Forget Brexit, Think Blockchain and Cryptocurrency
Facebook’s Libra, Twitter, Nation-Backed Digital Currencies, China and Other Macro Trends
By George McDonaugh, Managing Directors and Co-Founder of publicly listed cryptocurrency and blockchain investment firm KR1
Let’s look at some macro trends circling the esoteric inner core of this ongoing technological revolution. First up there’s Facebook’s Libra, which currently is a swirling mass of confusion. It’s clearly become a major part of the world’s biggest social media giant’s roadmap and they’re throwing a lot of resources at it. For crypto generally, it’s a huge affirmation of the technology and has been utterly out of the realms of expectation just a few years ago. As expected, however, with an entity as big as Facebook, Libra got the world’s major power structures hot under the collar, given that a ‘global stablecoin’, accessible to billions of people around the world, goes straight after government’s grip on monetary policy, which is effectively like trying to wrestle away the ultimate superpower of state.
The major nation state in question, the US, responded by calling those responsible to a hearing where officials, that clearly never read the briefing on what Libra is trying to be, shouted totally irrelevant questions to the treasonous upstarts, betraying the true aims of these hearings, which is to do nothing more than grandstand and bang a drum along party lines. If that wasn’t enough, they then fired off breathtakingly threatening letters to members of the Libra association with the clear intention of performing ‘audits’, which worked just as intended, with Visa, MasterCard, eBay and Stripe all quickly “stepping away” from their previous intention to join Facebook’s Libra network. In 2020, we will see this dance begin to intensify, most likely not only with Facebook but many other powerful players in different regions, think Uber, Grab in South East Asia, possibly Softbank in Japan, the already existing payment networks of WeChat and Alibaba in China and we’ll also see nation-states joining in the competition. Soon after this things will come to a head, perhaps in 2021 when Facebook and others will be forced to launch outside of the US, in smaller jurisdictions as pilot programs. This will hamper their ability to gain strong network effects and end up being the perfect talisman for why decentralisation, in the face of entrenched power structures, is the only way to proceed if the intent is to provide a new means of transacting value globally inclusive of the whole world.
What superpowers like the USA seemingly misunderstand is that although Facebook has lots of users, many more than Bitcoin, their power is already being whittled away by the very fact that permission-less, decentralised digital currencies, for the first time in history, provide a new option and choice for people to exit from centralised fiat currencies that have an average life expectancy of 27 years. It may take decades, but that paradigm shift is not going back in the bag. Jack Dorsey at Twitter has a much better grip on that power boiling away in the background and has just announced he’s set up a research team to investigate how to decentralise the entirety of his platform, Twitter as the decentralised protocol. Validation once again?
Perhaps another global institution that’s seen the light is the ECB, having set up a ‘Digital Currency Taskforce’ where doubtless they will spend most of 2020 eyeing Libra from afar, writing tomes on how fiat currency can work alongside digital decentralised currencies and how they’re going to create their own special crypto recipe to try and stem the ever-growing tide of permissionless stablecoin usage. This is no doubt what Christine Lagarde means by saying they plan to “get ahead of the curve” but in reality, to really get ahead, they’d have to decentralise themselves and that’s a tad hopeful perhaps.
The year 2020 will see yet more strange antics from the world’s most populated country. China is at the very heart of the Bitcoin ecosystem because the mining world, that secures the Bitcoin network with massive computing power, relies on cheap energy and a major percentage of the Bitcoin network’s mining farms find endless amounts of close to free energy, by camping out around the many nuclear power plants that service China’s massive ghost cities. But that’s not all! It’s going to get even stranger, as we watch China’s government battle with two sides of the same coin. They’re clearly enthralled by the prospect that a state run blockchain could bring a paradigm shift in its intent on surveilling its populace, but their desires to harness the technology might by necessity usher in a swathe of decentralised technologies that even the great firewall couldn’t keep at bay. Perhaps this technology is the ultimate trojan horse? Tune in for the next episode in 2020 when they release their state run DCEP ‘cryptocurrency’, take the vast spending data they’ll capture and add it into their citizen points scheme database and then triangulate all of this in real time with their pervasive facial recognition systems and hey presto, they go from 2020 to 1981 at the flick of a switch.
