Blockchains and central banks – what have we learnt?

Over the past couple of years, R3 has worked closely with a number of central banks to explore if distributed ledgers could support their policy goals, and I have had the privilege to participate in a number of these projects.

What have we learnt?  What is important?  What do central banks care about?  While I can’t speak directly for individual organisations, I have collated my own thoughts, and wanted to share these ahead of the Singapore FinTech Festival this year (13-17 Nov) when the results of Singapore’s “Project Ubin” experiments will be announced.

Update (post FinTech Festival): Read about the Open Sourcing of “Corda for Central Banks“!

Project Jasper

Project Jasper is an initiative with R3, Bank of Canada (the central bank), Payments Canada (clearing and settlement infrastructure), CIBC, TD Bank, Scotiabank, Bank of Montreal, Royal Bank of Canada, National Bank of Canada and HSBC.

Jasper seeks to understand how Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) might transform the future of payments–starting with high-value clearing and settlement.

Jasper Phase I

Phase I was carried out March – June 2016.  A blockchain prototype was built to investigate the use of central bank-issued digital receipts to support interbank settlement.  Receipts for funds kept at the central bank were modelled on a distributed ledger, and could be passed around between participants.  The project explored the ability for distributed ledgers to support and adhere to the international standards for payment systems, known as PFMIs (Principles for Financial Markets Infrastructures) set by CPMI (Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures) under BIS (Bank for International Settlements), representing countries from around the world that together make up about 95% of world GDP.

Phase I was recognised as one of the most productive experiments in Bank of Canada history.

Jasper Phase II

In May 2017 Phase II was announced at the Payments Canada Summit.

Phase II of the project had two key differences to Phase I.  It was built on R3’s Cordaplatform and included a liquidity savings mechanism to enable banks to clear payments with each other more efficiently.

In September 2017, a report “A Canadian Experiment with Distributed Ledger Technology for Domestic Interbank Payments Settlement“, was released, providing a comprehensive view of Project Jasper, including platform design, testing and performance.  The report highlighted how industry collaboration was key to the project’s success.

The report includes key lessons, including:

  • Clearer understanding of the capabilities of DLT platforms
  • Feasibility of applying Liquidity Savings Mechanisms on a distributed ledger platform
  • The value of collaboration among Canadian industry members
  • Many opportunities for further exploration

Jasper Phase III

In October 2017, Phase III was announced, building on the first two phases by integrating securities with payments.  Collaborators include Payments Canada, Bank of Canada and TMX Group (Toronto’s stock exchange operator).

This phase will develop a proof of concept for the clearing and settlement of securities using the central bank cash-on-ledger model. The platform seeks to discover greater speed and efficiency by automating the securities settlement process, taking advantage of DLT’s ability to create atomic “Delivery vs Payment” transactions – that is, the simultaneous exchange of ownership of an asset and its payment, without a third-party escrow agent or any time lag between the settlements, and without the risk that one leg fails while the other succeeds.

Detailed findings of Phase 3 are anticipated to be published at the Payments Canada SUMMIT in Toronto, May 9-11, 2018.

Project Ubin

Project Ubin is an initiative sponsored by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to explore the applicability of distributed ledger technology for Singapore’s financial ecosystem.  Unlike the setup in many other countries, the MAS has multiple functionsand acts as the central bank, the regulator, and the ecosystem development agent.

Phase I

Project Ubin Phase I was announced in November 2016

The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) today announced that it is partnering R3, a Blockchain technology company, and a consortium of financial institutions on a proof-of-concept project to conduct inter-bank payments using Blockchain technology. This project could potentially avail a payment system for participants to transact in different global markets round-the-clock that are today limited by time zone differences and office hours.

Participants in Phase I included: Bank of America Merrill Lynch, BCS Information Systems (technology infrastructure), Credit Suisse, DBS Bank, HSBC, JP Morgan, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, OCBC Bank, Singapore Exchange, United Overseas Bank.

