UCL Faculty of Laws


Blockchain and the constitution of a new financial order: legal and political challenges

19 June 2017, 9:30 am–6:00 pm


Event Information

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UCL Centre for Law, Economics and Society with the support of the Modern Law Review and UCL Public Engagement


UCL Roberts Building, Malet Place, London WC1

Organised by the UCL Centre for Law, Economics and Society with the support of the Modern Law Review and UCL Public Engagement

The workshop deals with emergent economic, political and legal phenomena in the field of FinTech. It pursues two distinct goals. First, it intends to generate awareness and facilitate a better understanding of the actors, phenomena and dynamics of the new financial order. Second, it explores the political and legal implications of financial and technological innovation based on blockchain technology. These debates will constitute the basis of an edited volume that introduces practitioners and researchers to the regulatory and political challenges of blockchain technologies and its diverse uses.

The Speakers include:

  • Tomaso Aste (UCL)
  • Iris Chiu (UCL)
  • Georgios Dimitropoulos (Hamad Bin Khalifa University Law School)
  • Stefan Eich (Princeton Society of Fellows)
  • Hermann Elendner (Humboldt University of Berlin)
  • Jonathan Greenacre (Oxford University)
  • Rohan Grey (Modern Money Network)
  • Philipp Hacker (EUI)
  • Michael Jacobides (London Business School and NY Fed)
  • Rosa María Lastra (Queen Mary University of London)
  • Ioannis Lianos (UCL)
  • Pietro Ortolani (Max Planck Institute Luxembourg)
  • Giovanni Sartor (European University Institute)
  • Alexandros Seretakis (University of Luxembourg)
  • Paolo Tasca (UCL)
  • Angela Walch (St. Mary’s University School of Law)
  • Aaron J. Wright (Cardozo School of Law)
  • Karen Yeung (King’s College London)
  • Claus D. Zimmermann (Sidley Austin LLP)

Learning outcomes

This event will introduce legal practitioners and researchers to the regulatory and political challenges of blockchain technologies and its diverse uses.

The programme

09:30 Registration

09:50 Welcome

10:00 Panel 1: The Law and Technology of Blockchain – An Overview

Chaired by Philipp Hacker (EUI)

Paolo Tasca (UCL)
Technical and Legal Business Challenges of Blockchain Enabled Systems

Tomaso Aste (UCL)
What is truth? Blockchain technology and history by majority consensus

Ioannis Lianos (UCL)
Law, Fintech, and the Performative Turn in Regulation

Karen Yeung (King’s College London)
Governance by Blockchain: the coming battle for supremacy between the code of law vs code as law?

Giovanni Sartor (European University Institute)
Semantics and Pragmatics of Self-Enforcing Laws and Contracts

11:30 Break

11:45 Panel 2: Blockchain and the Future of Money

Chaired by Ioannis Lianos (UCL)

Stefan Eich (Princeton Society of Fellows)
The Politics of Cryptocurrencies in Historical Perspective

Rosa María Lastra (Queen Mary University of London)
Public Money vs Private Money

Claus D. Zimmermann (Sidley Austin LLP)
Monetary Policy in the Digital Age

Hermann Elendner (Humboldt University of Berlin)
Cryptocurrency Evolution and the Resiliency of Blockchain Markets

Philipp Hacker (EUI)
Cryptocurrencies, Complexity, and Chaos: Regulating Blockchain under Uncertainty

13:15 Lunch (Speakers only)

14:15 Panel 3: Blockchain and the Future of Banking and Finance

Chaired by Georgios Dimitropoulos (Hamad Bin Khalifa University Law School)

Rohan Grey (Modern Money Network)
Banking Under a Digital Fiat Currency Regime

Iris Chiu (UCL)
A New Era in Fintech Payment Innovations? A Perspective from the Institutions and Regulation of Payment Systems

Alexandros Seretakis (University of Luxembourg)
Blockchain, Securities Markets and Central Banking

Peter McBurney (King’s College London)
Verification and Validation of Smart Contracts:  Challenges for Law and for Computer Science

Aaron J. Wright (Cardozo School of Law)
The Promises and Regulatory Challenges of Decentralized Organizations

