Tag: blockchain

Blockchain is a Database. Get Over It. Really. (Part Two)

(Editor’s note: I recently penned a column for The CPA Practice Advisor titled,
“Blockchain is a Database. Get Over It.” This article is a followup to that article which addresses some additional issues which I was unable to address in the original article. This article has been adapted from an e-mail I sent in response to a reader’s comment about my lack of enthusiasm for current deployments of blockchain in accounting – because it’s an emerging technology.)

Here are direct quotes from two major media articles from Q1 2018 which I reference in my CPA Practice Advisor article titled, “Blockchain is a Database. Get Over It.”:

“It reflects that (blockchain is) a big bubble,” said Huy Nguyen Trieu, an associate fellow in fintech at the Oxford Said Business School, on the spate of company rebrands.

From Reuters’ Alasdair Pal, “Blockchain Name-Grabbing has Echoes of Dotcom Bubble”, February 8, 2018

And here’s another quote from The Atlantic:

Bitcoin might be where Pets.com was in 2000—a technological curiosity in search of an enduring business need. But blockchain is not where the internet was in 2000. Even blockchain’s biggest defenders can’t say what the technology’s most obvious consumer use-cases are going to be, because they plainly don’t exist yet. It is possible they never will.

(From The Atlantic’s Derek Thomson – “It is Silly Season in the Land of Cryptocurrency”, January 10, 2018 (emphasis added)

The point I’m trying to make is that blockchain is an application platform, and the applications – not the platform itself – are what’s going to change how we work, and they largely don’t exist outside of a few pilot projects as of yet. I feel like much of the current fascination/obsession/cult of blockchain is not much more than misplaced enthusiasm for the get rich quick schemes surrounding the cryptocurrency asset bubble – say 80% of it is this – there are some important parts (20%), but you should be careful. While those apps will be useful eventually, I think you should focus on what will make you money instead of what is shiny.

Let’s take another approach to explaining this- imagine if you and I were transported back in time to our 1970’s selves (sans cigarettes and leisure suits) and someone was talking about how SQL-based databases were going to change the world. I would say sure, SQL is an important technology for software developers, it’s a great technology, and the applications did change the world – but for the end user accountant, auditor, or bookkeeper, SQL in 1975 was a tool which needed to be dealt with once there were applications which used this platform. From an accounting and auditing perspective, IT auditors, internal auditors, and IT specialists who worked with CPA firms were the only people who did much with SQL until the late 90’s.

For the average, non-Big Four firm, there are so many other technologies which need to be higher than blockchain on the priority list – CRM, social media, automation of bank feeds and transaction recording, OCR and AI technologies like those utilized by Receipt Bank and others, data analytics and testing tools like TeamMate Analytics – the list goes on and on. (On that list, blockchain should be just below a Myspace page and just above alpha-testing a self-driving car on the current technology priority list for most users and firms.) While the tools utilizing this platform are evolving, the apps just aren’t there on a widespread production basis at this point. In my opinion, there is much more profit to be earned by dealing with practical, actionable technology which you’re not currently using rather than trying to leapfrog to blockchain unless you have specialized needs and are going to have custom code written, and then, it’s still a crapshoot.

I do think that blockchain will be a bigger deal in the governments of most other industrialized countries before it is in the US due to the comparatively poor state of US government-side technology and the fragmented nature of regulation in the US compared to the rest of the world. In Canada, everyone can file all federal and provincial tax filings with the Canadian Revenue Agency online using the same set of rules and they take all returns. Canada also has a standardized system for classification of accounts which allows financial reports to be filed electronically with the government (GIFI), which is built into Caseware Working Papers (90% market share in Canada). In the US, we have to file with so many different jurisdictions and regulators, with different taxability rules, and many of the states can’t really handle e-filing, so there’s not the incentive for a centralized blockchain like some of the ones proposed for recording VAT in Europe (See https://blog.kpmg.lu/how-blockchain-could-help-fight-or-even-end-vat-fraud/ for more information here). As a result, there’s not the same need

