The Future of Audits? - Northern Trust, PwC Launch ''Instant'' Blockchain Audits

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Tuesday, March 20, 2018  07.08AM / Coindesk 


Northern Trust, a major U.S. custody bank, is laying the foundations for large-scale adoption of its blockchain-based platform for private equity funds. 

In partnership with "Big Four" accounting firm PwC, the bank introduced new tools Monday to give private equity fund auditors fast access to data stored on its private blockchain. Rather than waiting for periodic reports about actions taken by a fund manager, auditors will get the information almost immediately. 

"We've taken and updated a process that was manual and happens periodically, and we've enabled that to be done on a daily basis in an automated manner," said Northern Trust president of corporate and institutional services, Pete Cherecwich, in an interview with CoinDesk. 

While only one Northern Trust client, the Swiss investment manager Unigestion, is currently using the blockchain platform that went live last year, Cherecwich positioned the new capabilities as a way to attract more users. 

"Our strategy was to continue with the one customer and to continue to build out from a minimum viable product to a more robust application," Cherecwich said, adding: "What we're doing now is finishing off the complete application, then we'll start rolling out to our existing clients and new clients to the start of next year, or middle of this year." 

The potential user base for the blockchain platform is formidable, as Northern Trust administers $78 billion in private equity assets. Its clients in this line of business have included major players such as Blackstone and the Carlyle Group. 

The private equities blockchain platform is now running the first enterprise-grade version of Hyperledger Fabric, and protected using hardware security modules enabled by the IBM Blockchain Platform.  

Blockchain auditor
The Northern Trust blockchain audit tools start off by giving auditors access to a specially designed node on the bank's permissioned blockchain. 

By using the software, auditors of a private equity fund will be able to see read-only files in near real-time when shares are bought and sold between general partners and limited partners, when investment firms call for capital promised by investors, and when capital gains are distributed. 

The auditors can either transfer the required data into their own applications to complete the audit process or develop their own tools to audit directly from the blockchain. Permission to audit the various funds will be controlled by smart contract technology for which Northern Trust says it has a patent pending. 

In addition to the work with PwC, Northern Trust says another audit firm based in the British Crown dependency of Guernsey, where 20 percent of the bank's private equity assets are domiciled, helped ensure that all the data an auditor would require from such transactions was adequately captured. 

Currently, that data is only disclosed periodically throughout the year to auditors, who then have to go through the manual process of auditing the various events. Going forward, Cherecwich says the cost for these services can be trimmed, as the role human auditors play is reduced. 

"We as an industry need to keep our margins and keep going forward," said Cherecwich, continuing: "While this may look scary because it makes an audit go forward more efficiently, I think that audit firms should embrace this because it lets them do their jobs cheaper."  

The future of audits?
The immutability and transparency of blockchain have long proven tempting attributes to innovation-minded accountants. 

Each of the Big Four accounting firms, Deloitte, EY, KPMG , and PwC has released a report on the role blockchain will play in the future of auditing. 

An early mover to actually adopting blockchain in accounting is New York-based Libra, which partnered with PwC to launch its own enterprise blockchain auditing software in 2016. Most recently, PwC itself has announced a new auditing tool reportedly being used by an unnamed stock exchange and a digital wallet provider. 

A representative of PwC told CoinDesk the auditing tool created with Northern Trust was custom-built with the bank and is separate from the technology revealed last week, with potential opportunities for them to "interface" in the future. 

Further explaining how the Northern Trust platform fits into PwC's larger plans, a partner at the firm, based in Guernsey, Nick Vermeulen, said in a statement: "Our ability to directly access distributed ledgers such as the one within the Northern Trust system will allow us to build upon our own blockchain investments."  

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