15:45 Break

16:00 Panel 4: Blockchain and the Future of Fintech Regulation

Chaired by Stefan Eich (Princeton Society of Fellows)

Michael Jacobides (London Business School and NY Fed)
Transformation of Corporate Scope in US  Banks: Patterns and Performance Implications

Pietro Ortolani (Max Planck Institute Luxembourg)
Is Bitcoin Disrupting the Law? A Tale of Jurisdiction, Currency and Sovereignty

Angela Walch (St. Mary’s University School of Law)*
The Fiduciaries of Public Blockchains

Georgios Dimitropoulos (Hamad Bin Khalifa University Law School)
Global Currencies and Domestic Regulation: Embedding through Enabling?

Jonathan Greenacre (Oxford University)
Fintech in Africa: The Regulation of Mobile Money

17:40 General Discussion and Conclusions

18:00 Reception

Further information about the workshop

Background: The future of money and banking

Less than a decade after the Financial Crisis, we are witnessing the rapid emergence of a new financial order. Driven by the adoption of blockchain technology, the contours of a new banking system and new forms of electronic money are hotly debated among technologists, banks, and governments. All agree that blockchain technology has the potential to radically alter the way we bank and use money. Where they disagree is how this new technology should be used, who should set the rules, and what the role of regulation ought to be.

Blockchain is a cryptographic technology that relies on public-private key encryption to create a decentralized database of transactions. In a blockchain, each transaction forms a block that is linked by a cryptographic algorithm to the chain of all previous transactions in order to form a permanent and transparent record of every transaction. Two applications at this intersection of finance and technology (“FinTech”) are:

Both developments go to the heart of today’s banking system and its two-fold function of credit creation and intermediation. It is still unclear what these changes might mean for the future of money and banking.

Will digital currencies undermine the credit creation of banks – as envisaged by bitcoin? Or will they become new vehicles of shadow banking? Will digital currencies abrogate states’ monopoly on money creation? Or will they become more powerful tools of monetary policy? On one vision, the emergence of FinTech paves the way to a decentralized financial system. On another vision, it allows for new forms of centralized control of the financial system. These developments raise important questions as to who benefits from them and what is the place left, if at all, for democratic politics in this brave New Financial Order. The workshop aims to open up the political and legal dimensions of the rapid rise of blockchain technology and the FinTech revolution.

I.         The FinTech revolution

Over the past three decades, financial innovations have radically reshaped the modern economy. The latest technological developments look to compound these changes. While the banking sector has witnessed intense consolidation in the wake of the Financial Crisis, the rise of new financial technologies has the potential to pose a novel sort of competition. As a result, traditional players are coming under threat from financial technology firms (FinTechs) that challenge existing business models; financial intermediaries are replaced by platforms that market and portray themselves as mere matchmakers but that often wield substantial financial and economic power. Banks have meanwhile reacted to this by developing their own blockchain-based payment systems and forming global partnerships to create inter-bank payments networks (such as SWIFT) with near-instant settlement times. Central banks, national regulators, and the IMF continue to observe these developments closely and have reserved themselves the right of regulatory intervention if necessary. Several central banks have at the same time forged ahead by developing blockchain-based digital versions of national currencies (such as CAD-coin, the Bank of Canada’s digital version of the Canadian dollar). These plans excite policymakers not only because of the prospect of a more efficient and transparent payment systems but also because they promise a way around policy constraints on interest rates imposed by cash.

These contestations and divergent regulatory proposals reflect radically divergent visions about blockchain’s purpose and potential. Paeans to electronic money range accordingly from cyberpunk visions of digital anonymity to libertarian visions of private money, to efficient technocratic national currencies, to proposals for global democratic digital money.