Now let’s explore what the future looks like through the lens of each of the main areas of the blockchain ecosystem. As we at KR1 see it, the areas of most interest are Bitcoin as a digital store of value, macro trends including Facebook’s Libra and other corporate or nation-state-backed currencies, the flourishing Ethereum ecosystem especially in Decentralised Finance (DeFi), specific competing projects to watch closely and the wonderful world of non-fungible tokens.
Bitcoin as a Digital Store of Value
As the Bitcoin narrative still forms the backdrop to the ecosystem, both in terms of new participants entering into the space and price action, let’s begin there. We’re at a critical stage in Bitcoin’s price trajectory. We had a parabolic rise from 2016 through to the end of 2017 with the price peaking at just under $20,000, followed by a 54 week bear market which saw close to an 87% retracement in price down to a value of $3200. This was the 4th such retracement since the birth of Bitcoin in 2009.
Between March and July 2019, we saw the pendulum swing back, with Bitcoin reaching just under $13,000, signalling an end to the bear market. Since then however we’ve had six months of sliding prices back to a low of $6,300 and this could well continue down to the $5,000 area towards the middle of January 2020. However, we think that with the clear over-enthusiasm that signalled the end of the bear market, combined with the strong fundamentals behind the scenes such as hashing power, transaction volume and new Bitcoin wallets being created, Bitcoin will most likely bounce back strongly from a steep dive in price and return to the $7,500 mark and then move higher into the middle of 2020. It’s important to understand that Bitcoin’s issuance model, with the halving coming up in May 2020, combined with a strong ‘digital gold’ narrative and the dominant ‘hard money’ philosophy of the asset, which maintains a very powerful set of ‘strong hands’ will create many boom and bust cycles, you could say they’re somewhat baked into the protocol by design.
The Flourishing Ethereum Ecosystem: The Future is in Decentralised Finance
Away from nation-state superpowers and Bitcoin, diving a little deeper into the technology, the area causing the most commotion and interest is Decentralised Finance (DeFi) on the Ethereumblockchain. The DeFi movement essentially is a suite of flourishing financial applications that allow for seamless interaction and interoperability with each other. It seems there is a new project launching every other day that is building on the composability with previously launched projects. As an example of the flow available to people who hold digital assets, you could use a token swap exchange such as Uniswap to exchange the volatile Ethereum (ETH) asset to a stablecoin, that is pegged to 1 USD by market forces such as Maker’s DAI, send it to a smart contract lending platform like Compound, where you can lend your assets and stablecoins out for a yield and then you could cover the value held in the lending platform smart contract with an alternative insurance provider such as Nexus Mutual. In essence, this is not dissimilar to using a peer-to-peer lender to loan out money you have and earn interest in return, plus a ‘decentralised’ stock market where one can exchange unlimited amounts of assets and a digital and ‘decentralised’ alternative to a specific insurance contract all in one.
All of this can be achieved in very little time, we’re talking seconds or minutes here, without any paperwork permisionlessly and at very little cost. As a testament to the growing use of that network, the USD value of assets locked up in Ethereum-powered DeFi applications crossed an all-time high of $700 million USD recently, despite the depressed market sentiment especially regarding Ethereum. We do not expect this trend to halt any time soon, in fact we foresee major uplifts in use as the underlying systems gain trust, the applications boost their numbers, improve their offerings and become more accessible to wider audiences. We look forward to watching 2020 continue to be the year where money legos connect together to build a financial fortress.
