Full paper with data analysis available here.
Blockchain technology innovation is proliferating in the hedge fund industry. Blockchain technology plays a primary role in front office and investment functions, in the securing of crypto assets, but also in private investment fund managers’ attempts to satisfy the growth expectations of clients. Although the use of blockchain technology in private investment fund strategies is still in its infancy, as it evolves and accelerates, the associated innovation benefits promise lasting change for the industry.
Hedge fund managers have started to embrace the use of blockchain technology to facilitate investment and process optimization. Several private investment funds have spearheaded the implementation of blockchain technology and smart contracting in their business model and continue to expand it. While some funds simply focus on trading bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to avoid market fluctuations, others invest in and/or acquire companies that use blockchain technology to provide synergies to their other portfolio companies. Yet others go much further by fully automating a hedge fund secured by blockchain technology. This is accomplished by improving the administrative procedures of private equity deal making, or using cryptocurrencies as incentives for data scientists’ competitive models that facilitate investment analysis efficiencies. Examples include private investment funds such as Polychain Capital, the Northern Trust in cooperation with IBM, Numerai, LendingRobot, and Intellisys Capital LLC, Vega Fund, and Melonport, among many others.
Hedge fund advisers use the technology in front office and investment functions, in the securing of crypto assets, but also with regards to the growth expectation of clients. While the overall proportion of strategies of private investment funds that apply modern technologies, including blockchain technology, is still small, as the use of blockchain technology grows in the private investment fund industry, the innovation benefits for private investment funds and their clients promise to result in lasting change for the industry.
Private Investment Funds’ Use of Blockchain Technology
A recent trend in the private investment fund industry pertains to the increasing use of blockchain technology to facilitate investment and process optimization. Several private investment funds have spearheaded the implementation of blockchain technology and smart contracting in their business model. While some funds simply focus on trading bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to avoid market fluctuations, others invest in and/or acquire companies that use blockchain technology to provide synergies to their other portfolio companies. Yet others go much further by fully automating a hedge fund secured by blockchain technology, using blockchain technology to improve administrative procedures of private equity deal making, or using cryptocurrencies as incentives for data scientists’ competitive models that facilitate investment analysis efficiencies. Examples include private investment funds such as Polychain Capital, the Northern Trust in cooperation with IBM, Numerai, LendingRobot, and Intellisys Capital LLC, Melonport, among many others.
Administrative Process & Compliance Optimization
A significant application of blockchain technology for private investment funds involves the improvement of administrative processes and compliance procedures. For instance, LendingRobot’s LendingRobot Series is a fully automated hedge fund secured by blockchain technology. Unlike other blockchain-based hedge funds that invest specifically in cryptocurrency, such as Global Advisers and Polychain Capital, the LendingRobot Series invests in lending marketplaces— Lending Club, Prosper, Funding Circle, and Lending Home. Its trading is determined by an algorithm based on the investor’s risk preferences. Once the investor has created a trading profile, LendingRobot selects and executes trades that are recorded in the blockchain public ledger on a weekly basis. This facilitates significant efficiencies and facilitates administrative and compliance optimization. Moreover, by recording all transactions in the public blockchain, LendingRobot is able to comply with its best execution obligations as well as locate and audit past trades. The technology helps the firm conduct investigations, but it also facilitates reporting to the SEC.
Most prominently, in February 2017, Northern Trust and IBM entered into a partnership for the commercial use of blockchain in the private fund industry. The partnership provides an enhanced and efficient approach to private equity administration. While the current legal and administrative processes that support private equity are time-consuming, expensive, lack transparency, and involve lengthy, duplicative, and fragmented investment and administrative processes, the partnership’s solution delivers an enhanced and efficient approach to private equity administration by simplifying the complex and labor-intensive transactions in the private equity market. More specifically, unlike the current deal practice in private equity, which requires parties to reconcile multiples copies of the documents that form the deals to understand the greater picture, the blockchain program announced by Northern Trust and IBM allows all involved parties in an equity deal to look at a single compiled version of the transaction and all other data relating to the deal.
