Streetwise Professor

September 14, 2019

Bakkt in the (Crypto) Saddle

ICE is on the verge of launching Bitcoin futures. The official start date is 23 September.

The ICE contract is distinctive in a couple of ways.

First, it is a delivery settled contract. Indeed, this feature is what made the ICE product so long in coming. The exchange had to set up a depository, the Bakkt Warehouse. This required careful infrastructure design and jumping through regulatory hoops to establish the Bakkt Trust Company, and get approval from the NY Department of Financial Services.

Second, the structure of the contracts offered is similar to that of the London Metal Exchange. There are daily contracts extending 70 days into the future, as well as more conventional monthly contracts. (LME offers daily contracts going out three months, then 3-, 15-, and 27-month contracts). The daily contracts settle two days after expiration, again similar to LME.

The whole initiative is quite fascinating, as it represents a dual competitive strategy: Bakkt is simultaneously competing in the futures space (against CME in particular), and against spot crypto exchanges.

What are its prospects? I would have to say that Bakkt is a better mousetrap.

It certainly offers many advantages as a spot platform over the plethora of existing Bitcoin/crypto exchanges. These advantages include ICE’s reputation, the creation of a warehouse with substantial capital backing, and regulatory protections. Here is a case in which regulation can be a feature, not a bug.

Furthermore, for decades–over a quarter-century, in fact–I have argued that physical delivery is a far superior mechanism for price discovery and ensuring convergence than cash settlement. The myriad issues that were uncovered in natural gas when rocks were overturned in the post-Enron era, the chronic controversies over Platts windows, and the IBORs have demonstrated the frailty, and vulnerability to manipulation of cash settlement mechanisms.

Crypto is somewhat different–or at least, has the potential to be–because the CME’s cash settlement mechanism is based off prices determined on several BTC exchanges, in much the same way as the S&P500 settlement mechanism is based on prices determined at centralized auction markets.

But the crypto exchanges are not the NYSE or Nasdaq. They are a rather dodgy lot, and there is some evidence of manipulation and inflated volumes on these exchanges.

It’s also something of a puzzle that so many crypto exchanges survive. The centripetal forces of liquidity tend to cause trading in a particular instrument to gravitate to a single platform. The fact that this hasn’t happened in crypto is anomalous, and suggests that normal economic forces are not operating in this market. This raises some concerns.

Bakkt potentially represents a double-barrel threat to CME. Not only is it competing in futures, if it attracts a considerable amount of spot trading activity (due to a superior trading, clearing, settlement and custodial platform, reputational capital, and regulatory safeguards) this will undermine the reliability of CME’s cash settlement mechanism by attracting volume away from the markets CME uses to determine final settlement prices. This could make these market prices less reliable, and more subject to manipulation. Indeed, some–and maybe all–of these exchanges could disappear if ICE’s cash market dominates. CME would be up a creek then.

That said, one of the lessons of inter-exchange competition is that the best mousetrap doesn’t always win. In particular, CME has already established liquidity in the futures market, and as even as formidable competitor as Eurex found out in Treasuries in the early-oughties, it is difficult to induce a shift of liquidity to a competitor.

There are differences between crypto and other more traditional financial products (cash and derivatives) that may make that liquidity-based first mover advantage less decisive. For one thing, as I noted earlier, heretofore cash crypto has proved an exception to the winner-takes-all rule. Maybe the same will hold true for crypto futures: since I don’t understand why cash has been an exception to the rule, I’d be reluctant to say that futures won’t be (although CBOE’s exit suggests it might). For another, the complementarity between cash and futures in this case (which ICE is cleverly exploiting in its LME-like contract structure) could prove decisive. If ICE can get traction in the fragmented cash market, that would bode well for its prospects in futures.

Entry into a derivatives or cash market in competition with an incumbent is always a highly leveraged bet. Odds are that you fail, but if you win it can prove enormously lucrative. That’s essentially the bet that ICE is taking in BTC.

The ICE/Bakkt initiative will prove to be a fascinating case study in inter-exchange competition. Crypto is sufficiently distinctive, and the double-barrel ICE initiative sufficiently innovative, that the traditional betting form (go with the incumbent) could well fail. I will watch with interest.

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June 19, 2019

Can You Spare Me a Zuck Buck? Spare me.

