Streetwise Professor

July 17, 2017

Alphonse and Gaston Meet LMEshield–and Provide a Cautionary Tale for Blockchain Evangelists

Filed under: Blockchain,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 7:28 pm

This article isn’t explicitly about blockchain, but in a way it is. It describes the halting progress of the LME’s LMEShield digital warehouse receipt system, and ascribes its problems to the Alphonse-Gaston problem:

“It’s all about liquidity and a tipping point,” said an executive with a warehouse company.

“If Party A is using the system, they can’t trade if Party B is not using the system. It’s a redundant system until market masses are using it.”

After you, Alphonse. No! After you, Gaston! I insist! (Warning! Francophobia and Mexaphobia at the link!)

In essence, LMEshield is attempting to perform one of the same functions as blockchain–providing a secure, digital record of ownership. LMEshield’s technological implementation is not blockchain or distributed ledger, per se. It is a permissioned network operated by a trusted party, and does not employ a distributed ledger, rather than being an unpermissioned network not involving a trusted party, run on a DL.

But it is not that technological difference that is causing the problem: it is the challenge of coordinating the adoption of the use of the system. This coordination problem exists here even though there is an entity–the LME–that has an incentive to promote adoption and build a critical mass so that tipping takes over. Despite a promoter, the virtuous cycle has not taken hold. The adoption problem is even more challenging without a promoter.

This problem will be present in all attempts to create a secure digital record of ownership, regardless of the technology used to achieve this goal.* There is more than one technology to skin this cat, and it is not the technology that will in the end determine whether the cat gets skinned: it is the ability to overcome the coordination problem.**

And as I’ve noted before, if tipping does occur, that just creates another conundrum: tipping effectively creates a natural monopoly (or at best a small numbers natural oligopoly), which raises questions of market power, rent seeking, and governance.

Bitcoin world is providing an illustration of the challenges of governance (as well as raising questions about the scalability of blockchain). Block size has become a big constraint on the capacity to process transactions, leading to a spike in transactions charges and long lags in processing transactions. There are basically two proposals to address this issue: expand the size of blocks, or allow some processing to occur off the blockchain. This has divided Bitcoin world into camps, and raises the possibility that if the dispute is not resolved Bitcoin could experience a hard fork (i.e., split into two or more incompatible networks). Miners (mainly Chinese) want to expand block size: Core (the developers who maintain the software) want to externalize some processing. Both sides are talking their book–go figure–which illustrates that distributive considerations and politicking, rather than efficiency, will have an outsized effect on the outcome.

Keep both LMEshield and the Bitcoin block size debate in mind when somebody offers you pie-in-the-sky, techno-evangalist predictions of how blockchain/DLT Is Going to Change the World. It’s not the technology alone that matters. Indeed, that may be one of the least challenging issues.

Also keep in mind that there is nothing new under the sun. The functions that blockchain/DLT are intended to–or dreamed to–perform are inherent in all transactional settings, including in particular financial and commodity transactions. Blockchain/DLT is a different way of skinning the cat, but the cat has been skinned one way or ‘tother since the dawn of these markets. Maybe in some cases, blockchain/DLT will do it more efficiently. Maybe elements of blockchain/DLT will be blended into more traditional ways of performing these functions. Maybe some applications will prove resistant to blockchain/DLT.

But the crucial thing to keep in mind is that blockchain/DLT will not banish the fundamental challenges of coordinated adoption and governance of a system that scales. And note that if it doesn’t scale, it won’t replace existing systems (which do), and if it does scale, it will pose the same organization, governance, and market power issues that legacy systems do.

*There is no guarantee that DLT is even a technological advance on existing technology. As I discuss further on, some implementations (notably Bitcoin) have exhibited severe problems in scaling. If it don’t scale, it will fail.

**I own a cat. I like my cat. I like cats generally. If colloquialisms offend, this is not the place for you. Particularly colorful if somewhat archaic American colloquialisms that I learned at my grandfather’s knee. Alphonse and Gaston is also something I picked up from my grandfather. Today it would cause an outbreak of fainting, shrieking, and pearl clutching (though maybe not–after all, the characters are Europeans), but if you can’t separate the basic comedic idea from what was acceptable in 1903 (the year of my grandfather’s birth, as well as the date of that clip) but isn’t acceptable today, you’re the one with the issues.

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