Several key benefits are associated with the introduction of blockchain technology in private investment funds’ back-office administrative processes and compliance. By automatically recording all transactions in a given private investment fund along with any documentation or information that is associated with a given transaction, blockchain technology reduces the otherwise significant costs associated with human oversight in recording, organizing, and maintain investment fund data and records. Blockchain technology also creates a verified marketplace and provides market participants with reliable and fully transparent data on market transactions. The technology reduces the need for information exchange among parties because all transactions are fully recorded and transparent. Blockchain increases security because transactions are recorded in an immutable database that ensures the validity of data and removes expensive security procedures and labor-intensive data maintenance while reducing the need for a paper trail. Overall, the technology allows for a significant simplification of transactions and enormous increases in efficiency and speed of private investment fund transactions while providing significant security improvements.
Combining AI, Big Data, and Blockchain
Private investment funds that utilize blockchain technology often combine the benefits offered by the technology with other evolving technologies and cutting-edge applications to create synergies.
Perhaps the most prominent example of a private investment fund that very successfully incorporates the combination of technologies is Numerai. Numerai is a private investment fund with a global equity strategy. Numerai operates on the Ethereum blockchain, utilizing a cryptocurrency called “Numeraire.” Numerai uses artificial intelligence to convert financial data into machine learning problems for data scientists. Using data scientists for investment analysis creates efficiency through a synthesis of data. Data scientists working in this model work to solve the same problems in their own unique ways with different strategies. Numerai synthesizes these models to create a meta-model out of all the predictions from the data scientists. In the Numerai model, the use of artificial intelligence increases efficiency and optimum capital allocation by reducing overhead costs.
Adaptive data analysis is one of the important problems that are being addressed in the Numerai model. When data scientists use the same data set repetitively a risk exists that the training model will overfit the test set of data which can limit the performance of the applied model on a different dataset. To overcome this problem, data scientists working for Numerai are tasked with staking Numeraire on their predictions which in effect represents data scientists’ confidence in their model’s live performance. The staking process, in turn, enables Numerai to choose the optimal model and in the process improve the performance of its hedge fund.
Impact of Blockchain Use on Private Investment Fund Industry
Blockchain technology has the potential to restructure large parts of the private investment fund and banking industry. Most legacy systems at private investment funds and banks are much more expensive than blockchain technologies, are subject to human error, and take much more time. Banks charged $1.7 trillion in processing fees in 2014. Because blockchain technology is transparent, verifiable, self-authenticating, and self-enforcing, financial transactions can be executed instantaneously at near zero transaction costs, increasing the efficiency for business and individuals exponentially. These factors in addition to blockchain technology’s disintermediation through technology driven democratized trust, precipitated the financial industry’s substantial investments into blockchain technologies in fear of becoming obsolete.
Diversification is a key element of blockchain-based change in the private investment fund industry. A benefit of investing in digital currencies rather than traditional investments is that digital currencies can be immune to the vicissitudes of traditional stock investments and the equity markets. Although crypto investments can to be just as and more volatile than traditional investments, digital currencies might be used to hedge against traditional investments. Traditionally, investors that were interested in cryptocurrencies and crypto assets had to purchase a single digital asset, like bitcoin, hold it in an application like Coinbase, among others, and often tried to diversify themselves by investing in multiple cryptocurrencies. Several private investment funds, such as TheToken Fund, Polychain, and Logos Fund, provide investors with exposure to a wide range of digital currencies without the risk of investing in either the underlying organization behind a protocol or the digital currency itself. Rather than make one large investment in one cryptocurrency, these funds employ an asymmetric investment strategy by making large-scale investments in numerous cryptocurrencies. The Logos Fund combines such crypto investment diversification with the mining of bitcoins to increase the value of the fund during downswings in the volatile cryptocurrency markets.
