Ask nearly any leading banker or financial executive to go on the record about blockchain, and you are liable to hear crickets. After all, it’s an industry built on trust and stability and crypto’s recent legacy of volatility and even fraud has tainted the topic.
It’s ironic because, behind the scenes, few industries are eagerly working on blockchain projects as feverishly as financial services firms are. Bank of America, for example, has filed nearly 60 blockchain patents. Yet it refused to speak to Forbes about its dive into distributed ledger tech. JPMorgan’s CEO Dimon famously threatened to fire any employee caught trading bitcoin. Today it is developing its own digital token.
The world’s largest, most centralized and most powerful institutions are now embracing the technology designed to unseat them because they realize that at its, core blockchain is just lines of code that simplify accounting and record keeping. For hundreds of years, bankers have exhibited mastery in ledger keeping and they have no intention of giving that up.
Our inaugural Blockchain 50 list is dominated by financial firms. From BNP Paribas and Citigroup to Nasdaq to Mastercard and Visa, the biggest names in global money are making strides in blockchain testing and adoption.
They’re using the technology to speed up settlement times and interbank payments, simplify processes that still rely on paper and fax machines, and improve security measures with the goal of both saving time and money now and creating new ways to make a profit in the future.
Fidelity, which now has 100 employees devoted to digital assets, has launched a digital asset custody service for institutional investors and is already building a trading platform for purchasing crypto. PNC bank is using Ripple’s blockchain software to process international payments.
Santander is already collecting revenue from One Pay FX, a blockchain-based foreign exchange service that is also built on Ripple technology. Dutch banking giant ING’s dedicated blockchain team that has launched 8 pilots since 2016, and alongside Credit Suisse completed the first legally enforceable securities swap on a blockchain last year.
Even banks that didn’t make our list, like the Royal Bank of Canada and Bank of America, are testing the waters. RBC has conducted 8 live pilots, and Bank of America has filed the most blockchain patents of any company in the industry.
Notably, these early first forays into the blockchain space have fostered something unexpected among these major competitors: collaboration, especially through industry efforts like Hyperledger and the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance. “I remember how different people from different institutions tried to start talking about the common work in this moment,” says BBVA’s Carlos Kuchkovsky, CTO of new digital business, of the early days of those groups. “That’s how we want to collaborate now, to create common new rails.”
Citibank has partnered with Barclays to launch a blockchain app store. ING and BNP Paribas are just two of several big banks that partnered to create komgo, a blockchain trade commodity network, and UBS has partnered with BNY Mellon, Deutsche Bank, and Santander to create a way to exchange digital cash.
Of course, these banks know that there is a long road ahead when it comes to integrating blockchain into their daily processes. Blockchain is not a catch-all solution, and there are sure to be new hurdles ahead, but some banks say they are already reaping the rewards. “You already have tangible benefits but this still is not the end state,” says ING’s program director of distributed ledger technology Mariana Gomez de la Villa of a recent ING pilot. “The ecosystem is growing.”
-Sarah Hansen; Forbes Staff