Blockchains Evolving: Institutional and Evolutionary Economics Perspectives

With Brendan Markey-Towler, Mikayla Novak, and Jason Potts

Abstract: In this paper we develop a perspective on systems for interaction organised by Blockchains which makes use of evolutionary-institutional and psychological economics to reveal the process of their origination, diffusion and interaction. We discuss Blockchain and its uses as a distributed ledger technology for the establishment of institutional systems governing socioeconomic interaction. We apply the micro-meso-macro perspective to the origination and diffusion of these systems as meso-rules, and formalise the microfoundations of this process of emergence using psychological and institutional economics. We establish that successful Blockchains will be those which continue to adapt their institutional structure to meet evolving capability requirements and provide complementarities. Our perspective offers valuable insights for designers of Blockchain systems and establishes some of the forms of resistance which might constrain their efforts to diffuse Blockchain technology.

Working paper available at SSRN.

Some Economic Consequences of the GDPR

With Darcy Allen, Alastair Berg, and Jason Potts

Abstract: The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a wide ranging personal data protection regime of far greater magnitude than any similar regulation previously in the EU, or elsewhere. In this paper, we explore the ways in which regulation changes the value of data and examine the potential impact of the GDPR on data markets. We suggest that the GDPR may result in unintended consequences analogous to previous government interventions into capital markets and financial services. Novel financial products of unknown complexity and systemic risk – and secondary data derivative markets – may emerge as a result, which suggests that market driven technological solutions, such as those using blockchain or distributed ledger technology, should be further examined.

Working paper available at SSRN.

Blockchain: An Entangled Political Economy Approach

With Darcy Allen and Mikayla Novak.

Abstract: This paper incorporates blockchain activities into the broader remit of entangled political economy theory, emphasising economic and other social phenomena as the emergent by-product of human interactions. Blockchains are a digital technology combining peer-to-peer network computing and cryptography to create an immutable decentralised public ledger. The blockchain contrasts vintage ledger technologies, either paper-based or maintained by in-house databases, largely reliant upon hierarchical, third-party trust mechanisms for their maintenance and security. Recent contributions to the blockchain studies literature suggest that the blockchain itself poses as an institutional technology that could challenge existing forms of coordination and governance organised on the basis of vintage ledgers. This proposition has significant implications for the relevance of existing entangled relationships in the economic, social and political domains. Blockchain enables non-territorial “crypto-secession” not only reducing the costs associated with maintaining ledgers, but radically revising and deconcentrating data-conditioned networks to fundamentally challenge the economic positions of legacy firms and governments. These insights are further illuminated with reference to finance, property and identity cases. Entangled political economy provides a compelling lens through which we can discern the impact of blockchain technology on some of our most important relationships.

Working paper available at SSRN.

Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham in the Australian Colonies

History of Economics Review, Volume 68, 2017:  2-16 DOI: 10.1080/10370196.2018.1449084

Abstract: How did 19th century Australians think about liberalism, economics and political economy more generally? Nineteenth century Australia has been described variously as having a ‘neoclassical’, enlightenment, or Benthamite political culture. This paper provides an empirical approach to the question of early Australian ideas. Exploiting the records of 1891 book sales and auctions in Australia between 1800 and 1849, the paper examines the relative prevalence of key economic, political and liberal texts available to 19th century Australians. The works of classical enlightenment authors such as Adam Smith and John Locke were far more prevalent, and more likely in demand, than those of Jeremy Bentham. To the extent utilitarian ideas were prevalent, they were more in the form of William Paley’s conservatism than Bentham’s radicalism.

Accepted manuscript available at SSRN.

Beyond Money: Cryptocurrencies, Machine-Mediated Transactions and High Frequency Bartering

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts.

Abstract: As blockchain technology is adopted into modern economies, the underlying institutional protocols will evolve. In this paper we set out the reasoning behind how this will likely take us to an economy beyond both money and money prices. Money facilitates human-human exchange in the presence of cognitive limitations. However in the near future personal artificially intelligent machine agents will be able to conduct exchanges with a matrix of liquid digital assets (such as cryptocurrencies). We call this process high frequency bartering. The existence of markets without money present complex public policy challenges around privacy and taxation.

