Blockchain Deconstructs the Corporation…

JPM CEO Jamie Dimon recently declared that he would sack any of his traders playing bitcoin which he compared to Tulip mania, but given the broad volatility famine that has crushed Wall Street’s Q3 results, any half decent trader would surely be keeping their skills sharp in the wild world of cryptocurrencies. It’s important to differentiate between permissioned networks (e.g. across banks to settle securities) with a central authority and fully autonomous ‘permissionless’ ones such as that underpinning bitcoin, which threaten the role of banks as the apex of a longstanding financial hierarchy. Near term, blockchain offers banks, insurers and asset managers a margin windfall by slashing processing costs – long term, it threatens to undermine their gatekeeping role.

While I’ve been a sceptic of the recent ICO boom and the resulting profusion of new cryptocurrencies (supply certainly isn’t limited in the aggregate), but blockchain is probably comparable in long-term impact to the TCP/IP internet protocol in the 1990s. In other words, it could prove as significant an enabling technology in transactional terms as the original internet protocol was in transforming communications. By now, all investors are aware of the disruption risk to many incumbent business models from new technologies that shatter barriers to entry and compress margins and pricing power, but there is an even more fundamental question looming.

Could the firm, in the sense of the formal corporate entities that have evolved since Dutch spice expeditions to Asia gathered risk sharing investors in the 17th century, now become unbundled?  The information search comparative advantage of the firm versus consumer  or individual entrepreneur in classic microeconomic theory has narrowed dramatically while the cost of enforcing and supervising contract execution has tumbled via sharing economy models and soon the widespread use of digital ledgers.

As a reminder, blockchain is a distributed ledger technology, and uses a self-sustaining, peer-to-peer database to record and manage transactions in a decentralized manner. Verification of data is undertaken via complex algorithms and consensus among multiple systems, making it almost completely tamper-proof.  Data is transferred or stored using a series of blocks, each of which have a cryptographic hash protecting its contents. Any update or transaction on the data creates a new record in the form of another block, which is added to the existing blockchain.

The defining, radical characteristic of the digital economy in terms of traditional economics is its zero-marginal cost and we’ve now reached a point where something can be simultaneously digital and unique, without any tangible representation (bitcoin being a case in point). The bedrock of economic exchange is trust, and we now have technology that allows a reliable degree of trust to be established between total strangers in order to share resources, which has had profound implications for investors. That principle can be applied via the blockchain to anything from stock certificates to trust contracts, property title deeds etc. In that scenario, the elaborate hierarchy of trust we have built over several centuries via the legal system and complex compliance and oversight procedures becomes increasingly redundant.

This new distributed trust architecture could replicate much of the organization of a firm built on contracts, from incorporation to supply chain relationships to employee relations. If contracts can be automated, then what will happen to traditional firm hierarchical management structures, processes, and intermediaries like lawyers? Much of the corporate world is built on exploiting transactional ‘friction’ and information asymmetries between consumers and suppliers – the Internet over the past two decades has been a force for reducing these profit opportunities, from hotel room pricing to asset management. While crowdsourced trust between strangers via sharing economy platforms has been powerful in this respect, the advent of the blockchain over the next few years looks far more revolutionary.

As I’ve highlighted in many notes, online services and the advent of AI software are reducing slack and redundancy in the economic system – the internet from its inception has been about reducing search costs and price asymmetries between producers and consumers i.e. acting as a fundamentally deflationary force (a shift which central bankers still struggle to adapt their outdated equilibrium models to). Sharing economy platforms are zero marginal cost business models in terms of adding inventory (e.g.  advertising for Google/Facebook).

Google, Facebook, Twitter or Airbnb rely on the contributions of users as a means to generate value within their own platforms. Of course, in the existing sharing economy model, the value produced by participants is harvested by the platform owner with most of those contributing to the value production getting nothing beyond free access to services like social media, search or marketing their products.

Blockchain changes that because it facilitates the exchange of value in a secure and decentralized manner, without the need for an intermediary – to that extent, it’s a medium term threat to incumbent web giant business models, which are centralized rather than distributed and extract economic rent from often unwitting users. Digital ledgers and smart contracts reduce the capacity of the firm to enforce and exploit ‘trust arbitrage’. A far more fluid economic structure will develop over the next decade and beyond, with project focused associations of specialists coalescing and disbanding, their contractual obligations and financial entitlements will be delivered via blockchain.

Next year, we will begin to see significant blockchain and ‘smart contract’ deployment across the finance sector from maritime insurance contracts that rewrite themselves in real time to asset leasing and securities settlement. The logistics/freight forwarding business is another ripe for disruption and millions of mid-level admin jobs will be automated out of existence globally over the next few years as a result. While positive for early mover finance sector margins over the next few years, the implications for prime real estate look ominous, as office towers, which are simply warehouses of human inventory, begin to empty out.

Blockchain protocols make it technologically possible for a ‘Decentralized Autonomous Organization’ (DAO) of individuals with relevant skills to associate and organize for a specific task with the power to execute smart contracts between them and a client that can replicate many of the functions of a traditional corporate entity.  This shift marks the advent of a new generation of “dematerialized” organizations that do not require physical offices, assets, or even formal employees. Of course, this utopian vision won’t apply where regulatory compliance demands a centralized authority or significant capital/fixed investment is required but can certainly work across many ‘asset light’ service sectors from design to advertising and professional services, where freelancing is already common.

There is also a trade-off between blockchain network size versus transaction frequency. The blockchain is so far struggling to solve this trade-off between network size versus transactional frequency, and until that technical dilemma is resolved it’s hard to see this technology competing with existing payment networks like credit card networks or SWIFT on a global scale anytime soon (i.e. achieving several thousand transactions per second).

However, despite these and other limitations, the huge scale of capital now being invested in this area (some of it via the notorious ICOs) and surging interest from blue chip companies (particularly in Japan, as covered recently) suggest that every investor needs to reflect on the nature and implications of this potentially revolutionary technology. The current generation of cryptocurrencies may ultimately fall by the wayside, but the innovations that enabled them almost certainly won’t…