Several theoretical literatures offer valuable frameworks for conceptualizing these contested developments in financial markets and digital money. One particularly promising framework that draws on the sociology of markets is an approach that explores the interaction between various market actors as a kind of social exchange (Callon, 1998; Bourdieu, 2005). The structuring of that kind of social exchange as a market exchange implies a whole backdrop of social arrangements, as any market, including a financial market, is embedded in some regulatory framework and a set of institutions (for instance, national currencies presuppose the existence of a national central bank) (Granovetter, 1985). Yet, the advent of digitalisation has profoundly transformed the embeddedness of financial markets. While financial markets have become global in scope, they tend to concentrate in the financial centres of a handful of global cities enabling a high degree of social connectivity, but also possessing excellent technology infrastructure (Sassen, 2004). Although this feature has not significantly changed, one may predict the emergence of new financial hotspots that take advantage of the fusion of finance and technology and challenge existing leaders. Instead of being socially embedded, financial markets tend to be disembedded. They no longer represent a “dispersed network of trading parties entertaining business relationships” but are lifted out of these social relations to an interactional process of meaning construction based on “a comprehensive, aggregate view of things – the reflected and projected global context and transaction system” (Knorr Cetina, 2005). The rise of FinTech and blockchain technology is set to compound, and further alter, these developments.

The concept of the ”performativity of markets” proves particularly helpful in this context for capturing the interaction of economic activity with the development of new technologies (or “socio-technical” devices) and the role of economists, finance experts or more broadly experts in the creation of the tools that enact the process of meaning construction in financial markets (MacKenzie, 2006). Financial markets are thus embedded in FinTech just as markets are embedded in the discipline of economics (Callon, 1998; McKenzie, Muniesa, Siu, 2007). FinTech is performative because it contributes to the construction of the market reality it describes.

As actors in these markets invent new products and technologies, they transform these markets beyond recognition. Founded for one objective, markets often end up serving an entirely different purpose after a certain time. This constructive action takes place furthermore in hybrid collectives based on economic actors conceptualized as socio-technical agencements that not only denote collectives of human beings but also abstract collectives incorporating technical devices, tools and algorithms (Callon, 1998; Callon & Muniesa, 2003). These sociotechnical arrangements provide the capacity to act but also to give meaning to action. Their ontology does not possess inherent or fixed properties but is variable and largely dependent on adaptive behaviours and reflexive agencies. Financial market models, methods and tools can thus be made to work if the corresponding agencement is constructed and actors are configured in such a way that the postulates may be found to have empirical validity. In the era of digitalisation, technical devices and code play an increasing role in forming the core of the socio-technical agencement of financial markets that are increasingly automated through algorithmic configurations. Financial markets grow in abstraction as they tend to organize encounters between distant and desynchronised supplies and demands, seemingly decoupled from the ordinary economy of production and consumption. The increased level of technical complexity of these agencements, as well as the dehumanization and variability of financial markets this implies create important challenges for regulators and the legal system.

Financial markets compound these challenges in view of money’s foundational effect on all aspects of a capitalist society. Money has traditionally been described as having three functions: a medium of exchange, a measure of value, and a store of value. Money is a medium of exchange, because it is itself a tradable commodity that can be traded for all other commodities, or a direct representative of commodities. Money is also a measure of abstract value as it was initially conceived to measure the value of goods and services by way of a standardised unit. It is also a means of storing and transmitting this abstract value, for instance by the payment of debt (Ingham, 2004). By providing a calculative space and an order of worth, money becomes an essential instrument of social value, as well as the calculative bridge between the present and the future. Defining what is money becomes of paramount importance for the operation of markets, the latter being perceived as “calculative collective devices” allowing economic agents to engage in economic exchanges over goods or money itself (Callon & Muniesa, 2003). According to the state conception of money, money is what the sovereign decides as such (see Keynes [1930] 2012). Similarly, the boundary between what may be sold in financial markets, and what may not be subject to market calculation, depends on the decision of the sovereign, as it is illustrated by the debates over the equivalence of financial derivatives to illegal gambling, when they were first introduced in Chicago option markets (MacKenzie & Millo, 2003). To this state conception of money one may oppose the societal theory of money, which advances the view that money is what society accepts and uses as such, irrespective of the existence of a state or government.

As institutional theories of money point out, with the end of the convertibility of money into gold or silver, the value of central bank notes (fiat money) is no longer dependent on a convertibility commitment (or enforceable money-back guarantee) on the basis of the gold standard, but derives instead from the central bank’s monetary policy. By setting interest rates and intervening in the financial system the central bank regulates the money and supply, and fulfils its mandates of ensuring price stability as well as establishing the necessary level of trust for the operation of the monetary system (Sainz de Vicuña, 2010). This is the institutional solution that gradually emerged after the collapse of the Bretton Woods system. The state holds ultimate sovereignty over the currency but it delegates the authority to govern money to an “independent” central bank – tasked with a given mandate of guaranteeing price stability as well as, potentially, high levels of employment – while granting private banks the prerogative of credit creation.