Working paper available on SSRN


With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

Abstract: This paper develops the ledger-centric view of the economy. Ledgers provide an underlying infrastructure for exchange by allowing actors to prove, validate, and verify property ownership. In this sense ledgers map economic, political and social relationships. This paper provides some theoretical distinctions to frame the analysis of the economics of ledgers. First we offer a philosophical and institutional definition of ledgers. Second we provide three analytic categories of ledgers (general, actual, and perfect). Third we offer a ledger theory of the firm as a map of relationship between labour, capital, production processes, and information, and emphasise the economic significance of ledgerisation in the history of entrepreneurial firm creation. Fourth we draw some implications of our theory for the development of complex economies. This paper is based on the theory of institutional cryptoeconomics which was developed to understand the economic implications of distributed ledger technologies.

Working paper available on SSRN

Outsourcing vertical integration: introducing the V-form network

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts. Originally a Medium post.

The Nobel laureate Oliver Williamson distinguishes between U-form companies and M-form companies.

Traditional U-form companies are unitary— their units are divided by business process (for instance, accounting, human resources, component manufacturing, assembly) and are not treated as separate cost centres.

M-form companies are multidivisional — their units are self-contained divisions that report profits and losses to an umbrella central body. They’re fully owned by a parent company, but they tend to have their own business services (accounting and human resources departments, for instance) and even market relationships.

But now we see a new corporate form — the V-form network — made possible because thanks to the application of distributed ledger technology to supply chain problems.

These V-form networks consist of a number of fully independent companies that effectively operate as one vertically integrated company through blockchain technology, coordinated and supplied by a third party.

This is a big change to the nature of the firm. We can already see V-form networks in the real world. They date as far back as January. It is surprising the economic community haven’t noticed them yet.

The IBM and Maersk TradeTech

Two weeks into 2018, IBM and the shipping giant Maersk announced a joint venture to develop a digital supply chain management system on their Hyperledger blockchain platform. Hyperledger is a private blockchain which requires permission to access.

In a previous Cryptoeconomics piece, we described how international trade is an information problem. As goods are shipped around the world, they are accompanied by information — really stacks of paperwork — that describe their provenance, destinations, regulatory and tax liabilities and so on.

In the IBM-Maersk system, each firm and bureaucracy in the supply chain — producers, shippers, port authorities, regulators, importers, retailers — will access and update a shared blockchain ledger containing all the information needed by each organisation.

And each organisation would have access to that information everywhere, ensuring complete visibility on where goods are in the world and which economic and regulatory hurdles they next need to overcome.

Before blockchains, there were only two basic ways to coordinate a supply chain: vertical integration, or regulation.

Vertical integration has problems. Large conglomerate firms struggle with the challenges of specialisation, and size tends to make firms less efficient.

Regulation has even worse problems. At the very minimum, regulation only works plausibly well within a single nation. The cost of multilateral harmonization — which includes things like treaties and global courts — is very high.

Blockchains can work to coordinate supply chains without the need for either (traditional) vertical integration or regulation. The vertical integration is outsourced to a distributed ledger. The blockchain provides the managerial service that coordinates each ‘unit’ (that is, firm) in the supply chain.

Regulators in any country can deal any firm in the supply chain as if it was a small unit of a larger, global company.

Each firm in the supply chain get the benefits of vertical integration through a network rather than a hierarchy.

The crucial role of IBM and Maersk

In this, the IBM and Maersk joint venture plays a novel economic role.

We’ve written in the past about the paradox of trust in the blockchain world: it takes a lot of trust to establish a trustless ledger.

Imagine a supply chain with seven firms in it: primary producer, manufacturer, exporter, shipper, importer, wholesaler, retailer. Each firm has an established and trusted business relationship with the firms above and below them on the supply chain. But do they have a similar relationship with those one- or two-steps removed? Would the wholesaler in one country necessarily trust the primary producer in another?

A supply chain of two or three firms would be able to easily come to an agreement over shared digital systems. They wouldn’t even need a blockchain — market discipline would be enough to ensure stable coordination.

But firms which do not have direct market relationships with each other face a trust problem when they try to coordinate.

IBM-Maersk provide the trust. They are a large trusted firm that can broker a solution — get all parties around a table — and build the network.

