Bitcoin bubble warning, but blockchain takes off

The price of bitcoin has been highly volatile, sliding at the end of last week to as low as $5,555. (Reuters)
Updated 18 November 2017
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Bitcoin bubble warning, but blockchain takes off

LONDON: The development of blockchain, the technology that underpins bitcoin, could prove as big a breakthrough as the Internet itself, an industry expert told Arab News — even as a major bank warned the popular cryptocurrency was heading for a crash.
Katsunori Sago, chief investment officer of Japan Post Bank said on Thursday bitcoin was in a bubble and its fair value should be around $100, far below the current price of almost $8,000, Reuters reported.
Sago said the bitcoin craze was worse than the dot-com bubble in the late 1990s. His view echoes that of JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon who described bitcoin as “a fraud” at a financial forum in New York in September.
But James Bernard, business development director of the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC) told Arab News that a clear distinction should be made between blockchain, which offers huge potential, and cryptocurrencies that have faced hacking issues and massive swings in value.
A DMCC commentary on blockchain published earlier this year pointed out that it is the technology itself that is revolutionary. “Bitcoin is dependent on blockchain, but the blockchain technology is independent of bitcoin,” said the DMCC report.
In the world of commodities, blockchain is ideal for establishing and identifying a supply chain, said Bernard.
Everledger, said Bernard, is an example of a company that has been applying technology to make sure diamond data followed an authentication process throughout the blockchain.
“In other words, it is designed to ensure the same diamond that started its life with a polisher, for instance, is the same diamond sold in the shop to a customer,” he said.
Investment in blockchain technologies has already exceeded money invested in the Internet during the dot-com bubble, Bernard believes.
“A lot of people are betting that it will be bigger than the Internet, although there are still technical and developmental issues that need to be addressed,” he added.
At a panel discussion on banking and blockchain at this week’s Global Financial Forum — hosted by the Dubai International Financial Centre — speakers agreed that blockchain is in its early stages and had many years
before going mainstream, but all agreed the potential was
massive.
Leanne Kemp, CEO of Everledger, told the forum that banks could benefit from the immutable track-and-trace application of blockchain, which helps enhance trust and security.
Brian Behlendorf, executive director at Hyperledger, explained that there are two different types of blockchain: Permissioned and permission-less, with the latter used for bitcoin.
Behlendorf said he believed the potential benefits of the permissioned blockchain makes it attractive to financial institutions and other enterprises.
“Blockchain, or the son of blockchain, is already taking off,” said one London-based analyst.
At the end of 2016, The Royal Mint of the UK announced plans to launch a digital gold product called Royal Mint Gold (RMG), a joint venture with US exchange, CME. A spokesman told Arab News the system is now “up and running” and The Royal Mint is “in advanced discussions to sign up a number of corporate users.”
A key benefit is the cost reduction that comes through the elimination of storage and management fees, said The Royal Mint.
“By using distributed ledger technology, we can make it more cost-effective and provide increased transparency for traders and investors to trade, execute and settle gold.”
Under the system, assets on the blockchain represent gold held in reserve at The Royal Mint’s highly-secure on-site bullion vault storage.
Other companies are also developing blockchain technologies for different uses. A number believe blockchain technology can significantly speed up trade and eliminate bureaucracy.
Ramesh Gopinath, vice president of blockchain solutions at IBM, recently told the Financial Times the administrative costs of processing, moving, verifying and other documentation can almost double the cost of simply moving a shipment.
IBM is working on trade-related digital ledger technologies with shipping company Maersk and Walmart to find a “more secure and more efficient way to handle the document approval workflows needed to move goods across international borders,” he told the FT.
IBM has said by eliminating much of the paperwork, blockchain can cut up to 20 percent of shipping costs.
Elsewhere, a South Korean consortium has used blockchain to track reefer containers from Busan to Qingado, monitoring everything from shipment booking to cargo delivery.
Just as groundbreaking would be a breakthrough that would allow central banks to create digital versions of their currencies — an idea floated this month by Axel Weber, UBS chairman during an interview with the Financial Times.
Unlike bitcoin, digital currencies would be backed by the monetary authorities and could one day replace cash altogether. It is unlikely policymakers will ever take “unpermissioned” blockchain networks such as bitcoin seriously because of anti-money laundering rules that impose “know your customer” stipulations.
But regulated digital currencies would be a different kettle of fish, said Weber, although predicting when they will happen is difficult, he added.


