Episode 25: Understanding the Blockchain’s Implications for Financial Services and Beyond
When you think about the blockchain, you probably think about a public ledger that lets you move money securely from one place to another. But the reality is that it’s about more than that. It’s a way to safely share all kinds of information. In this episode, Georgian Partners’ Ben Wilde talks with Alex Tapscott, the CEO and Founder of Northwest Passage Ventures, about the implications of the blockchain in financial services and beyond.
You’ll hear about:
-The limitations of the traditional Internet for payments (2:41)
-The underlying reasons why the promise of the Internet was unfulfilled (4:28)
-Bitcoin and the peer-to-peer economy (7:13)
-The broader applications of the blockchain (8:04)
-Who’s adopting the technology (10:44)
-Misconceptions about the blockchain (14: 47)
-The rise of private blockchains (17:45)
-How banks are using the blockchain to trade with each other (21:24)
-How NASDAQ is reinventing its business with the blockchain (24:13)
-Opportunities for blockchain beyond financial services (26:16)
Jon Prial: Welcome to the Impact Podcast. I’m Jon Prial. A while back, we did an episode of The Impact Podcast with an entrepreneur and investor named William Mougayar.
It was actually our second episode and one of our most popular, probably because in it, William does a great job of explaining this really complex technology called the blockchain.
This week, we wanted to revisit the blockchain and take a deeper look at its implications for financial services and digital rights management, among other areas. In this episode, my colleague, Ben Wilde, whose Kiwi accent you might recognize from previous shows, talks with Alex Tapscott, the CEO and Founder of Northwest Passage Ventures.
In addition to being an entrepreneur and venture capitalist, Alex is also the coauthor of the book “Blockchain Revolution — How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World.” Let’s join in their conversation.
Ben Wilde: Thanks Alex. Maybe you could start off with give us the one to two-minute overview of what this thing blockchain is and also why you’re so excited about it.
Alex Tapscott: I came across this topic the way a lot of people did, just by reading a little bit about bitcoin in the news. This would have been back in 2013. Immediately I saw in it something really interesting, or at the very least, new.
The idea that you could have this currency that wasn’t issued or controlled by a nation state, or by a supranational organization and that these people out there were actually using it to buy things, trading it like an asset. It started as a curiosity more than anything else.
The more I dug into Bitcoin the better I began to understand the underlying technology, this blockchain technology, which basically I became convinced was going to be a very, very big deal. This is back in 2014. I launched into a research project trying to better understand bitcoin before blockchain had really entered the vernacular.
That eventually led to a sequence of different research projects that I coauthored along with my father, Don Tapscott, trying to better understand the implications of this technology.
We’ve become convinced, basically, that blockchain represents nothing short of the second generation of the Internet, and as a result think it’s going to have a really big impact on business and the world.
Ben: In the book, you talk about the promise of the original Internet, this idea that we’d all be trading with each other, that there would be a shift away from the old world order.
Then what’s really happened is consolidation of money and power, which is almost bigger than anything that happened in traditional economic models. Can you talk a little bit about that and why you think Blockchain can tip the apple cart up?
Alex: Absolutely. That’s totally correct. The promise of the first generation of the Internet was to enable a true peer-to-peer economy, where anybody could be a producer or a buyer in an open market, and that we wouldn’t have to rely on firms as much to transact or do business.
Except the Internet is limited in its utility as a transaction platform, for the simple reason that when you send, or share, or move information online, like an email or you host a website or you send a PDF, you’re not actually sharing an original. You’re sharing or sending a copy, and you retain the original as a result.
That’s actually a very good thing in certain use cases. It basically gives us a platform for the democratization of information. If you have access to Google or Wikipedia, you can access all sorts of information you couldn’t before. It’s OK to have a publishing platform or printing press for information.
However, when it comes to things of value, assets like money, stocks, or bonds, sending a copy and retaining an original is a really bad idea. If I give you $20 in payment for something, it’s really important that you know that you have that $20 and I don’t still have it, because if I can send that same $20 to a million other people, the $20 instantly becomes worthless.
This is an issue that cryptographers have been trying to solve for 20 years. It’s called the double payment problem. They had not been able to do it for most of the Internet. As a result, the promise of the Internet was unfulfilled.