This is a different sales and service model to the IBM of the 1960s. But not that different. With Hyperledger for supply chains, IBM is selling a single solution to multiple clients — just as they did with mainframes or do today with their Watson artificial intelligence machine.

It is only possible because IBM (and Maersk) has already built up deep client relations over past century or so. It is both trusted and has internal information and knowledge about client needs.

(A regulator has none of this information. Neither would a potential corporate raider attempting to vertically integrate through a merger and acquisition strategy.)

We expect to see competition between firms (IBM and and other full-stack technology/strategy/management consultants) to seek ongoing (that is, locked in) contracts for these sorts of services.

The innovative thing here is that they aren’t offering their services to individual firms. They are consulting to a group, or chain, or network of firms — a network that they may have themselves helped create. Economic coordination in the simplest sense of the term.

That’s why IBM is involved. But why is Maersk? The shipping company in this case is the firm with the most to gain from the adoption of the new technology and architecture — that is, which would benefit most from reducing the costs of the existing market architecture.

Vertical integration can be outsourced elsewhere

In the V-form network, the blockchain’s token establishes the consortium, and incentivizes cooperative behaviour.

The token also serves to move rents around the network. In this way, the blockchain provides a market mechanism to solve the sort of bargaining problems described by another Nobel laureate, Ronald Coase, that may occur as the network operates.

Outsourced vertical integration could be applied to many industries that are now integrated. Energy firms that currently integrate the exploration, production, generation, and retail of electricity might be better decomposed, with blockchains and tokens taking the place of head offices. The token economy, rather than energy regulators, could make decisions about the distribution of rents around the network.

We expect that a blockchain economy will have more, smaller firms linked together by protocols. One question — which we expect will preoccupy regulators for decades to come — is how just many protocols? It’s worth pointing out that these networks are inherently global, and any regulatory questions global as well.

Governments might be able to exploit the V-form network themselves. Instead of selling a vertically integrated state-owned asset to shareholders (and then controlling rents with price regulation) they could then privatise components directly on a blockchain network. Ports and airports might be privatised successfully in this way.

In that sense governments would provide the initial coordination now being provided by IBM and Maersk — a trusted third party to broker and establish a decentralised economic network.

A Genuine Commercial Justification for Interchange Fees

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

Abstract: Ronald Coase famously argued that “if an economist finds something – a business practice of one sort or other – that he does not understand, he looks for a monopoly explanation”. So it is with credit card interchange fees. Intellectual confusion has led to the phenomenon of interchange fees being misdiagnosed as being a monopoly problem leading to inappropriate policy intervention. Following George Stigler’s path breaking analysis of the US Security and Exchange Commission he claimed that financial regulation was “founded upon prejudice and … reforms are directed by wishfulness”. In our opinion, Australian regulatory attitudes towards interchange fees should be placed into the same category: reforms initiated by ignorance and anti-bank prejudice.

Working paper available on SSRN

Tradetech and the problem of international coordination

With Darcy Allen, Sinclair Davidson, Mikayla Novak, and Jason Potts. Originally a Medium post.

International trade is an information problem.

As goods move between firms and across borders, information about the provenance, characteristics, and compliance liabilities (whether they are subject to taxes or tariffs) of those goods move alongside them.

Handling companies need to know which goods are going where.

Regulators and trade authorities need to know whether the goods crossing a national border are compliant with domestic regulations.

(Does a good need an import permit? Does it require any special documentation? In Australia the Minimum documentary and import declaration requirements policy is a 27 page document.)

And end-users increasingly demand information about where their goods came from and how they were produced.

(Consumers want to know where their food is grown, whether it was grown to organic standards, or was manufactured gluten-free or nut-free. Advanced manufacturing firms want assurances that components — such as aircraft or wind turbine parts — are of high quality. And everyone wants assurances that their goods have been looked after while in transit.)

The result is piles of documentation shipped alongside internationally traded goods.

And the demand for documentation is growing. Supply chains are getting more complex. Regulatory requirements are increasing. End-users want more information about what they’re buying.

Introducing TradeTech

FinTech is the application of new technology — particularly developments in computer science — to the financial services industry. RegTech does the same for regulatory compliance.

Now we have TradeTech — the application of information technology to reduce the information costs of international trade.

TradeTech can reduce transaction costs, increase transparency for firms, regulators, and consumers, facilitate trade finance, and significantly lower regulatory and tariff compliance burdens.