Saudi-backed SoftBank to ramp up tech investment

Updated 20 June 2018
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Saudi-backed SoftBank to ramp up tech investment

  • SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son to step up company's "unicorn hunting" investment strategy
  • Saudi Arabia's PIF has contributed $45 billion to SoftBank's Vision Fund

LONDON: Japanese conglomerate SoftBank will double down on its ambitious tech investment strategy, in a move that could create opportunities for further collaboration with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF).
SoftBank — which owns Japan’s third-largest telecoms operator — has emerged in recent years as one of the world’s largest tech investors, acquiring stakes in companies including Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, and UK chipmaker ARM Holdings.
It last year launched the $100 billion Vision Fund, boosted by a $45 billion investment from PIF. It attracted $93 billion in funds last year, aided by contributions from Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala Investment Company, Apple, Foxconn and others, making it the world’s largest buyout fund.
The Vision Fund has invested in disruptive firms, especially those in the technology space, including Swiss pharmaceuticals startup Roivant, office space company WeWork, and enterprise messaging service Slack.
CEO Masayoshi Son signaled that such dealmaking will become even more of a focus for SoftBank.
“I have spent 97 percent of my time on managing the telecoms business and only 3 percent on investing,” he told investors at the group’s annual meeting on Wednesday, Reuters reported.
Reversing that balance will allow SoftBank to grow faster, he said.
Son’s comments fit with a transformation underway at SoftBank from a domestic telecoms firm to “unicorn hunter” — as Son termed it — focusing on late-stage startups around the world.
Last month, SoftBank invested $2.25 billion in GM Cruise, the carmaker’s autonomous vehicle unit, complementing its shareholdings in China’s Didi Chuxing, the world’s largest ride-sharing app, as well as rivals Uber, Grab and Ola.
The Vision Fund will initially invest $900 million in GM Cruise Holdings, investing the remaining $1.35 billion when GM’s Cruise AVs are ready for commercial deployment. The investment gives the Vision Fund a 19.6 percent stake in GM Cruise.
Saudi Arabia’s PIF has been key to SoftBank’s tech investment strategy with its contribution to the Vision Fund, with the Kingdom also benefiting directly from partnerships with SoftBank.
Son said in November that SoftBank planned to invest as much as $25 billion in the Kingdom in the next three to four years, and aimed to deploy up to $15 billion in Neom, a futuristic city to be built on the Red Sea coast.
PIF and the Vision Fund in March announced a partnership to build the world’s largest solar project in Saudi Arabia, with a capacity of up to 200 gigawatts, in line with the Kingdom’s solar ambitions as set out in Vision 2030.
The agreement will establish an electricity generation company in Saudi Arabia, and will commission two solar plants with a capacity of 3GW and 4.2GW by the end of next year. It envisages localizing a significant portion of the renewable energy value chain in the Saudi economy, including research and development and the manufacturing of solar panels.
SoftBank shareholders on Wednesday approved the appointment of three executive vice presidents — SoftBank unit Sprint Corp’s former chief executive, Marcelo Claure, and former bankers Katsunori Sago and Rajeev Misra.
Bolivian-born billionaire Claure was appointed SoftBank’s chief operating officer in May, tasked with driving cooperation between the group’s portfolio companies. Former Goldman Sachs executive Sago became chief strategy officer on Wednesday and will focus on group investment. Misra runs the Vision Fund.
Son yesterday bemoaned the so-called conglomerate discount weighing on SoftBank’s shares at its investor meeting.
He said when the market value of stakes the firm holds in companies such as Alibaba Group Holding and ARM Holdings are taken into account, SoftBank’s shares should be trading above 14,000 yen ($127), rather than about 8,000 yen currently.