Tokens and Twincoins

For some time – since when I first began jotting down an outline for my last book, in fact – I have been boring clients, colleagues and carvings senseless with my mantra that while Bitcoin isn’t the future of money, tokens might well be. What’s more, as I have presented more than once, those tokens will have an institutional relationship with “real world” assets. Now I see that none other than noted cryptocurrency investors the Winklevii have launched just such as product. Gemini Trust, their cryptocurrency exchange, has won approval from New York finance regulators to launch Gemini Dollars.

These are tokens on the Ethereum blockchain that are pegged in value to the U.S. dollar (in other words, they are kind of digital currency board). State Street Bank will hold the reserve of one greenback for every token issued and, I assume, they will be redeemable on demand and at par.

Now, I know nothing about entrepreneurhip or venture investing or creating cryptoasset trading platforms, but I think they are on to something. Many people will want to hold dollars as digital bearer instruments rather than as a bank balances. When my smart contract sends a Gemini dollar to your smart contract, that’s pretty much that. It’s inexpensive and fast.

This idea of using cryptocurrencies to support tokens linked to something in the real world is hardly new. But it’s becoming something of a focus now. Kevin Werbach published a very good article about tokens on the Knowledge @ Wharton site recently. He set out a useful taxonomy to help with discussion and debate around the topic, saying that

  • There is cryptocurrency: the idea that networks can securely transfer value without central points of control;

  • There is blockchain: the idea that networks can collectively reach consensus about information across trust boundaries;

  • And there are cryptoassets: the idea that virtual currencies can be “financialized” into tradable assets.

I might use a slightly different,  more generalised approach (because a blockchain is only one kind of shared ledger that could be used to transfer digital values around), but Kevin summarises the situation exceedingly well. His perspective is that cryptocurrency is a revolutionary concept but the jury is still out on whether the revolution will succeed, whereas the shared ledger and the assets that might be managed using those shared ledgers are game-changing innovations but essentially evolutionary. The idea of such assets, which I will label digital bearer instruments, goes back to the long-ago days of DigiCash and Mondex, but the idea of implementing them using technology that is (in principle) available to every single person on the planet is wholly new. 

This combination of the revolutionary but unproven and the evolutionary but nevertheless game changing fascinates me and I’ve been exploring it in a number of different areas. One such area is money, of course, and more particularly the notion of central bank digital currency. I feel this is often discussed in a confusing way (not by me). I see articles on the topic that almost randomly switch between “digital currency”, “cryptocurrency” and “digital fiat” to the point that they are essentially meaningless. So I thought it might be useful to build on my work and Kevin’s perspectives to create a worthwhile framework for exploring the topic.

Let’s begin by exploring what the central concept is all about. Ben Dyson and Jack Meaning from the Bank of England discuss a particular kind of central bank digital currency (what some would call  “digital fiat”) with quite specific characteristics.

  1. Universally accessible (anyone can hold it);

  2. Interest-bearing (with a variable rate of interest);

  3. Exchangeable for banknotes and central bank reserves at par (i.e. one-for-one);

  4. Based on accounts linked to real-world identities (not anonymous tokens);

  5. Withdrawable from your bank accounts (in the same way that you can withdraw banknotes).

This seems to me to be quite sensible definition to work with. So, digital fiat is a particular kind of digital money with these specific characteristics. We can now start to fill in the blanks about how such a system might work. For example, should it be centralised, distributed or decentralised? Given that, as The Economist noted in an article about given access to central bank money to everybody, “administrative costs should be low, given the no-frills nature of the accounts”, and given that a centralised system has the lowest cost, that would seem to point toward something like M-PESA but run by the government.

There are, however, other arguments in favour of using newer and more radical technological solutions., not least of which is our old friend privacy. Again, as The Economist notes, people might well be “uncomfortable with accounts that give governments detailed information about transactions, particularly if they hasten the decline of good old anonymous cash”. However, as I have often written, I think there are ways to deliver appropriate levels of privacy into this kind of transactional system and the pseudonymity is an obvious way to do this efficiently within a democratic framework.