As is clear from the preceding discussion of money, financial markets possess a feature that puts them to a certain degree apart from all other market orders: their intrinsic link to the sovereign. In principle, the modern state holds the ultimate (legal) power to create currency and monetize debts. Even where it has granted the privilege of credit creation to private banks or tolerated the development of societal calculative spaces (local currencies, credit networks, or virtual currencies), the state continues to claim and exercise an exclusive legal control over money. Despite the global reach of capital, financial markets are intimately tied to individual central banks, whose balance sheets after all reflect those of the private banking system. Central banks may be nominally “independent” but they are political institutions that will assert public order and act as lenders (or dealers) of last resort if necessary (Mehrling 2010). The Financial Crisis was a potent reminder of where ultimate authority resided. A recent report by the IMF and proposals in Switzerland and Iceland to strip banks from their money-creating abilities, by requiring them to hold 100 percent reserves against their deposits, with the central banks taking exclusively the role of money creation, illustrate the important role central banks (and the sovereign) are still playing in this area (IMF, 2012; Independent, 2015). The contemporary importance of central banks constitutes a constant display of these claims to monetary sovereignty that have increasingly included the regulation of financial intermediaries as part of a political mandate to ensure economic stability. Following the Financial Crisis states have re-affirmed their monetary sovereignty by creating new forms of macro-prudential regulation that sought to rule in shadow banking and submit private intermediaries once more to public authority.

Yet, monetary sovereignty has also developed under the pressure of globalization. Fuelled by considerable advances in technology, transnational communities of economic actors beyond the state have emerged that create networks of transnational financial integration. Furthermore, during the so-called “Great Moderation” central banks have been made independent, composed of technocratic experts with the express mission to ensure the performance of the economy in a global context, thus nominally operating independently from the executive, and largely also the legislative power and subject to limited democratic accountability. If the Financial Crisis has challenged this perception of a depoliticized monetary technocracy by highlighting the ongoing centrality of the state for effectively regulating financial markets, technological developments and global financial flows challenge the current détente from the opposite direction. The financialization of the world economy with its staggering international capital flows, ever new forms of shadow banking, and the development of new forms of electronic money have led to a multiplication of actors involved in the creation of money and a further privatization of the money supply. This does not mean that monetary sovereignty has been entirely lost, but that its nature is in a process of transformation that can perhaps be more adequately understood as shared forms of sovereignty affected by the behaviour of private financial intermediaries operating in vast transnational markets (Zimmermann, 2013). This undoubtedly poses important new challenges to traditional forms of financial regulation and monetary policy.

From this perspective, the development of new technologies – such as peer-to-peer lending platforms, bitcoins, altcoins and other cryptocurrencies, and crowd investment – challenges not only the traditional banking sector but also existing forms of macroprudential regulation and monetary policy. In rendering financial intermediaries disposable and enabling new trans-national calculative spaces to emerge, the new financial technologies create new transnational spaces whose control by states may be limited. This may lead to the development of some form of lex mercatoria of finance or even to social or cultural norms and mutual understandings between the new actors of this brave new world of international FinTech. These norms/values/cultural understandings emerge from socio-technical agencements that ensure the performativity of these markets in splendid isolation from the “outsiders” to these pricing/valuation networks. From this perspective, it is no longer in the exclusive power of the state to create financial markets and governs the global financial order but FinTech experts.

A further challenge to the way the interaction between finance and the State was initially organized may come through the development of alternative calculative spaces, other than markets: The emergence of big data may usurp the primacy of the price/market system and lead to new forms of transnational “expert” rather than “market” governance. With its immense computational powers and the promise of big data, the financial services sector provides an ideal case study for these developments.

