Bitcoin, Digital Currency and The Future of Banking

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This is a guest post from Marguerite Arnold.

When news broke in late October that some of London’s largest banks were investing in Bitcoin, cryptocurrencies in general got another boost. According to reports, however, this latest move to embrace Bitcoin was not a positive embrace of the digital currency per se, but rather a move to stockpile Bitcoin to fend off denial of service attacks from hackers.

Beyond hoarding digital currency as a defensive move in the age of DDOS bank robbers, banks are beginning to think about ways that bitcoin could be used within the banking industry globally. This is not limited to thinking about how Bitcoin could function as a new kind of currency – although that is an ever-present idea on the horizon. Bitcoin itself was created by technologists and programmers with a deep-seated mistrust of central banks themselves. These days, central banks in places including the US, UK and China, are also considering how the underlying technology – blockchain – might be used to record transactions in the real economy more efficiently and with greater transparency.

Blockchain – a system of distributed databases that exist on either private or relatively “public” decentralized computer nodes all over the world – may in fact be the most powerful and influential legacy of Bitcoin. The technology allows multiple users, including competitors, to keep an accurate tracking of events or financial transactions in a way that can be accessed and tracked by multiple users at any given time. The technology is frequently referred to as a “digital ledger”.

The time is ripe for innovation both on the digital currency front and in the use of “digital ledgers” for everything from basic currency tracking and F/X transactions to more sophisticated clearing and reconciliation processes. According to a recent report in the New York Times, the Bank of England has recently produced a report that the economic benefits of issuing a digital currency tracked by a blockchain could add as much as 3% to a country’s economic output. During a time of unprecedented globalization as well as new business models that look set to disrupt entire industries, including banking, the idea of having a digital currency that offers both greater accuracy as well as independence from central banks and government interference is also gaining greater and greater appeal.

There is also the issue of reducing costs as well as the larger question of how to transform banking service provision in the age of “digital” personal services. Everything from sourcing loans to personal banking services, particularly in an age of negative interest rates, is potentially up for grabs – enabled by digital services and the technological backbone they rely on.

According to most industry analysts, the impact of all of these forces is likely to create a tipping point within the next 10 years, leading to wide ranging transformation of all banking services and the companies that provide them. Cryptocurrencies and blockchain are likely to be major pieces of the puzzle, however they are ultimately configured, integrated and used. What is still uncertain at this juncture is exactly how this future world will look – from consumer interactions to the most sophisticated back office clearing procedures and reconciliation measures at the world’s largest banking institutions.

What is certain however, is that digitalization has hit the banking sector – and there is no turning back.

Marguerite Arnold is an entrepreneur, author and third semester EMBA candidate at the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management.

(Image Source: Flickr)

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