Ben: Is it a technology issue with how the Internet was built in terms of the protocols and things? Is it how we use it? Why do you think that we got to this point? There’s a lot more participants in economic activity now.
So, the size of the transaction’s gone down, the cost, the barriers of entry to business have gone up, but typically that’s done on other people’s platforms. Someone’s controlling the platform. Is that the main issue? Was it a technology issue?
Alex: The simple issue is that it’s very difficult to verify the identity and establish trust with someone online. As a result, we still rely on intermediaries, in the same way that we did in the pre-digital era, but to a greater degree. These intermediaries are familiar to many.
There are banks, but also governments, and big technology firms increasingly have become the arbiters of a lot of commerce online, like Google, Facebook, and others. Though these intermediaries do an OK job, they have a lot of thoughts.
The first one is that they’re all centralized, and anything that’s centralized is vulnerable to attack or hacking or failure. We see this play out regularly — Twitter, LinkedIn, Home Depot, Target, J.P. Morgan, Morgan Stanley, the NSA, the State Department. Centralized systems have all been hacked.
The intermediaries also tax the system. In the case of sending money overseas, it can cost 10 percent for me to send money from Toronto to Auckland or wherever you are in New Zealand. It’s crazy when you actually think about it because we never talk about cross border email, but we do talk about cross border payments.
Money is just information and yet we still have to pay these exorbitant fees. One of the reasons is because the infrastructure for the financial services industry is old. It’s antiquated.
We would have had to rely on the swift messaging system which was built 1970s, mainframe technology or ACH in the US at the automated clearinghouse, which is also similarly designed 30, 40 years ago. I mean that’s older than I am. Before I go on here, just a couple other issues with these intermediaries.
One of them is that they exclude 2.5 billion people from the world who don’t have access to a bank account. You can argue pretty much that they capture an asymmetric amount of the value that’s been created.
The upshot of all of this is that in addition, they capture all this data about us as individuals which prevents us from using it to organize our affairs, but also potentially undermines our privacy in the process.
This is a big bargain that we have to make in order to do business online. It’s when we deal with these intermediaries, we succumb to all of these flaws or all of these shortcomings.
Unfortunately, it’s prevented the promise of the peer-to-peer economy that everyone thought would be made possible by the Internet from coming true. With Blockchain we have a solution, basically.
Ben: Talk a little bit about that because I mean you talked about peer-to-peer a couple of times. Give me the concrete example of how this will work or does work today with Bitcoin using the Blockchain and without an intermediary?
Alex: Yeah, so all this Blockchain stuff started with Bitcoin back in 2008. The global financial system was about to collapse, and the group of programmers named Satoshi and Nakamoto developed this thing called Bitcoin, which is basically a way to do cash on the Internet, to make payments peer-to-peer without using an intermediary.
Kind of in the same way as that you go down to a hotdog stand and buy a hotdog and a can of Coke. You give the guy the cash. There’s no intermediary in that transaction.
It launched in 2008 and since then, has worked splendidly as a way for people anywhere in the world to conduct business or transact without knowing each other. In that regard, Bitcoin is really the first use case for this technology.
The idea is that Blockchain is not just the technology now in Bitcoin. It’s a currency but rather that it can be used to move and store and manage literally anything of value. For example, a lot of big banks right now are looking at it as a way to move financial assets such as bonds and stocks.
You’ve got people in the music industry who are looking at it as a way to simplify digital rights management by ensuring every kind of song it’s listening to that a payment is made automatically rather than having to wait weeks or months for a royalty check to come in.
You’re seeing people in government looking at it as a way to solve identity crises in a lot of parts of the world where you basically, a lot of government systems, their data is siloed, and they don’t share it with each other because they’re worried about data security.
If you have a platform that is very difficult to crack and is also encrypted and secured, then you can think about how more easily you can move information around. That has applications in healthcare. It has applications in other government services and insurance, etc.
It’s being viewed as a way to enable journalists and other artists to monetize their content through what’s called micro payments. There are a variety of other really transformative use cases.
Actually, one more that I’d love to share is this idea that in a few years’ time, hundreds of billions of devices are going to be connected to each other through the Internet of Things. These devices are going to need a way to transact to communicate information, communicate value to each other securely.