Filed under: Blockchain,Cryptocurrency,Economics,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 3:08 pm

To huge fanfare, Facebook announced the impending release of a new cryptocurrency, “Libra.” Except it isn’t–a crypto, that is. Whereas real cryptocurrencies are decentralized, anonymous, unpermissioned, and lack trusted intermediaries, Libra is centralized, permissioned, non-anomymous and chock-full o’ intermediaries in addition to Facebook. It doesn’t really utilize a blockchain either.

Other than that . . .

For the best (IMO) take on the “Zuck Buck”, I heartily recommend FT Alphaville’s extended take–and takedown. I’ll just add a few comments.

First, when it comes to finance, there is little (if anything) new under the sun, and that is clearly true of Libra. The Alphaville stories provide several historical precedents, to which I’ll just add another. It is basically like pre-National Bank Act banking system in which banks issued bank notes that circulated as hand-to-hand media of exchange, and which were theoretically convertible into currency (gold prior to the Civil War) on demand. Libra is functionally equivalent to such bank notes, with the main distinction that it is represented by bytes rather than pieces of paper.

Facebook attempts to allay concerns about such a system by requiring 100 percent backing by bank deposits or low-default-risk government bonds, but as historical experience (some as recent as 2008) demonstrates, although such systems are less subject to runs than liabilities issued by entities that invest the proceeds in illiquid assets, they are not necessarily run-proof.

Furthermore, the economic model here isn’t that different from the 19th century bank model because the issuer can profit by investing the proceeds from the issue of the currency in interest bearing assets, and pocketing the interest. Those buying the currency forego interest income, and presumably are willing to do so because of it reduces the costs of engaging in various kinds of transactions.

This type of system faces different kinds of difficulties in low and high interest rate environments. In high rate environments, the opportunity cost of holding the currency is high, which leads to lower quantity demanded. In low rate environments, the revenue stream may be insufficient to cover the costs incurred by the intermediaries. This creates an incentive for asset substitution, i.e., to allow backing the currency with higher risk assets (with higher yields) thereby increasing insolvency and run risks.

I note in passing that low interest rates destroyed the traditional FCM model which relied on interest income from customer margins as a major revenue stream (as Facebook is proposing here). Ask John Corzine about that, and look to the experience of MF Global.

Why introduce this in a low interest rate environment? Maybe this is a kind of loss-leader strategy. The opportunity cost of holding Libra is low now (given low rates), so maybe a lot of people will buy in now. Even though the benefits to the issuers/intermediaries may be low now (because the interest income is low), they may be counting on customer stickiness once there is widespread adoption. That is, those who hold Libra when the cost of doing so is low may stick around even when the cost goes up substantially. That is, Facebook and its partners in this endeavor may be counting on some sort of switching cost or some behavioral irrationality to reduce the interest-rate sensitivity of demand for Libra.

Good luck with that. (For another example of nothing new under the sun, read up on disintermediation of traditional banks when interest bearing money market mutual funds came on the scene.)

I would also suggest that Libra has some disadvantages as a medium of exchange. For one thing, since assets will be held in multiple currencies, it creates currency risk for virtually everyone who uses it. For another, it involves additional cost to move from fiat into Libra and from Libra into fiat. This reduces the value of the Libra as a medium of exchange because of the resulting difference in cost in using it for within-network and off-network uses.

This last point relates to something else in the Libra white paper, namely, the claims that the currency will be a boon to the “unbanked.” This makes zero sense.

The reason that some people don’t have bank accounts is that the cost of servicing them (reflected in fees that banks charge) is above the willingness/ability of those people to pay for those services. There is no reason to believe that Libra reduces the cost of servicing the currently unbanked. Furthermore, the value of the services provided is likely to be lower, and substantially so because inter alia (a) the lack of brick an mortar facilities that low income people need for check cashing/depositing and cash depositing, (b) the restricted network of people with whom they can transact, and (c) currency risk.  Relatedly, it’s hard to see how one can move funds into our out of Libra without having access to banking services. I see the unbanked rhetoric as mere SJW eyewash attempting to make this look like some progressive social project.

The arrogance of Facebook is also rather astounding. Again, this is not crypto–it is banking. Yet Facebook presumes that it can do this without the panoply of licenses that banks must have, and without being subject to the same kinds of regulation as banks.

Because why? Trust me? Suuuurrreee, Mark.