The use of blockchain technology increases the competitive pressure in the private investment fund industry. Private investment funds implementing blockchain technology are facilitating and spearheading radical changes in financial markets. First and foremost, the structural characteristic of blockchain as a decentralized model for financial transactions disintermediates and disrupts the existing financial infrastructure. Private investment funds that are first movers in the implementation of the blockchain infrastructure systems in finance directly contribute to that disintermediation and facilitate the accelerating evolution of the blockchain infrastructure in finance.
The competitive pressure in the private investment fund industry increases through operational and business efficiencies gained by those funds that implement the technology. Most large fund advisers in the private equity and hedge fund industry have not yet considered implementing blockchain technology in combination with big data applications and artificial intelligence. This, however, may change in the foreseeable future if and when larger managers realize that their smaller competitors who utilize these technologies gain substantial operational efficiencies and cost savings and are able to substantially diversify their portfolio holdings via such technologies. The threshold for change for bigger managers may be dictated by the implementation cost of such new technologies. If and when the long-term benefits of using the technologies exceed the implementation cost, which are much larger for larger managers than for the smaller managers who are currently experimenting with such technologies, larger managers are incentivized to start the innovation process as well.
Pressure on Fee Structure
The fee structure of private investment funds has changed substantially in the last ten years. Traditionally, the hedge fund industry has charged fees to investors based on the so-called “2/20” formula. This means that most fund advisers were paid monthly or quarterly an annualized 2% management fee based on assets under management and a 20% annual performance or incentive reallocation based on net fund profits. Similarly managers of private equity funds generally used to charge an annualized 2% management fee based on committed capital and most commonly received a 20% commission on returns over a designated amount (referred to as the carry) as incentive compensation. However, the historical fee of 2% of commitments through the reinvestment period, then 2% on the cost basis for the investments/value of fund has shifted in recent years closer to 1.0% for new managers and 1.5-1.8% for established managers with an adequate track record.
It has become increasingly common in recent years for investors to negotiate fees with fund managers, particularly with newer fund managers who may be more willing to engage in such negotiations to induce seed investors at the time of fund formation. Alternative fee arrangements include but are not limited to modified highwater marks, incentive hurdles, and triggers, as well as clawbacks.
Several market factors help explain the pressure on the fee structure of the private investment fund industry. Private fund investors withdrew $70.1 billion from the private investment fund industry in 2016. In 2016 a total of 1,057 private investment funds closed down, exceeding the 1,023 liquidations of private investment funds in 2009, and falling just shy of the record 1,471 closures in 2008. According to some observers the market is oversaturated which increases pressure on private investment fund managers’ performance and results in compromise fee arrangements, such as paying fees on invested capital only.
Blockchain-enabled platforms for setting up a private investment fund cause significant pressure on the existing fee structure of the private investment fund industry. Platforms such as Melonport or Drago enable competitive gains for their clients through fewer costs and time barriers to setting up and running a private investment fund. While such competitive gains will benefit the majority of private investment fund managers and investors, the lower operating costs enabled by the platform models will especially enable new and future managers to enter the market because the start-up costs and compliance costs can be significantly reduced. By enabling low set-up requirements and low costs of running a portfolio, platform models may be able to create an unprecedented competitive environment for asset management strategies. The cost of running a private fund adviser portfolio on the blockchain equals the core usage fees, modular commissions, and the infrastructure costs to be paid on the Ethereum platform. The usage fees are determined by the protocol, and the modular fees are set by the module developers and are a fraction of a cent or a fraction of the trade volume for each usage.