The Indian financial system has had a number of radical reforms after its implementation of a national value added tax (GST) in 2017. The government is trying to eliminate the non-taxed cash economy by (1) eliminating large denomination bills, (2) making their version of ACH payments very inexpensive (but not free), and (3) reducing the supply of paper banknotes in circulation. While some think that blockchain may eliminate banks in India by 2030 (https://yourstory.com/2018/02/blockchain-state-bank-of-india/), my gut says that the political power of banks/financial intermediaries and the state’s compelling interest in controlling money laundering and the cash economy will present massive barriers to its implementation and widespread adoption of cryptocurrencies. Anything that takes political power away from those who have it (and the related money and control of institutions) will be resisted vigorously – and remember that the money laundering penalties in many countries are beyond draconian in most cases – so the penalties for being an early adopter are more like “life in prison” and less like the fines for driving a cab without a medallion.

I hope I’m wrong and blockchain changes our lives sooner rather than later, because it’s a very cool technology and addresses the data integrity issues associated with electronic data very elegantly in a tamper-resistant ledger.

The reality of the 25 years I have been in the profession is that some really smart people said that computers were going to displace all accountants by 2000, then other experts said that outsourcing was going to kill the jobs in profession by 2010, and now we have people saying that blockchain/AI/machine learning is going to kill all accounting by 2020. My response to them is that it’s 2018, and we’re all still here – I don’t think anything will kill accounting totally. While it may change the way we work eventually, consider how much accounting has changed in my 26 years in the profession:

  • Have you seen a 4, 5, 7, or 14-column pad lately? (I saw the first one I’ve seen in about three years being used by a CPA at an industry meeting in New York a couple of weeks ago)
  • When was the last time your hand touched a colored pencil, other than when doing art or helping your kids with their homework?
  • Do you have a 10-key adding machine on your desk? When was the last time you used it? Can you still buy ribbons/ink for the one you have?
  • When was the last time you wrote and mailed a paper letter to anyone other than a government employee or an attorney?
  • When was the last time you sent a fax to anyone other than a government employee who doesn’t have the technology they need at the office? Do you still even have a physical fax machine?
  • Do your new staff know how to use cursive handwriting? (Surprisingly, many do not.)

(By the way, I did all of those things on a daily basis when I started in the profession, and now I do almost none of them in a given day.)

Technology isn’t going to eliminate us unless we let it by trying to stay in the past and ignore how it changes our work. I would argue that the tools we’re going to use in the future and how we work in the future are going to change in the next 25 years at least as much as they changed for me in the last quarter century. We’ll have to have new tools which don’t yet exist to audit blockchains effectively – but those tools will become available in the next couple of years. So learn a little bit about blockchain – I’ll be doing some webinars to explain some of the concepts in the future – but don’t let the fear of missing out (FOMO) drive you to try to force-adopt it before the tools are ready for what you do.

Right now, for most people, blockchain is a bleeding edge technology, and almost all of you should wait until it’s a little farther along before you try to embrace it – but you should learn about it and be ready when the apps arrive.  I hope you’ll join me at the remaining 2018 K2 Technology Conferences to learn about this topic and many more strategic technologies which will affect you in the future.

Some CPE webinars which may help you learn more include:

AICPA will also be releasing a report from the Blockchain Symposium in the near future, and I’ll link it here when it’s available

A Report from the AICPA/CPA.com Blockchain Symposium

I was fortunate to be selected to participate in the AICPA/CPA.com Blockchain Symposium, which was held May 2, 2018 at the AICPA offices in New York.   This meeting, which included leaders from around the profession, including practitioners, educators, consultants, and AICPA leadership, was the kickoff of an effort by the profession to address the accounting, auditing, tax, and regulatory issues associated with distributed ledger technologies and assist members in understanding how they work, where they make sense, and what issues they should evaluate associated with their use.  The 64 participants were divided into three working groups for each of two sessions addressing accounting, auditing, tax, legal/regulatory, education, and privacy.  Prior to the symposium, each participant was asked to submit questions related to unresolved issues surrounding blockchain ledger technology and its use in the profession.  The groups evaluated these questions and created a list of possible strategies for a report which will be issued by the end of May.  AICPA will create working groups and an action plan in June, and the initial deliverables will be released at the end of November.

