Emerging Blockchain Technologies Could Reshape Asset Data Security

New research from State Street Corporation finds a majority of asset managers believe they’ll be using “blockchain” data security technologies within five years. So, what’s blockchain? 

Survey data out from State Street Corporation finds the majority of institutional asset owners and managers see a strong future for so-called “blockchain” technology within the financial services space.

As defined by State Street, blockchain is basically the opposite of hard currency. Very broadly, blockchain can be understood as a digital asset tied to an automatically maintained and distributed ledger that creates a continuously growing list of data records built into the asset itself, preventing tampering or illegal revision of financial records.

Among asset owners and managers responding to State Street’s survey, the majority (57%) expect blockchain “to be widely adopted in the investment industry in the next five years.” While the underlying sentiment rings true, this may turn out to be an optimistic timetable, researchers warn, as only 7% of institutional asset owners/managers say they are already working on adopting blockchain technology features.

The survey, conducted in partnership with Oxford Economics, further found that 74% of asset owners believe blockchain providers will be able to quickly achieve the scale needed to support multi-trillion dollar investment industries, compared to only 42% of asset managers. And, despite asset owners’ optimism, “nearly half (48%) said they don’t know enough about it, and asset managers are even less confident, with 78% noting that they need more education.”

From the perspective of retirement plan advisers, any effort to get to know blockchain will likely coincide with wider cybersecurity shifts tied to ongoing initiatives from both FINRA and the Securities and Exchange (SEC). Each January the Securities and Exchange Commission signals its enforcement priorities for the coming 12 months—this year the regulator clearly highlighted the importance of adviser transparency, cybersecurity and liquidity issues, among other familiar topics. FINRA has aired the same message in recent years.

“A majority of institutional investors are well aware that blockchain, an emerging technology, could become an everyday application in the near future,” says Antoine Shagoury, global chief information officer at State Street. “What’s clear from our research is a lack of readiness and uncertainty for how to best plan for this disruption, and a need for more education.”

NEXT: Investment teams anticipate biggest impact

It’s not hard to image how blockchain could be shaped to support the challenging work of recordkeepers and third-party administrators, given the willingness of courts to consider the actual data of the retirement plan itself as being subject to Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) protections. And of course, plan advisers themselves hold a great deal of sensitive data on their own clients.

Given the technical nature of blockchain, it’s no surprise the State Street survey shows information technology teams at asset managers anticipate having the most work to do when it comes to studying and eventually implementing blockchain, “demonstrating that institutions need to introduce talent with the skills necessary to adapt to new technical demands.”

Perhaps more surprising, 81% of asset managers also “agree that the adoption of blockchain will equally disrupt their own investments teams.” As such, managers are still working to figure out how the core components of blockchain will or will not fit into current investing processes and partnerships.

Many managers project that private use between small groups of clients and providers will trump any standardized or mandatory public adoption of blockchain. Regardless of industry-wide adoption, more than half of asset owners and asset managers (55%) are convinced that blockchain is most likely to be used privately by companies with their clients,” researchers explain. “Only 13% believe blockchain will be used broadly by the public.”

Hu Liang, senior managing director and head of State Street’s Emerging Technologies Center, concludes the survey report by noting blockchain is very quickly becoming a tangible reality. “We are actively supporting several blockchain and blockchain-inspired initiatives both internally and as part of a handful of consortia of the world's biggest banks and technology companies.”