What’s New on the Radar? Cosmos, Polkadot and the Battle for Developers
Not mentioned so far, we’re seeing huge interest recently launched or soon-to-launch competing layer-1 blockchains, especially in the ‘interoperability’ or ‘application-specific’ blockchains ecosystems. In opposition to Bitcoin’s energy and computing-intensive Proof-of-Work, most of these platforms are Proof-of-Stake networks, where participants guarantee their truthful behaviour by putting up a financial deposit that is at risk instead of wasting computer resources and energy. Staking will be a major trend in 2020 and we’ve already seen Coinbase and Binance, the world’s largest exchanges move directly into the space. By staking assets, the process where tokens of value are used as collateral or deposit that is at risk, in return for securing the network and agreeing on transactions that happened, stakers are receiving a healthy yield. This system has become a core use case for digital assets in many projects but especially underpins two projects that we will see break new grounds over the next year, Cosmos and Polkadot. Both are providing interoperability for application-specific blockchains while increasing throughput by some order of magnitudes. As of writing, Cosmos is live with a strong community of developers and validators that form the backbone of the staking ecosystem. The key feature of Cosmos, which aims to allow for the seamless transition of tokens between different chains, is IBC (Inter-Blockchain Communication Protocol), which is due to come online in the next year and should showcase the true potential of the protocol. There are currently lots of developer teams that are building on the Cosmos technology stack (including Binance) but thus far those networks are still isolated. With IBC properly enabled we’ll see all of these sovereign networks starting to communicate and interact with each other through the Cosmos Hub network.
Polkadot is an equally powerful system that, with a different digital architecture, aims to both allow cross chain data and token transmission while also radically increasing throughput. Polkadot lies at the core of a new vision for the internet, the Web 3.0, where data sovereignty, property privacy protections and permissionless applications become a new internet for the world. Currently a ‘canary’ network ‘Kusama’ is live, which aims to test many of the systems already put in place by the Parity development team, who is in charge of bringing the Polkadot network to the world. We expect to see a full roll out of Polkadot in the first half of next year and hope it will be a leap forward for the whole ecosystem.
Other technologies that deserve a notable mention for what they will achieve next year are mesh networks like Althea Mesh that bring faster and more private community-based internet to areas of the world that need it most. For example, in parts of Africa people are now getting high speed, low cost internet access when they didn’t before, all enabled by Althea and the blockchain ecosystem.
There will also be clear excitement next year for ‘tBTC’, brought to us by the Keep Network, which enables a trustless bridge to move Bitcoin as an asset onto Ethereum or other networks like the previously mentioned Cosmos and Polkadot. Considering the strong DeFi trend currently, there will be those with major positions of Bitcoin that will jump at the chance to get their wealth working for a return in the rapidly expanding DeFi ecosystem.
Layer-2 scaling technologies will again be at the forefront of the space, including Matter Lab’s ZKsync implementation and other solutions like optimistic rollups. Counterfactual and Connext’s efforts are continuing to gain traction with their state channel technology allowing developers to enable instant, low-cost Ethereum transactions in their wallets, browsers, and applications. With the complete scope of the release of Ethereum 2.0 still some time away, layer-2technologies performing settlements on the main Ethereum 1.0 blockchain will become far more prominent next year and beyond. We will also see far greater interest in privacy focused technologies such as the Nym project, who are looking to bring mixnet technology back from the computer science labs of the 1980s. There’s an opportunity for network layer privacy projects such as Nym to form a major layer in the forthcoming Web3 stack. Another project tackling this area is HOPR, who are building an incentivised data transmission system that rewards nodes for passing on messages anonymously as they ‘Hop’ from node to node, before finding their true destination. When combined with an endless flow of cover traffic through the network, privacy can be fully achieved.
The Wonderful World of Non-Fungible Tokens
Lastly, a look to next year wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the rising star of Ethereum adoption charts, non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Digital scarcity is no better represented than through one-off unique tokens that represent in-game items, collectibles and even art works. All areas are gaining adoption by the day with games, market places, galleries and more all appearing at an astonishing rate. Next year we will see this go into overdrive as some of the big names in the entertainment business begin to experiment with issuing their own NFTs.
There’s plenty to be excited about, far more than current prices would reflect. We’re only just beginning to understand the vast breadth of use cases unlocked by programmable money, assets and scarcity in the digital realm. Each year brings new and exciting opportunities and 2020 will be no different.
