Hype or Hope? The Blockchain “Revolution” and WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE Commercial Real Estate INDUSTRY

April 9, 2019

Submitted by Nichole Kelley, Wells Fargo Bank

At the April 2019 CREW Charlotte Luncheon, we heard from Pax Sinsangkeo with Winstead, who concentrates his practice in commercial real estate financing, commercial mortgage securitizations, asset-based lending, and related real estate and financial services transactions. He has represented major capital markets lending institutions and real estate investment companies in connection with the origination and servicing of commercial mortgage loans, credit facility loans, and multi-asset portfolio transactions. 

Blockchain technology, hailed as the great disruptor of financial markets, enterprise management and data privacy, is a distributed ledger of data and/or transactions that is maintained on a shared network.  On a blockchain, transactions are recorded chronologically, forming an immutable chain, and can be private or anonymous depending on how the technology is implemented.  The ledger is distributed across many participants in the network; it doesn’t exist in one place.  A block could represent transactions and data of many types, such as currency, digital rights, intellectual property, identity, or property titles, to name a few.

As CRE companies consider investing in a multitude of technologies to meet their varied business requirements, it is important to assess whether and where blockchain can be useful as the technology has its own unique characteristics and inefficiency in processes.  Benefits of blockchain include the possibility of near real-time settlement of transactions, eliminating the need to rush a wire to meet the Federal cutoff time, or delays in due diligence processes (i.e. confirming zoning status, legal description of properties, and any data requiring third party verification).  Additionally, blockchain technology is based on cryptographic proof, allowing any two parties to transaction directly with each other without the need for a trusted third party.  This means borrowers and lenders or any other parties can work directly with each other without the need for counsel, escrow agents, or other centralized authorities to verify documents and information; ultimately, this would result in reduced transaction costs and faster execution times for any parties involved.  In addition to the cryptographic security, a blockchain contains a certain and verifiable record of every transaction ever made, which such record is stored among multiple sources (instead of a central authority), which mitigates the risk of fraud, abuse, and manipulation of transactions.

So how can blockchain be used in CRE?  Blockchain is disrupting subscription-based MLS services by allowing brokers, title companies, and appraisers to directly provide information about a property. In addition, a blockchain network can issue tokens or some other data to symbolize real estate rights – this would allow real estate developers and promoters greater access to capital as an alternate form of crowdfunding, and allow investors more liquidity in trading those interests (i.e. a fractional interest in a real estate property) and easier access to real estate ownership. The drawback is competing data from multiple sources may affect consistency and questions around who is validating the data.  Another example of how blockchain is disrupting CRE is the incremental standardization of land deed records to be immutable, making it easier to record deeds and mortgages, verify title insurance, and clarify property rights that may have been historically murkey.  The con is obtaining consensus as to incorrect deeds or chains of title.

While blockchain technology has significant potential to increase efficiency and cost savings for CRE owners and provide greater liquidity and transparency to the CRE market, there are still a number of shortcomings to consider.  Blockchain is susceptible to human error; if there are errors at the beginning of the block that are not identified for some time, who is liable and how can it be corrected?  Also, because it is such a new technology, a lot of the coders and blockchain developers may not be familiar with real estate processes and not accurately track data stored on there. Ultimately, CRE companies who are approached by blockchain companies may need to adopt a “wait and see” approach and perform their due diligence to see if their business truly has a need to incorporate such technology.

To see Pax's presentation, please click here.

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