The Big Four accounting firms—Deloitte, Price Waterhouse, Ernst Young, and KPMG—seem to be taking an “if-you-can’t-fight-them-join-them” approach to the onset of blockchain technology.
As of mid-2017, Deloitte alone had 250 people working in distributed ledger laboratories, and the other three are being similarly aggressive. Of course, these labs occupy a tiny sliver of these firms’ massive payrolls, but the dedicated R&D speaks to how seriously the companies view the technology. If immutable distributed ledgers become a reality, their audit and accounting divisions will eventually become obsolete, with a huge human impact. At just under 40% of their combined $127 billion in revenues, the firms’ audit and assurance divisions directly employ around 300,000 people.
These firms are exploring how this disruptive technology could affect their clients. What will become clear to them is that accounting as we know it—as a quarterly exercise in which teams of people review samples of past transactions to judge the integrity of past events—will become obsolete.
And the Big Four’s audit divisions are just the tip of the accounting business iceberg. It’s not just the big-name auditors at risk; it’s every auditor—including companies’ internal auditors. In fact, once account-keeping itself becomes fully automated and reconciliation functions become superfluous, both those who keep the books and those who audit them will be out of work. Machines will input the financial data, analyze the financial data, and audit the financial data—all within a few minutes, if not seconds. In the United States alone, there are 1.3 million people employed in accounting, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The labor force disruption won’t stop with the accountants. The entire investment profession, which is structured around the delayed release of official, audited financial figures, is also very much at risk. The investment cycle of Wall Street stock brokerage and research is built around those data releases—analysts come up with updated projections on what they expect a company’s quarterly earnings per share will look like; the market places its bets; and then, when the numbers are dumped on them every three months, investors re-calibrate the share price, either positively or negatively. Everything in equities revolves around the quarterly numbers.
The same is true for asset managers at mutual funds, pension funds, and hedge funds, whose compensation is determined by how well their portfolios perform on a quarterly basis compared with the broader market. Even government bond traders march to the drum of delayed, audited releases of financial information, in their case economic indicators on estimates of inflation, unemployment, and GDP growth.
What happens to this industry when all financial and economic data is being updated, automatically and indisputably in real time? What happens to the people who lose their jobs? What happens to the work culture?
If the future foreseen by this book comes to pass, we’ll witness the biggest employment shakeup the world has ever seen. And this time, the most vulnerable jobs are not the usual suspects: the factory workers, the low-level clerks, or the retail store assistants. Now it’s the accountants, the bankers, the portfolio managers, the insurers, the title officers, the escrow agents, and the trustees—and, yes, even the lawyers.
To be sure, the common refrain that lawyers will be replaced by “smart contracts” is somewhat inaccurate since the terms of agreements, the actual contracts themselves, will still need to be negotiated by human beings. Nonetheless, the legal industry is also in for a huge shakeup. Lawyers who don’t understand code are likely going to be valued far less than those who do. (One of the most employable joint degrees to have will be a law-plus–computer science degree.) In any case, you get the idea: the middle class is facing a tidal wave.
This is an excerpt from “The Truth Machine: The Blockchain and the Future of Everything,” written by Michael J. Casey and Paul Vigna.