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Bank technology Big banks test blockchain-based trading system

Eastern Switzerland's first bitcoin vending machine, in St Gallen, in January 2014


Eleven major banks, including Switzerland’s UBS and Credit Suisse, say they have tested a system that could make trading much faster and cheaper, using the technology that underpins crypto-currency bitcoin. 

The banks are part of a consortium of 42 major lenders, brought together last year by New York-based software company R3 to work on ways blockchain technology could be used in financial markets – the first time so many have collaborated on using such systems. 

A blockchain is a huge, decentralised ledger of every bitcoin transaction, verified and shared by a global computer network that can also be used to secure and validate any exchange of data, including real assets, such as commodities or currencies. 

The banks reckon the technology could save them money by cutting out middlemen and making their operations more transparent. But analysts caution it is early days - bitcoin was invented just six years ago and blockchain experiments are still under way. 

For this test, R3 used a Microsoft platform, which runs on a blockchain built by distributed ledger company Ethereum. 

The 11 banks in the simulation, operating across four continents, each used their own computer, or “node”, and transferred “Ether” to each other – Ethereum’s equivalent of bitcoin, R3 said in a statement on Wednesday. 

They were able to settle the transactions almost instantaneously, it added. That compares with settlement times of days or even weeks, depending on the asset class, under the current systems used by banks. 

bitcoin image link

Here's how a bitcoin transaction works. Click on the image to enlarge.   (Graphic by Kai Reusser; text by Veronica DeVore)

New phase 

“Rather than just talking about what we might do, we’ve moved into a new phase, which is actually executing these plans and demonstrating how this technology might work in practice,” said Tim Grant, who runs R3’s test labs. 

R3 Managing Director Charley Cooper said the technology could be used by banks to transfer real assets within the next one or two years. 

For its part, UBS released on Tuesday a white paper titled “Extreme automation and connectivity: The global, regional, and investment implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution” at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos. 

CEO Sergio Ermotti said: “At UBS we believe in embracing change, rather than fighting it. Our technology lab in London, established in early 2015, is already exploring a range of innovations. These include blockchain, the shared ledger system that underpins Bitcoin and offers the potential to enhance transparency and trust, while reducing transaction costs.” 

The other banks involved in the experiment were Barclays, HSBC, BMO Financial Group, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Natixis, Royal Bank of Scotland, TD Bank, UniCredit and Wells Fargo – all members of the R3 consortium. 

“Proving the scale and peer-to-peer operation of blockchain experiments is an important next step,” said UBS’s senior innovation manager Alex Batlin, who is in charge of a blockchain lab for the bank in London. and agencies

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