CEO Hisham Itani and Resource Group Recognized in the 2020 Global Banking & Finance Awards®
Global Banking & Finance Review has awarded Hisham Itani the Chairman and CEO of Resource Group, Technology CEO of the Year Middle East 2020 in recognition of his vision, strategy and strong leadership that have contributed greatly to Resource Group’s success in winning the Most Innovative Holding Group Middle East 2020 in this Global Banking & Finance Awards®.
Resource Group is an investment group with a portfolio of diversified businesses that capitalizes on technology and human talent for value creation. The company has proven that it has gone the extra mile to develop innovative solutions aimed at improving people’s lives and helping Lebanon transition toward a knowledge-based economy. Global Banking and Financial Review, the renowned online and print magazine identified a number of areas that Resource Group has excelled. The company has been awarded Most Innovative Holding Group Middle East 2020, and Hisham Itani the Chairman and CEO, receives the award for Technology CEO of the Year Middle East 2020. Under his leadership, Resource Group has grown from a family security-printing business to a diversified international investment group, with a portfolio of companies across 10 sectors in over 75 countries.
Wanda Rich, editor Global Banking & Finance, said “Mr. Itani took the security printing business to another level and expanded into different technology verticals in an impressive list of success stories”. The list includes digital security, smartcard manufacturing, mobile value added solutions, cyber security and secure communication solutions, telecom infrastructure and managed services, elections supply chain services, lottery systems and operations, mobile and virtual reality games, among others.
Resource Group’s focus on technology has had a constructive and tangible impact on government automation and on citizen experience in target markets.
Editor Wanda Rich says “We are proud to offer Resource Group these prestigious awards and wish them continued success and growth into 2021 during these challenging economic times”.
Global Banking and Finance Review is a renowned online and print magazine. The magazine’s website alone receives over 7 million page views annually. Global Banking and Finance Review provides a balanced view with formative and independent news from the financial community. The Global Banking & Finance Awards® were created to recognize companies of all sizes that are prominent in particular areas of expertise and excellence within the global financial community. The awards are known throughout the global banking and financial community. They reflect the innovation, achievement, strategy, progressive and inspirational changes taking place within the financial sector.
Bouncing back in 2021: Digital Transformation is no longer a choice as dependence on 5G, IoT and Data increases in society and business
By Ivan Ericsson, Head of Quality Management, Expleo Group Limited
The global pandemic has put enormous strain on businesses and brought into sharp focus the importance of being agile, adaptable and able to increase the pace of innovation and change at short notice – catapulting technology right to the top of the agenda for many organisations.
As the economy works to get back on its feet, technology is only going to play a bigger role in our lives. At Expleo, as experts in digital transformation and the reliable implementation of technological innovations, we’ve outlined the biggest tech-driven trends that we expect to see in 2021 and beyond.
1) “Digital transformation” no longer a choice
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught businesses anything, it’s that they need to be poised to respond to abrupt market disruption at any moment, making digital transformation mandatory overnight.
With no room for delay, hugely complex corporations – that have historically been slow to adopt technology – have had to accelerate their reliance on technology just to keep afloat in recent months. Digital change, at speed, has become the norm.
Even last year, the idea of an unscheduled video conference call might put people on edge – now most of us wouldn’t think twice about calling a colleague over Teams or Zoom even for a 2-minute conversation. At the same time, social infrastructure has moved with the needs of its users, with telecoms giants strengthening and opening up networks so we can keep communicating despite social distancing.
There are now very few excuses left for operating in a non-digital way. All businesses need to be intelligent businesses that can change direction nimbly, with speed, confidence and composure. As we see more businesses putting this into practice, it’ll likely result in an increased number embracing and normalising some of the behaviours of tech-savvy giants like Apple and Amazon, who have no doubt thrived during this period.
Their success can largely be attributed to normalising an agile approach. By ensuring all applications have testing facilities built in – a “quality shadow” if you will – it allows for continuous improvements, and the ability to change direction quickly and confidently, when needed. This is particularly valuable today as the world becomes more fast-paced and increasingly unpredictable.