We discussed a wide range of issues where practitioners, clients, regulators, and taxing authorities need guidance to make it possible for us to do business more easily.  Some of the items which I recorded in my notes include the following:

  • The general understanding of the basic terms and concepts related to blockchain needs improvement in the profession.
  • It is clear from observations and behaviors viewed by the participants that cryptocurrencies and ICO’s are a major focus of law enforcement agencies and regulators, while the lack of guidance and caselaw makes it difficult for practitioners to hang their hats on available precedents to make good decisions.
  • Because it’s such a new area with new risks, there are clear issues related to client acceptance, what constitutes sufficient competent evidential matter, and how transactions should be recorded and disclosed for book and tax.
  • Authoritative guidance from the profession is clearly needed – perhaps an accounting/auditing guide for crypto-based ledgers and ICO’s?
  • The profession needs to work with many regulators to address the unresolved regulatory issues with agencies like the SEC, IRS, FASB, PCAOB, and numerous state departments of revenue and securities regulators. There are many unaddressed issues like
    • What represent constructive receipt of a token?
    • Is a token a security, an asset, a liability, an expense, revenue or something else?
    • How does one calculate the accounting and tax basis of bitcoins received in exchange for mining currency?
    • How can we get some “safe harbor” guidance for these unresolved issues so that we can deal with this rapidly emerging area?
  • Unfortunately, we see the possibility of state-by-state regulation of this area instead of federal leadership, which could make it very difficult for the US to take a leadership role in this area.
  • Many countries are ahead of the US in the adoption and implementation of regulations in this area, and one participant cited regulatory frameworks from the governments of Singapore and Switzerland as possible templates to be considered in the US.

I also think it’s important to address the fearmongers who say that blockchain, artificial intelligence, and machine learning will be the end of the accounting profession (to that, I say “balderdash”).  When I started in the profession in 1992, I did everything on 5, 7, and 14 column papers with a mechanical pencil and a 10-key adding machine.  Upon graduation, I was told by a friend that computers and the internet were going to end accounting.  In the 2000’s, I was told that my job was going offshore, and I would need to do something different to make a living.  Over the last few years, I’ve been told that artificial intelligence, machine learning, and blockchain are going to end jobs for US accountants.  My response to is that it’s 2018.  I’m still here, and am not going anywhere, and the world is becoming grayer instead of black and white – so accountants are going to be needed to make good decisions in this area.  While I do see many practitioners who clearly have not adopted technologies and methods to make their work more efficient (including one practitioner I recently saw who was working off a five-column pad), these emerging technologies will require changes to how we work, banishing the last few adding machines to the museums or the scrapheap.

It is clear to me that our profession must rethink how we work, what we do, and effectively “disrupt ourselves” before we fall so far behind that our work is irrelevant.  Many things have changed or will change – basic account classification/coding will be done by AI or user-programmed rules into applications like Xero, QuickBooks Online, or Sage Accounting, data will be entered using OCR tools like Receipt Bank, and the advanced technologies and analytical tools used by Wall Street financial services companies will find their way into our toolboxes.  The purpose of the work we all do ten years hence will be similar, yet the low-level tasks we perform will be different – in ways many of us cannot imagine.

I was absolutely blown away at the top-notch practitioners in the group, who were clearly deep thinkers and technicians who were at the absolute top of their game.  I also enjoyed the banter back and forth in the group, which was very collegial, and while there were politics in the room (as there is with any meeting of this type), it was as apolitical of a meeting as I have seen at this level in the profession.  In addition to the partners, I had the pleasure of meeting some exceptionally bright managers and senior managers who were members of the group.  These people remind me that, despite the rumors to the contrary, our profession is continuing to advance in this fast-moving world, and it gives me great hope about the bright future of the accounting profession.