Blockchain and Securitization

image by  David Stankiewicz

Deloitte prepared a report on behalf of the Structured Finance Industry Group and the Chamber of Digital Commerce, Applying Blockchain in Securitization: Opportunities for Reinvention. It opens,

The global financial system is betting on blockchain to revolutionize many aspects of its business, and we (the Structured Finance Industry Group and the Chamber of Digital Commerce) believe that securitization is one of the areas in the capital markets that could most benefit from this transformation. Janet Yellen, Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, recently called blockchain “a very important new technology” that “could make a big difference to the way in which transactions are cleared and settled in the global economy.” Financial services institutions have already invested over a billion dollars in the technology, with most big banks likely to have initiated blockchain projects by the end of 2017. There are already hundreds of use cases, ranging from international payments to securities processing, while technology firms including Amazon, Google, and IBM are offering a host of blockchain services aimed at the financial industry.

Why are all of these companies investing in blockchain? This new technology has the potential to dramatically disrupt the role of intermediaries—including that of banks—in financial transactions. Traditional activities performed by intermediaries might be changed or even replaced. Blockchain can also bring significant advances in efficiency, security, and transparency to many of the financial sector’s activities.

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The Structured Finance Industry Group and the Chamber of Digital Commerce commissioned Deloitte & Touche LLP (Deloitte) to explore how blockchain might reinvent securitization—and how the securitization industry should consider preparing for this rapidly approaching future. This industry is exploring this nascent technology’s potential benefits and costs. Firm answers on blockchain’s likely use cases are not yet available, but discussions with securitization and blockchain experts have led to some key observations and insights about implications and possible paths forward. (1, footnotes omitted)

The report’s bottom line is that “[b]lockchain and smart contracts could catapult the securitization industry into a new digital age.” (2) It finds that

The technology’s potential to streamline processes, lower costs, increase the speed of transactions, enhance transparency, and fortify security could impact all participants in the securitization lifecycle—from originators, sponsors/issuers, and servicers to rating agencies, trustees, investors, and even regulators. (2)

The report provides a nice overview of blockchain basics for those who find distributed ledger technology to be mysterious. The real value of the report, however, is that it provides concrete guidance on how blockchain can be integrated in the securitization process. There is a chart on page 24 and an explanation of it on the following page that shows this in detail. This level of detail makes it much easier to visualize how blockchain can and most likely will change the nature of the business in years to come.

The Lowdown on Blockchain & Real Estate

There is a lot of hype out there about the impact that blockchain technology will have on the real estate industry. There is no doubt that blockchain will be revolutionary over the long term, but its impact in the short term is much more limited. Spencer Compton and Diane Schottenstein have written an article for Law360 (unfortunately, behind a paywall), How Blockchain Can Be Applied To Real Estate Law, that provides a nice overview of where blockchain stands today in the real estate industry. It opens,

Real estate transactions are steeped in traditions that have hardly changed over hundreds of years. Today, as computer-based property recording systems are prevalent in our cities but roll out at a snail’s pace in rural areas (often hindered by strained municipal budgets), and e-signatures are little used (due to legitimate fears of fraud), arguably the real estate closing process has lagged in its use of computer aided technology. Yet other aspects of real estate ownership have been transformed by the internet: smart home technology to remotely control heating and lighting and monitor security; Airbnb which increases the value of real estate ownership and disrupts the hotel industry; and the real estate brokerage community’s design/photographic/communication technology to list and virtually show properties. Now add to our brave new world blockchain, a cloud-based decentralized ledger system that could offer speed, economy and improved security for real estate transactions. Will the real estate transaction industry avoid or embrace it?

What is blockchain?

Blockchain is best-known as the technology behind bitcoin, however bitcoin is not blockchain. Bitcoin is an implementation of blockchain technology. Blockchain is a data structure that allows for a digital ledger of transactions to be shared among a distributed network of computers. It uses cryptography to allow each participant on the network to manipulate the ledger in a secure way without the need for a central authority such as a bank or trade association. Using algorithms, the system can verify if a transaction will be approved and added to the blockchain and once it is on the blockchain it is extremely difficult to change or remove that transaction. A blockchain can be an open system or a system restricted to permissive users. There can be private blockchains (for ownership records or business transactions, for instance) and public blockchains (for public municipal data, real estate records etc.). Funds can be transferred by wires automatically authorized by the blockchain or via bitcoin or other virtual currency. Transparent, secure, frictionless payment is touted as one of blockchain’s many benefits.

The article goes on to answer the following questions:

  • How does a blockchain differ from a record kept by a financing institution or a government agency?
  • How is a blockchain transaction more secure than any other transaction?
  • How widely is blockchain used?
  • How blockchain is being used to record real property instruments?
  • How might blockchain affect the role of title insurance companies?

If the impact of blockchain on the real estate industry has mystified you, this primer will give you an overview of where things stand today and maybe tomorrow too.

 

Blockchain and Real Estate

CoinDesk.com quoted me in Land Registry: A Big Blockchain Use Case Explored. It opens,

With distributed ledger technology being promoted as a benefit to everything from farming to Fair Trade coffee, use case investigation has emerged as a full-time fascination for many.

In this light, one popular blockchain use case that has remained generally outside scrutiny has been land title projects started in countries including in Georgia, Sweden and the Ukraine.

One could argue land registries seemed to become newsworthy only after work on the use case had begun. However, those working on projects disagree, asserting that land registries could prove one of the first viable beachheads for blockchain.

Elliot Hedman, chief operating officer of Bitland Global, the technology partner for a real estate title registration program in Ghana, for example, said that issues with land rights make it a logical fit.

Hedman told CoinDesk: “As for the benefit of a blockchain-based land registry, look to Haiti. There are still people fighting over whose land is whose. When disaster struck, all of their records were on paper, that being if they were written down at all.”

Hedman argued that, with a blockchain-based registry employing a network of distributed databases as a way to facilitate data exchange, the “monumental headache” associated with a recovery effort would cease.

Modern real estate

To understand the potential of a blockchain land registry system, analysts argue one must first understand how property changes hands.

When a purchaser seeks to buy property today, he or she must find and secure the title and have the lawful owner sign it over.

This seems simple on the surface, but the devil is in the details. For a large number of residential mortgage holders, flawed paperwork, forged signatures and defects in foreclosure and mortgage documents have marred proper documentation of property ownership.

The problem is so acute that Bank of America attempted foreclosure on properties for which it did not have mortgages in the wake of the financial crisis.

Readers may also recall the proliferation of NINJA (No Income, No Job or Assets) subprime loans during the Great Recession and how this practice created a flood of distressed assets that banks were simply unable to handle.

The resulting situation means that the property no longer has a ‘good title’ attached to it and is no longer legally sellable, leaving the prospective buyer in many cases with no remedies.

Economic booster

Land registry blockchains seek to fix these problems.

By using hashes to identify every real estate transaction (thus making it publicly available and searchable), proponents argue issues such as who is the legal owner of a property can be remedied.

“Land registry records are pretty reliable methods for maintaining land records, but they are expensive and inefficient,” David Reiss, professor of law and academic program director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship, told CoinDesk.

He explained:  “There is good reason to think that blockchain technology could serve as the basis for a more reliable, cheaper and more efficient land registry.”