II.         Any role for politics?

The preceding discussion has made it eminently clear that the emergence of the new financial order not only has economic consequences but also triggers political repercussions. On the one hand, peer-to-peer networks and cryptocurrencies hold the potential, or at least promise, to facilitate new modes of economic interconnection between diffused agents. On the other hand, the growing power of data-savvy companies provides new breeding grounds for monopolization and, potentially, exploitation of customers or other market participants. These new constellations of emergent actors bring to the fore a question of great political significance: Who is in a position to govern and create order in this data-driven financial sphere? What is the role of parliaments, the public, and political and democratic oversight in markets and currencies constituted and managed increasingly by experts? The emergence of a community of “Texperts,” as one might call them, is not an entirely new phenomenon in globalization; arguably, the whole process of globalization has been driven by such experts in their respective fields. However, the new financial technologies raise the question of the governance and political oversight mechanisms of these communities anew and with even greater intensity.

But if the new global financial order challenges existing forms of regulation and monetary policy, it also re-affirms the role of the public in governing the financial system and the money supply. Instead of a global privatized financial order, the three dynamics of dehumanization, disintermediation and debureaucratisation may – as Polanyi ([1944] 2001) argued with reference to an earlier transformation – provoke the rise of transnational political institutions that shift financial regulation and monetary policy away from the state level. The development of new technologies and transnational markets calls from this perspective for the emergence of new international public actors to exercise control and govern the new orders of worth. Policy-making has already to a certain extent shifted to the international level, as the current architecture of the regulation of the international monetary system indicates. The G-20 sets the agenda, in terms of broader guidance for the direction to follow in prudential regulation, bank recovery and resolution, derivatives reform, regulation of rating agencies and hedge funds or shadow banking. The Financial Stability Board is the technical committee in charge of assisting the G-20 in the implementation of the political decisions reached by coordinating information exchanges between the countries’ authorities, identifying actions to address the weaknesses of financial systems, monitoring and advising with regard to implementing regulatory standards and practices. A range of international standard setters and bodies, such as the Bank for International Settlements, the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, the Committee for Payments and Settlements Systems, the International Organisation of Securities Commissions, the International Accounting Standards Board, among others, enable the operation of the financial system and the coordination between various national authorities, regulators, supervisors and other specialised agencies, which are ultimately responsible for ensuring compliance and eventually sanctioning. The picture is completed with international bodies serving as lenders of last resort or serving a regulatory monitoring role, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank. These two institutions of the post WWII international order are now trying to redefine their political and technocratic role in the world that has been described in the previous sections (see World Bank 2016).

The alternative vision is that of a shift towards a decentralised international order where politics may be completely absent. This is for instance currently the case for cryptocurrencies and “virtual currencies” (IMF, 2016), such as bitcoin, which unlike bank account balances are not redeemable for any government fiat money, such as Central Bank notes or for any commodity money, such as gold and silver, but constitute instead a “market of competing private irredeemable monies” (as imagined forty years ago by the Austrian economist Friedrich A. Hayek) (White 2014; Hayek, 1978). Bitcoin constitutes an extreme example of quantity commitments with regard to money supply, dear to monetarist theory, that are not enforced through contract or the authority of an institution such as a central bank but through the operation of code, as the limit on the number of Bitcoin units in the market is programmed in the Bitcoin’s observable source code and is monitored through an algorithmic system of a public ledger (“the blockchain”), which is shared among all “miners” involved in Bitcoin transactions. This “blockchain” operates in the system’s global network and is continuously operated and maintained by the “miners”, operators of specialised computers who are rewarded with bitcoins for their work. As a result, the supply of bitcoins is inescapably constrained by an algorithm. Whether this constitutes a celebrated check against over-issuance or an inbuilt deflationary bias lies in the eye of the beholder. In addition, cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, constitute a disruptive payment system, in the sense that they enable payments without relying on banks and other centralised institutions to keep track of payments. Code is expected to deliver the necessary level of trust needed for the system to function. Businesses use Bitcoins because they presumably lower transaction costs, attract a tech-forward clientele, and enable them to make a speculative investment, to transfer money abroad, while protecting consumers’ personal information (Plassaras, 2013).

