Blockchain: What It Is and How It Works

Quickly:

  • Many speculate that blockchain could turn out to be one of the most revolutionary technologies ever developed.

By Al Dominick, CEO of DirectorCorps — parent co. to Bank Director & FinXTech

WASHINGTON, DC — J.P. Morgan’s CEO, Jamie Dimon, recently threw some big time shade at bitcoin.  However, as the Wall Street Journal shared this morning, he’s “still enamored with the technology that underpins it and other virtual currencies.”  For those wondering about where and why blockchain might revolutionize the business of banking, take a look at our just-released Q4 issue of Bank Director Magazine.  We dedicated our cover story to “Understanding Blockchain,” and this post teases out some of the key concepts bank executives and board members might focus in on.  Authored by John Engen, the full piece can be found, for free, here.  As you’ll read, the article covers three major points:

What is Blockchain

If you’re on the board of a typical U.S. bank, odds are that you don’t know much about blockchain, or distributed ledgers, except that there’s a heavy buzz around the space—and a lot of big bets being made. As John Engen wrote, being a know-nothing might be fine for now, but going forward could be untenable.

At its most basic, blockchain is a digital-ledger technology that allows market participants, including banks, to transfer assets across the internet quickly and without a centralized third party.

Some describe it as the next, inevitable step in the evolution of the internet; a structure to help confront concerns about security, trust and complexity that have emerged from a technology that has opened the world to sharing information.  To others, it looks more like business-process improvement software—a way to improve transparency, speed up transaction times and eliminate billions of dollars in expenses that markets pay to reconcile things like credit default swaps, corporate syndicated debt and other high-volume assets.

Where are things heading

“Trying to guess how blockchain is going to affect us in the next 20 years is kind of like standing in 1995 and trying to imagine mobile-banking technology,” said Amber Baldet, New York-based JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s blockchain program leader, in an online interview. “I’m sure the ultimate applications are things we can’t even imagine right now.”

For now, the space certainly has the feel of the 1990s internet, with hundreds of startups and billions of investment dollars chasing distributed-ledger initiatives.  Armonk, New York-based IBM Corp., a big blockchain supporter, estimates that 90 percent of “major” banks in the world—mostly those with trading, securities, payments, correspondent banking and trade finance operations—are experimenting with blockchain in some way.

Collaboration is the current buzzword

Most large banks are involved in consortiums with names like Ripple, Hyperledger, R3 and Enterprise Ethereum Alliance.  Smaller banks are taking more of a wait-and-see approach.  For all the promise of speed and efficiency, blockchain’s real power lies in its transparency, which makes data both trackable and immutable.  Ultimately, blockchain could usher in new business models, which require different ways of thinking.

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For members of a bank’s board, we created this “Blockchain 101” video.  In it, I touch on the potential application of blockchain in terms of digital identities, digital banking and cross-border payments.  In addition, the ten minute video surfaces key concepts and business ideas that remain material to many today.

*This video is just one of the offerings found in our Bank Services program designed to help board members and senior executives develop strategies to help their bank grow, while demonstrating excellence in corporate governance that shareholders and customers deserve and today’s regulators demand.

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