Blockchain innovation and fee structure implications for private investment funds

The traditional 2/20 fee structure of private investment funds has come increasingly under pressure in the last ten years. While market factors help explain the pressure on the fee structure of the private investment fund industry, one contributing factor that has not been examined by commentators pertains to the increasing use of use of blockchain technology, artificial intelligence, and big data by private fund advisers. 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.

This article shows that the fund advisers who use the new technology are able to charge overall lower fees. The article explores the reasons for lower fees in those funds and examines possible future applications of the technology in the private investment fund industry. 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.

Changing 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 percent management fee based on assets under management and a 20 percent annual performance or incentive reallocation based on net fund profits. Similarly, managers of private equity funds generally used to charge an annualized 2 percent management fee based on committed capital and most commonly received a 20 percent commission on returns over a designated amount, referred to as the carry, as incentive compensation. However, the historical fee of 2 percent of commitments through the reinvestment period, then 2 percent on the cost basis for the investments/value of fund has shifted in recent years closer to 1.0 percent for new managers and 1.5-1.8 percent 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.

First-time or new managers are particularly affected by the new fee structure. Unlike in the recent past, first-time managers are now often forced to share the business budget (rent, employee salaries, etc.) to justify the 1.5 percent management fee.

Factors creating downward pressure on fees

For the better part of the last ten years, the inadequate performance of the private investment fund industry created substantial pressure on its traditional 2/20 fee structure. A prominent example, exemplifying the pressure on the fee structure given the performance of the industry, is the wager between Warren Buffet and Ted Seides. In 2007, Warren Buffet entered into a wager with Ted Seides of Protégé Partners, betting $500,000 that a purely passive investment strategy, that is passively tracking the S&P 500 Index, over a ten-year period would beat any hedge fund portfolio over the same time period. Buffet asserted that the fees of the private investment fund industry (2/20) were too high for hedge funds given the returns of the industry and did not justify the fees continuing existence. To show his commitment, Buffet selected a Vanguard S&P Index Fund, passively tracking the S&P 500 Index, while Seides chose five hedge funds of funds. Seides’s hedge funds of funds had collectively invested in over 100 hedge funds. The wager was on the higher of the respective funds’ compounded annual return for ten years (2008-2017) net of fees. Seides entered into the bid despite a huge disadvantage – hedge funds have a much higher fee structure and the wager pertained to compounded annual interest net of fees. A year before the end of the wager, Buffet’s nine-year result is a 7.1 percent compounded annual return compared to Seides’s 2.2 percent. Buffet has opined that the great majority of managers are not skillful enough to outperform the S&P 500, noting that “a good record quickly attracts a torrent of money . . . huge sums invariably act as an anchor on investment performance [and that] most managers will nevertheless seek new money because of their personal equitation – namely, the more funds they have under management, the more their fees.”

The increasing pressure on the traditional fee structure manifests itself in several new fee-related outcomes affecting private investment fund managers. In recent years, private investment fund management fees can deviate from the market rate of 1.5 percent to 2 percent of the fund’s capital commitments because affiliates or other employees of the investment manager who invest in the fund are not charged management fees, and funds with fewer oversight and monitoring requirements typically charge lower management fees.

The new fee structure is also the result of fund managers foregoing market rate management fees, larger investors requiring reduced management fees to induce investment, side-by-side vehicles attracting investors in the co-investment entities by charging less than 2 percent management fees, real estate funds charging management fees based on the amounts invested in properties, and different investors in the same fund being charged different management fees. Charging different management fees because of the aforementioned pressures on the industry can make it more difficult for fund advisers to market a fund, especially a fund where investors receive “most favored nations” rights.

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.

Other important factors for the downward pressure on the incentive fee side include blackened carried interest and changes in the calculation of hurdle rates. Some industry observers are now talking about a movement towards blackened carried interest, meaning a private investment fund manager cannot collect carry until all limited partner investors have had their capital returned within the lifetime of the private equity model. A similar trend is observable in the hedge fund industry. Moreover, hurdle rate calculations have changed substantially. Inflation-indexed hurdle rates are now calculated on a monthly not a quarterly basis. For managers with pension plan limited partners that often means instead of an 8 percent hurdle rate the manager gets 5 percent plus inflation.

Blockchain technology

Blockchain technology has been defined in many different ways, and no truly uniform definition seems to exist. Some refer to it as a giant worldwide, distributed, immutable “google spreadsheet” for transactions. Others define blockchain by focusing on its central elements, e.g., it is a transaction ledger, electronic, decentralized, immutable, and provides cryptographic verification, among several others.