Along these lines, note that the most benign interpretation behind Libra is that it is a narrow bank (100 percent reserve banking). But remember the Fed recently denied approval to TNB (“The Narrow Bank”) USA NA even though it was only going to offer deposits to “the most financially secure institutions” and explicitly eschewed providing retail banking services. Yet Marky et al expect the Fed (not to mention banking regulators in every other jurisdiction on the planet) to stand aside and let Facebook offer maybe (but maybe not) narrow banking services (with added currency risk!) to the great unwashed?

On what planet?

Note the furious government reactions to this, not just in the US but in Europe. Zuckerberg et al were totally delusional if they expected anything different, especially in light of Facebooks serial privacy, free-speech, and antitrust controversies.

In sum, in my opinion Libra faces serious economic and political/regulatory obstacles. Having politicians and regulators hate you isn’t bad per se in my book–it can actually represent an endorsement! But the economics of this are incredibly dodgy. My skepticism is only increased by the misleading packaging (crypto! a boon to the unbanked!) and the congenitally misleading packager.

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November 24, 2018

The Most Annoying and Pathetic Geopolitical Entity Ever? I Think So!

Filed under: Cryptocurrency,Economics,Politics — cpirrong @ 7:59 pm
There may be a more annoying geopolitical entity in history than the EU, but I’ll be damned if I can think of one.

In recent weeks, a group of northern EU states centered on the Netherlands have formed the “Hanseatic group” to represent their positions, regarding the Italy situation in particular.  This has outraged the French and the Germans.  In response to the blonde upstarts, French economy minister Bruno le Maire lashed out:

Speaking at a dinner with his Dutch counterpart Wopke Hoekstra in Paris on Thursday, Bruno Le Maire said he was “not comfortable” dealing with the Hanseatic group — eight to 10 countries that have agreed common positions calling for more national responsibility and stronger rules in the eurozone.

“Let’s imagine that France tries to create a club of the southern countries with Portugal, Italy, Spain — what would be the reaction of the other member states? Do you think that it would be a positive one? Do you think it would improve the situation of Europe?” Mr Le Maire told the Financial Times.

“I am not comfortable with the idea of creating new circles, new clubs, new leagues within Europe. If you want to create new divisions between the north and the south, or the west and east, you will never have France on your side,” said Mr Le Maire, who has spearheaded French ambitions to reform the eurozone in a partnership with Germany.

Some Franco-German initiatives, such as a blueprint for a eurozone budget, have met resistance from countries led by the Netherlands. The group has also advocated tougher enforcement of budgetary rules and moves towards debt restructuring in the eurozone to be agreed by EU governments next month.  (Emphasis added.)

Did you catch that?  Franco-German ambitions to reform the eurozone–OK!  Lilliputian resistance–BAD!!!!

When the hypocrisy was pointed out, Bruno a dit non! non! non! C’est totalement différent!

When asked whether the Franco-German alliance was not a “club”, Mr Le Maire said: “That is totally different. This is not a club. This is what is at the core of the European ambition: peace between France and Germany. This is at the core of the European Union.”

So, is M. Le Maire suggesting that absent the EU, jackbooted Germans would soon be marching in the shade along the tree-lined French roads?  If he is, that’s quite the insult to Germany, non?  But if he is, he is utterly delusional: to quote Patton, the post-post-modern Germans couldn’t fight their way out of a piss-soaked paper bag, and what’s more, have no desire even to try.  They’ve found alternative means to achieve dominance over the continent, and the French are now their (junior) allies in that endeavor.  A key part of that strategy is divide-and-conquer, and “clubs” like the Hanseatic one threaten that gambit.

Germano-French ambitions extend beyond Europe.  They want to leverage their dominance in the EU to a position of world influence.  Fortunately, here their efforts have proven again and again to be laughable.

A particularly juicy example is the hilarious efforts of the EU to set up a special purpose vehicle to facilitate trade with Iran in defiance of US sanctions, pour epater le bête orange.  They have made grandiose announcements.  Only one problem: European companies don’t want to touch this with a ten foot pole.  Make that two problems: no European government wants to touch it either:

So up to now the commission has been unable to find a home for the SPV. Not even a post restante address. No EU country has offered to host it. The sad SPV has been wandering between railway stations and airports, without a nationality, a bank account or even a real name. If I passed it on the street, I would put a euro in its hat.

Har!

