IBM is exploring whether a cryptocurrency pegged to the U.S. dollar may be a better option for making payments than other digital currencies, which tend to be volatile.
The computing giant is already a pioneer in business applications for blockchain, using the digital ledger technology that underpins Bitcoin to help companies track their supply chains as well as to make international payments more efficient.
For such payments, IBM currently uses a cryptocurrency known as Stellar Lumens as a conduit. Now, IBM will also begin testing a so-called stablecoin, or “crypto dollar,” that runs on the Stellar blockchain network. The stablecoin is called Stronghold USD, after the fintech startup Stronghold that is behind the project.
“There’s this tremendous opportunity to make blockchain payments feasible, especially for cross-border,” says Bridget van Kralingen, IBM’s senior vice president of global industries, platforms and blockchain. “What is great about this is they are just basically digital dollars—digital fiat currency.”
That may help cut down on the foreign exchange costs associated with making cross-border blockchain payments, which until now have required conversion from one government-issued, or fiat, currency—say the U.S. dollar—to the Stellar Lumens cryptocurrency, and back into another fiat currency, such as Mexican pesos. Using a stablecoin as a proxy for the fiat currency could reduce the risk of getting a worse exchange rate when the money is converted back into fiat currency, says van Kralingen, as the prices of digital currencies like Stellar Lumens as well as Bitcoin can often swing wildly.
“We believe this experimentation with stablecoins can play a very big role in improving costs,” she adds. While IBM is currently only working with the Stronghold USD stablecoin, it is interested in potentially using similar digital versions of other countries’ legal tender. “I think if it can be done with the U.S. dollar, it can be done with almost any currency,” says van Kralingen.
Stablecoins have become one of the biggest trends in cryptocurrency. Tether, the most widely used dollar-backed coin, now accounts for more Bitcoin trading volume than the U.S. dollar. A slew of other companies are also developing their own versions of a $1 coin, including Circle, TrustToken, and Basis.
While most other stablecoins are built atop the blockchain systems of Bitcoin and Ethereum, Stronghold USD, which is federally insured by the bank Prime Trust, is one of only two new stablecoins to run on the Stellar network. That should allow Stronghold USD to process hundreds of transactions per second, far more than other blockchains can handle, with Bitcoin limited to an estimated average of just seven transactions per second, van Kralingen says.
Already, she adds, central banks are showing interest in using digital versions of government currencies; stablecoins could potentially pave the way for a “Fed Coin,” as well as greater usage of cryptocurrency by banks in general. “I think in the future you’ll see more,” van Kralingen says. “The way you’d settle FX today with Citi—I think you could do that with a stablecoin in the future.”
IBM also announced Tuesday that it is investing in a new academic partnership with Columbia University to accelerate startups and innovation in the field of blockchain technology. The Columbia-IBM Center for Blockchain and Data Transparency represents the first time the university has adopted the name of a private sector company for one of its institutions.
By Jen Wieczner