Venezuela is doing it. So is Estonia. And now Berkeley, California, is considering its own government-backed initial coin offering. But this is a different beast from the ICO craze that’s gripped the crypto world in the last year or so, and a far cry from a petro-state’s Hail Mary attempt to save its foundering economy.
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Ben Bartlett, a city council member in Berkeley, is after something that is in many ways much more mundane, though potentially far more revolutionary if it works: he wants to use blockchain technology to turn municipal bonds into crypto-assets. In a turn of phrase that is oh-so-Berkeley, he calls the concept an “initial community offering.”
The idea rests on the notion that smart contracts—blockchain-based computer programs that have fueled the rise of ICOs—can securely mediate the buying, selling, and trading of assets, including stocks and bonds. For cities, municipal bonds are a vital means of raising funds for all sorts of projects, like building new schools and hospitals, improving roads, or updating a sewer system. To entice investors, bond issuers will make regular interest payments to bondholders, usually every six months, until the bond matures. The issuer is then obligated to return the bond’s face value to the holder.
But Bartlett argues that the current system for issuing municipal bonds has become byzantine and dependent on an array of middlemen who add costs and slow things down. It’s so expensive to issue a bond, in fact, that it’s essentially useless as a tool for funding a single small municipal project. Bartlett says a blockchain can eliminate much of that overhead and allow organizations to be more “targeted” in their fund-raising—for instance, by issuing bonds to finance a single community theater, a housing project, or the purchase of an ambulance.
Control over today’s municipal bond market is consolidated among a few global banks, and the way the market is structured “favors very large-scale projects over the right-sized projects,” agrees Jase Wilson, CEO of the startup Neighborly. For instance, he says, “if a community needs a couple million bucks for a community solar microgrid, it’s very difficult to put that amount of money together.” Blockchains can reduce the need for financial intermediaries, allowing for broader access to both sides of the market, he says.
Neighborly is part of a group working with Bartlett and Berkeley’s mayor, Jesse Arreguín, on a number of proposals for using blockchain technology to raise money for public projects. Bartlett says the proposals will be revealed in May.
Berkeley’s pursuit of a crypto-bond could face various political, legal, and regulatory headwinds. There are also thorny technical questions, like which blockchain system and wallet applications to use, and how to make sure the smart contracts underlying the bonds are reliably secure. But Bartlett, who sees the approach as a way to raise urgently needed money for affordable housing and other projects, seems committed. “This is a necessary maneuver to create resources where there are none,” he says.