2) Big data/AI/predictive analytics
We’re moving into a space where big data can be extracted from the most seemingly innocuous places. In a hyper-connected world, a move as simple as a dog walk could offer huge swathes of data to the right companies. Many businesses already realise the benefits of capturing and utilising big data, but not all have taken advantage of it. The businesses that move quickest are most likely to reap the rewards in a more impactful way than their ‘data shy’ competitors. Where data used to be a side effect of business operation, it is now the driving force.
As businesses begin to rely more heavily on data to make critical decisions, independent assurance becomes increasingly important to get those decisions right. Forward-thinking, data-driven organisations must therefore assure that the data is correct in the first place, to avoid giving businesses false confidence and risk them moving in the wrong direction – something that is rarely affordable in today’s competitive and fast-paced environment. If businesses are not 100% confident in assuring the quality and accuracy of their own data, they should look to a third party for support.
A key data trend we expect to see moving further into 2021 is the increased use of predictive analytics. At the moment, businesses will often use data analytics to give us insights into our past activities, or to tell us where we are right now. However, the real value lies in knowing where we are going and how we are going to get there. Data analytics will help to identify the optional levels that can be pulled to drive change and realise business benefit.
Secondly, as intuitive technology advances and becomes more accessible, we expect over the next 12 months to see companies of all sizes begin to adopt artificial intelligence (AI) to drive intelligent analytics. In this context, AI refers to various technologies that allow machines to learn, sifting through ‘messy’ big data in order to find and unlock valuable predictive insights into future events. This allows businesses to better adapt their strategy to likely future outcomes and get a head start in the market.
However, with this ever-increasing emphasis on data and data protection, ethical AI will have a more prominent role to play in 2021 and beyond. Protected, usable Data is a by-product of good data security and privacy measures; however, the public remain wary of how their data is being used, particularly after the fallout from Cambridge Analytica’s use of data to influence an election. Businesses, therefore, must give their customers confidence that their data is secure and protected.
3) Moral relevance/corporate altruism
Research shows that young people are increasingly researching and considering the ethics of brands they’re purchasing from. And it won’t be long before this attitude starts seeping into every other aspect of their lives, with more and more people wanting to work for what they consider to be “purpose-driven” businesses.
Talent is the lifeblood of any company, so for big corporations, many of whom were born to create profit, this could put them in a tricky position. They might already be influencing society in a positive way – but this is unlikely to have ever been their main goal.
Moving forward, however, all organisations will have to start thinking about the “Triple Bottom Line”. That means considering the environmental and social impact of your business, alongside your commercial imperative.
We’ll soon see a mindset switch across businesses, from ‘competing’ to ‘advancing’. Instead of wanting to be the “best,” the question will be, how can I better serve the world around me?
In line with this, businesses will have to start thinking more about how to use tech for good, as we’ve seen with the likes of Microsoft Teams connecting tens of millions of people every day, during this very dark time.
2021 is likely to bring even more inroads when it comes to using technology to improve society, whether it’s developing bespoke problem-solving technologies or using IT to ‘eco-proof’ existing sectors, the goal for businesses is to rise to this challenge and build a better future for people and the planet through the use of technology. But all organisations will continue to need to be able to justify technology use and prove that they’re using it ethically, and in a secure manner.
4) 5G new networks – just about all big trends are driven by/reliant upon faster networks – particularly relevant for a more distributed workforce
Greater access and utilisation of 5G networks across the country will underpin and accelerate all of the key trends discussed. Everything we do on our smart devices we can expect to do at higher speed, greater capacity and with lower lag times.
As our digital footprints extend beyond simple web browsing and into our daily lives through smart technology, we are creating huge amounts of data every minute. This vast flow of data is increasingly dependent on new high bandwidth networks to facilitate it. Therefore, the merging of technology and engineering will become critical in ensuring big data is carried successfully to drive analytics and drive business.
The fact we have managed to successfully work from home during COVID is a glowing recommendation for the quality of the networks as they exist today, and they will only get better.
