Guest column

The financial industry needs to digitize not tokenize, says this Houston expert

The music industry has adapted to the digital age — so should financial securities. Getty Images

One of my favorite movies growing up was Empire Records. It was the mid-1990s, and the closest we got to Instagram feeds was who had the best mixtapes. If you're not familiar with Empire Records (or what a mixtape is), I recommend watching the movie, but you don't have to worry too much about mixtapes any more.

Since Empire Records was released in 1995, the way we purchase and consume music has fundamentally changed. The physical music store was displaced by iTunes, and then the music industry evolved even further into a streaming economy. It took 24 years, but music evolved and it now operates in a fundamentally different way. Digitization of music was initially viewed as an existential threat to the industry, but in the end, music was digitized globally and the music industry very much survived.

The music industry has evolved and adapted to the digital age. The same happened across countless other industries, including financial services. Today we can invest in publicly traded stocks through a mobile app for free. However, a critical segment of capital markets has not evolved yet. The private securities space.

Transactions in private securities are still done on paper (no, DocuSign does not count as securities digitization.) Administrative costs are kept high due to the amount of paper that is processed and pushed through this system. As long as the foundation of private securities is paper, there is no amount of administrative technology out there to create an efficient market.

Public markets took the plunge into digital long before music did, and digitization of public markets enabled exponential growth globally. Trading volume, access to capital, and liquidity have all increased, and a large part of that can be attributed to the efficient and transparent nature of most public exchanges.

Efficient markets rely on price transparency and information equality. Currently, the private securities markets do not offer either of these characteristics. This is nothing new to people in the alternatives space, but how to reach these lofty goals, to create liquidity and reduce costs, is what I am excited about.

The reduction of cost does not relate only to commissions. There are administrative costs associated with private securities. Information distribution is slow and unilateral, forcing investors to depend on antiquated systems in order to track their investments. Nearly all of these costs are absorbed by the investor, and most efforts to date have not helped address the core issue, analog private security transactions.

Digitization of private securities is fundamentally different than tokenization. Tokenized securities are considered bearer securities. A digitized security, on the other hand, maintains its original status as a registered security, as long as its digitization is implemented in a manner that fits current regulatory requirements. Until recently, that had not been possible in a scalable way. Blockchain changed all of that.

Initial attempts at utilizing blockchain for private markets applied tokenization. Essentially, this configuration took securities that had clearly defined ownership records, anonymized them and put them on a public blockchain such as Ethereum. While there are some benefits to this approach, it also opened doors to significant fraud and securities regulation violations. Tokenization may provide liquidity, but the long-term risk far outweighs the value of liquidity for any prudent investor.

Blockchain does provide a framework that supports compliant digitization of private investments, it's simply not tokenization. The solution lies in using private permissioned blockchains that allow an appropriate degree of technical security while also ensuring transparency and accountability.

Blockchain enables us to maintain a statement of record that is both compliant, and scalable. Across the financial services industry, and across most other industries, blockchain is being deployed to help solve problems that were previously unmanageable. The blockchain is even helping farmers track their crops through IBM's blockchain. iownit has integrated blockchain at the core of our technology, proving that compliant digitization of private securities is possible and scalable.

The United States has a free market economy, so in the end, winners are determined by the market. It is our belief that the digitization of private securities is the responsible way to help this industry evolve. If you're still skeptical, just look at how the public securities markets have evolved since the '70s when electronic stock trading was enabled and the first digital public security trade was placed. Now try and imagine how private security markets will look in four years.

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Yosef Levenstein is the head of marketing at iownit, a Houston-based financial technology firm that is democratizing how investors and private companies transact.

The oil and gas industry has been hit by a trifecta of challenges. This local expert has some of his observations. Getty Images

In the matter of a few weeks, COVID-19 disrupted life across the globe, but the oil and gas industry was hit especially hard with the triple impact.

First, there was the direct impact of COVID-19 on the workforce. Next, there was a dramatic drop in global demand as countries and cities around the world issues travel restrictions. Finally, there was a global increase in oil supply as OPEC cooperation disintegrated.

As energy companies raced to set up response teams to address all three concurrent issues, something that no one was quite prepared for was the speed at which all direct lines of communication for the industry were shutoff. Seemingly overnight, industry conferences and events ground to a halt, corporate offices were reduced to ghost towns, and handshakes were replaced with virtual high fives.

To fill this inability to interact, connect, and collaborate as we used to, my company, Darcy Partners, stood up a series of executive roundtables for the exploration and production community to come together and share ideas on how to approach this unprecedented series of events.

Each week, over 25 executives from various oil and gas operators (and growing) gather virtually to share best practices around COVID-19 response plans, discuss the broader impacts of the turmoil on the industry and learn about innovative technology and process solutions others are implementing to help mitigate the impact of the virus and associated commodity price volatility.

We've seen the priorities of these executives shift and evolve with each phase of COVID-19 and the market impact. In early discussions, the main focus was on taking care of their workforce and what plans were being instituted to help minimize the disruption to operations while also ensuring that no one was exposed to any unnecessary risks. Participants shared best practices and policies they had in place for communication both internally and externally as well as their transition to work-from-home.

At later roundtables, the discussion turned to commodity prices and market response. Although this industry is quite accustomed to the inevitable ups and downs, this time is notably different. The market dynamics during this cycle are far more pronounced than in past downturns – largely due to the concurrent supply and demand imbalances coupled with the broader economic uncertainty. Most operators are taking action by making cuts, and some have already decided to shut-in production. Additionally, the importance of technology and innovation came to the forefront, whether discussing tools to facilitate working from home or remote operations to ensure the continued safe operations in the field.

The future is largely unknown; all of the information and analytics and millions of outcomes being modeled do not create the full picture needed for leaders to make the difficult decisions that are necessary. But there are a few things we know for sure. First, there will be an oil and gas industry on the other side of the current turmoil. Secondly, technology will play an increasingly important role going forward. And, finally, the complex issues the industry is dealing with today can be more effectively understood and managed by coming together to share ideas and best practices.

Nearly 5 years ago, Darcy Partners was founded on the premise that there was a missing link in the oil and gas Industry for the adoption of new technologies. Today, there is a missing link for an entirely different reason. Darcy Partners has rapidly mobilized our vast network of operators, technology innovators, investors, and thought leaders to come together and create a shared level of certainty, in an entirely uncertain world. To help leaders make the decisions that must be made and prepare for a new future, one that might not have been expected, but one that the industry will evolve to succeed in.

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David Wishnow is the head of energy technology identification and relationship management at Houston-based Darcy Partners.