And as I’ve pointed out since the day of the announcement, it is an utterly pointless exercise because it addresses every issue except the one that matters: secondary sanctions.  Once the US seized upon this mechanism, any attempt to circumvent sanctions by avoiding the dollar became utterly pointless: do a barter deal, or a Euro deal, or a Venezuelan crypto bolivar deal with a sanctioned Iranian company, and the Treasury will still hammer you.  So, if you want to do all your biz in cryptobolivars–knock yourself out! But if you want to do any business with the USD at all, think twice about dealing with a sanctioned entity by an SPV or any other way.  And pretty much every European company has decided that one thought is sufficient.

M. Le Maire seems to be getting a glimmer of a clue that the EU is a geopolitical lightweight:

“I’m not sure the Hanseatic League would be in a position to face the competition with China and the US”, he said. “If we are creating closed clubs, alliances within the EU then we run the risk of losing time and weakening our common project.”

Bruno. Dude: the EU is not in a position to face competition with China and the US.  This is proven daily.

So under German-French “leadership” the EU is likely to lurch along like it has been for years.  Compensating for their inability to achieve their vaulting global ambitions by beating up on the EU’s smaller members.  Annoying.  But in the end, risible and pathetic.

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August 1, 2018

This Is My Shocked Face: Blockchain Hype Is Fading Fast

Filed under: Blockchain,Commodities,Cryptocurrency,Economics — cpirrong @ 7:02 pm
Imagine my great surprise at reading a Bloomberg piece titled: “Blockchain, Once Seen as a Corporate Cure-All, Suffers Slowdown.

That was sarcasm, by the way.  I’ve long and publicly expressed my skepticism that blockchain will have revolutionary effects, at least in the near to medium term.  In my public speaking on the topic, I’ve explored the implications of three basic observations.  First, that blockchain is basically a way of sharing/communicating information, which can in turn be put to various uses.  Second, there alternative ways of sharing/communicating information, with different costs and benefits.  And third, it is necessary to distinguish between sharing information within an organization and between organizations.

Much of the hype about blockchain relates to the potential benefits of more efficient sharing and validation of information.  But this does not address the issue of whether blockchain does this more efficiently than alternative means of sharing/communicating/validating.  As in all institutional/technology issues, a comparison of alternatives is necessary.  This comparison has been sadly lacking in public discussions of the potential for blockchain, beyond incantations about blockchain eliminating the need for trusted third parties which is (a) often untrue (in part because trusted parties may be required to enter information into a blockchain, and (b) is not necessarily a feature, because trusted third parties may be able to operate more efficiently than consensus based systems employed on a blockchain.

The most developed implementation of blockchain (Bitcoin) involves very large cost to solve a particular problem that (a) is unique to cryptocurrency, and (b) is not necessarily important in other contexts–namely, the double spend problem in crypto.  Maybe blockchain is the best way to solve that particular problem (which itself begs the question of whether cryptocurrency`is an efficient solution to any economic problem), but that doesn’t mean that it will be a more efficient way of solving the myriad types of opportunism, fraud, and deceit that plague other kinds of transactions.  Double spend is not the alpha and omega of transactional challenges.  Indeed, it might be one of the most trivial.

Thinking in Williamsonian transaction cost terms, where the transaction is the unit of analysis, transactions are highly diverse.  Different kinds of transactions are vulnerable to different kinds of information and opportunism problems, meaning that customized blockchain approaches are likely necessary.  One likely cause for the waning enthusiasm mentioned in the Bloomberg article is that people are coming to the recognition that customization is not easy, and it may not be worth the candle, compared to other ways of addressing the same issues.  Relatedly, customization makes it harder to exploit scale economies, and recognition of this is likely to be making initially enthusiastic commercial users less keen on the idea: that is, it may be possible to use blockchain in many settings, but it may not be cost-effective to do so.

The siloed vs. cooperative divide is also likely to be extremely important, and the Bloomberg article mentions that issue a couple of times.  The blockchain initiatives that do seem to have been implemented, at least to some degree, as with Maersk in container shipping or Cargill with turkeys, are intra-firm endeavors that do not require coordination and cooperation across firms, and can exploit the governance structure that a firm has in place.  Many of the other proposed uses–for instance, in trade finance, or in commodity trading, both of which require myriad parties in a single transaction to communicate information among one another–are inherently multilateral.

This creates all sorts of challenges.  How can commercial rivals cooperate?  How are the gains from cooperation divided?–this is a problem even when participants supply complementary services, such as a trading firm, banks providing trade finance, and the buyer and seller of a commodity.  As oil unitization has shown, battles over dividing the gains from cooperation can dissipate much of those gains.  Who gets to see what information?  Who makes the rules?  How?  How are they enforced? What is the governance structure?  How is free riding prevented?  Who pays?

