Decentralized finance (DeFi) is emerging as a tool for smaller businesses in developing markets, particularly for remittances and small loans; the transaction banking industry is beginning to see DeFi’s potential to overhaul the inflexibility of present processes; uptake of DeFi in transaction banking could open up new capital opportunities for larger companies and increase liquidity for SMEs.
Decentralized finance had a resurgence last summer. Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ether are now becoming more widely accepted for payments and USD Coin (USDC) has made significant progress towards being an asset that will maintain its value without future depreciation.
At the same time, the blockchain technology that underlies cryptocurrency and its supporting financial infrastructure are on their way to offering a system of financial rails in parallel to – and connected with – traditional financial infrastructure.
Both Coinbase and Compound Treasury have released USDC-based loans that guarantee at least a 4% yield (far higher than traditional products of a similar risk), and smaller platforms are offering cross-border access to capital with rates that are far more variable but would be unavailable otherwise. So far, this growth in loan products has come from the retail sector: individuals holding and trading crypto-assets for personal use. Banks such as Morgan Stanley and US Bank now offer crypto-products for their wealth management clients. But what about businesses?
Since its inception, DeFi – literally decentralized finance or blockchain-based forms of finance that do not rely on centralized intermediaries such as banks – has been adopted to some extent by smaller businesses in developing markets whose needs are unmet by the traditional banking system. For example, some businesses use payment companies like BitPesa in Africa, Tranglo in ASEAN and the major DeFi exchanges to either make direct payments or convert payment amounts to USD-backed stablecoin for cross-border remittance.
The greater transaction banking industry now sees DeFi as a potentially significant growth engine and disruptive force. Transaction banking addresses the operational needs and day-to-day transactions of businesses and financial institutions. Usually, only companies who are top customers of banks are able to have ready access to these services, which focus on managing the liquidity of a company, cash flows, trade and supply chain finance and other instruments needed to facilitate domestic and international corporate transactions. In 2020, industry-wide transaction banking revenue reached $1 trillion.
According to Samantha Pelosi, SVP of Payments and Innovation at BAFT, the largest trade association for transaction banking: “The potential efficiency gains and democratization of finance associated with DeFi are attractive to traditional financial institutions. However, DeFi negates the need for relationships with trusted intermediaries, which makes the model disruptive and somewhat alien to these banks.”
Virtually all major international commercial banks have at least piloted the use of blockchain for transaction banking services – which remain slow and cumbersome – but none of these pilots have involved DeFi. Rather, they focus on making bank processes more efficient and replacing traditional financial instruments with standardized digital assets. That means the approval and execution of transactions still ultimately go through the framework of traditional banking or more established fintechs. For example, a business’ credit risk is assessed based on financial statements and only applies to that specific business, without the ability to distribute risk across its system. The infrastructure around client support is also quite extensive, which means clients cannot be serviced without a high threshold cost. These practices hamper capital opportunities for larger enterprises and freeze out SMEs.
DeFi platforms provide an alternative system, not simply a plug-in to existing banks. Their decentralized nature means transaction onboarding and market-based risk assessments are much easier to scale across a business’ wider system because access to relevant information is not dependent on centralized processing or a prior relationship. Prior to DeFi, a business would have to complete anti-money laundering and “know your customer” checks for every source of capital and convince their counterparts to onboard to the same transaction banking programmes. They also would not be able to present evidence of performance on their debt or payables outside of financial statements.
DeFi allows for the exchange of trustable data across a system, mitigating these barriers to business financial services. Until now, however, most companies did not seriously consider DeFi as a viable alternative to their bank’s services because of the volatility of crypto-assets, regulatory uncertainty and the immature technology involved. Even Tesla’s purchase of $1.5 billion in bitcoin was motivated by the direct financial value of bitcoin as an asset, not by its transaction banking needs.
While DeFi previously solved the complex requirements around portable digital ID for businesses and has a roadmap for providing access to financial performance track records in transaction banking, it completely lacks two crucial elements: a one-to-one exchange with fiat currency; and interoperability between different blockchains so that counterparties could freely interact with one another. The former is necessary for cryptocurrency to offer a stable store of value that can be used as currency and to have an easily accessible interface with the traditional financial system. Interoperability is crucial for transactions to occur at scale in the highly fragmented blockchain space.