If you’ve got a solar panel on your rooftop that’s generating electricity, it can now sell that directly peer-to-peer in a distributed power to your neighbor rather than a total sale rate into the centralized utility.
Now, those payments are going to be happening constantly. We call it the metering economy where they’re just constantly being metered out. As a result, they’re not going to go through the Visa network or the corresponding banking network. You need a mechanism to do that payment quickly and peer-to-peer.
Ben: You raise a number of interesting points there, one of which is I’m sitting in an established software company, maybe growth stage, building my business. I’m not doing blockchain today, but it’s obviously becoming a factor.
If I operate a model that involves some sort of providing trust on behalf of other people or acting in some capacity as an intermediary, then I am potentially in the crosshairs.
Alex: You’re either in the crosshairs or it’s an opportunity to completely reinvent your business.
Ben: Do you see that happening from rank startups coming through? You talked about some banks and things, but are you also seeing large, established software companies come through and start to adopt this approach?
Alex: I talked about banks. Throughout history, leaders of the old paradigm have been able to adapt to the new. I think about a company like IBM, for example. Has gone through four different industrial revolutions and has gotten bigger and better as a result.
Most of the time, leaders of the old have a real hard time embracing the new. The innovator’s dilemma of how do you cannibalize what you got to start anew? It’s more likely that a lot of the big change that’s going to happen in this industry will come from emerging companies and new companies.
Which is good, because entrepreneurship is the engine of the economy. It’s the source of new jobs and new value, and so I welcome that. It’d be a mistake to think that this technology will only impact established industries like the banking industry, which has kind of been unchanged for many decades.
One of the things we look at in the book is this idea of sharing economy companies like Uber, and Airbnb, and Lyft, and Taskrabbit. Because they’re the disruptors. They’re the ones who have disrupted an old industry, but it’s them who are actually the most or one of the most likely to be disrupted.
In our view, Airbnb and Uber aren’t really sharing economy companies. In fact, they’re successful because they don’t share. What they do is they aggregate excess capacity — drivers, rooms, and houses — through a centralized platform and resell them.
In the process, they take a big fee but they also capture the value — in Uber’s case $65 billion of equity value. You can imagine with blockchain, rather than a company as Uber, a cooperative that’s jointly owned by the drivers.
Where rather than an intermediary doing all of that coordinating and contracting and payments, it could all be done automatically through this system. Because in the end, what does Uber really do?
It’s a way for drivers and fares to establish identity of the person who might be picking them up or the place that they might be staying, and as a result to get reputation on who they are. It’s a way to make payments seamlessly and frictionlessly. That’s one of the great advantages of it.
It’s a way for drivers — in Uber’s case — for drivers and fares to contract with each other. We don’t think we’re entering into a contract, but in a sense we are. You don’t pay unless your driver takes you where you want to go. You have this centralized company that’s enforcing and doing all of the process to make sure that that occurs.
Each of those different functions — identity, reputation, payments, and contracting — can all be simplified significantly through blockchain. Is this the end of Uber and Airbnb? I don’t think so. In fact, I think that these companies could actually create value by exploring these opportunities.
Airbnb knows this, which is why they recently bought a blockchain development company. Because one of the big things with Airbnb is, occasionally someone trashes the apartment. The reputation that they might have at Airbnb is not actually an accurate reflection of who they are.
Airbnb sees this as a way to simplify and strengthen the identity and reputation component of their offering. Maybe the fees go down, but maybe they can do more because they have a better technology block.
Ben: There’s also the aspect of aggregation of demands and creation of demand for the services. The payments could be on a peer-to-peer basis, but you still need to find the people wanting a ride or find the people wanting an apartment, which isn’t necessarily suited to a peer-to-peer model.
You may end up with, I guess, these hybrid models, where an Airbnb is aggregating and creating a demand for the service, but then the actual transaction is more direct between individuals or companies…
Alex: I think you’re right in the sense that there is definitely still a role for people here, obviously to create value. Something like UberPool obviously requires a lot of really good engineering. It doesn’t just happen on its own.
Maybe it will. Maybe in two years’ time we’ll be talking about blockchain and neural networks running an autonomous Uber, but in the meantime, yeah, there’s still a role for smart people with good ideas to create value.
Ben: There’s a few misconceptions about the blockchain. Walk us through there a bit. Because you talked about it a few times. It’s this concept of a public ledger, which is unusable, can’t be changed and you can’t cheat on it.