Ironically, where the gains from cooperation are seemingly biggest–where there are large numbers of potential participants–is exactly where the problems of coordination, negotiation, and agreement are likely to be most daunting.

I’ve drawn the analogy between these cooperative blockchain endeavors and commodity exchanges, which (as I showed in a 1995 JLS paper) were formed primarily as ways to reduce transactions costs via cooperative rule making and enforcement.  The old paper shows that exchanges faced serious obstacles in achieving the gains from cooperation, and often failed to do so.  Don’t expect blockchain to be any different, especially given the greater complexity of the transactional problems that it is being proposed as a fix.

Thus, I am not surprised to read things like this:

“The expectation was we’d quickly find use cases,” Magnus Haglind, Nasdaq’s senior vice president and head of product management for market technology, said in an interview. “But introducing new technologies requires broad collaboration with industry participants, and it all takes time.”

or this:

Most blockchains also can’t yet handle a large volume of transactions — a must-have for major corporations. And they only shine in certain types of use cases, typically where companies collaborate on projects. But because different businesses have to share the same blockchain, it can be a challenge to agree on technology and how to adopt it.

One of my favorite illustrations of the hype outstripping the reality is the endeavor launched with much fanfare in the cotton market, where IBM and The Seam announced an endeavor to use the blockchain to revolutionize the cotton supply chain.   It’s been almost two years, and after the initial press releases, it’s devilish hard to find any mention of the project, let alone any indication that it will go into operation anytime soon.

Read the Bloomberg article and you’ll have a better understanding of R3’s announcement of an IPO–and that they might have missed their opportunity.

In 2017 and a little before, Blockchain was a brand new shiny hammer.  People have been looking everywhere for nails to pound with it, and spending a lot of money in the effort.  But they’re finding that many transactional problems aren’t nails, that there are other hammers that might do the job better, and there are other problems that require many parties to agree on just how the hammer is to be used and by whom.  Given this, it is not surprising that the euphoria is fading fast.  The main question that remains is in what shrunken domain will blockchain actually be employed, and when.  My guess is that the domain will be relatively small, and the time until employment will be pretty long.

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July 13, 2018

Blockchain Wunderkinds: Solving Peripheral Problems, Missing the Big Picture

Filed under: Blockchain,Cryptocurrency,Economics,Exchanges — cpirrong @ 7:52 pm
Ethereum wunderkind Vitalik Buterin delivered a rant against centralized crypto exchanges:

“I definitely personally hope centralized exchanges burn in hell as much as possible,” Buterin said speaking to TechCrunch.

When bitcoin, the original cryptocurrency, was founded in 2008 by the anonymous Satoshi Nakomoto, the point was to create a decentralized financial future that renders middlemen useless. Nearly 10 years later, the centralized exchanges — those folks sitting in the middle of buyers and sellers — are among the most powerful players in the market for digital currencies such as ethereum and bitcoin.

Bloomberg News estimates they brought in $3 million a day last year. And exchanges such as Gemini and Coinbase are expanding at a clip, bringing on talent from Wall Street.

“It’s hard to ignore the irony that an asset created to allow decentralization is currently almost completely traded on centralized exchanges,” Peter Johnson, a vice president at Jump Ventures, said in an interview. Buterin, however, wants the crypto community to focus more on decentralization so that cryptos can more frequently trade peer-to-peer. Buterin’s remarks come as so-called decentralized exchange gain more attention.

Like many of his arrogant ilk, Buterin ignores the lesson of Chesterton’s fence: why does this thing you do not like and do not understand exist?

Yes, blockchain and cryptocurrencies allow peer-to-peer transactions.  They were largely designed to facilitate such transactions.  For some, the motivation is ideological: an anarchic belief in radical decentralization, and a deep distrust of centralized institutions.

But just because blockchain and related technologies reduce the costs of peer-to-peer transactions, doesn’t mean that such transactions are cheaper than centralized trading on exchanges.  Transacting requires finding a counterparty.  It requires negotiating a price (for a standardized thing, like a Bitcoin–negotiations of other terms for more complex things).  Negotiating a price is costly when information about value is diffuse, so in a decentralized setting not only is it necessary to search for counterparties, it is advantageous to search for information about prices to (a) find the best price, and (b) to be able to negotiate with better information about value .

