I see the bad moon arising. I see trouble on the way. I see earthquakes and lightnin'. I see bad times today.
-- Creedence Clearwater Revival
The SWIFT payment system failed again this week. The tone of Swift's announcement intimated the end of life on the planet earth as we know it. Swift's description of the system's attackers was apocalyptic, and did nothing to minimize the skills of the attackers, adding that the funds seized might be, of course, reinvested to give the hackers a kind of turboboost of evil. My sources tell me the culprit is Brainiac from the planet Zod.
Of course there is nothing funny about this situation, even if Swift's "chicken little" corporate reaction was pretty funny. The real lesson of this event is deadly earnest and, I believe, fully anticipated by most specialists in the security of our financial system. This event, though, was the Fat Lady's Song. The banks, exchanges, clearers like Swift, DDTC, and so on, are going to have to share something with the public that insiders already know.
The party is over for the old, permissioned, firewall based, electronic fortress, concept of trust-in-payments systems. And the alternative is very far from obvious.
The buzzwords, the sweethearts of the fintech movement, are systems known as distributed ledgers. Two words are about to become part of everyone's vocabulary: Bitcoin and blockchain. There are multitudes of manifestations of these two intimately related electronic phenomena. If you are new to the subject of Bitcoin and blockchain, the learning curve is steep.
The significance of the second Swift failure is this. Trust-based systems, such as those upon which the current payments systems operate, are becoming more expensive to protect at a rapidly increasing rate. The horse race between hackers and firewall builders is being won by hackers in spite of the rapidly increasing spending on internet security.
And these most recent hacks took banks' money, not customer money. That is a game changer.
Since God invented dirt, the banks have been soooo regretful about the lengthy delays and inefficiencies inherent in our transactions system. They're so sorry, they tell us, about the three days you wait between transactions and payments. And they really regret all those fees that you pay and inconveniences you experience with foreign exchange transactions.
What bunk. The banks, as a whole, make hundreds of billions a year on these inefficiencies.
The point of the article is this. Now that the bank's own money is being stolen, the financial world will be singing from one hymnal. The time of distributed ledgers is here. There is no longer a question that distributed ledgers will replace our current method of securing transactions. The firewall system no longer has a constituency after the Swift debacle.
What are the implications for investors? First, there is nothing yet you can invest in directly. It is possible to purchase a thing called a crypto-currency. The most prominent of these is called Bitcoin. However, unless you spend the necessary months of research to grasp the underlying determinants of the value of Bitcoin, I have an emphatic one-word recommendation. Don't. This investment is incredibly risky, and those who provide confident forecasts of its future value are deluded or worse.
The future of transactions reminds me a little of the invasion of Europe by Genghis Khan. In the distributed ledger business, Genghis Khan is Bitcoin. There is no corporate presence sponsoring Bitcoin. It is open source. The key significance of Bitcoin/blockchain is that this particular distributed ledger is, at the moment, prohibitively expensive to hack. Its disadvantages include a lack of governance. Advocates will rightly argue that a lack of governance has its benefits - obvious to anyone who considers the problems with having a government - but there are also disputes in the Bitcoin community and no clear way to resolve them.
Genghis Khan's competition, the Pope and Kings of distributed ledgers, are the usual suspects - primarily the big banks. But also the big accounting firms and the major IT firms are involved. I wonder if the Pope and the Kings were afraid to speak the name of Genghis Khan. One thing is for sure, the Big Business side of the distributed ledger debate is afraid to speak the name Bitcoin. Honest.
Almost universally, if the equity capital of a distributed ledger advocate exceeds one billion market value, the advocate will never use the word Bitcoin in a discussion of distributed ledgers. Blockchain is the magic term they use. I find this annoying since the developers of Bitcoin coined the term blockchain and would have copyrighted it if they had not been open-source kind of guys who don't do that sort of thing.
It is much, much, too early to tell how this combat is going to sort itself out. There is a shortage of practical uses of the technology from any source. The number of practical uses at the moment is zero. But the word "inevitable" is no longer too strong.
Investment recommendations? I've got a few. My very long term bet is that the big banks (Bank of America (NYSE:BAC), Bank of New York Mellon (NYSE:BK), Citigroup (NYSE:C), Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS), and JP Morgan Chase (NYSE:JPM), among others) will be the big losers. Likewise, the big accounting firms. All have invested billions. For them, pocket change, but pocket change invested pointlessly.
An exception: I find of particular interest Goldman's entry into retail banking with a strong aversion to brick and mortar branches. These both are wise decisions. I have a buy on Goldman -- and its awareness of, and willingness to place bets upon, the outcome of fintech is one reason I think Goldman's long-term strength is assured. In the distributed ledger future, branches disappear.
The distributed ledger contest will ultimately boil down to a contest between the major IT firms (IBM (NYSE:IBM), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), and Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOGL)) (read: Pope and Kings) on one hand, and the loose governance of Bitcoin (The Great Khan) on the other hand.
Do not, however, look here for a standard analysis of funds invested and rates of return. This is a game that will have one winner, and the game is winner-take-all. A thinking IT firm like IBM realizes that this is a contest it must enter. This is positive for the future of IBM's stock, but I am a long way from knowing where IBM is going to jump, or whether I approve of their plan -- which is, at the moment, very diffuse.
This is also not a time to look at the fintech component of IBM's blockchain-oriented financials. It is far too early and the financials, nearly irrelevant. In this mega-contest for the future of distributed ledgers, it is not so much about dollars invested as intellectual resources expended and risks taken.
It is perhaps prudent at the moment for Big Blue to have a finger in every pie. But when a fully informed decision can be made, the winner of this contest will be the player with the most information and best instincts. And the earliest to make the right commitment. Then we can ask old fashioned questions like: What are the implications for IBM's financials?
On the big firm side, IBM in particular has two things working for them. They are tight with the big banks and accounting firms on the one hand, yet comfortable in the world of open source on the other. I see them with a development role in devising the apps the banks and accountants will be ultimately reduced to offering in the transactions world. Those will be some monster apps, but Apps is Apps. They're not where the big bucks are. The big distributed ledger itself is the real prize. IBM, or another big IT firm, will need to ramp up quickly to seize it.
IBM and its ilk will also be potentially better able to make decisions than the loosely structured management of Bitcoin/blockchain. But IBM should learn to say the word "Bitcoin." The term was totally missing from their initial press release. It's a clear sign of fear or hubris. And I don't think IBM has a reason to fear, as its banking customers and the accounting firms do.
What of the Bitcoin community? For all of their pretensions of computer power/economics-based decision-making a la the internet, the Bitcoin community is not the free-wheeling fun-loving band it makes itself out to be. Bitcoin-land has a management problem of its own. There is indeed a hierarchy of Bitcoin/blockchain management, albeit informal. And this management has disputes. A very important current dispute is whether and how the blockchain will grow. This is no small matter. Because if Bitcoin will matter a year from now, it needs to grow like Topsy, and now.
Who will win the battle for the One Big Global Distributed Ledger? Too soon to call, but the stakes are enormous.
Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.