There are more than 50 major banks clamoring to adopt the technology known as blockchain – the underpinnings of bitcoin – but none of them wants to be the first.
Goldman Sachs, JPMorganChase, and Bank of America are among the big names that have signed onto R3, an industry-wide body trying to bring blockchain technology to the finance world.
They all expect blockchain to simplify and streamline transactions in a way that reduces costs, increases security, and boost profits by making markets more efficient.
But blockchain technology only works effectively if there is an industry wide standard and all the banks are using it. For the first bank to adopt this digital system and overhaul existing infrastructure, it could mean a risky and expensive investment, and that bank would then have to hope others follow suit.
That's why this is one of the few cutting edge technologies that is generating a lot of talk, but not a lot of action among banks. While they are dabbling in the technology, attending conferences and joining R3, no one bank is actually taking the lead, going from proofs of concept to actually using it in the real world.
"The network effect here is important," said Fredrik Voss, VP of Blockchain Innovation at Nasdaq, at the IMN distributed ledger conference in Manhattan. The more companies use blockchain, the more useful and valuable it is.
But because banks are reluctant to make the initial investments in blockchain, it may be up to technology companies to lead the charge, said Grainne McNamara, co-leader of PwC's blockchain for financial services practice.
"They have two main reasons for doing this," McNamara said. "One is to drive their market share in the financial services sector more broadly since the competition amongst providers is pretty fierce. Second, as firms move out of 'rack and rack' infrastructure and into the cloud."
According to McNamara, it's the technology companies like IBM and Microsoft with the big balance sheets and top engineering talent that will be the drivers of blockchain technology.
Microsoft and IBM have both taken lead roles in the blockchain space over the last few years and both presented blockchain solutions at Sibos 2016, an annual financial services industry conference, in Geneva this week. They're among the technology companies creating shared protocols and standards for its adoption.
Microsoft, for instance, is partnering with Bank of America Merrill Lynch to use blockchain technology to streamline trade finance processes, which are normally highly manual, time-consuming and costly.
And IBM CEO Ginni Rometty gave the keynote speech where she likened what blockchain technology will do for transactions to what the internet did for information.
IBM has so far worked with 300 clients to develop blockchain for business, in areas like FX settlement, contracts, identity management, and trade finance.
If it becomes mainstream, proponents see many possibilities for blockchain. Instead of each party in a transaction keeping separate records and copies of contracts, blockchain is a bit like a Google document, where many people can look at the same record at once. The transaction takes place between two parties without an intermediary, and all changes are clear, unchangeable, and validated by everyone involved. Any additional transactions that take place get added to the chain and form part of a golden record of transactions.
This opens up the possibility of what the industry calls "smart contracts." For example, let's say shoes are being manufactured in China for sale in the US. Every step of the process could be part of a blockchain. When the factory loads the finished shoes onto a truck, the shipping company scans the box. That's part of the blockchain, so that triggers a payment from the shoe company, through its bank, to the supplier that assembled them. Along the way, each part of the process is verified by all involved, automated, and efficient. It's said to reduce paperwork, and fraud.
But despite the enthusiasm, it's an open question whether blockchain will ever become a standard underpinning of business and financial transactions. Today's technology works, and replacing it with something unproven is seen as an expensive risk.
“We’re probably overestimating the impact blockchain will have on the industry in the next two years, and underestimating its impact in 10 years,”Mike Bodson, president and CEO of the trade clearing firm, DTCC, told Business Insider.
Meanwhile, in 2017, the Australia Securities Exchange (ASX) plans to decide if its post trade clearing and settlement system will be replaced with a blockchain version. This could be a turning point for blockchain, said McNamara, and potentially the catalyst for widespread adoption.