Tackling border costs

One TradeTech application, blockchains used to manage supply chains, have the potential to provide a new digital services infrastructure for international trade in goods.

Blockchains use a combination of cryptography and economic incentives to allow people to come to a consensus on a shared digital ledger without the need for a trusted third party. Blockchains are a technology for secure non-hierarchical information governance.

Blockchains can store information about the provenance and distribution of tradable goods through the entire supply chain in circumstances where firms (and regulators) through the supply chain do not necessarily trust each other.

The invention of the shipping container in the 1950s radically transformed international trade by tackling the high cost — and unreliability — of getting goods on and off ships intact.

But in the 2010s, it isn’t the cost of transport that is the biggest burden on international trade. According to IBM and Maerskthe costs of bringing goods across borders are higher than the costs of transport costs.

In 2018 and 2019 we expect blockchains used in supply chains and to facilitate global trade will be one of the breakthrough blockchain use cases.

The impact of this sort of TradeTech will provide an enormous boost to the potential for global trade.

Facilitating trade flows

The information flows that facilitiate international trade are still to a remarkable degree governed and organised on a one-to-one basis and using paper. Each firm in a global supply chain passes off information relating to a tradeable good to each other one step at a time, vouchsafing that information until it can be passed to the next firm on the chain.

Furthermore, despite two decades of the digitisation of global commerce, it is still the case that international trade is a significantly paper-based process — which is slow, error-prone and raises fraud risks.

The growth of the regulatory state over the last thirty years has significantly increased the compliance costs of trade. While regulatory harmonisation and tariff reductions have encouraged larger volumes of trade, these have been matched by greater demands for information those goods travelling across borders.

New regulatory concerns about labour, environmental, chemical, and biosecurity standards are being reflected in international trade agreements and are translating into more regulatory requirements at the border.

Longer and more complex supply chains as a result of globalisation has multiplied these compliance burdens.

Blockchains can provide a ‘rail’ on which all this information travels.

Blockchains are uniquely suited for an era of advanced globalisation, the regulatory state, and demand for information about product origins and quality.

But TradeTech needs multilateral coordination

Private industry is developing the technology for blockchain-enhanced supply chains.

But there is the need for an international coordination to ensure that industry is able to exploit the opportunities this technology presents.

For example: information rmanaged on blockchains needs to be accepted as valid and compliant by domestic regulators.

One risk is that industry-developed blockchains might not be not treated as compliant with existing regulations. Goods could then remain subject to existing paper-based processes, necessitating double-handling of compliance and reducing the benefits of blockchain-enhanced trade.

Another risk is that individual trading countries adopt their own standards, which would also necessitate double-handling.

A further risk is that standards are developed by early market leaders in the blockchain-facilitated trade space, are adopted by regulators and trade authorities on an ad-hoc basis, and through regulatory lock-in limit the contestability of this trade infrastructure.

The benefits of TradeTech will be realised in a world of open-standards, rather than closed ones.

Multilateral bodies like APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) should be considering these questions now.

We don’t think governments should try to regulate the development of blockchain technology, or compel its introduction. The blockchain is an experimental technology that needs space to evolve. But there is a clear role for multilateral bodies to set standards for information managed through blockchains.

TradeTech doesn’t need government regulation or direction. But it does need government cooperation.

Some public economics of blockchain technology

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

Abstract: Distributed ledger technology emerged in 2009 as the protocol behind bitcoin, a cryptocurrency with origins in the ‘cypherpunk’ community who sought to use cryptography to secede from government control of money. Bitcoin’s pseudonymous inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto said Bitcoin would be “very attractive to the libertarian viewpoint” and many in the crypto-anarchist community saw, and still see, cryptocurrencies as a means to free citizens from the monetary depredations of governments. But from these revolutionary secessionist origins, it has become apparent that not only are there many possible use cases of distributed ledger technology for government, but that government action through both regulation, legislation, and public investment might be a key factor in the adoption and development of this technological innovation. Governments can use blockchain technology to exploit the service efficiencies they may bring. But also, and perhaps counter-intuitively given their revolutionary origins, blockchain applications are likely to need government cooperation to facilitate adoption and the development of the blockchain economic system.

Working paper available at SSRN.