The Ledger.. and a new SWIFT Killer?

Money 2020 was a little short on big announcements. My #1? Visa/Chain announcement. Chain will open its entire platform (software core) to developers enabling distributed innovation (ie investment) by hundreds of start-ups and bespoke networks looking to connect.  My #1 bet is that the first focus area for Visa/Chain will be in replacing SWIFT.  For those not familiar with the intricacies of global commercial money transfer via SWIFT see my youtube video.

SWIFT is a global messaging network that enables all member banks to communicate in common language, it handles no funds, nor does it manage settlement. Swift sends standard messages to banks to settle funds. In the SWIFT model the instruction is normally sent by the originator of the payment to a beneficiary. Originating banks can determine which set of correspondent banks to use (think routing control).

Visa and Mastercard are also messaging networks (see Structural Changes in Payment, and Real Time Payments). The short summary of these blogs:

  • Real time gross settlement (RTGS) is only possible if all parties have funds in a common settlement entity.
  • Fedwire, NYSE, ..have real time settlement as all “members” have funded accounts for a net settlement (think daily margin calls)..  but all other US payment networks are messaging only, with settlement handled as a (daily) back end process.

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The idea of Blockchain “replacing” SWIFT is not new, Ripple has been working with Santander, Bank of America and others (see Finextra). Ripple is both messaging, and real-time gross settlement system (RTGS in XRPs). Ripple’s messaging is called the Ripple Transaction Protocol (RTXP) or Ripple protocol, it is built upon a distributed open source Internet protocol, consensus ledger and native currency called XRP (ripples). Think of Ripples as a private bitcoin. One of the most common criticisms of Ripple is that Of the 100 billion XRPs created, 20 billion XRP were retained by the creators, who were also the founders of Ripple Labs.

Chain on the other hand is blockchain infrastructure (great WSJ article) open for innovation. Chain powers distributed ledger(s) for multiple uses. Think of Chain as enabling each bank to have a local copy of a indisputable record… an incorruptible and infallible accounting ledger. Fund transfer certainly needs such a record, but for “accounting” to be effective there must be trust and settlement. Note that Ripple handles this settlement problem (XRP ownership ledger) trust, but has issuess in conversion to the “common XRP currency”.

Trust among financial intuitions is historically managed by networks and operating rules. For example there are operating rule for NACHA, Visa, Mastercard, … etc. Operating rules also are governed by laws and regulation (ex WHO can transact, how are transactions reversed, how are participants certified).  I would argue that a payment network’s greatest asset is Trust among parties (and devices, form factors), with each participant governed by complex sets of rules, terms, certifications, operations, standards.

Important to note that Blockchain doesn’t require trust to properly record transaction, but rather rules to take action upon the ledger’s data. In other words, it is technically feasible to give a copy of the transaction ledger to every participant (who owes what to whom every day). However it is very hard for banks to take action on the ledger’s data (Transferring money – ex net settlement) without a trust/settlement network. The common ledger is a must improved messaging approach, that still requires a operating rules (Trust) and a Settlement Approach.

Mastercard’s acquisition of Vocalink (the UK’s Settlement network) enables them to lead in commercial (and debit) transactions for both UK and US. This is a brilliant move, but certainly much more of a traditional technology/architecture approach. The challenge with Vocalink is that innovation is constrained by existing customers and services.

Chain/Visa has the opportunity to disrupt the commercial payment landscape, particularly when viewed in combination with Visa’s existing card network and a new settlement system. For example, most Visa transactions were settled at end of day through JPM Chase (every Visa member had settlement account).  For cross border transactions, Visa’s settlement “hubs” have correspondent relationships.

If Visa created a new Chain settlement infrastructure, or had member Bank support to leverage current infrastructure, it could quickly replace SWIFT with a far superior product which would offer transaction clearing times in 24 hrs (vs the 2-7 days with Swift). The biggest unknown is what part of Visa’s current operating rules could be leveraged to create this new settlement infrastructure. For the economic opportunity see this Fed Study

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