Can you talk a little bit about that, because that is the underlying enabler of what makes this vision of a peer-to-peer economy potentially possible?
Alex: There are a few misconceptions, for sure. I think the most obvious one is that governments hate this stuff. Because when they think of a blockchain they think of bitcoin. Bitcoin is a threat to the current regime we have with fiat currencies.
We talk to a lot of people in government, very senior people at central banks, and nobody has this view. This is a total misconception. They’re pretty blasé on the subject of bitcoin specifically.
One central banker said, “If bitcoin becomes more and more a systemically important currency then we will hold it as a reserve currency along with the Swiss franc and the pound and the Euro and all sorts of other currencies. But we don’t really view it as a threat.”
On the subject of blockchain, they’re probably one of the most enthusiastic stakeholders out there. Because in blockchain they see an opportunity to radically improve the monetary regime, basically.
Which is to say that having a digital currency would enable you to eliminate physical fiat cash from the system and reduce crime and improve regulation, simply because digital money is more traceable and harder to forge than printed versions.
More profoundly, there’s an opportunity to use blockchain technology as a way to improve how you deliver central banking services. Central bankers, broadly speaking, manage monetary policy, act as a lender of last resort, or provide financial stability, and work as a regulator in conjunction with other regulators to manage the economy.
In each of those different roles there’s an opportunity for blockchain to improve things. Take monetary policy. If you were today to, say, cut interest rates today with the hope of spurring lending and spending and growth and whatever, you’d have to wait awhile to see whether or not your policy was effective.
Because you’d have to check in with banks to see if their loan books are growing. You’d have to check with retailers to see if their sales numbers had increased. With blockchain you’d be able to see the metadata of money moving through the system in real time.
That would give you the ability to monitor the policy more effectively. With something like risk, right now you’ve got to go independently vet every single bank’s books to make sure that they’re not taking on too much risk.
We see the Basel III requirements — banks have to self-report all this information. If transactional data was happening on a distributed ledger where regulators could see how money was moving through the system, they would know whether or not a bank was taking on too much risk.
They would know whether or not a bank might be doing something wrong, like financing terrorism or trying to launder money. It would make them much more effective at what they do.
Ben: There’s this trend that some of the banks are doing where they’re setting up their own private blockchains. In the government folks that you’ve been talking to, has that been something that they’ve been thinking about, is government-operated blockchains or sidechains?
Alex: Something like that, certainly. Most central bankers haven’t really come down on this issue one way or another, whereas I think a lot of banks have. I think a lot of commercial banks are saying, “We love the idea of secure, frictionless payments and better privacy,” as in better data security.
“We hate the idea of opening up our bank to some network of random, anonymous people to validate transactions. So, our solution is that we’re going to do what we think is best, take the best of Bitcoin, but remove the Bitcoin part of it.”
That’s where you see things like R3. This is a big consortium of 50 of the biggest banks. You see companies like Digital Asset Holdings, which is run by Blythe Masters, who used to be the head of JPMorgan’s investment bank, and Chain, which recently just got a big capital injection from a whole bunch of big players.
It’s too early to say whether or not one of these will be more effective than the other. I think it’s all, generally speaking, good. It’s all R&D in the industry. When it comes to central banks, I think that, more likely…
This is just conjecture, but if you were to put a fiat currency on the blockchain, you probably would not use the Bitcoin blockchain. You would probably develop your own. I think it’s too much of a leap for a central bank to trust a nation currency [laughs] to a network that they don’t fully know or control.
Ben: It’s a little bit like a flag, as well. It’s a pride thing, in a sovereign currency has status. I’d be surprised if governments were rushing to give that up.
Alex: Any solution that they come up with would have to ensure that they have the exact same type of control over the currency. They would never voluntarily relinquish any control over monetary supply, monetary policy, or anything like that.
Ben: Ultimately, that could end up resulting in destruction of the model, completely. We’re all a lot more global, we’re a lot more transitory now, and so that does give rise to an opportunity for a new global currency to come through in the future, whether or not that’s blockchain.
Alex: Over the past couple weeks, we’ve seen some really interesting announcements from central banks. The Bank of Canada announced that it’s working in partnership with all the biggest private banks, and this company R3 developed a digital dollar proof of concept.