Aside from privacy, there’s another argument for moving to new technology rather than a centralised database, and it has come to the fore in the light of the recent Visa Europe systems collapse, which is what to do to make such a digital money system, 99.999% available. Here is where new technologies might be able to deliver the step change that takes us into the realm of practical digital fiat. Such a payment system would be an element of critical national infrastructure, which is why it might be worth looking at some form of shared ledger technology, possibly even a blockchain of some kind, in this context.

Here’s my take on the situation, then, with a diagram that I’ll be showing at Future Tense in Zagreb on 2nd October. It is congruent with Kevin’s taxonomy but adds the “digital identity” layer to show that the token trading might be pseudonymous in most practical circumstances within specified limits. 

Digital and Crypto Layers

 

In this formulation, we have a digital value layer that may or may not be implemented using a blockchain to create the bearer instruments, then a cryptoasset layer built on top of that (let’s put one side what the different kinds of cryptoassets might be as for this discussion I’m only interested in digital money) and then a digital identity layer on top. My assumption is that cryptoassets will be implemented using what some people call “smart contracts” (I prefer the term “consensus applications”) and the general term for these vehicle used to move these assets is the “token”. So I hope you can now see how the world of Bitcoins and tokens and Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) and blockchains and digital identity all come together here.

So. If this is sensible way to implement money, as the Winklevii and others seems to think, who will manage the assets that are linked to these tokens? The first and most obvious possibility is commercial banks, as in the case of Gemini Coin. But there are others, as I set out in my most recent paper, and I’ll be exploring all of them in Zagreb. See you there.

The token Saga

As I explained to the Financial Services Club in London recently, I have a theory that while Bitcoin isn’t the future of money, tokens might well be. In case you are interested, here’s the deck I presented to them: it’s in three parts, first of all a high-level explanation of what tokens are, then a discussion about using tokens to implement money and finally a model to help facilitate discussion around these topics.

 

Of course, I’m not the only one who thinks that the financial services mainstream should be developing their token strategies. At Money2020 Asia in Singapore I had the privilege of interviewing Jonathan Larsen, Corporate Venture Capital Manager at Ping An and CEO of their Global Voyager Fund (which has a $billion or so under management). Jonathan has already forgotten more than I will ever know about financial markets and as he is also Chief Innovation Officer at Ping An (and a very nice guy too), I take his views very seriously. When I put to him that the tokenisation of assets will be a revolution, he said that “tokenisation is a really massive trend… a much bigger story than cryptocurrencies, initial coin offerings (ICOs), and even blockchain”.

Dave Birch and Jonathan Larsen

 

Photo courtesy of Fintechcowboys.cz

He went on to say that he had no doubt about the potential for tokenisation to “reduce friction across every asset class and to create fractionalization of assets where it does not exist today”. In fact, and I paraphrase only slightly here, he said that when the token market is properly regulated and the technology is stable then everything will be tokenised.

Wow.

Why do people like Jonathan (as opposed to techno-deterministic utopians such as myself) think that tokens are such a big deal? I think it’s because tokens are the first viable implementation of the 1990s dream of digital bearer instruments with the “code is law” (sort of) management infrastructure. They allow for the exchange of assets in an auto-DvP (delivery versus payment) mode with no clearing or settlement which means for efficient, liquid markets.

Now, one of the first steps towards a regulated token market has come the Swiss regulators (who are important because of the Zug “crypto valley” that has become the home of many token plays). The regulator there, FINMA, has developed an approach based on the underlying purpose of the tokens that are created. FINMA categorises tokens into three types: Payment tokens (ie, money), Utility tokens (tokens which are intended to provide digital access to an application or service) and Asset tokens (which represent assets such as stakes in companies or an entitlement to dividends). Of course, hybrid forms are possible and in practice there are likely to be a few different configurations. One good way to think about this, I think, is to think in terms of combinations of these token types as a means to implement the “digital bearer instrument” (DBI) that has long been seen as the basis of the post-internet, post-crypto financial marketplace.