Phase I concluded on 9 March 2017 and successfully achieved the objectives of producing a digital representation of the Singapore dollar for interbank settlement, testing methods of connecting bank systems to a DLT, and making the MAS Electronic Payment System (MEPS+) interoperate with the DLT for automated collateral management.

The Phase I report which I co-authored was released in May 2017, entitled “Project Ubin: SGD on Distributed Ledger” and provides an explanation of the prototype developed.

Phase II

Ubin Phase II is co-led by the (MAS) and the Association of Banks in Singapore (ABS). It is managed and delivered by Accenture, with a consortium of eleven financial institutions in Singapore: Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Citi, Credit Suisse, DBS Bank, HSBC, JP Morgan, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, OCBC Bank, Singapore Exchange, Standard Chartered Bank and United Overseas Bank.

Phase II started in June 2017 and seeks to explore the characteristics of three different DLT platforms: Fabric (supported by IBM), Quorum (supported by JP Morgan), and Corda (supported by R3).  The specific use case is a decentralised real time gross settlement (RTGS) system, including the ability for the decentralised network to run liquidity savings mechanisms while preserving privacy of interbank payments– something previously rarely investigated.

Further work may include fixed income securities for “delivery vs payment” and international payments using central bank digital currency.

The report from Phase II will be available later this year, (Update: it’s now available!) and further details will be were revealed at the Singapore FinTech Festival. I believe this will showcase some of Corda’s unique capabilities among DLT platforms that make it the most suitable DLT platform for financial service uses. (Note: I work at R3 and I think that Corda is the best DLT platform for many industry use cases)

Project LionRock

Project LionRock was announced on 27 March 2017 and builds on what R3 had  learnt in previous central bank projects.  LionRock explores a Corda based interbank payment system, and also extends this to securities issuance, lifecycle and delivery-vs-payment.  Further, LionRock explores corporates (not just banks) being able to hold this digital token, thereby widening access to the central bank’s balance sheet to facilitate inter-corporate payments.  This current phase is expected to complete in Q4 of 2017.

What have we learnt?

If there is one single thing I have personally learnt from countless hours of reading central bank commentary, it is that different central banks have different motivations and priorities for deploying distributed ledger technology. The diversity is wide-ranging: Priorities vary from controlling domestic corruption problems, providing a central bank alternative to physical cash or bank deposits, upgrading old systems that are burning platforms, through to looking forwards and driving international monetary relevance.

What are the commonalities?

From the projects described in this post, we have learnt that central banks are interested in the potential for distributed ledgers to increase systemic resiliency for domestic payment systems including real time gross settlement systems.

We have also learnt that there is huge interest in the risk-reducing atomic “delivery vs payment” and “payment vs payment” transactions (domestic and cross border) that distributed ledgers can support.  But getting cash on ledger is a key element to unlocking these efficiencies.

We are seeing the first steps in the widening of access to the central bank balance sheets – that is, enabling more participants to hold real sovereign currency in digital form (Here’s a primer on various types of money).

We are learning that while liquidity savings mechanisms are understood to work well in traditional centralised real time gross settlement systems, they have the potential to work even more effectively and equitably in a decentralised model, due to the larger amount of information banks have compared to a centralised RTGS platform (but more on that later).

Finally, it’s hard not to see a pattern here: Central banks are investigating spin-offs of public cryptocurrency blockchain technologies and then moving to Corda.  They will each have their reasons for doing that, but it’s becoming a trend.  This doesn’t surprise me:  As you should know by now, Corda was designed and engineered from the ground up to meet the requirements of regulated financial institutions.

On a personal note, I have recently taken a new responsibility at R3 as the global head of cash strategy.  This includes getting any form of “cash” onto Corda, whether it’s commercial bank deposits, central bank reserves, or e-money.  I am fortunate to spend my time understanding and explaining the implications of this fundamental step towards unlocking the promises and power of blockchain technology for business.  Different stakeholders have different reasons for moving to DLT based systems.  If you have views on this, I would love to hear from you.