These three characteristics – decentralised peer-to-peer exchange, a quantity commitment embedded in the open source code, and the shared public ledger – are widely shared by other cryptocurrencies that have recently been issued (IMF, 2016). Bitcoin 2.0 technologies have also been relied upon in order to develop digital financial marketplaces, bypassing financial middlemen and allowing almost any asset to be digitised and traded over a decentralised computer network (e.g. Bitshares). Such de-centralised digital currencies and automated financial markets denote a financial architecture that has been intentionally dis-embedded from the political sphere and appears disenfranchised from democratic control and, political accountability more generally.

The development of the Internet of Things may also lead to the development of personal data as a new form of currency, which has an economic value that can be measured, stored, bought, sold and traded in the new data marketplace (Boston Consulting Group, 2012; Eggers et al., 2013). The commodification of personal data and their removal from the sphere of “market-inalienability” (Radin, 1987) with the development of “exchange rights”, instituted by data portability rules forming part of data protection regulations, prepare us for a world where personal data may not only be exchanged but also be the object of speculative action on digital Big Data markets, eventually decoupling the process of personal data exchange from the requirement of consent and various default contract rules meant to protect weaker parties in standard-form contracts. This opens up another frontier of unexplored space for the brave new world of FinTech.

III.         The legal grammar of the new financial order

These thoughts in turn trigger questions about the appropriate legal response. Arguably, the goal of the law would be to facilitate new modes of civic or economic interaction between so far unrelated actors, by establishing codes of conduct that spur trust and support fairness, while at the same time guarding against the unilateral appropriation and utilization of power by unregulated platforms and financial entities. Questions of legal framing and regulation are in this sense constitutive of the world of banking (Pistor 2013).

Situating the rise of FinTech in the context of the Financial Crisis allows us then to appreciate the ironic mismatch between a post-Crisis recognition of the political and constitutional importance of finance, money, and credit, and on the other hand, the appearance of a new wave of decentralization, automatization, and depoliticization in the same realm through cryptocurrencies and other blockchain-based financial innovations. Where the depoliticization of finance during the 1990s and 2000s proceeded to the tune of markets and competition, the latest wave is built on the promises of algorithms. This raises pressing legal and political questions. What would an appropriate regulation and lender-of-last-resort functions look like in a system of competing electronic currencies and blockchain banking? How can financial regulators encourage innovation but prevent FinTech from becoming a potentially unregulated, destabilizing shadow banking sector? What would appropriate patterns of crisis response look like in a decentralized, tech-driven banking industry?

Finally, it is worthwhile to explore the transformation of the concept of competition that may follow from the big data revolution and the development of new concepts of power, such as “communication” power, thought of as the relational capacity to influence other actors asymmetrically (Castells, 2009). Because of their role in the central node of financial capitalism, FinTech and other emerging financial actors hold immense and yet undefined powers that are mediated through computational and algorithmic channels. Traditional concepts of market power, cooperation and competition may have to be adapted accordingly in order to grasp the specific interactional dynamics of the socio-technical agencement of these digital markets. The distributive consequences of a shift to digital currencies and digital financial markets should also be acknowledged and discussed. The emergent technocracy of FinTech experts, digital currency promoters, “miners”, and Big Data aggregators may demand new and imaginative legal tools as they sail the turbulent and still largely undiscovered seas of the digital revolution. Public authorities should also be vigilant in protecting the various stakeholders involved in these new marketplaces (operating as collective calculative devices) from various sorts of externalities and internalities, which – coupled with the considerable networks effects one may observe in the digital world – may lead to permanent winners, but also losers of the new system.

IV.         Aims of the workshop

The workshop deals with emergent economic, political and legal phenomena in the field of FinTech. It pursues two distinct goals. First, it intends to generate awareness and facilitate a better understanding of the actors, phenomena and dynamics of the new financial order. Second, it explores the political and legal implications of financial and technological innovation based on blockchain technology. These debates will constitute the basis of an edited volume that introduces practitioners and researchers to the regulatory and political challenges of blockchain technologies and its diverse uses.

V.         The workshop

The themes and distinguished speakers of the panels are chosen to facilitate interdisciplinary discourse and to bring scholars from different fields and backgrounds into a fruitful conversation.

  • the emergence of digital currencies; and
  • a potential disintermediation based on decentralized payment systems and peer-to-peer lending platforms.