DBI Schema

 

 

This is a realistic vision of the future. DBIs as a synthetic instrument comprising regulated tokens, DBI trading that operates without clearing and settlement on shared ledgers and shared ledgers with ambient accountability to create marketplaces that are not only more efficient but better for society as a whole. I touched on this in my talk at the FS Club but then went on to focus on the specific implications for digital money, as it is interesting to speculate what digital money created this way might look like.

We might, for example, imagine that for tokens to be used as money in the mass market they should be much less volatile than cryptocurrencies have been to date. Hence the notion of “stablecoins” that are linked to something off-ledger. An example of this category is the “Saga” coin (SGA). SGA has some pretty heavyweight backers, including Jacob Frenkel, chairman of JPMorgan Chase International, Nobel prize winner Myron Scholes and Emin Gün Sirer, co-director at the Initiative for Cryptocurrencies and Smart Contracts at Cornell University, so it deserves a look. This is a non-anonymous payment token that is backed by a variable fractional reserve anchored in the IMF’s special drawing right (SDR) basket of currencies which, as the FT pointed out, is heavily weighted in US dollars. These reserves will be deposited with regulated banks through algorithms in the underlying smart contract system.

It seems to me that initiatives such as Saga are more representative of the future of money than cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, but even they represent only part of the spectrum of possibilities that will extend across many forms of tokens. As I wrote last year, in “Bitcoin isn’t the future of money, but tokens might well be”, tokens won’t only be issued by companies, of course. It seems to me that tokens that implement the values of communities (and, because they are “smart”, can enforce them) may come to dominate the transactional space (think of the Islamic e-Dinar and the London Groat). 

The Bitcoin rule of thirds, and what Bitcoin tells us about the future of money

In my presentation to Seamless Payments in Australia, I made reference in passing to the nature of the Bitcoin universe and how informs thinking, so I thought I’d take the time to explore that thinking in a little more detail to explain my comments.

I don’t have the exact figures to hand, but as I understand it the Bitcoin coinbase breaks down roughly into thirds…

 A third of them are lost (well, last year 23% but I think it will get worse as more people forget their passwords). This is because (like me) someone wiped their old phone wallet away and forgot to transfer it over to their new phone wallet first or because they accidentally threw away the old hard disk with all the Bitcoins on them or because the dog ate the Bicoin cold wallet or because they died or whatever. As Jonathan Levin of Chainalysis, who I regard as the “go to guy” for tracing Bitcoins, told NPR in January: “For the people that have lost their bitcoins, I say tough luck”.

(These lost Bitcoins, as my good friend Steve Bowbrick rather eloquently observed, are like treasure in sunken galleons waiting to be discovered by an intrepid explorer in the very latest kind of submarine. Which, in this instance, would be a quantum computer. It’s not only Bitcoin tucked away in these sunken galleons, by the way. There’s half a billion dollars in Ethereum stuck in just one Ethereum address: it’s the address “0”, essentially. In July 2016 someone accidentally sent ETH 1,493, currently worth more than a million dollars to that address. And thanks to the magic of the cryptography, it will stay there until the quantum submarine can uncover it.)

Another third of the Bitcoins are in the hands of the .0001%, the cryptoscenti. Bloomberg estimated that a few hundred people at most own these Bitcoins, but I’ve heard estimates that fewer than 50 people have the lion’s share. These are the people who have every interest in driving the value of Bitcoin higher so that they can cash out at a steady rate. If they dump their coins, that will drive the price down (a row has just been going on about the sale of the Mt. Gox assets for this very reason), so they need a rising market where they can convert Bitcoin to one Lambourghini at a time.

Meanwhile the other millions of Bitcoin peasants scrabble for their share of the remaining third. This distribution makes America look like a kibbutz in comparison and stands testimony to the deranged nature of utopian projections around this “digital gold” for the masses. So, to get to the question that I was asked on Sky News a few weeks ago, what does the Bitcoin market tell us about the future of money?

Nothing.

I’m not sure that the state of Bitcoin, or indeed the history of Bitcoin, tells us very much about the future of Bitcoin or money. It’s not anonymous enough for criminal enterprise on a large scale (and there is every evidence that criminals are turning to crypto alternatives) and it’s not functional enough to be a mass-market medium of exchange. If it is to remain a store of value beyond speculation then it must be useful for something and I’m at a loss as to what that something might be, although I’m perfectly prepared to believe that it’s because I grew up in an era of chip and PIN cards and ApplePay.

