Why tokenization is still a chimera
By Andrea Bianconi
Tokenization is nothing new
The term “tokenization” is mainly associated with securities, equities, and real assets and indicates the creation of a digital token which represents ownership rights to the underlying assets and which is issued on a Blockchain.
But tokenization is per se nothing new. It is an evolution of derivative instruments and securitized assets such ABS.
Despite the promises that I also share about the potential of STOs and literally dozens of tokenization platforms springing up in the last 12 months and plenty of businesses willing to try to raise funds with it, very little practical progress has been done so far. Notwithstanding the announcements of imminent issuance of tokens representing equities or real assets, none has yet been practically issued.
Perceived advantages of tokenization
Governance participation mechanisms and automated dividend payments – which can be embedded in the smart contract – are often cited among the biggest advantages, together with the reduction of back-office work, the reduction of costs for the issuing companies and 24/7 trading.
Fractional ownership is indeed also important as it helps democratize investing, but it is also not new and tokenization is just a new tool to achieve what has already been done in the past through fractional ownership of real estate or club-deals.
Securitization vs tokenization
So in what, practically, securitization and tokenization differ?
Two things essentially:
(i) the issuance of the token on a Blockchain, and
(ii) the liquidity of the token on a digital secondary market.
But the Blockchain has one fundamental scope: enabling the peer to peer trusted transfer of digital values while providing certainty and immutability to that transfer. The first ever Blockchain – that of Bitcoin – was created to allow a peer to peer transfers of bitcoins, not of real assets. By definition, its use can be easily extended to other digital assets or rights – such as digital photos, music or e-books for instance – which will benefit massively from the certainty and immutability which are intrinsic to the Blockchain. But as far as real assets or equities are concerned, the transfer and ownership titles are regulated by the law. Each jurisdiction has its own legal authorities which enable and certify such transfers. Real estate and land transfers are generally effective upon recording into Land Registries (at least in civil law countries, while the situation is more complex in countries such as the USA where the adoption of a public Blockchain based system can likely introduce certainty to the title ownership and cut conveyance costs and risks), car sales when entered into the motor vehicle registry, sales of equities in private companies when recorded into the companies´ registry. All those transactions are also likely certified by public Notaries in most jurisdictions. And the issue here is not to advocate whether the future Blockchain adoption may enhance the existing public systems of real estate or corporate ownership titles of any individual jurisdiction – which thing is also probably true – but to simply evaluate whether the Blockchain has some scope of use for tokenizing real assets or private equities within the existing systems.
So the real question to answer is: can the on-chain tokenization of real assets and private equities bring more advantages or more problems with respect to simpler off-chain tokenization?
Tokenization use cases
Let’s look at two use cases: use case A is the issuance of tokens representing private equity, while use case B is the issuance of corporate bonds/commercial papers or other corporate debt instruments by the same private company.
In case A an SPV is needed as a vehicle for all the token holders to have a single entry in XYZ cap table. The SPV subscribes to XYZ share capital increase and owns the shares issued. The SPV will be managed by a nominee director under the terms of Trust Agreement I for the benefit of token holders. 100% of the shares of SPV will be owned by Trust I for the benefit of token holders. Trust Agreement I issues the tokens representing 100% of SPVs share capital. Under Trust Agreement II the shares of XYZ owned by SPV are held for the beneficial ownership of token holders. Note that in this case trusted third parties, such as a Public Notary and the Company Registry, are statutorily required to validate transactions. Therefore, in my opinion, the use of the Blockchain unnecessarily complicates things without bringing noticeable advantages.
In case B instead, the same private company issues corporate debt. Because there are no statutory requirements for third-party validations for the issue of debt instruments, such as the need to record it on a public registry, the token and the debt instrument are substantially the same thing and function on the same level. Therefore XYZ can issue directly to single buyers the tokens representing its debt. Tokens can be issued on the Ethereum Blockchain. A Smart Contract will embed the terms of the debt issuance in the token, such as automatic coupon/yield payments and the repayment of the principal at duration expiration with subsequent burning of all the tokens redeemed. Case B is, therefore, a good candidate for on-chain tokenization.
