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Featured Article

Honey, I shrunk the bonds! But you can funge them back again!
Oct 20, 2021

Introduction

Fractionalization has captured the imagination of the investing public. The promise is simple - everyone can buy anything. Fractional assets like stock or BondbloX allow anyone to buy a slice of an Apple share even if they don’t have or want to spend the $147 odd that it is currently trading at, or a fraction of the HSBC 6% bond, that is currently available at a minimum investment size (denomination) of $200,000. Fractionalization powers compossibility, which is the ability to create or compose a customized portfolio for each investor. Let’s say that a wealthy investor currently wishes to invest $1 million in Asian bonds. With the $200,000 minimum denomination, their portfolio can only have five bonds, which would make it concentrated. The other option is to put the money in a fund but then you lose the customization. If a private bank or an independent financial advisor wishes to do both diversification and customization, then you need fractionalization. The other big trend being observed is the rise of self-directed investors who trade on online brokerages, which are attracting millions of first-time investors. Many of them like to dip their toes first (invest smaller amounts) and therefore tend to like fractional assets.

How was it done in the past and what are the risks

Fractionalization per se is not new. Pass-through notes have existed for decades. These involve the creation of a special purpose vehicle (SPV) which acquires the assets and then issues the fractional notes. The main disadvantage is that these SPVs are quite often located in offshore tax havens and in the days of the Panama or Pandora papers, keep coming up for scrutiny for their lack of transparency. Less inflammatory but equally worrisome is that they often have many layers of accountants, fund administrators etc. that need to work together to achieve the desired outcome. Such structures typically have a sponsor and only the sponsor makes markets or otherwise sell these notes. This makes them even more illiquid.

A broker can also do a simple fractionalization wherein it buys on its balance sheet and sells the pay-off to its clients. The on-balance sheet exposes the buyer to default risk of the broker. Unlike during the Lehman Brothers default saga , buyers generally understand this risk in a much better way today.

The modern method of doing fractionalization is with the use of Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT). This method is used by BondbloX and results in the creation of Bond Depository Receipts (BDR). The original full-sized bonds are kept (lock-boxed) with a designated custodian and then the notes are issued by an exchange (un-sponsored) or by the original issuer for raising new money (sponsored). This structure has been in use for many years across the equity markets. In the USA, this structure is called an American Depository Receipt (ADR) (SEC, 2012). While the focus of ADR was to change the currency of the issuance, it also had a fractionalization / aggregation feature to get a meaningful nominal share price.

Legally, this structure has been around for a long time. DLT further increases its transparency and reduces both the time and cost for the issuance of the depository receipt. In the new international financial services centre (IFSC) at Gift City, India’s NSE plans to use the un-sponsored DR structure to create liquidity in US stocks for Indian retail investors (Business Standard, 2021).

Another major benefit of fractionalization of assets such as bonds with high minimum denominations is the ability for the investor to now create a diversified portfolio with a much lower capital. A minimum trading lot of $1,000 can help an investor build a reasonably well-diversified portfolio with as little as $10,000 and a very well-diversified portfolio with $50,000. This kind of diversification significantly reduces the concentration risk in a portfolio especially with bonds where more focus tends to be on the return OF principal rather than return ON principal. It also improves access to markets that are traditionally not available for all investor types, thereby furthering the democratising of financial markets.

Investors with some risk appetite can set-aside small amounts to invest in BondbloX trading at discounts. This should generate a decent capital upside apart from a rich return by way of coupon payment. There are always such opportunities in the fixed income market. Fractionalization allows investors to take smaller bets which they would otherwise not.

Four Tests For Perfect Fractionalization

• Uniform claim: The claim under the fractional assets should be as per the formula Fractional claim = Value of Asset / Number of fractions. The only thing in the asset that can’t be fractionalized is the voting rights. These rights should then not be sold away.

• Bare trusts should be used to convey the rights from the original asset to the fraction

• Every entity in the fractionalizing process such as the custodian banks and the issuing exchange should be a regulated financial institution. The entire process should be in the public domain and the entities involved should not take principal positions in the assets, so that there is no conflict of interest.

• Dual Fungibility should exist between the original assets and the fractional assets. While this dual fungibility is a must, it is also ideal that the fungibility happens without economic friction i.e. at zero cost and zero time.

Lastly, I leave you with a conundrum, it holds to common wisdom that all told, the fractional asset will be more expensive than the full asset. For example, a piece of sashimi is more expensive per gram than buying the full Tuna. However, financial assets can sometimes behave counter-intuitively if the fractions bring in a new source of demand. This was the original reason of the ADRs. Other reasons or circumstances which may create this is if the demand goes up after fractionalization. Most CFOs with the notable exception of the Berkshire Hathaway shares (currently at $427,700 apiece), keep doing splits to keep the nominal price in balance. In the bond market with the lack of dealer inventory (where buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell), the increase in the number of investors are likely to provide a strong improvement in the market efficiency.

To conclude, DLT and the depository receipt structure follow a transparent and market-based mechanism to fractionalize assets. Dual fungibility ensures that the additional liquidity is additive and complements extant liquidity. Let everyone buy anything!

References

Modak, Samie (2021, August 10). NSE to start trading in US stocks at Gift City, list of scrips not yet out. Business Standard. Retrieved October 15, 2021, from https://www.business-standard.com/article/markets/nse-to-start-trading-in-us-stocks-at-gift-city-list-of-scrips-not-yet-out-121080901677_1.html

OECD (2020). The Tokenisation of Assets and Potential Implications for Financial Markets, OECD Blockchain Policy Series. Retrieved October 15, 2021, from https://www.oecd.org/finance/The-Tokenisation-of-Assets-and-Potential-Implications-for-Financial-Markets.pdf

SEC (2012, August). American Depository Receipts, SEC Investor Bulletin. Retrieved October 15, 2021, from https://www.sec.gov/investor/alerts/adr-bulletin.pdf

Woo. G., & Thiel, S. (2020, December 1). Fractionalizing the future of asset ownership, securely. Nasdaq. Retrieved October 15, 2021, from https://www.nasdaq.com/articles/fractionalizing-the-future-of-asset-ownership-securely-2020-12-01.

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