The paper investigates financial contract management on distributed ledgers and provides a working solution implemented on the Ethereum blockchain. The system is based on a domain-specific language for financial contracts that is capable of expressing complex multi-party derivatives and is conducive to automated execution. The authors propose an architecture for separating contractual terms from contract execution: a contract evaluator encapsulates the syntax and semantics of financial contracts without actively performing contractual actions; such actions are handled by user-definable contract managers that administer strategies for the execution of contracts. Hosting contracts and contract managers on a distributed ledger, side-by-side with digital assets, facilitates automated settlement of commitments without the need for an intermediary. The paper discusses how the proposed technology may change the way financial institutions, regulators, and individuals interact in a financial system based on distributed ledgers.
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The term blockchain arises from the technique of sequencing blocks of atomic payments between pseudonymous participants into tamper-resistant verified (implicit) asset balances, which underlies Bitcoin, an unstructured peer-to-peer system with its own virtual currency. We use the term more generally here for peer-to-peer systems without central control, but varying performance, privacy and authentication mechanisms, and for the applications conceived for and made possible by such technology.
The term contract is polysemic within the context of this paper, as it ranges over (1) legal contracts, natural language descriptions of legally binding rights and obligations, including financial contracts, (2) formal contracts, rights and obligations described in formal syntax with an unambiguous semantics facilitating mathematical reasoning, which are not necessarily legally binding, (3) smart contracts, programs irrevocably executed on a distributed ledger.
This is rather common already and thus hardly controversial: ownership of real estate, shares, bonds, and (bank account) money is in many countries legally determined by the state of various (nondistributed) ledgers. In Denmark, for example, the legally definitive ledgers for these assets are in electronic form rather than paper form.
The source code of our implementation, including technical documentation, is available at https://github.com/bem7/ledger-contracts/.
A smart contract (and indeed the entire ledger) can be thought of as a state machine whose state and execution is replicated across a peer-to-peer network, supported by a suitable protocol to ensure observable consensus on the state.
If coded in a Turing-complete programming language, contract manager code analysis ultimately incurs arbitrarily high computational cost, though.
A token is a smart contract that acts as an account manager, keeping track of different actors’ balances of a specific unit of value. This tracking is often represented as a mapping from users to amounts. These smart contracts conventionally have functions for transferring funds and allowing other actors (usually other smart contracts) to transfer funds on the permitter’s behalf.
Our implementation runs on a private test-net where the cost of gas is not a concern.
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We thank Sofus Mortensen for suggesting the topic of financial contracts on distributed ledgers.
Accepted after two revisions by the editors of the special issue.
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Egelund-Müller, B., Elsman, M., Henglein, F. et al. Automated Execution of Financial Contracts on Blockchains. Bus Inf Syst Eng 59, 457–467 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12599-017-0507-z
- Domain specific language
- Financial services
- Distributed ledger