Centralization reduces the cost of finding a counterparty.  It enhances competition, which tends to reduce bargaining costs.  It leads to better and more symmetric information about prices, which also tends to reduce bargaining costs.  Further, centralized markets can support specialized intermediaries–market makers–who specialize in smoothing out idiosyncratic temporal imbalances in buy and sell order flow, which further reduces trading costs.

Because of these features, centralized trading is frequently an emergent outcome of individual decisions, and one that economizes on transactions costs.  This is clearly what is happening in crypto world.  Indeed, the main puzzle at present is why there are so many exchanges.  The centripetal forces of liquidity will likely result in a huge consolidation in this space.

Buterin and others are attempting to find ways of mitigating some of the disadvantages of bilateral trading (bilateral just being another, more conventional, way of saying “peer-to-peer”).  Reducing the ways of finding people who want to take the other side of a transaction, for example.  But I am highly skeptical that these measures will overcome the inherent advantages of centralizing trading of homogeneous things that large numbers of people want to buy and sell pretty much 24/7, to the point that peer-to-peer will supplant centralized trading.  Buterin can rant all he wants, but centralization is here to stay, and if anything, this segment of the market will become more centralized.

Buterin’s error is seemingly the opposite of those who bewail the lack of centralization in some markets, e.g., those who want to make swaps trading more centralized and who rail against bilateral OTC transactions, but it is really the same mistake. Those who see too much centralization in some markets, and those who see too little in others, fail to recognize that trading mechanisms are emergent orders that develop diverse niches to accommodate the fact that transactors and transactions are heterogeneous.  Centralization is efficient for some transactors and transactions: bilateral/OTC for others.  That’s why we see both.

(This is a point I made at a Platts blockchain conference in November, BTW.  The theme of my talk was where decentralization can work, and where it is likely inefficient.  Trading of standardized instruments was one of the main cases I discussed.)

Alas, the ignorance of techno-geniuses is not limited to trading mechanisms.  One of the supposed benefits of blockchain that is that it allows the ownership of anything–a painting, a house, you name it–to be divided into shares, with the fractional interests recorded in an immutable register, and traded peer-to-peer.  That is, block chain facilitates equitization of assets.  A breakthrough!

Uhm, not really. The benefits of equitizing assets and risks has been long, long understood by economists.  In particular, it has long been understood that equitization facilitates more efficient risk sharing.

But long ago, economists also recognized that despite these apparent benefits, in fact very few assets and risks are equitized.  A vast literature has come up with explanations why.  Information and incentive problems–moral hazard and adverse selection–are notable among these.  A prosaic example: If I sell off shares in my car, what incentive do I have to maintain it properly and to economize on wear and tear and to reduce the probability of theft?  Who pays for maintenance? Who decides on what maintenance is needed?  When I sell the shares, I am likely to have better information about the value and condition of the vehicle, which would subject the buyers to an adverse selection problem, meaning that I am likely to get a low price for the shares–so why bother selling them?  There are other transactions cost problems associated with measurement (who verifies exactly what the asset is?) and opportunism and governance and control.   Related to the centralized trading point, if an asset is highly idiosyncratic/unstandardized, the desire to trade fractional shares will be small.

A potentially slightly cheaper way of recording and transferring fractional ownership does not address these far, far, far more fundamental impediments to equitizing (or should I say, “tokenizing”?) assets and risks.  But the coder geniuses miss the forest for the trees.  They see the issue that their technology can address, and think that it will be revolutionary, only because they do not understand the broader economic issues in play, and therefore think everyone born before them or who does not code must be an idiot.

No, not really.  They are looking at the capillaries, and missing the heart, veins, and arteries.

It reminds me of the Mark Twain quote: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”  Except seven years haven’t passed for the Buterins of the world, and frankly, I seriously doubt that they will.  Instead, they inhabit a techno-Groundhog Day.

All of this is symptomatic of blockchain hype and froth.  There is an indication that we have reached peak hype.  R3, a bank-led blockchain consortium, is contemplating an IPO.  To me this is a signal that those on the inside of blockchain development, especially in the area where its benefits have been particularly hyped (finance/payments/settlement/fintech) understand that the reality will never match the hyperbole, so it’s best to sell out while hyperbole reigns supreme.  (Yes, they claim that they are being approached by those looking to buy the whole thing, but take that with a big grain of salt–I view it merely as part of the sales pitch.  “This is a hot little property right now.  Better get in before someone snatches it away.”)

