Blockchain startup Ripple has now cornered a third of Japanese banks and is set to reach half of them later this year, but the first mover among providers of distributed ledger technology has been much quieter in the U.S.
Ripple has been so successful with its payment projects that this year it’s pushing to shift focus to its network. The company was a first mover in the blockchain space and has been relatively quiet and productive compared to its “vendor” peers like Hyperledger or R3 CEV. More recently, however, it has been anything but shy about going head-to-head with Swift, the current hub at the center of the global banking – which makes it hard to ignore how few U.S. bank partners Ripple has.
“[Ripple] is looking to bring some of the big boys to the network but as you can imagine, those are some of the biggest beneficiaries of the inefficiencies of correspondent banking,” said Javier Paz, a senior analyst at research firm Aite Groupe.
Ripple’s Patrick Griffin, senior vice president of business development, said the company has developed the first blockchain network with rules and commercial standard legal agreements. Its biggest obstacle now is in growing its sales team quickly enough that it can keep up with its innovation team, Griffin said. The company now has 150 employees.
Although it’s clear cross-border payments is due for an overhaul, it’s not so clear that Swift is. Banks and fintech companies embrace collaboration and partnership and the idea that the latter will come eat financial incumbents’ lunch is now a thing of the past. Most of those banks belong to both the Hyperledger project, of which Swift is a board member, and the Swift network itself.
In cross-border transactions, there are generally multiple stops a payment makes before it goes from the payer to the receiver. If, for example, someone in India wanted to send $1,500 to someone in the U.S., that person would probably visit a local bank perhaps unable to make that transfer, so that bank would send the payment to another Indian bank that could. The payment then goes to a U.S. bank which sends it to the recipient’s local bank, where the customer would finally pick it up. Each stop along that payment’s way eats up time and money in exchange and holding fees.
Swift’s biggest problem is that of “nostro accounts,” basically correspondent bank accounts – and that’s where Ripple can provide real value to the system, said Tim Coates, managing consultant at Synechron. Swift announced it is running a blockchain proof of concept with Hyperledger technology this January – months and in some cases a year after most of its U.S. members began running their blockchain PoCs. Damien Vanderveken, head of R&D at SWIFTLab, said it’s looking to see if blockchain technology can minimize or eliminate the friction brought by nostro accounts, but did not comment further on the project.
“The nostro problem is a big part of Ripple’s value proposition,” Coates said. “If we can do realtime settlements then we don’t need a whole store of nostro accounts. If not, then we always need a buffer of funds in each account and that buffer is just locked away. We shouldn’t have to put a lot of money away so we can exchange money between banks.”
Swift effectively is looking for ways to allow banks to use existing pipelines of connectivity, like Swift’s messenger, that don’t necessarily rely on nostro accounts but use other types of messaging, said Javier Paz, a senior analyst at research firm Aite Group. Effectively, Swift would be willing to disrupt itself to keep away competition like Ripple.
“Ripple’s success has been in cross-border currencies first in the peer-to-peer space and simple remittance and transfer across the globe,” said Ramesh Siromani, a partner in the financial institutions practice of A.T. Kearney, a global strategy and management consulting firm. “But to gain more volume attraction and network growth would require signing up more banks across the globe and in business-to-business payments where volumes are bigger.”