Funds Lowering Fees via Blockchain Technology
The increasing use of blockchain technology in combination with artificial intelligence and big data contributes to the market pressure on the fee structure of private investment funds. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the majority of private fund advisers that use blockchain technology, artificial intelligence, and big data in different aspects of their operations or strategy have a substantially lower fee structure than those who do not use them. Prominent examples of lower fee structures driven by the use of blockchain technology include those of Lending Robot’s Lending Robot Series, and platforms for blockchain-enabled fund management, such as those offered by Melonport or Drago, among others. While the overall proportion of strategies of private investment funds that apply modern technologies, including blockchain technology, is still small, as the use of blockchain technology grows in the private investment fund industry, the pressure on the fee structure is likely to continue to grow.
Investors in LendingRobot’s Lending Robot Series, the fully automated hedge fund secured by blockchain technology, unlike investors in traditional hedge funds, can withdraw funding on a weekly basis at no additional cost to the investor. Because LendingRobots’ business model removes the investment adviser, overhead costs, and legal fees associated with each investor agreement, LendingRobot is able to charge a mere 1% management fee and a maximum 0.59% fund expense fee per year. Other factors that help keep the fee low include the increased transparency that allows LendingRobot to expense fewer resources on auditing the fund. LendingRobot claims an average performance of from 6.86% to 9.66% depending on the investment strategy selected by the clients. As of March 2017 an analysis of a broad range of traditional hedge funds shows an average of 8.89% annualized return. The increased transparency, reduced costs, and competitive performance enabled by LendingRobot’s use of blockchain technology may give it a competitive advantage in the private fund industry that could continue to exert pressure on fees charged by competitor funds.
The Logos Fund is an alternative investment fund that invests in blockchain and cryptocurrency-related investments. It aims to make blockchain-based currencies accessible to professionals and a broad range of investors by investing in the mining of blockchain-based cryptocurrencies as well as into such currencies directly. To cover base costs and administration, the Logos Fund charges an administrative fee of between 1.2% and 1.92% depending on the size of the investment. The fund management also charges a performance-related fee of from 9% to 21% plus investment surcharges and redemption surcharges in accordance with market practices.
Blockchain technology enables managers to charge per-transaction fees which undermines the existing 2/20 fee model. Blockchain technology facilitates a seamless and efficient calculation of management fees per transaction. In contrast to the traditional settlement and calculation of fees in a per-transaction model that created a prohibitive amount of work making such operations very difficult to execute, blockchain technology overcomes all of these restrictions. It enables the fully automated allocation of the appropriate fee to the correct executed trade and associated client account without any manual reconciliation or settlement. While normally the use of this type of fee is prone to human errors that occur during manual calculation or settlement, these errors are removed through the use of blockchain technology which performs the required calculations and settlement procedures automatically and seamlessly. The blockchain enabled per-transaction fee can be pre-determined or modified by the manager in cooperation with clients. It also can be publicly available which allows the private fund adviser to determine the applicable fee in a competitive market. Accordingly, clients who invest in a more transaction-prone strategy will be able to agree upfront to higher fees whereas clients who invest in a less transaction-rich strategy will pay overall lower fees.
While not all blockchain-enabled private investment funds charge per-transaction fees, the majority of private fund advisers that use blockchain technology, artificial intelligence, and big data in different aspects of their operations or strategy charge their investors lower fees. Prominent examples of lower fee structures driven by the use of blockchain technology include those of LendingRobot’s LendingRobot Series, the Logos Fund, and platforms for blockchain-enabled fund management, such as those offered by Melonport or Drago, among many others.
The rise of blockchain technology and the prominent applications of blockchain technology serve as prominent examples of the impending seismic shifts in the private investment fund industry. The paper has illustrated that the rise of blockchain applications in private investment funds already has an impact on the industry’s front office and investment functions, in the securing of crypto assets, but also in private investment fund managers’ attempts to satisfy the growth expectation of clients. As the industry continues to evolve in the blockchain realm, more change is inevitable. Legacy infrastructure upgrades via blockchain technology may only be a first step towards crypto integration and evolution via the private investment fund industry. Regulatory guidance will be essential to ensuring the continuing evolution and blockchain integration for the private investment fund industry.