Citi Launches Blockchain-
Based Payments Service with Nasdaq for Private Equity
A major U.S. bank and financial exchange have married two blockchain-based systems
to enable clients who are raising funds or swapping private shares through Nasdaq to take advantage of payment services provided by Citi. The Citi-Nasdaq partnership is one of the first examples of an enterprise blockchain system to enter production. Citi says the project went live on Monday in an announcement at the annual Consensus conference in New York City. Over the past year, many banks and financial institutions have completed proofs of concept for projects that rely on blockchain or distributed ledger technology. But so far, few of those projects have graduated into functioning systems.
Nasdaq launched a blockchain-based platform called Linq in 2015 designed for private equity, but the system lacks the ability to process payments—it is mainly used to record ownership of shares. Investors or issuers had to leave the system and initiate a wire transfer to pay for shares once they were traded on Linq. With Monday’s announcement, Nasdaq integrated Linq with Citi’s WorldLink Payment Services through a new offering that Citi c CitiConnect for Blockchain. The offering allows Nasdaq to transfer a payment request from Linq to Citi as soon as a share is bought or sold. The bank then automatically processes that request through WorldLink, which Citi clients primarily use to make payments that require foreign currency exchange.
To make the integration work, Citi and Nasdaq developers had to create several new features, including a way for Linq to automatically retrieve an exchange rate request from Citi in a customer’s local currency, share that rate with the customer, allow the customer to accept the rate, and share the customer’s wiring instructions with Citi. (Individual investors need not hold a Citi bank account in order to participate.)
At first, the Citi-Nasdaq collaboration will focus on structured liquidity programs. The popularity of these programs has grown in step with a broader trend: Increasingly, U.S. companies are staying private for longer. As a result, early investors and employees who hold equity in a company must also wait longer to access the cash that their shares represent. Structured liquidity programs allow a group of early investors or employees to sell their shares for cash to new investors long before the company goes public.
Within Linq, a record of those shares will be preserved on a distributed ledger to which only the parties involved in the trade have access. Similarly, through CitiConnect for Blockchain, a record of payment is also added to the same ledger as soon as it is processed. On both sides of the system, this creates a “golden record” of the transaction and payment that either party can refer back to in case of disputes. The Citi and Nasdaq systems are built on a unified code base called Chain Core provided by Chain, a company that specializes in applying blockchain technology to financial services. Chain Core includes application program interfaces and software development kits to allow customers to adapt it for their own purposes. Nasdaq and Citi Venture have both invested in Chain.
“Nasdaq Linq, which we built on top of Chain Core, is completely different from the CitiConnect for Blockchain product,” says Adam Ludwig, CEO of Chain. “Both connect to a Chain Core underneath, those Chain Cores talk to each other on a shared ledger, they form a network, but they have their own separate IP.” Chain, Citi, and Nasdaq began working on the project in April of 2016. Private equity has become a popular focus area for those interested in finance and blockchain technology because it has a low volume of trades. Fund managers and entrepreneurs may spend weeks or months completing a single deal.
Some blockchains have shown a limited ability to scale, which raises concerns about the technology’s ability to handle much larger volumes of transactions within seconds. To stress test Chain’s technology, Nasdaq required the company to run an entire day’s worth of trades from the public exchange through their system—which Ludwin says consists of more transactions than the Bitcoin blockchain handles in a year. “Nasdaq knew there’s no way you bring this type of infrastructure to run the public equities business first,” Ludwin says. “You don’t start there. You start in an area where you have more control over the end-to-end process.”
For decades, Nasdaq has provided a central clearinghouse for investors to trade shares of public companies through the Nasdaq Stock Exchange. Nasdaq’s Private Market, launched just four years ago, was Nasdaq’s attempt to allow private funds and companies to exchange options and shares with investors and employees. With its 2015 debut, Linq provided private parties operating in Nasdaq’s Private Market with the ability to issue or receive a digital record of ownership linked to a blockchain. For a private company, these digital records could theoretically replace paper stock certificates. With the new payment service integration, a company or fund manager could potentially raise a round of investments entirely through Linq.
Since its launch, it’s not clear how many of Nasdaq’s clients have opted to use Linq. Neither Nasdaq nor Citi were willing to share projections for the volume of trades they expect to pass from Nasdaq to CitiConnect for Blockchain in the project’s first year. At the height of activity, there could be hundreds to thousands of transactions flowing through Linq, according to someone familiar with the platform who wished to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak about it publicly. Nelson Griggs of Nasdaq said during the announcement on Monday at Consensus that a small transaction on the broader Nasdaq Private Market would hold a value of $50 million, and a large one would consist of hundreds of millions of dollars.