Well into the second half of 2018 and it’s been a white-knuckle roller coaster ride for most. With Ether shedding 44 percent of its value in just two weeks and the media speaking of a Bitcoin bubble, is it possible to lose faith in crypto but remain bullish on blockchain? Apparently; if continued corporate statements like the UBS blockchain endorsement are anything to go by. But can you really separate cryptocurrency and blockchain?
UBS Bullish on Blockchain, Bearish on Bitcoin
CEO of Swiss investment banking giant UBS, Sergio Ermotti, came out with a bold claim recently. He said that blockchain was “almost a must” for business. UBS blockchain support is nothing new, however. Neither is their stance that cryptocurrencies are risky and will probably never become mainstream currencies.
Yet, when it comes to blockchain, UBS changes their point of view. The bank believes that blockchain technology can help companies become more efficient and reduce their operating costs across the board, from healthcare to finance. This implies a separation between cryptocurrencies and the technology that they run on.
But is it possible to separate the two? Furthermore, since the original vision of Satoshi was to send peer-to-peer electronic payments without the need for a middleman, UBS blockchain support could be misplaced.
Disrupt or Be Disrupted
“While we are doubtful cryptocurrencies will ever become a mainstream means of exchange, the underlying technology, blockchain, is likely to have a significant impact in industries ranging from finance to manufacturing, health care, and utilities,” UBS wrote in October of 2017.
Adding that, “Just as [the] internet has transformed our lives with email, e-commerce, or smartphone apps, we believe blockchain as an infrastructure technology can power future disruptive technologies through distributive ledgers, smart contracts, tokens or identity management.”
So, what about cutting out the middleman? The centralized authority taking its fees? UBS blockchain research does acknowledge a certain level of risk, although they limit this to technological shortcomings and an uncertainty as to which application will benefit the industry most. They fail to mention whether digital currencies will threaten fiat ones, or if central authorities will be cut out of the loop.
In fact, within the financial sector, UBS predicts that blockchain technology will have irreversible and positive effects. And UBS blockchain support doesn’t stop at words. The bank is also investing in research into distributed ledgers and smart contracts in its business model.
UBS currently holds a number of blockchain patents. Yet, despite Ermotti’s bullish stance, their blockchain activities are dwarfed by other large banks and credit card companies. The list includes American Express, BBVA, Mizuho Financial Group, Goldman Sachs, BNP, and Bank of America (who’s buying up blockchain patents like they’re expecting a war). Is this a bid to disrupt or be disrupted? Or a defensive maneuver to protect themselves against blockchain innovation?
Blockchain and Bitcoin Are One and the Same
Plenty of people criticize Ermotti’s point of view, seeing it as a convenient way of taking a politically acceptable view and a safe position. Leaving the door open without scaring away existing clients. Others believe that more than just convenient, it misses the point completely. After all, blockchain and cryptocurrency are one and the same.
Consider the Bitcoin network for a moment. The way it was created requires miners to believe that the value of the Bitcoin they are rewarded will increase over time (or at least, not decrease in value). Otherwise, there is no incentive or rational reason to invest in expensive mining equipment, electricity, and time.
So, for those like UBS that are skeptical on Bitcoin, but busy singing the praises of blockchain, they may not fully understand. In an interview with Malta’s Steve Tendon, a member of the country’s Blockchain Taskforce and author of Malta’s National Blockchain Strategy, he expressed his concern with viewpoints such as the UBS blockchain one.
He argued that many regulators and institutions tried to draw a distinction between blockchain and cryptocurrencies, viewing crypto as a bad thing because of its criminal associations and scams, but blockchain as a positive technology with infinite possibilities.
“There is no way you can have a smart contract platform that is as sophisticated as the one that Ethereum has implemented today (but there will be others in the future) unless you also have a cryptocurrency that is being used to “pay” for the computation. So the distinction between cryptocurrency and blockchains are really artificial: they are just two aspects of the same coin,” he said.
Ermotti and the UBS team may be making headlines with their views on the transformative technology. Calling blockchain “crucial and disruptive” is all well and good. But frowning on Bitcoin at the same time may just be missing a trick.