Cyber Security: Is Blockchain the Answer?

Cyber security has long been a serious matter for financial institutions and corporates alike, but fintech and the digital era make cyber security more of an issue. Delivery of products and services through digital channels means that more systems are available to scrutiny by malefactors. The continuing adoption of fintech APIs (by which institutions provide their clients with third party services) and cloud computing may introduce further vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, the growth of the digital economy is also creating a large population of highly trained technologists — potentially creating greater numbers of cyber attackers and cyber thieves.

Cyber threats affect all industries, but financial institutions are particularly at risk, because of the direct financial gain possible from a cyber intrusion. An important question is whether the existing cyber security guidelines issued by various industry organizations will continue to be adequate in the age of fintech and digital financial services.

Fortunately, the evolution of fintech also entails the development of new technologies aimed at creating the next generation of cyber security. A number of startups are beginning to develop applications using semantic analysis and machine learning to tackle KYC, AML and fraud issues. Significantly, IBM Watson and eight universities recently unveiled an initiative aimed at applying artificial intelligence to thwart cyber attacks.

The traditional cyber security paradigm is one of “defense,” and unfortunately defenses can always be breached. Artificial intelligence, as advanced as it is, still represents the traditional cyber security paradigm of “defense,” putting up physical and virtual walls and fortifications to protect against or react to attacks, breaches, and fraud or other financial crime.

What if there were a technology that broke through this “defense” paradigm and instead made cyber security an integral aspect of financial technology?

This is precisely the approach taken to cyber security by blockchain technology.

Bank consortia and startups alike are engaged in efforts to develop distributed ledgers for transfer of value (payments) and for capital markets trading (where the execution of complex financial transactions is done through blockchain-based smart contracts). Accordingly, distributed ledgers and smart contracts are likely to one day have a place in treasury operations, for both payments and trading.

Blockchain is gaining attention primarily because its consensus-based, distributed structure may create new business models within financial services. In addition, though, blockchain technology has at its core encryption technologies that not only keep it secure, but are actually the mechanism by which transactions are completed and recorded. In the case of Bitcoin, blockchain has demonstrated that its encryption technologies are quite secure. The further development of blockchain will necessarily entail significant enhancements in next-generation encryption technologies such as multi-party computation and homomorphic encryption, which are already under development. In other words, blockchain is likely to not only play a role in altering the way payments and capital markets transactions are undertaken, but also in the way next-generation financial systems are secured.

Innovation and Legacy Modernization in Japan

As a regional unit, Celent Asia covers all of the industries under Celent’s purview: Banking, Insurance, and Securities & Investments. So it can be a bit of a challenge when we put on a Celent conference in Asia to find topics that resonate across all these verticals. Our recent (and sold out) Insight and Innovation Day in Tokyo hit the target by examining two interrelated themes of vital import to many financial firms today: strategies for innovation, and legacy renewal to support these strategies. The event was anchored by not one but two surveys Celent carried out this spring in Japan. A survey of 1,000+ Japanese consumers initiated by Celent’s CEO Craig Weber suggested that highly digital consumers are the best targets for innovative financial services. The challenge, as this survey revealed (and contrary to popular belief outside Japan), is that digitally savvy consumers are still just a tiny minority in Japan. This implies that financial institutions in Japan must not only innovate, but also educate and lead their customers into the digital financial future. The second survey, organized by Celent Senior Analyst Eiichiro Yanagawa, looked at legacy modernization trends at more than 60 banks, insurers and investment firms in Japan. Core system replacement is in full swing, with a majority of firms either planning or in the midst of their legacy transformation initiatives. Significantly, survey respondents indicated that the primary driver for replacing the core is to improve customer service and satisfaction. Which increasingly will require digital support for the customer experience. In a word, innovation. These surveys were modeled on the Celent reports Targeting Innovation: How Your Customers Might Respond and Tracking the Progress in Core Systems Replacement (Global Life and Global P&C editions). We’ll be publishing our analyses of the Japan surveys shortly. This is what our team does best and, I believe, uniquely: apply our global experience to the markets here in Asia to help firms deliver value.

On the cusp: regional integration in Asia

It’s 2015, the mid-point of the decade and a good time to start looking at major trends in Asian financial services over the next five to ten years. One of the major themes will be regional integration, which is another way of saying the development of cross-border markets. There are at least two important threads here: the ongoing internationalization of China’s currency, and the development of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in Southeast Asia. RMB internalization is really about the loosening of China’s capital controls and its full-fledged integration into the world economy. And everyone seems to want a piece of this action, including near neighbors such as Singapore who are vying with Hong Kong to be the world’s financial gateway to China. The AEC is well on its way to becoming a reality in 2015, with far-reaching trade agreements designed to facilitate cross-border expansion of dozens of services industries, including financial sectors. While AEC is not grabbing global headlines the way China does, we see increasing interest in Southeast Asia among our FSI and technology vendor clients. From Celent’s point of view, both trends will open significant opportunities across financial services. In banking, common payments platforms and cross-border clearing. In capital markets, cross-border trading platforms for listed and even OTC products. In insurance, the continued development of regional markets. Financial institutions will be challenged to create new business models and technology strategies to extract the opportunities offered by regional integration. It’s the mid-point of the decade, and the beginning of something very big.

OTC Derivatives in Asia

Over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives have come under scrutiny since the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008. The global OTC derivative market is primarily dominated by the US and Europe, with Asia accounting for less than 10% of notional outstanding. The Asian financial market, unlike its western counterparts, is not a homogeneous entity. Rather, the countries in the region are divided along jurisdictional lines with limited regional integration. Thus Asia not only consists of a large number of countries with each at different level of economic development, they also have different regulatory and monetary regimes. This has resulted in a number of highly localized markets with the exception of a few, notably Hong Kong and Singapore. In two new reports Celent discusses the development in the OTC markets in 11 Asian countries, divided into two groups. The first report looks at the advanced economies and includes Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, and Singapore. The second report covers the emerging economies of China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea and Taiwan. It is interesting to note that the emerging countries account for only 9% of total OTC turnover in these countries, even though there share is much higher on other economic and financial