Regulators play waiting game as financial technology evolves

LONDON (Reuters) - Regulators trying to police innovations in financial technology are waiting to see whether start-ups develop open systems or ones that allow only limited access for users, a Bank of England conference heard on Monday.

Bitcoin (virtual currency) coins are seen in an illustration picture taken at La Maison du Bitcoin in Paris, France, May 27, 2015. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Regulators are looking into new rules for so-called fintech, which includes peer-to-peer lending, and the use of blockchain or the distributed ledger technology underpinning the bitcoin virtual currency.

The sector is still tiny but regulators worry it could grow quickly and pose risks to the financial system.

“We need to understand what the model is,” Bank of England Chief Cashier, Victoria Cleland, told the conference jointly organised by the BoE and London Business School.

The BoE is trying to “join the dots” between the potential benefits and risks from digital currencies, blockchain and other innovations, she said.

“With all these things going on, we need to be ready to respond to what would regulation mean,” Cleland.

Banks are examining blockchain uses to avoid being caught out like the taxi sector has been by online cab finder Uber or hoteliers by online accommodation company Airbnb, the conference heard.

But there is fierce debate over what sort of business model is best, and whether it should be an open system that can be accessed by the general public via the Internet, or a closed or permissioned one with users vetted.

Andrew Weir, group chief technology officer at HSBC HSBA.L bank, said most big organisations were under constant attack from hackers.

“If the distributed ledger is a platform that gets incorporated into the Internet in some way, it will be completely open to these forms of hacking,” Weir said.

Charley Cooper, managing director of R3 Group, a consortium of 42 banks, including HSBC, looking at ways to use blockchain for trading bonds, said he has invited regulators to view their work.

“I don’t know that there is any regulator in the world that is anywhere near close to accepting the idea of a public distributed ledger for financial services,” Cooper said.

Reporting by Huw Jones; Editing by Keith Weir