The Federal Reserve convened 90 central bankers from around the world, and brought together leaders from the blockchain industry to discuss the impact of blockchain. Then Mark Carney, who’s the governor of the Bank of England said in his Mansion House speech, which is the biggest speech of the year.
That the force likely to have the biggest effect on the global economy for the next little while was FinTech and blockchain. He stopped short of saying that the UK ought to move to a digital pound. I think maybe, given the recent turmoil in Britain, that he should probably change his tune.
Never let good currency prices go to waste. Why not treat this as an opportunity to reinvent the monetary system? The upside of that, obviously, would be London today invariably is going to lose global relevance.
It’s not going to go away, but it’s going to weigh if it decides to, in fact, stay outside of the European Union, for the simple reason that Euro-denominated assets can no longer be traded there. A lot of banks would rather invest their money in another hub, like Singapore, Hong Kong, or New York.
If they’re going to maintain any kind of global leadership in financial services, which they have for two centuries, then they’ll need to take bold steps. What bolder step would there be than to create a digital path based on Blockchain?
Ben: That makes sense. I’ll circle back to the banks for a second. To me, it seems there’s a bit of schism where a lot of the small start-ups are focused on consumer, peer-to-peer. There’s been a lot of Bitcoin wallets and investment and forth about how to do small transactions.
On the other hand, the banks seem to be thinking about how to use blockchain to trade with each other and to move large amounts of assets or money around. Do you also see the banks starting to invest in the true peer-to-peer stuff, where they’re enabling individuals?
Maybe that’s not happening at banks in the West. Maybe it’s happening in other parts of the world. Talk to me about that. That, to me, would be a sign that they were in this not just from a defensive position, but they’re actually really figuring it all out.
Alex: I think, eventually, banks need to realize that this is going to impact every single part of the business. It’s merely a tool to save costs in your existing line of business. Let’s talk about banks for a second. I think, broadly speaking, and this is in answer to your question, fall into three different categories.
Category one is, “I’m afraid. I don’t know what this is and I don’t understand what this is, and so I’m just trying to do my best to get caught up.” That was the view of a lot of banks a year ago, maybe two years ago. I’d say, these days, more and more banks fit into category two.
Which is, they’re looking at this opportunistically, which is to say, global growth is slowing down. There’s increased competition from FinTech start-ups. The regulatory cost is going up for my business, which means that my revenue is probably going to slow. The only way I can drive ROE and equity growth for my share price is by cuttings costs.
Could I use this technology to strip out billions of dollars of back-office expense from a whole bunch of business units? Santander, a Spanish bank, said that $20 billion could be cut out of the industry, just from using blockchain for public market settlement and clearing.
Obviously, the potential for other asset classes is equally large, if not greater. I think that’s a valid perspective for banks, simply because they’re focused on cutting costs and they’re generally risk-averse, but it’s the wrong approach to take.
That’s where we get to category three. Category three are the banks and the financial services firms that are looking at this strategically. By that, I mean maybe I shouldn’t be thinking about cutting costs for my existing business, because maybe my existing business won’t be around in five to 10 years.
Maybe we won’t have market-making financial services firms acting as market-makers. Maybe we won’t have stock exchanges, where people convene to trade securities, because they’ll all be done peer-to-peer on a blockchain.
It’s not really logical to say what costs I will cut from a business that doesn’t exist. Instead, how can I grow revenue, enter new markets, create new products using this technology? I think NASDAQ is a really good example of a company that’s doing that.
When you think about NASDAQ, you think about a company that’s in the business of trading stocks and bonds and financial assets. NASDAQ doesn’t think of itself that way. NASDAQ thinks of itself as a technology firm, whose core competency is knowing about markets. Maybe it could use that knowledge about markets in something else.
At our New York book launch, the head of blockchain strategy at NASDAQ did a demonstration, where a person with a solar panel on their roof was generating excess electricity.
Instead of just selling that back into the grid wholesale, NASDAQ has a software platform that allows them to take that energy and turn it into an asset, like a security, which they can then sell, peer‑to‑peer, in a distributed power grid to their neighbor or to someone on the other side of town, getting a retail rate, rather than a wholesale rate.
