Frequent borrowers set to lead digital transformation

Survey of public-sector issuers reveals widespread plans to test and promote primary market tech projects

Public sector borrowers have always been at the forefront of developments in the bond market. The burgeoning digitalisation process is no exception.

OMFIF surveyed 21 of the top public sector borrowers around the world for its ‘Future of capital markets’ report. Debt management offices at sovereigns, supranationals and government agencies were asked for their views on the digitalisation of their marketplace. Are they working on it themselves or do they plan to? What will the market look like? What will the technology be and who will develop it? Who will pay for the development? Who will set the rules?

The survey uncovers their plans, expectations and preferences for the digitalisation of their marketplace. The question is when, not if, the market will become fully digital. Around half of those polled think the process would take a decade or more. The rest expect it to happen within five years.

Progress is unlikely to be uniform. Simpler products, like commercial paper, are likely to be among the first to be upgraded, with proper benchmarks and structured products to follow shortly.

Although banks are working hard on developing and implementing new technologies, issuers are split on whether it will be banks or fintechs that provide the technology on which the digital bond market operates. Several respondents remarked that we are likely to see a consolidation in the market through mergers and acquisitions. Around three-quarters of respondents believe multiple issuers will use the same platform, but only one-fifth think there would be a single platform for the whole market.

The rise of competing standards and their eventual consolidation could risk fracturing the market, splitting liquidity. Generally, issuers appeal to bodies like the International Capital Market Association to provide market standards to avoid this.

Opinion is also divided on whether the blockchain technology underpinning digital bonds should be public or private. A few years ago, answers were likely to have been much more firmly in favour of private and permissioned systems but, as knowledge and understanding of the technologies have spread, market participants are gradually becoming more comfortable with the data protection standards public blockchains can offer.

The difference of opinion may reveal something more profound — neither solution will triumph completely. The market will instead be built on a combination of different protocols, which participants can select from based on their preferences.

There are some topics on which issuers are more united. Most agree that a digital bond market will need a new cash settlement facility, with just over half favouring central bank digital currency.

Although banks’ books of investors are jealously guarded commercial information, many issuers are still of the opinion that some of this information might be centralised for the sake of efficiency, without compromising banks’ proprietary information.

The SSA market is a fiercely competitive place. Banks must constantly scramble to distinguish themselves and demonstrate their value as a member of a syndicate to distribute a benchmark. OMFIF’s survey shows just how important these borrowers believe the digitalisation process is to the future of the market. They take their responsibilities as market leaders seriously and look to the dealer community for advice and guidance on all aspects of the debt issuance process. It may not be long before digital bonds expertise is a prerequisite for banks wishing to win business in the SSA market.

Lewis McLellan is Editor of the Digital Monetary Institute.

This is an excerpt from the ‘Future of capital markets’ report. The full report can be read here

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