Tokens, tokens everywhere

You don’t have to be a cryptocurrency believer to think that the underlying technology of cryptocurrencies (value transfer without an intermediary, with double-spending prevented through distributed consensus) is going to change the financial sector. Indeed, the use of that underlying technology may well mean that cryptocurrencies in their current form are never needed, because more general digital asset transfer platforms will supplant them. These platforms, which enable the exchange of digital assets without clearing or settlement (let’s call these digital assets “tokens” for short), have real potential.

I wrote in my book “Before Babylon, Beyond Blockchain” back in 2017 that tokens may make a real difference to the way the economy works and the subsequent evolution of the cryptocurrency world has reinforced my view. Not that my opinion counts for much. But the opinion of Jay Clayton, the chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), counts for a lot more and he is saying the same thing: in time, everything will be tokenised.

When the current craziness is past and digital asset tokens have become a well-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. 

It’s a view that is supported not only by wide-eyed techno-utopian hype-merchants (eg, me) but by the sensible, forward-looking and rational financial sector leaders. I remember interviewing Jonathan Larsen (chief innovation officer of Ping An Group and head of the Ping An Global Voyager Fund) on stage at Money20/20 Asia. He told me that “Tokenization is a really massive trend… a much bigger story that cryptocurrencies, initial coin offerings (ICOs), and even blockchain” and confirmed my suspicion that long-term planning in the financial services sector must include some radically different scenarios. Jonathan spoke eloquently about the characteristics of the new asset class (including fractionalisation, which fascinates me) but went on to talk about the key characteristics of a digital asset platform that can fundamentally change the way the world of finance works: “transparency and universal access and the ability to reduce frictional costs”. I see this as a way to more efficient and liquid markets, and I am hardly alone in this.

Digital assets that are bound to “real world” value by regulated institution present not only the mechanism for a different financial sector but an innovative approach to a better financial sector. A sector that serves wider society more effectively and attacks the stubbornly high cost of financial intermediation in a modern economy. In a speech, Banque de France first deputy governor Denis Beau touched on inefficiencies in the sector and said that tokenisation could be a way to “answer the market’s demands”. I agree, obviously.

At the World Economic Forum this year, there was a discussion about what assets might be tokenised, with examples ranging from property to owning a fraction of a piece of art by Andy Warhol, although the ones that attracted the most discussion were enabling farmers in emerging markets to raise finance by selling future crop yields and sports stars selling the rights to their future income. I can foresee a rich and varied marketplace. Some tokens will be assets, and fractional ownership of assets. Some tokens will be claims on future products and services. Some tokens will be the currencies of communities.Who knows which of these might become a real markets, but one candidate for a successful token class (for which there appears to be real demand) is central bank digital currency (CBDC).

Monalistatidied

with kind permission of TheOfficeMuse (CC-BY-ND 4.0)

Don’t Listen to Me

Now, when people like me or the head of Ping An VC fund or a deputy governor of the French central bank talk about the inevitability of tokenisation, that’s one thing. But when Jay Clayton said at the beginning of October that while there were once stock certificates, today there are database entries representing stocks and “it may be very well the case that those all become tokenized” (my italics), I think it’s time to begin some serious planning for a reformed financial sector that is more efficient, more effective in serving the wider economy and more resistant to bad behaviour of all kinds.

That last point is important. Jonathan’s mention of transparency highlights one of the key reasons that we should all want to see this kind of financial sector. Look at some of the recent problems in the world of finance, such as the collapse of Wirecard. Corporate accounts included assets that simply did not exist. Since auditors and the regulators and the board were unable to prevent criminality on a grand scale here, it is reasonable to ask whether technology might be able to do better job. Well, I think the answer is yes, and I think tokenisation is part of consistent vision of just how it might do so: if I claim to own one-thousandth of the Mona Lisa it is easy for you to check on the digital asset platform to see that the token representing one-thousandth of the Mona Lisa is in my wallet.

Thus, while the tokenisation of financial assets and the creation of what I heard Jeremy Allaire of Circle call the “long tail” of capital markets is a much broader topic than CBDC its apparent inevitability means we should begin to explore this concept of CBDC as simply one kind of a more generalised digital asset, albeit one that is bound to risk-free central bank money. Even that most conservative of organisations, the Association of German Banks, says that in order to “maintain Europe’s competitiveness, satisfy customers’ needs and reduce transaction costs, the introduction of euro-based, programmable digital money should be considered”.

What they refer to a programmable digital money, and what I call smart money, is money built on tokens. In this model of the world, one might imagine using a platform built from cryptocurrency technologies to trade thousands or millions of different tokens, with one form of these tokens being digital currency and one category of token issuers being central banks. This is no crazy cryptomaximalist conjecture but a reasoned and reasonable projection of capitalism’s use of the new technology of value transfer.

Huw van Steenis of UBS, who I take very seriously on these matters because of his work at the Bank of England, says that there will be a “three-horse race” around the future of money with private tokens and CBDCs developing in parallel with efforts to improve the current system (see, for example, SWIFT gpi and the UK’s new payments architecture). This is wise counsel, and there is indeed every possibility of competition between these approaches stimulating innovation in the short-term but then a longer-term convergence as the platforms for exchanging digital asset tokens are used to implement both private tokens and public tokens (including CBDCs).

In this appealing vision of the future, there will be nothing technological to distinguish central bank digital currency from other digital assets that will be functionally equivalent to money, such as corporate currencies. Dollar bills from Bill’s dollars (I never get tired of this trope): one will be tokens backed by risk-free central bank money, the other tokens backed by Microsoft revenues. But they will both be tokens, exchanged without clearing or settlement through the same secure global digital asset platform.

[This is an edited version of a piece that first appeared on Forbes.com, 2nd November 2020.]