Blockchain: Get Ready for Radical Disruption
While the potential for blockchain technology to impact the lives of financial advisors and clients is massive, for the most part it will be indirect, according to experts in the field. Most profitably, they suggest, FAs who plan to be in the business 10 or 15 years from now might want to prepare themselves for a work environment in which trade clearing is perfunctory and custody is redundant.
The biggest impact of Bitcoin and other headline-grabbing cryptocurrencies is likely to come from blockchain, the e-ledger framework that publicly tracks secure transactions in chronological order, whether those transactions be virtual currencies, securities trades or any back-and-forth worth keeping.
Precisely how and when blockchain will seep broadly into financial services — let alone wealth management — is anyone’s guess. But most industry watchers think its eventual ascendance is next to inevitable because it promises to reduce the cost of sharing data by eliminating the need for reconciliation at every turn – a source now of enormous expense and delay.
Indeed, in some markets the rubber is already on the road. The Australian Stock Exchange recently ditched its legacy clearing system for blockchain technology – a move that’s likely to save it and its users a lot of money and “allow for almost instant settlement,” Adam Nickels of Capital Advisors in Shaker Heights, Ohio, tells FA-IQ.
The implications of lightning-fast settlement are stunning, adds Nickels, whose employer manages more than $700 million. “Welcome to T+0,” he says, using trading-floor shorthand for the time between a security trade’s registration — that’s the T (for transaction) — and its final settlement in days, represented by the number after the plus sign. As things stand, stock trades generally take two or three business days (T+2 or T+3) to settle, according to Investopedia.
In another notable step for blockchain, the Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation last fall started testing the technology on “its $11-trillion credit-default-swap platform, effectively eliminating the need for reconciliation,” says Nickels. The DTCC is a U.S. company owned by a consortium of banks and brokerages that streamlines securities transactions in the name of cost reduction and capital efficiency. It’s weighing a full-on rollout of blockchain technology for its derivatives business, perhaps as soon as late this year.
Meanwhile SEI, a fund processor and manager of managers in Oaks, Pa., wants to debut its own blockchain “in a relatively contained way” in about 18 months to quicken communications with “the 120 private banks” it deals with “on a daily basis,” says Joe McCabe, head of solution development for SEI’s wealth platform. “That’s where our heads are on blockchain these days.”
Writ larger, McCabe says the prospect of T+0 applied across the securities industry poses “an existential threat” to the DTCC. In this view a settler like the DTCC — and for that matter the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, or Swift, which reconciles bank-to-bank transactions — loses at least some of its raison d’etre in a world where reconciliation is practically beside the point and middlemen entirely unnecessary.
For wealth managers, the potential efficiencies of blockchain could remove the frustration of “winning a piece of business and then waiting a ridiculous period” for the money to come through, says Richard Godwin, blockchain strategy lead at SEI. “There’s a huge opportunity to solve that super-frustrating problem.”
But then that street goes both ways, adds Godwin. Blockchain also means “the money comes out faster if you’re losing business.”
Another possible effect of blockchain on financial advisors comes from its potential for disruption along the financial-data food chain in the RIA space, says Eddie Sempek, head of innovation at Omaha, Neb.-based Orion Advisor Services. Seamless, verifiable and secure data transfer eliminates a core function of custodians — and for portfolio-accounting providers like Envestnet’s Tamarac and Orion itself, adds Sempek.
Mike Capelle, chief platform officer at United Capital, couldn’t agree more. “Blockchain is a destroyer of interchanges” that exist solely because of “a potential for asymmetrical information.”
As blockchain removes the need for these interchanges — and the middlemen they create — in wealth management, transparency will increase for clients, positioning FAs aligned with that trend to function more as “financial quarterbacks” for clients, says Capelle, whose Newport Beach, Calif.-based employer, an RIA, manages around $22 billion from offices throughout the U.S.
For Christopher Lamia of Lamia Financial Group in Thousand Oaks, Calif., blockchain technology will probably mean investors will own, say, stock certificates not as paper documents in need of custody but as “digital tokens.”
Transacting in this milieu might come down to “I send the money to you and you transfer the token to me,” says Lamia, whose firm manages more than $280 million. “What do you need a custodian for? There’s no need for an intermediary.”
In a blockchain world, adds Lamia, “I may still be advising but it won’t be through Schwab.”
Orion’s Sempek sees Lamia’s point. While he thinks “there will continue to be a place for custodians” in a blockchain world, it may not be custodians per se. And downstream data untanglers like his employer and Envestnet — which, like big custodians such as Schwab and Fidelity moonlight as technology integrators and investment platform providers — are probably diversified enough from portfolio reconciliation to withstand a seismic shift in the fund accounting landscape.
But all entrenched players will have to be watchful against nimble interlopers, according to Sempek. “To the extent blockchain means there’s in essence no need for the reconciliation of data lifts a huge barrier” to getting into the business of offering advisors smart, often tech-driven, solutions to their business problems.
“That doesn’t scare us,” says Sempek. “But it is going to be disruptive.”
Blockchain: Get Ready for Radical Disruption, April 25, 2018
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