word, blockchain, has gone viral on trading floors and in the executive suites of banks and brokerages on both sides of the Atlantic. You can’t attend a finance conference these days without hearing it mentioned on a panel or at a reception or even in the loo. At a recent blockchain confab in London’s hip East End, the host asked if there were any bankers in the room. More than half the audience members, all dressed in suits, raised their hands. ... Now, everyone’s trying to figure out whether the blockchain is just so much hype or if Masters’s firm and other startups are really going to change the systems that process trillions of dollars in securities trades. When investors buy and sell syndicated loans or derivatives or move money around the world, they must cope with opaque and clunky back-office processes that rely on negotiated contracts between buyers and sellers, lots of phone calls, lots of lawyers, and even the occasional fax. It still takes almost 20 days, on average, to settle syndicated loan trades. ... A June report backed by Santander InnoVentures, the Spanish bank’s fintech investment fund, estimated the blockchain could save lenders up to $20 billion annually in settlement, regulatory, and cross-border payment costs. ... Venture capitalists plowed $400 million into dozens of digital currency startups in the first six months of this year, a fourfold jump from all of 2013, according to industry news site CoinDesk.
The technology behind bitcoin lets people who do not know or trust each other build a dependable ledger. This has implications far beyond the cryptocurrency ... lack of secure property rights is an endemic source of insecurity and injustice. It also makes it harder to use a house or a piece of land as collateral, stymying investment and job creation. ... Such problems seem worlds away from bitcoin, a currency based on clever cryptography which has a devoted following among mostly well-off, often anti-government and sometimes criminal geeks. But the cryptographic technology that underlies bitcoin, called the “blockchain”, has applications well beyond cash and currency. It offers a way for people who do not know or trust each other to create a record of who owns what that will compel the assent of everyone concerned. It is a way of making and preserving truths. ... Other applications for blockchain and similar “distributed ledgers” range from thwarting diamond thieves to streamlining stockmarkets: the NASDAQ exchange will soon start using a blockchain-based system to record trades in privately held companies. The Bank of England, not known for technological flights of fancy, seems electrified: distributed ledgers, it concluded in a research note late last year, are a “significant innovation” that could have “far-reaching implications” in the financial industry. ... Some of bitcoin’s critics have always seen it as the latest techy attempt to spread a “Californian ideology” which promises salvation through technology-induced decentralisation while ignoring and obfuscating the realities of power—and happily concentrating vast wealth in the hands of an elite. The idea of making trust a matter of coding, rather than of democratic politics, legitimacy and accountability, is not necessarily an appealing or empowering one.
Since banks charge transaction fees and bake in markups to exchange rates, the duo’s frequent currency transfers were costing them a small fortune. One year Käärmann thought HSBC had lost some of his Christmas bonus because 500 euros less than expected arrived in his account. ... The Estonian software engineers devised a simple solution: Hinrikus would transfer euros from his Estonian bank account into Käärmann’s Estonian account, while Käärmann would transfer pounds from his British HSBC account to Hinrikus’ at Lloyds. This would save them on international transfer fees, as well as on currency drag since they used the real exchange rate, known as the midmarket rate. Soon they had a Skype chat going with other Estonians who wanted to exchange money this way. Eventually this Skype-linked money exchange forum morphed into TransferWise. ... TransferWise uses a system not unlike the ones big financial institutions use to “cross-trade” securities, without incurring costs or commissions, by internally matching buyers and sellers. In this case the official midmarket price offers clarity–neither side is speculating–so it’s simply a balancing process, as TransferWise’s computers simultaneously verify that both sides have the money ready to swap. Indeed, its matching system means funds rarely cross international borders. ... The company is now producing roughly $5 million in revenue a month versus about $1 million per month a year ago. ... Of the $150 trillion in currency-transfer volume annually, the consumer portion amounts to an estimated $3 trillion. ... Still, that’s a decent-size market, with the revenue generated from it exceeding $45 billion.
Given Estonia’s history, the invention of Skype in this country was ironic. While Americans were buying their first cell phones, about a quarter-century ago, Estonians were shut off from the world as an outpost of the Soviet Union. You could easily wait 10 years to be assigned a landline phone. By the time the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the country was in a time warp. “We did not have anything,” says Gen. Riho Terras, the commander of Estonia’s armed forces, who had been a student activist at the time. The country had to reboot from zero. ... One generation on, Estonia is a time warp of another kind: a fast-f orward example of extreme digital living. For the rest of us, Estonia offers a glimpse into what happens when a country abandons old analog systems and opts to run completely online instead. ... At birth, every person is assigned a unique string of 11 digits, a digital identifier that from then on is key to operating almost every aspect of that person’s life—the 21st-century version of a Social Security number. The all-digital habits begin young: Estonian children learn computer programming at school, many beginning in kindergarten. ... this year Estonia will open the world’s first “data embassy” in Luxembourg—a storage building to house an entire backup of Estonia’s data that will enjoy the same sovereign rights as a regular embassy but be able to reboot the country remotely, in case of another attack. ... for a fee of 145 euros (about $154) e-residents can register companies in Estonia, no matter where they live, gaining automatic access to the EU’s giant common market—about 440 million once Britain leaves the union.
A year ago a hacker stole $55 million of a virtual currency known as ether. This is the story of the bold attempt to rewrite that history. ... Rather than moving bitcoin from one user to another, the ethereum blockchain hosts fully functioning computer programs called smart contracts—essentially agreements that enforce themselves by means of code rather than courts. That means they can automate the life cycle of bond payments, say, or ensure that pharmaceutical companies can authenticate the sources of their drugs. Yet smart contracts are also new and mostly untested. Like all software, they are only as reliable as their coding—and Gün was pretty sure he’d found a big problem. ... Gün feared the bug could allow a hacker to make unlimited ATM-like withdrawals from the millions, even if the attacker, who'd have needed to be an investor, had only $10 in his account. ... This staggering amount of money lived inside a program called a decentralized autonomous organization, or DAO. Dreamed up less than a year earlier and governed by a smart contract, the DAO was intended to democratize how ethereum projects are funded. Thousands of dreamers and schemers and developers who populate the cutting edge of computer science, most of them young, had invested in the DAO.