In brief: don’t be the greater fool.

I think that blockchain and DLT will have some viable commercial applications.  But I am highly confident that they will not be nearly as revolutionary as the True Believers claim.  This is in large part due to the fact that it is clear that the True Believers have an extremely narrow, blinkered understanding of the broader economic issues associated with transacting, ownership, risk transfer, incentives, and governance.  Blockchain may address some issues, but many–if not most–of these issues are secondary or tertiary, not fundamental.  Some things are done more efficiently in a centralized fashion–the trading of standardized instruments being one.  Some things are not equitized/tokenized not because it is technically infeasible/prohibitively costly to issue and record fractional interests, but because fractional ownership entails substantial incentive and information problems.

So don’t believe the hype.  And take a pass on those R3 shares, if they do come to market.

Addendum: the dominance of crypto exchanges is even more remarkable, given how they, well, pretty much suck.  They are hardly comparable to modern futures or equities trading exchanges.  Yet people still strongly prefer to trade on rather clunky platforms with major potential security issues where you can’t easily convert digital into fiat currency and which are likely rife with manipulation than peer-to-peer.  That tells you something.

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February 24, 2018

Are Trustless Transactions a Good Thing? I Don’t Know Until You Tell Me How Much They Cost

Filed under: Commodities,Cryptocurrency,Economics — The Profesor 2 @ 11:04 am
One of the most annoying crypto-tropes is the unconditional statement that Bitcoin and its competitors are great because they eliminate the need for trust in transactions. It is annoying because it is repeated ad nauseum despite the fact that it is seriously analytically incomplete. There is no free lunch: the banishment of trust comes at a cost, and a proper comparative analysis of cryptocurrency vis a vis alternatives (e.g., traditional bank-based payment mechanisms, fiat currency) requires a comparison of the costs of each. Which mechanism performs particular types of transactions more efficiently? Which mechanism performs particular economic functions more cheaply?

In Bitcoin, the economic function performed is the elimination of fraud (e.g., double spending, spending what you don’t have) in an anonymous setting. This is achieved via proof of work, which involves the use of real resources–notably, large quantities of electricity and computing power. That is, trustlessness comes at a cost.

The relevant question is whether this cost is higher or lower than the cost of performing the same economic functions (elimination of double spending, spending what you don’t have) using alternative mechanisms, such as traditional bank payment systems that rely on trust.

Trust is not free either. In essence, economic actors can be incentivized to act in a trustworthy way if they earn a stream of rents that would be lost if they betray trust.  But creating a stream of rents requires an increase in the price of an output and a reduction in the prices of the inputs of the trusted entity.  These price adjustments reduce output below the level that would be attained if transactions could be executed costlessly. (Proof-of-stake mechanisms use a variant of this to address double spend problems.)

The answer to this question is likely to differ, depending on the type of transaction at issue. For example, Bitcoin et al are likely to be cheaper for transactions for which anonymity or concealment of the identities of the parties from third parties  is highly desired by one or both of the transactors (which is a condition that may characterize many illicit transactions).*

It has yet to be shown, and there is room for serious doubt, that cryptocurrencies scale as efficiently as traditional trusted payment systems. Unless it scales, crypto will not be a viable replacement for large scale transactions, especially commercial transactions which represent the vast bulk of payments.

Another potential difference in cost involves security.  It is costly for trusted institutions to prevent theft and loss, but as has been seen of late, theft and loss are serious issues for crypto too. It is not clear which  mechanism mitigates theft and loss most cheaply.

Economics is all about the analysis of the costs and benefits of alternative means of achieving particular objectives. An analysis that hypes a feature of one such alternative (no trust required!) without comparing its costs with that for other ways of achieving the same objective (fraud-free transactions) is fundamentally flawed. Yet that is the default mode of discourse in cryptocurrency.

*The use of cryptocurrency in illicit transactions is close to the top of many elite/official criticisms of cryptocurrency–as it is in elite/official criticisms of fiat currency (“the war on cash”). I am at best ambivalent about this critique because the government decides what is illicit, and tends to overcriminalize transactions between consenting adults, and to overtax. As a Swiss friend told me when we were discussing the war on cash: “I would fight any attempt to eliminate cash. Cash is freedom!”

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