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BBVA Can't Hold Cryptocurrency – And That's a Problem

After becoming the first financial institution to combine public and private blockchains in a live transaction, Spanish multinational bank BBVA has hit something of a quandary.

Specifically, it’s unsure how to take its forward-thinking work … forward.

In the process of executing what was expected to be the third in a series of blockchain-based corporate loans, the bank had to work around a lack of legal and regulatory clarity over whether it could (or should) hold the cryptocurrency needed to power a transaction on ethereum.

In short, BBVA’s innovation is meant to act like a public notary service, combining private Hyperledger technology (used to negotiate the loan) with a public blockchain (in this case ethereum) in an effort to identify and store each loan agreement with auditability.

However, erring on the side of caution, BBVA chose to abide by European Banking Authority (EBA) recommendations and not use the native token of ethereum, ether, which also serves as a kind of fuel to update the ledger. Instead, the bank anchored the loans to an ethereum testnet, a blockchain which simulates the live version, but that doesn’t move real value.

No big deal, you might think, but this uncertainty is hindering the hard-won innovation work.

Alicia Pertusa, managing director of corporate and investment banking at BBVA, said that according to the EBA recommendations of 2014, European banks are discouraged from owning, buying or selling cryptocurrencies. She pointed out that the process BBVA used for the loans was exactly the same as it would have been on the live ethereum, the only difference is it would need the regulator’s approval before using the real ether.

While the Bank of Spain, the regulator in this case, would not go on the record, it’s clear regulators understand banks may need or want to have small amounts of crypto, not as an asset or an investment, but to validate transactions.

Regulators tend to point out that the EBA 2014 recommendation is not legally binding and thus is not a formal ban. Still, the compliance department of a given bank would have to judge whether this particular use of cryptocurrencies is advisable.

Pertusa told CoinDesk:

“We do think that regulators are evolving in the way they look at cryptocurrencies and in this case in particular we have talked with our regulators. They understand very well that the use of gas and ether in this kind of network is very different from the speculation of cryptocurrencies.”

Regulatory requirements

Still, the results are a rare, tangible example of how inconclusive guidance, combined with big-bank jitters about the possibility of plans going wrong, are having an impact on innovation.

Only in March of this year, EBA chief Andrea Enria said it would be more effective to prevent banks and other regulated financial institutions from holding cryptocurrencies, rather than regulating the tokens themselves.

In a statement to CoinDesk, the EBA said: “The EBA has issued several warnings to consumers regarding virtual assets and has discouraged financial institutions from gaining exposures to such assets in view of their high-risk nature. However, as a matter of EU banking law, there is no prohibition on financial institutions gaining direct or indirect exposures to such assets.”

None of this lessens the irony that BBVA is doing real corporate loans – €75 million to technology company Indra in April; followed by last month’s €325 million to oil and gas company Repsol; and last week €100 million to construction firm ACS – but is uncomfortable holding a few dollars worth of ether because of mixed signals from regulators.

In fact, BBVA’s corporate loans platform achieves a number of regulatory goals, such as making the pre-trade negotiation of the loan – which is normally done with a mix of phone calls and messages – a single, transparent and easily audited process. And the lessons learned from the tethered loans will be taken on into BBVA’s blockchain syndicated loans project, which will launch in the coming weeks.

As far as the public part is concerned, Pertusa acknowledged that while public blockchain notarization is a powerful tool for those who know how to use it (there is lots of appetite among the bank’s clients for this tech, she said) there still needs to be plenty of education elsewhere.

She told CoinDesk:

“We see this as the future of public notaries because at the end of the day it’s a public record of an agreement that’s been reached privately. But a lot still needs to happen in that direction in terms of regulation, admitting that this public blockchain has the same value as a public notary.”

A popular use case

Turns out public blockchains are a popular tool for anchoring data – that is, creating a timestamped proof that the data existed at a certain time –  in the world of enterprise ethereum.

Kaleido, the partnership between ethereum development studio Consensys and Amazon Web Services, found that enterprises wanted to anchor private blockchain applications on the public chain more than just about any other blockchain-as-a-service feature.

Indeed, a poll of Kaleido blockchain cloud users saw this use case come out on top with some 37 percent of votes.