Does that mean that we should ignore it? No, of course not. There are many different ways to look at Bitcoin and it deserves study as a much as a social and political phenomenon as it does as a technological and economic one. What’s more, it does tell us something about the future. In yesterday’s Financial Times, Benoît Cœuré and Jacqueline Loh from the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) said that “while bitcoin and its cousins are something of a mirage, they might be an early sign of change, just as Palm Pilots paved the way for today’s smartphones“.

Values, Tokens, Accounts

I agree, but in a slightly different way. I see Bitcoin and its cousins not as prototypes but as a base layer — as shown in this “thinking out loud” picture that I’ve been using to explore these ideas — that will be used by some, but not by most, people to make real transactions in the future. I think most transactions will take place at the token layer, exchanging bearer assets over an efficient (no clearing or settlement) transaction layer. And most of those transactions will be pseudonymous, but some will be linked through accounts to people and organisations. 

Seamless Sydney

So what can we guess about the future of money, given what we have learned so far? Well, as I said in my Seamless Payments presentation what we may have learned is that the token economy is a more accurate pointer toward the future of money than the underlying cryptocurrencies are, because the tokens link the values managed on shared ledgers to the “real world”. There’s a logic to this model of “the blockchain” as the security infrastructure for a token economy and I really enjoyed engaging with the good people of Sydney on this view of the emerging cryptoeconomy.

Bitcoin isn’t the future of money, but tokens might well be

The noted cryptocurrency investor Brock Pierce was responsible for the first Initial Coin Offering (ICO) of its kind (which was MasterCoin) back in 2013 and he is an investor in a great many companies in the space via Blockchain Capital. He’s a serial entrepreneur with a track record going back many years. He knows about investing in a way that I very much do not. Listen to what he says about the impact of ICOs.

I think what I’ve done is the end of all VC, all private equity, all rates because these are industries that are illiquid… I think the Sequoias of the world will go out of business. I think all the big VCs are done.

From The Wizard Behind the ICO’s Transforming VC

Wow. That sounds like a pretty astonishing claim, hubris verging on the delusional. But the thing is… I think he may be right. To see why, you need to think about the money of the future. In his book “The Money Trap”, Robert Pringle (a former editor of that well-known revolutionary pamphlet “The Banker“) writes that at the turn of the millenium “globalization reached the limits compatible with existing international monetary arrangements”. I could not agree more. There is pressure for change and I think the current cryptomania gives us a window into the future of money. But as I have written many times before, the future of money is not Bitcoin and Bitcoin is not the future of money.

Now I accept that with the price of Bitcoin around $4000 and still climbing, that seems like a brave statement. But Bitcoin $4000 doesn’t mean anything. How do you figure out what Bitcoin is worth? From the market? On the one hand I read that this opaque marketplace is being manipulated but on the other hand I read that Bitcoins will be worth like $1 billion each or something (which makes it all the more puzzling why merchants bother with Bitcoin acceptance, since no sane shopper would spend Bitcoins instead dollars if they are going to go up a thousandfold in the next few years). In the long term, for Bitcoins to be worth something, someone has to want them for some reason. What will they want them for? Shopping? It’s too slow, it was never designed for real time payments. Money laundering? Bitcoin isn’t anonymous enough for mass market criminals (as the FBI guys who stole coins during the “Silk Road” investigation and that BTC-e guy who got arrested in Greece have discovered).  No, I don’t think uncensorability is going to be a good enough business to sustain Bitcoin. The Wannacry ransomware scallywags swapped their Bitcoins for anonymous Monero as soon as they could get them out of their wallets. Bitcoin will, in time, be superseded in these markets by truly anonymous digital money.

