Tuesday, January 17, 2017

17/1/17: Economics of Blockchain

One of the first systemic papers on economic of blockchain, via NBER (http://www.nber.org/papers/w22952) by Christian Catalini and Joshua S. Gans, NBER Working Paper No. 22952 (December 2016).

In basic terms, the authors see blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies influencing the rate and direction of innovation through two channels:

  1. Reducing the cost of verification; and 
  2. Reducing the cost of networking.

Per authors, for any "exchange to be executed, key attributes of a transaction need to be verified by the parties involved at multiple points in time. Blockchain technology, by allowing market participants to perform costless verification, lowers the costs of auditing transaction information, and allows new marketplaces to emerge. Furthermore, when a distributed ledger is combined with a native cryptographic token (as in Bitcoin), marketplaces can be bootstrapped without the need of
traditional trusted intermediaries, lowering the cost of networking. This challenges existing
revenue models and incumbents's market power, and opens opportunities for novel approaches to
regulation, auctions and the provision of public goods, software, identity and reputation systems."

A bit more granularly, per authors,

  • "Because of how it provides incentives for maintaining a ledger in a fully decentralized way, Bitcoin is also the first example of how an open protocol can be used to implement a marketplace without the need of a central actor." In other words, key feature of cryptocurrencies and blockchain is that it removes the need to create a central verification authority / intermediary / regulator or repository of data. The result is more than the cost reduction (focus of the Catalini and Gans paper), but the redistribution of market power away from intermediaries to the agents of supply and demand. In other words, a direct streamlining of the market away from third parties power toward the direct power for economic agents.
  • "Furthermore, as the core protocol is extended (e.g. by adding the ability to store documents through a distributed ledger-storage system), as we will see the market enabled by a cryptocurrency becomes a  flexible, permission-less development platform for novel applications." Agin, while one might focus on reductions in the direct costs of innovation in that context, one cannot ignore the simple fact that blockchain is resulting in reduced non-cost barriers to innovation, further reducing monopolistic market power (especially of intermediaries and regulators) and diffusing that power to innovators.

So what are the implications of this view of economics of blockchain? "Whereas the utopian view has argued that blockchain technology will affect every market by reducing the need for intermediation, we argue that it is more likely to change the scope of intermediation both on the intensive margin of transactions (e.g., by reducing costs and possibly influencing market structure) as well as on the extensive one (e.g., by allowing for new types of marketplaces)." So far, reasonable. Intermediation will not disappear as such - there will always be need for some analytics, pricing, management etc of data, contracts and so on, even with blockchain ledgers in place. However, the authors are missing a major point: blockchain ledgers are opening possibility to fully automated direct data analytics and AI deployment on the transactions ledgers. In other words, traditional forms of intermediation (for example in the context of insurance contract transactions, those involving data collection, data preparation, risk underwriting, contract pricing, contract enforcement, contract payments across premia and payouts, etc) all can be automated and supported by live data-based analytics engine(s) operating on blockchain ledgers. If so, the argument that the utopian view won't materialise is questionable.

The paper is worth reading, for it is one of the early attempts to create some theoretical framework around blockchain systems. Alas, my gut feeling is that the authors are failing to fully understand the depth of the blockchain technology. 

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