The results mirror what we are hearing in our client and partner discussions around the world,” said Kaleido founder Sophia Lopez.

Asked what he thought of the uncertainty facing banks looking at public blockchains for this purpose, Steve Cerveny, CEO of Kaleido, said he was aware of the issue and is in discussion with customers about it, adding that a workaround is in the offing.  

“We are currently exploring how Kaleido’s pinning/tether feature as-a-service could alleviate this concern,” said Cerveny. “For example, they pay Kaleido in fiat for this optional feature and Kaleido handles all of the technical details including ether/gas.”

Speaking on behalf of the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance, Conor Svensson, blk.oi founder and EEA standards chair, said the conundrum demonstrates why financial organizations are far more comfortable working with private blockchain deployments.

He concluded:

“It’s where they can exert a much higher degree of control over the network and are not bound by the same regulatory concerns that apply whilst working with the public blockchains.”

BBVA image via Shutterstock

The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

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A16z Leads $45 Million Raise for Blockchain Startup Oasis Labs

Cloud computing startup Oasis Labs successfully raised $45 million in a private token pre-sale to develop a blockchain platform aimed to rival Amazon Web Services

The sale, led by Andreessen Horowitz’s new “a16z” crypto fund, saw Accel, Binance, Pantera, Polychain, Metastable, Foundation Capital, Electric Capital, DCVC and Coinbase co-founder Fred Ehrsam all contribute, according to a press release. Most notably, this was a16z’s first investment, Oasis CEO Dawn Song told CoinDesk.

The startup is now focusing on developing its core features, Song said, which will be deployed to the company’s private test network – slated to be opened to the public “soon.”

It’s the startup’s blockchain itself that may be garnering all the investor attention. According to Song, its architecture allows transactions to be verified with “far less duplication while providing the same level of integrity and security guarantees.”

She added:

“In our experiments we see performance orders of magnitude greater than Ethereum. This architecture also supports far more computationally intensive tasks like machine learning and AI, which are not possible with today’s blockchain technologies.”

“Security and privacy [are] built into every layer of the network,” she continued. As a result, the blockchain is built “top-to-bottom” with those two features in mind, ensuring that transactions can be verified without nodes seeing sensitive data and smart contracts will not leak private information.

The applications built upon the network will also differ from those currently being developed for existing platforms, Song explained. “For example, our machine learning framework enables smart contract developers to perform training and inference directly in the smart contract, while preserving privacy of data.”

“Our platform is also backwards compatible with Ethereum, making the transition easy for any developer that is already comfortable with existing tools,” she said.

U.S. dollars image via Shutterstock

The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

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AWS Is Making Hyperledger and Ethereum Easier to Use

Amazon Web Services, the e-commerce giant’s cloud computing arm, has launched a new service for launching out-of-the-box blockchain networks for the ethereum and Hyperledger Fabric protocols.

In a blog post published on Wednesday, AWS chief evangelist Jeff Barr wrote that the newly launched “templates” allows clients to “launch an ethereum (either public or private) or Hyperledger Fabric (private) network in a matter of minutes and with just a few clicks.”

He went on to explain:

“The templates create and configure all of the AWS resources needed to get you going in a robust and scalable fashion.”

The post provides detailed instructions for setting up an ethereum template, which supports mining, as well as an EthStats page that provides network metrics and an EthExplorer tool that displays the transactions and smart contracts entered into the ledger.

AWS is a fast-growing segment of Amazon’s business, which saw sales increase 55 percent in 2016 and 43 percent in 2017. The division is in fierce competition with other tech giants’ cloud computing arms, including Microsoft Azure, which showed an early interest in providing blockchain as a service when it partnered with the ethereum startup ConsenSys in 2015.

Google, according to a Bloomberg report published in March, is also working on a blockchain solution for its cloud business.

AWS announced back in 2016 that it would start working with blockchain startups, offering dedicated technical support and infrastructure for the firms involved.

“Today in financial services, distributed ledger technology is at the forefront of any discussion related to innovation,” the company said at the time. “AWS is working with financial institutions and blockchain providers to spur innovation and facilitate frictionless experimentation.”

Amazon building signage image via Shutterstock

The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.