03 Jun Vanguard Is Now Using Blockchain Technology To Help Manage $1.3 Trillion In Index Funds
Vanguard, the 44-year-old mutual giant famous for popularizing index investing, has completed one of the most noteworthy implementations of blockchain technology for a financial institution to date. It’s now using blockchain—the distributed ledger software that underpins cryptocurrencies like bitcoin—to help manage data for some of its most widely used financial products, including its largest mutual fund, the $800 billion Total Stock Market Index Fund.
Since February, Vanguard has been using a blockchain product to ingest data for $1.3 trillion worth of funds, or one quarter of its total $5.2 trillion in assets under management. Many financial institutions have been implementing and testing blockchain on a limited scale, as Forbes recently reported in our first-ever Blockchain 50 list. But Vanguard’s project is live as the back-end platform powering millions of customer accounts. It’s likely the first major financial institution using blockchain for a core service.
The company behind Vanguard’s blockchain experiment is Symbiont, a six-year-old New York startup with 75 employees. Symbiont’s products aim to serve different functions for financial institutions, ranging from tracking the full life cycle of a mortgage security to settling securities trades. For now, Vanguard uses Symbiont just to manage index data.
The data source Vanguard uses for its mutual fund indexes isn’t changing. What’s new is its process for pulling in the data. Since 2012, Vanguard has used the Center for Research in Security Prices (CRSP), a research center at the University of Chicago, to support many of its indexes. CRSP indexes are baskets of securities that aim to mirror the value of a given market. Its research dictates what stocks should be included in a given index and what their concentration should be.
Before working with Symbiont, Vanguard used a manual process to update its CRSP-based indexes. It received individual files with point-in-time securities data. Then it had to clean that data, load it into a separate database and perform checks to ensure its accuracy, says Warren Pennington, head of Vanguard’s fintech strategies team. “All day long, throughout the day, we had data team members making sure they could keep data in sync with what CRSP had in mind,” he says.
With Symbiont’s blockchain platform, Assembly, Vanguard has “a synchronized database that is constantly updated every time CRSP makes a change to the index,” Pennington says. “No more manual updates or manual pulling of data. No more manual reconciliations.”
Technically, you don’t need a blockchain to get instant updates to a shared database—that could be done with older technology. But Symbiont has pursued a blockchain architecture to try to increase client trust. Its blockchain aims to serve as an independent third party that hosts information securely across a network of computers that Symbiont doesn’t own (they’re owned by the organizations participating in the shared blockchain ledger), preventing Vanguard from having to trust the startup to keep the data safe.
For now, Vanguard, Symbiont and CRSP are the only organizations with access to the index data blockchain. But Ron Papanek, a managing director at Symbiont, says half a dozen other asset managers have run test versions of the software and are considering participating.
Vanguard first started working on this project in mid-2017, and using a team of less than ten people, it took nearly two years to go live. “One of the challenges in a highly regulated industry is just lack of familiarity,” Pennington says. “That’s what takes time—letting people get familiar.” Much is at stake—any errors can cause Vanguard’s funds to fall out of sync with the markets they’re trying to track, which would lower the quality of its products and could scare off investors.
For Vanguard funds that use CRSP indexes, Symbiont’s software has fully replaced Vanguard’s old system of manual data updates. Pennington says Symbiont’s software has saved time for Vanguard, but that’s not the primary goal. “It’s more like an R&D investment with an actual deployment as a result, which truly improved the way we run our fund.”
Pennington isn’t yet ready to use blockchain to replace a higher-stakes process, like clearing trades, but he’s not ruling it out for the future. “This project isn’t the end,” he says. “It’s a step where we thought we could get more comfortable.”