The telecoms industry is already working overtime to ensure that people all over the country get reliable access to the internet – and the fact that there is still inequality in this area proves just how challenging this is. But, in line with this trend toward hyper automation, which will make data extraction and analysis a part of everyday life for businesses, the consolidation of tech and engineering will be ever more important.
Forward-thinking companies will look to incorporate 5G networks into their business strategy. This could be from an internal perspective to enhance the abilities of their remote workforce. Alternatively, this could relate to their own products or offerings – developing an internet of things (IoT) strategy, improve user experience, or bring products to market faster by analysing big data and adapting quicker. Either way, with increasingly improved networks, businesses are expected to take advantage of the huge increase in accessible and usable data.
For businesses to truly reap the benefits of these new technologies, they must be developed and adopted in the right way.
Quality assurance, trust and security are three key requirements that the technology of the future depends on to succeed. Having these requirements at the heart of any digital transformation will ensure that systems perform reliably, having been tested and assured.
By prioritising a seamless customer experience combined with an ability to create, test, and scale digital solutions and operationalise at pace, businesses will be in the best possible position to take advantage of the potential being unlocked by these new technologies.
Ahli Bank, Oman, is SunTec’s 50th customer for its Indirect Taxation Solution
SunTec’s GCC VAT compliance solution to help Ahli Bank automate end-to-end VAT compliance process, manage regulatory changes, and seamlessly integrate it with the existing IT ecosystem
SunTec, the world’s #1 relationship-based pricing and billing company and the provider of #1 GST and VAT compliance solution for Banks and Financial Services in GCC and India, has partnered with Ahli Bank, Oman, to provide its GCC VAT compliance solution.
The win is a landmark one for SunTec as it marks the 50th customer for its indirect taxation solution. SunTec has garnered 24 customers in India and this is the 26th customer in the Middle East to acquire the solution.
VAT is likely to be introduced in Oman in early 2021 and Ahli Bank has taken the proactive step of adopting a VAT compliance solution to ensure operational efficiency, enhance revenue, and augment customer experience.
Amit Dua, President – Client Facing Groups, SunTec, said, “We are delighted to partner with Ahli Bank, Oman in what marks a historic win, in their journey to ensure VAT compliance. We understand that the VAT landscape is evolving within the GCC, and therefore, our solution offers agility to respond to these changing regulatory requirements. With the Xelerate platform and GCC VAT compliance solution, Ahli Bank can digitize the entire VAT compliance process and comply with least number of changes to their existing technology infrastructure.”
He added, “VAT is a crucial step that the GCC countries have taken to implement tax regimes. It is imperative for banks and financial institutions to have a robust and scalable solution to accommodate their specific needs. Ahli Bank joins the list of more than 20 banks who have adopted our GCC VAT Compliance solution. I’m proud to say that approximately 3 billion transactions per annum are processed through our GCC VAT/ GST compliance solution across our client base.”
Said Abdullah Al Hatmi, CEO at Ahli Bank, added: “It is extremely crucial for us to be ready for VAT compliance. We are very happy to partner with SunTec to deploy GCC VAT compliance solution. With SunTec we will have a single solution in place covering all aspects of VAT compliance and we will be future-proofed given that any future regulatory changes will be handled by the solution with ease.”
SunTec’s GCC VAT compliance solution based on the Xelerate platform will enable the bank to smoothly comply with GCC VAT regulations and manage potential regulatory changes with ease. The single end-to-end solution helps automate the entire VAT compliance process including centralized rule-based tax determination, input tax recovery, tax invoice, reconciliation, corrections, adjustments, statements, and regulatory reporting.
SunTec GCC VAT Compliance solution is architected to meet the unique needs of banks and financial services firms and can easily integrate with existing IT systems. The solution is designed to process all taxable transactions across business lines and applications, reduce cost of compliance, mitigate potential risk of compliance violations, penalties, and reputational risk.
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CEO Hisham Itani and Resource Group Recognized in the 2020 Global Banking & Finance Awards®
Global Banking & Finance Review has awarded Hisham Itani the Chairman and CEO of Resource Group, Technology CEO of the...
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