They’ve taken an asset, which normal people never really traded — people don’t trade power — and they’ve created a way for individuals to become co-producers in the energy grid. In the process, maybe down the road, securities trading no longer is as important. Listing fees cease to exist, because companies don’t list in the traditional sense.
NASDAQ will have entered into a whole new market by doing something that people would have never expected from them, because they see, in this technology, an opportunity to do the impossible or things that they wouldn’t have been able to do before.
That’s the way that financial services firms ought to think about it. To circle back finally, right now, I think they’re just working their way in that direction. Those that don’t think that way do so at their own peril.
Ben: Makes sense. You’re obviously looking at governments, but also start-ups. You’ve got your own business, as well as the book. Without giving away too many secrets, where does your enthusiasm, from a business and entrepreneurial perspective, lie around blockchain?
Alex: I’m of the view that this technology is going to transform a lot of different industries, so I’m not focused exclusively on financial services. I think that there are as great, if not greater, opportunities in other areas.
From my perspective, I’m looking for companies that are trying to solve problems in the wholesale finance market, how you move, clear, settle, and manage large financial assets transactions, big opportunity.
I’m equally interested in the global un-banks, 2.5 billion people who don’t have access to basic things like payments and storage, or value and credit. I’m looking for startups in this space that are going to solve that problems, because big banks, with their legacy infrastructure costs and their overhead, aren’t going to be the ones that solve that problem.
Another issue is identity. The biggest asset class of the modern era is data, but it’s not owned or controlled by the people who create it, us, it’s owned and controlled by intermediaries. I think we’re seeing an increasing backlash from people and governments, who want to see individuals take more control of their information.
There are a bunch of identity start-ups that are trying to create a “virtual you,” a black box that you control. You decide how your data is used, rather than an intermediary. I think that could become the de facto passport for the digital world.
You have this identity that you transport into different situations, with banks, with governments, with your social network, with your Uber, etc. Identity is one that’s interesting as well.
Not the final thing, but one other area I’m really interested in is digital rights management, which is this problem were artists have gotten more and more screwed through every single transformation that’s happened, from the record label industry, to the digital download era, to the streaming era.
If you wrote a hit single in the ’80s and it sold a million copies, you’d make $45,000. If you get a million streams of the same song today, you can make $36. That’s a big problem. Something’s got to give, basically.
I’m looking for situations and markets where the status quo is totally unsustainable, and I think it’s totally unsustainable in this industry. There are companies like Mycelia in London, Stem in California, UJA Music in New York, that are trying to use blockchain and smart contracts to solve this problem, and here’s how.
Basically, a song isn’t just music. A song is an intelligent agent that has in it licensing and royalty agreements. Whenever it’s consumed — let’s say it’s played on the radio, streamed, used in a film or TV commercial, sampled for a ring tone — the value at that point of consumption goes automatically to the creators of content and does so with different licensing and royalty regimes.
You stream it, it’s a cent. You sample it, it’s a thousand bucks. You put it in a TV commercial, there’s different licensing and royalty regime. DRM, digital rights management, is an area that is flawed — very flawed — and everyone knows it, from YouTube, to Spotify, to the labels, and especially the artists. Solving that would be a multi-billion-dollar opportunity.
Ben: The Internet is the world’s largest copying machine. That’s what it was designed for.
Alex: That’s the problem. Music went from an asset to a free commodity, because we could just publish it over and over again.
Ben: Once control and DRM was provided in the form of iTunes and other streaming services, you had that shift of power. That’s what you’re looking for. You’re looking for…
Alex: I’m looking for one or two opportunities in each of these five different transformational areas.
Ben: Disparity of power, disparity in the relationship, whether it’s potentially venture capital firms in the LP relationship, like only certain people can invest in that asset class, whether it’s the distribution and monetization of music, whatever it is, looking for those lopsided relationships is something that’s got potential for the blockchain.
Alex: Anything where an intermediary controls an asymmetric amount of the value and could be disrupted significantly is an area that I’m interested in.
Jon: That was Ben Wilde, talking to Alex Tapscott. You can find Alex’s book, “Blockchain Revolution; How the Technology Behind Bitcoin is Changing Money, Business and the World,” on Amazon or wherever you go to buy your books.
Thanks for listening. For the Impact Podcast, I’m Jon Prial