If not Bitcoin, then what? Of course, it’s entirely possible that while Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies may not be the money of the future, they may be the platform for money of the future and I think can erect an intellectual scaffolding to support this claim even if I cannot architect the financial institution of the future that it will be used to build. In my book “Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin”, I explore the notion of private money set out by the noted Maltese “lateral thinker” Dr. Edward de Bono. He wrote a pamphlet called “The IBM Dollar” for the Centre for the Study of Financial Innovation (CSFI) back in the early 1990s, in which he rather memorably remarked that he looked forward to a time when “the successors to Bill Gates will have put the successors to Alan Greenspan out of business”. (It was reprinted in David Boyle’s superb book “The Money Changers” in 2002 and you can read it online here at Google Books.)

Dr. de Bono was arguing that companies could raise money just as governments now do — by creating it from thin air. Now, if that notion seems to have resonance Mr. Pierce and his ICOs then, well… yes, that’s my point. Lots of companies are doing just that and they are raising literacy billions of dollars doing so.

WOULD you like to invest in Filecoin, a marketplace for digital storage services? Or Indorse, a professional social network where members own their data? How about Lust, a service “to enable all human beings on Earth to find their perfect sexual partner anonymously?” These are just three of a wave of what are called initial coin offerings (ICOs)… What are they and why are they so successful?

From What are initial coin offerings? in The Economist (22nd August 2017).

The idea of private currency as a claim on products or services produced by the issuer caught my attention two decades back when I first worked on digital money and continues to inform my thinking. For one thing, it makes economic sense. IBM, in de Bono’s example, might issue “IBM Dollars” that would be redeemable for IBM products and services, but are also tradable for other companies’ monies or for other assets in a liquid market. Now, to make such a scheme work IBM would have to learn to manage the supply of money to ensure that the monetary base and its capacity to deliver are matched and that inflation does not destroy the value of their creations, but I’m sure they could get Watson to do that, so it is easy to imagine that such a system could work.

To Mr. Pierce’s point, this would mean a new kind of financial market. A start-up launches, and instead of issuing equity, it issues money that is redeemable against future services. So, for example, a distibuted file storage start-up might offer money in the form of megabyte days that are redeemable five years from now. In the early days, this money would trade at a significant discount to take account of the risks inherent in the venture. But once the file system is up and running and people like using it, then the value of the money will rise. With tens of millions such currencies in circulation, constantly being traded on futures, options and foreign exchange markets, it might sound as if the “money” would be unusable because transactions would be unbearably complex for people to deal with. But as I wrote in “The Financial Times“, that’s not the world that we will be living in. This is not about transactions between people but transactions between what Jaron Lanier called “economic avatars“. This is a world of transactions between my virtual me and your virtual me, the virtual Waitrose and the virtual HMRC. This is my machine-learning AI supercomputer robo-advisor, or more likely my mobile phone front end to such, communicating with your machine-learning AI supercomputer robo-advisor.

These robo-advisors will be entirely capable of negotiating between themselves to work out the deal. Dr. de Bono foresaw this in his pamphlet, writing that pre-agreed algorithms would determine which financial assets were sold by the purchaser of the good or service depending on the value of the transaction… the same system could match demands and supplies of financial assets, determine prices and make settlements. He also wrote that the key to any such a system would be “the ability of computers to communicate in real time to permit instantaneous verification of the creditworthiness of counterparties”, an early vision of what we might now call the reputation economy that I explored in my previous book “Identity is the New Money”. Now, 

Now, two decades on from this description, we have a technology to implement and while the idea using cryptocurrencies as tokens linked to something in the real world  is hardly new (from the earliest days of Bitcoin people were using “coloured coins” to do this), token technology really took off with the development of the ERC-20 standard back in 2015. ERC-20 defined a way to create a standard form of token in a “smart contact” on the Ethereum blockchain. (Ignore the language here :  they are not smart and they are certainly not legal contracts, they are a special kind of application that executes on the blockchain). The use of these ERC-20 tokens to implement ICOs has exploded in recent months. Filecoin, the company that plans to monetise unused computer storage noted in the Economist article above, has just raised $50m+ in token pre-sales to Silicon Valley investors (including Sequoia Capital and Andreesen Horowitz) and another $200m in a public token sale. That came not long after Tezos, which is developing a blockchain competitor to Ethereum, raised $232 million and Bancor raised $153 million in three hours.

