Smart Contracts and the Automation of Trust

Blockchain and its related technology has gained significant attention across industries. The financial industry has begun to realize the potential of it. It’s very well known that blockchain technology decentralizes decision making and fosters decision by consensus (in technical terms, proof of works where all participating miners are expected to solve a given mathematical problem). Here, let’s focus on “smart contracts” and a few use cases involving the most revolutionizing aspect of this technology which is enabling banks to automate trust and take greater steps towards transparency.

Traditionally, every relationship in the financial world is bounded by legal contracts, which are executed by both parties based on a defined/expected business event. Each of us sign these various contracts in daily life for services we consume from a service provider. Most of the time we blindly sign T&Cs (which are foundation agreements and legally binding) without reading through in detail. Simply put, the end consumer has no great wisdom to interpret them effectively.

Smart contracts has been defined and interpreted differently by various communities:

In the technical community, a smart contract is like a self-executing code in a given event. An example would be “Send XXX GBP to contractor on last day of month.” This similar self-executing code ability is available across existing technologies like Oracle, where Trigger objects / smart agents are executed on various events. Hence we can call this smart contract code.

In the legal community, smart contracts are known as smart legal contracts, where two or more counterparties have agreed for execution of legal terms and reflect those across their systems. They are obliged to stand by these.

One important thing to note is that these smart contracts are executed on blockchain and, inherently, they adopt the characteristics of permanence – i.e. no-reversible. This makes a compelling case for legal contracts to adopt the smart contract technology. Smart legal contracts would contain a combination of smart contract code and more traditional legal language. For instance, a supplier enters into a smart legal contract with a retailer where payment terms are defined in a code and are self-executed when a goods delivery is made but the retailer will insist on the inclusion of an indemnification clause in events of faulty material/late delivery (legal wordings). Now such a scenario can’t be coded and the matter has to be settled in court in the event of litigations.

There are also potential use cases in the financial services sector (as stated, each contract can be reimagined in financial services industry):

  • Capital Markets: This is a very popular use case being evaluated, where securities based on payments and rights that are executed can be written as smart contracts. Some of the world’s leading banks are conducting experiments with smart bonds.
  • Bankruptcy/Delinquency: Smart contracts are executed in a given scenario and customer records are reflected on blockchain, which then becomes immediately accessible to financial institutions to take further credit agreements with a given corporate/retail customer.
  • Escrow: The contract would be able to release the funds if the defined criteria has been met (i.e. transfer of goods from a supplier)
  • Loans: These can be converted as smart contracts in the event of missed payments/breach of terms where the customer loses access to digital assets through the revocation of their digital keys. This use case can further be linked across customer risk profiling.

While smart contracts sound like the answer to every problem, their real word enforcement and adoption in the legal system would be critical for its success. There’s also a couple of other issues to consider, including establishing liability in a decentralized world and flexibility where contract terms are evolved and matured over a period in business.

In the future we may see that business parties will be automating and entering in smart contracts with each other, which does not mean that the legal system would completely be eliminated. However we can regard this technology as a step towards legal system evolution. We can imagine that there will be prescribed and acceptable smart contracts by the legal system, within a given territory or across the globe, which are interconnected and monitored through wrapped up smart contracts. The financial industry is well-poised for smart contracts considering the former is highly regulated, and operates per given legal norms. Smart contracts can facilitate the elimination of intermediaries which were established mainly to cement the trust among contract counterparties and promote greater transparency.

 

The article was originally published on Payments Source on September 9, 2016 and is re-posted here by permission.

Anil Awasthi

Anil heads the retail banking practice at Virtusa where he is responsible for capability enhancement, solutioning, building best practices and thought leadership. With over 17 years of technology experience in the financial services industry, he is regarded as a true agent of change and digital innovation by clients worldwide. Anil is an ROI driven business leader who is passionate about faster products and platforms. His financial technology experience spans - API banking, blockchain, cards & payments, core banking, customer experience, digital banking, fintech and lending. From an IT perspective, his expertise lies in IT strategy, business architecture, technology rationalization, application modernization, data science, program governance and solution delivery. Anil is an avid writer who has been featured in the American Banker, Data Quest and The Digital Banking Club. Prior to Virtusa, Anil worked with Syntel where he was the Engagement Manager for a leading American Financial Institution. His other stints include a technical lead at IBM and an associate consultant at Ernst & Young. Anil holds a B.Tech in Computer Sciences from the Open University of British Columbia and is a certified CSQA, PMP, OCP and IBM Blockchain professional.

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