Tokenizing real assets off-chain
As seen above in use case A, when dealing with legally trusted authorities (such as land or companies registries) the Blockchain main functions – which are guaranteeing trust, transparency, immutability, non-corruption of data and non-duplication – are already performed by such authorities. Blockchain is therefore redundant.
Well practiced traditional legal structures such as SPVs, trustees, nominees, and escrows – backed up by collaterals such as a mortgage or a pledge – are still needed to guarantee the investor (buy side) that the issued token is tied to the real world asset. This because the contractual promise – even if embedded in the smart contract – remains just an “unsecured contractual promise” which, without a collateral guarantee, still poses all the enforceability issues of any unsecured (contractual) promise. And until those public registries are not on the Blockchain themselves, the smart contract has limited practical application. Enforcement/execution – for real assets – takes place off-chain and therefore must be secured with traditional guarantees which can only function off-chain.
Moreover, with such complex transaction structures, mistakes and disputes happen all the time, and they need to be promptly rectified or solved. With public registries or with trusted parties mistakes can be easily rectified and disputes solved. Instead, Blockchains´ immutability and irreversibility features then become drawbacks. Without an appropriate mechanism for dispute resolution and reversibility, the Blockchain can render real asset transactions unmanageable.
Therefore, in my opinion, the practical aspects of on-chain real asset tokenization are still generally not sufficiently appreciated, but when this is done, it appears that – in many cases – it is more efficient to tokenize/digitize real assets off-chain.
Guaranteed liquidity is the key prerequisite
Most importantly, what is still missing from the picture – and it is certainly the essential prerequisite for any tokenization either on or off-chain – is the guaranteed liquidity and the possibility for the investors to effectively trade the tokens. Surprisingly, not much progress has been done on that very fundamental issue.
Only if deep pools of liquidity are brought in to ensure adequate market making, then tokenized assets may possibly scale-up in the future to match traditional financial instruments.
Summing it up:
- Above all, the deep liquidity of the digital secondary market is a prerequisite for any tokenization.
- We can tokenize assets on-chain or off-chain.
- Not every asset is suitable to be tokenized on-chain.
- On-chain tokenization is advisable when the asset can be freely transferred without the statutory need of a third party off-chain validation (such as with corporate debt – as in Case B above – or, as an example, with unregistered real assets such as objects of art or plain digital assets such as digital photos, music, Cryptokitties, etc.). Here the Blockchain fully performs its main functions which are guaranteeing trust, transparency, immutability, non-corruption of data and non-duplication.
- Off-chain tokenization is advisable when there is a statutory need for a third party off-chain validation of the transaction (such as with private equities – as in Case A above – or with real estate, cars, boats, planes, etc.). Here the Blockchain is redundant because its main functions are already performed by the third party validation off-chain.
- Of course, if and when those statutory registers will be on-chain themselves, then on-chain transactions will be possible also for real assets and the Smart Contract will be able to close the loop and to reconcile the ownership title of a real asset off-chain with the digital token (representing the asset) on-chain.
- Of course the above conclusions may vary depending on the jurisdiction (e.g., real estate on-chain tokenization may be advisable in the USA and not in Germany or Italy).
Legal Disclaimer: This paper is for general guidance only and it does not constitute legal advice. As such, it should not be used as a substitute for consultation with lawyers on specific issues. All information in this paper is provided “as is,” with no guarantee of completeness, accuracy, timeliness or warranty of any kind, express or implied.
About the Author
Andrea Bianconi is an international business Lawyer with over two decades experience, a scholar of Austrian Economics, monetary history and geopolitics, a believer in the future of Bitcoin and Blockchain based technologies a consultant to the sector and a speaker/ panelist at conferences and events.