Despite these huge sums, there is a lot of uncertainty in the space. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) ruled in July 2017 that certain kinds of tokens are in fact securities and that transactions must regulated. This was hardly unexpected and I certainly think that the ruling was good news. Yes it is causing some disruption right now (one of the largest exchanges, Bitfinex, has just suspended ERC-20 token used for ICOs from trading for US citizens) and yes some people will lose a lot of money and yes some people will end up in jail, but that’s what happens as we move from a Wild West to regulated growth and prosperity. The regulation of ICOs is important because ICOs are more of a picture of the money of the future than Bitcoin is.

As I said in Before Babylon, Beyond Blockchain, tokens may make a real difference to the way the economy works. When the current craziness is past and tokens become a regulated but wholly new kind of digital asset, a cross between corporate paper and a loyalty scheme, they will present an opportunity to remake markets in a new and better way. One might imagine a new version of London Alternative Investment Market (AIM) where start-ups launch but instead of issuing money they create claims on their future in the form of tokens. The trading of these tokens is indistinguishable from the trading of electronic cash (because they are bearer instruments with no clearing or settlement) but there will be an additional transparency in corporate affairs because aspects of the transactions are public. And while the company and observers may not know the beneficial owner of the tokens (because the wallets are identified only by keys), the market will be set up to issue wallets after appropriate KYC. In the general run of things, transactions are private but where there is suspicion of wrongdoing the ownership can be exposed under appropriate legal conditions. With reputations established as an immutable history of participation in transactions, good behaviour will not be gamed and bad behaviour will be on display. Market participants will be able to assess and manage risk, regulators will be able to look for patterns and connections. I’ll be able to see that your assets exceed your liabilities without necessarily being able to see what those assets or liabilities are.

The transparency obtained from using modern cryptography (e.g. homomorphic encryption and zero-knowledge proofs) in interesting ways, as an aside, is one of the reasons why I tend to think of the blockchain as a regtech, not a fintech. As Salome Parulava and I wrote in “Ambient Accountability: Shared Ledgers, Glass Banks and Radical Transparency in Financial Services” in just-published “Handbook of Blockchain, Digital Finance and Inclusion”, these “translucent transactions” mean that we will find ourselves in an era of ambient accountability, where the technological architecture means constant verification and validation instead of periodic auditing long after the trades and exchanges have taken place.  

This is a far more efficient way to manage a marketplace. There won’t be some giant IMF database that manages the new kinds of money. In this market, company perfomance rewards private money holders by improving the exchange rate against other private monies. No coupons and dividends, no clearing and settlement, no hiding the number of tokens out there. The cost of trading these tokens will be a fraction the cost of trading stocks and bonds, which is why liquidity will seep out of existing markets and into these new and more efficient structures. Stephen McKeon, a finance professor at the University of Oregon, summarises this imperative by saying that assets of all kinds will tokenise because they will lose the “liquidity premium” if they do not.

Tokens won’t only be issued by companies, of course. It seems to me that tokens that implement the values of communities (and, because they are “smart”, can enforce them) may come to dominate the transactional space (think of the Islamic e-Dinar and the London Groat). One such community might well be the nation state. In fact, at least one nation state is already thinking along these lines. Kaspar Korjus, the director of Estonia’s e-Residency program, has already floated the idea of issuing tokens instead of sovereign bonds.

Korjus said that the money raised in the offering could be used for a fund jointly managed by the government and outside private companies. This fund would be used to invest in new technologies for the public sector as well as invest venture capital into Estonian companies founded by both natives and e-Residents. Eventually Korjus sees the tokens holding value and being used as a payment method for public and private services both within the country and globally, which would provide a return on investment to ICO participants.

From This European country may hold an ICO and issue its own cryptocurrency – TechCrunch

This is, to my mind, the ultimate answer to “what is money”. Money is something that you can pay your taxes with! If Estonia were to go ahead in this way — merging, essentially, currency and bonds into a single, liquid, circulating digital asset —we will have gone full circle back to the days when government tally sticks were circulating in England. Every day, in every way, the future of money looks very much more like its past.