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Australia has lost its reputation for being at the cutting edge of financial markets technology, and its restoration requires the ASX to face more competitive pressures and for regulators to encourage blockchain’s homegrown adoption.
Research by Mandala Partners found major global markets are testing distributed ledger technology to create more efficient processes that reduce trading costs and risks for investors, despite ASX’s bungling of the CHESS replacement project and apparent cooling on a blockchain-based future.
The collapse of the ASX’s CHESS replacement project in November last year has left Australia dithering as global market operators build new systems that will push their markets closer to real-time settlement.  David Rowe
The analysis – commissioned by FinClear, which provides post-trade services for many mid-market stockbrokers – was released at an event in Sydney last Thursday, attended by about 100 people, including brokers, analysts, ASX executives and regulators from the Reserve Bank and ASIC.
Australia has slumped down the Global Financial Centres Index: Sydney fell from seventh place to 13th, while Melbourne sunk from 18th to 31st, measured over the 15 years from 2007 to 2022. Sydney has been unseated by Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Seoul and Paris during the period.
Australia was at the forefront of global financial markets technology in the early 2000s as it moved to electronic trade execution and ASX’s identification of a blockchain-type application, when it kicked off the CHESS replacement in 2015, was ahead of its time.
But the collapse of that project in November last year has left Australia dithering as global market operators build new systems that will push their markets closer to real-time settlement. This promises to reduce settlement risk and the amount of capital and collateral held against trading.
“Australia is in the slow lane,” said Lindsay Jones, senior adviser at Mandala. “There will not be a revolution overnight, but other markets are in the race and running down the track towards a new paradigm, while Australia is not out of the starting gates.”
Mandala Partners, a specialist economic consultancy, was asked by FinClear to report on the state-of-play in global financial market technology.
FinClear has developed a new post-trade system called FCX for private markets, using similar blockchain technology to what ASX was considering, and it wants to work with ASX as it builds new settlement and clearing technology for the equity market. Its clients are mid-tier stockbrokers, including Shaw & Partners and Crestone.
Former ASIC chairman Greg Medcraft addressed the event after telling The Australian Financial Review that ASX should not abandon blockchain amid a technology arms race.
Mandala’s report found “big bang” approaches are not needed and regulation can be calibrated to lift requirements on clearing and settlement competitors as they get bigger, an approach that could force ASX to move faster as it considers the new design for CHESS.
“Overseas we are seeing a gradual, phased, calibrated approach, where new regulations are designed upfront with industry, with clear expectations and these can then be revised and made more onerous as new players get bigger,” Mr Jones said. “ASX has been trying to do some of this, but there is a lack of urgency.”
The report also concludes competition can reduce fees for clearing and settlement, a service that makes ASX $150 million a year. Competition has driven down clearing and settlement fees last year in Europe by 25 per cent, the UK by 27 per cent, and the US by 55 per cent, while ASX fees have remained flat. In contrast, in equities trading – where ASX faces competition from CBOE – ASX reduced trading fees to 0.15 per cent from 0.28 per cent just before its competitor entered the market.
The failure of the CHESS project could also see Australia lose pace as global markets compress settlement times, from T+2 to T+1 and ultimately real-time settlement. The US is leading the move to T+1 in the first half of next year, reducing outstanding settlements and counterparty risk, as well as margin requirements. The UK has set up a taskforce to examine the case for transition to T+1.
Versions of blockchain technology are being rolled out by global markets. The London Clearing House has integrated blockchain-based collateral management, reducing time and cost. Europe has a pilot regime testing distributed ledger technology (DLT) using a regulation “sandbox” to allow post-settlement players as well as regulators to gain experience with DLT.
The UK is also planning “sandboxes” to test the benefits of DLT within clearing and settlement, the report finds.
In the US, the Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation’s Project Ion introduced a DLT-based settlement platform that supports T+0 trading, processing up to 160,000 transaction per day.
“The whole world is moving towards these new technologies – if Australian regulation keeps up, then Australia, with its tech expertise and its market size, could make it an innovative hotbed and ideal test ground for local companies to build and prove these technologies,” the report said, “as opposed to global companies taking the lead and Australia buying in the tech and the capabilities.”
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