The embezzlement trial of Mark Karpeles, the former CEO of failed bitcoin exchange, Mt. Gox, opened a few weeks ago, serving as a reminder of the uncertainty and volatility of the nascent blockchain technology. Mt. Gox once carried out 80% of the world's bitcoin trades, but filed for bankruptcy in 2014 after losing 850,000 bitcoins and $28 million in cash from its bank accounts. Although Mt. Gox's decline damaged the reputation of virtual currencies badly, interest remains among those who see the promise of blockchain technology for transforming business, financial transactions and the way we live.
This same sort of controversy and attention-grabbing story is reminiscent of the headlines relating to the impact of streaming and peer-to-peer audio file-sharing technology on the music industry starting in 1999. Services such as Napster and, much later, iTunes threatened to put industry incumbents and music artists themselves out of business in the interest of the sharing economy, efficiency, disintermediation and a superior user experience.
Blockchain technology and bitcoin, specifically, are slowly capturing the imagination of the financial services sector and will eventually be on the average consumer's radar. Bitcoin, which was initially considered a threat to the financial services institutions that make money by managing the world's financial transactions centrally, is on the verge of disrupting the status quo. Like other virtual currencies, such as Ethereum and Ripple, bitcoin has no central authority and relies instead on thousands of computers around the world that validate transactions and add new units to the system. This technology is known as blockchain.
For many financial services companies, technology has improved the front office, but not the back office yet. Post-trade infrastructure — much of which is on legacy systems that are more than 20 years old — hasn't evolved at all. It still takes days and sometimes weeks to do the post-trade processing required to settle financial transactions and record keeping. Blockchain could change all that.
Financial services firms are spending millions of dollars now to figure out how to harness the power of blockchain and with it, lower costs, increase efficiency and mitigate business risk, before entire trading and settlement operations are put out of business by the new technology players.
In 1999, Napster's MP3 file-sharing technology enabled consumers to share music by trading peer-to-peer and not through the music industry's record labels or traditional sales distribution channels. By enabling the transfer of copyrighted material, Napster threatened the music industry, which filed a lawsuit against the popular service. Napster would only get bigger as the trial, which was meant to shut it down, also created much publicity. At its peak, Napster had about 80 million registered users. Napster tried to transform the music industry but was ultimately forced into bankruptcy for copyright infringement.
However, Napster's impact was permanent as the music industry has forever been changed. Today, companies such as Spotify are praised for their technology and the superior consumer experience they have created — while criticized by others for disrupting business models and paying artists only fractions of a penny for each music stream. The ease of downloading individual songs that Napster and, later, legitimate digital services, facilitated is often credited with ushering in the end of the album era in popular music. Although there has been a resurgence in the sale of vinyl records and turntables, the music industry will never look back.
Similarly, investors are excited by the emerging blockchain technologies, with speculators trading bitcoin to a record-high valuation of $5,792 in August for a one-year return rate of 653%. This is the "wild, wild West," in which interest in bitcoin, especially among individual investors in Japan — who are encouraged by their government's recognition of the virtual currency as legal tender — has created huge volatility. Bitcoin has also become a mode of payment for some retailers and a way to transfer funds without the need for a third party.
In March, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rejected the introduction of a bitcoin ETF, presumably over concerns of the unregulated nature of the underlying currency and risk of market manipulation. However, blockchain will someday hit the mainstream. It may take 20 years, but it will change the way we invest, bank and pay for goods and services.