Rather than attempting to agree on a mutually acceptable phraseology for a definition, a description of the core elements of ledger technology can help define the blockchain. As such, a blockchain is a shared digital ledger or database that maintains a continuously growing list of transactions among participating parties regarding digital assets – together described as “blocks.” The linear and chronological order of transactions in a chain will be extended with another transaction link that is added to the block once such additional transaction is validated, verified, and completed. The chain of transactions is distributed to a limitless number of participants, so-called nodes, around the world in a public or private peer-to-peer network.

Blockchain technology removes fraudulent transactions. Compared with existing methods of verifying and validating transactions by third-party intermediaries, blockchain’s security measures make blockchain validation technologies more transparent and less prone to error and corruption. While blockchain’s use of digital signatures helps establish the identity and authenticity of the parties involved in the transaction, it is the completely decentralized network connectivity via the Internet that allows the most protection against fraud.

Network connectivity allows multiple copies of the blockchain to be available to all participants across the distributed network.

The decentralized, fully-distributed nature of the blockchain makes it practically impossible to reverse, alter, or erase information in the blockchain. Blockchain’s distributed consensus model, e.g., the network nodes verify and validate chain transactions before execution of the transactions, makes it extremely rare for a fraudulent transaction to be recorded in the blockchain. That model also allows node verification of transactions without compromising the privacy of the parties and is therefore arguably safer than a traditional model that requires third-party intermediary validation of transactions.

Cryptographic hashes further increase blockchain security. Cryptographic hashes are complex algorithms that use the details of all previous transactions in the existing blockchain before adding the next block to generate a unique hash value. That hash value ensures the authenticity of each transaction before it is added to the block. The smallest change to the blockchain, even a single digit/value, results in a different hash value. A different hash value makes any form of manipulation immediately detectable. Smart contracts and smart property are blockchain-enabled computer protocols that verify, facilitate, monitor, and enforce the negotiation and performance of a contract. The term “smart contract” was first introduced by Nick Szabo, a computer scientist and legal theorist, in 1994. An often-cited example for smart contracts is the purchase of music through Apple’s iTunes platform. A computer code ensures that the “purchaser” can only listen to the music file on a limited number of Apple devices. More complex smart contract arrangements in which several parties are involved require a verifiable and unhackable system provided by blockchain technology.

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.

Several private investment funds have spearheaded and continue to expand the implementation of blockchain technology and smart contracting in their business models. 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. The implementation of the Northern Trust and IBM blockchain is intended to increase the efficiency, transparency, and speed of private equity transactions, improve security, and bring innovation to the private equity market by simplifying the complex and labor-intensive transactions in the private equity market. 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. 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.

Another example of the use of blockchain technology for private investment funds is Numerai. Numerai is a private investment fund with a global equity strategy that will go live on the blockchain later this year. 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. On Feb. 21, 2017, Numerai, announced: “[Today] 12,000 data scientists were issued 1 million crypto-tokens to incentivize the construction of an artificial intelligence hedge fund.” 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 way 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 ultimately helps achieve the goal of efficiency and optimum capital allocation by reducing overhead costs because there is no cost of human capital. In addition, Numerai eliminates barriers to entry because users do not need capital or any special finance or data knowledge.

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. Unlike traditional hedge funds that are rather secretive, the LendingRobot ledger shows detailed holdings and provides a “hash code” signature as evidence that the data is tamper-proof in the blockchain.

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.

Blockchain-enabled pressure on fee structure

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 are able to 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.

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 percent management fee and a maximum 0.59 percent 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 percent to 9.66 percent 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 percent 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 percent and 1.92 percent depending on the size of the investment. The fund management also charges a performance-related fee of from 9 percent to 21 percent plus investment surcharges and redemption surcharges in accordance with market practices.

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.

Conclusion

The meteoric rise of blockchain technology and the abovementioned prominent applications of blockchain technology utilizing artificial intelligence and big data 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 has an impact on the already changing fee structure of the industry. Private investment funds that use blockchain technology in combination with other technologies, such as artificial intelligence and big data, among others, are able to lower their fees. As the use of blockchain technologies increases in the industry, the fee structure will be subject to increasing pressure.

The full article is available at:
https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2959730

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Wulf A. Kaal

Wulf Kaal is a tenured associate professor of law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in downtown Minneapolis. He is a leading expert on hedge fund regulation in the United States and the European Union.  Before entering the academy, Kaal worked for Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP in New York and Goldman Sachs in London.  Kaal has published more than two dozen articles in the United States and Europe. His articles were published in leading peer reviewed law and finance journals and in American law reviews such as the Minnesota Law Review, the Washington & Lee Law Review, and the Wake Forest Law Review, among others.  Kaal’s study on the effects of hedge fund registration requirements under Title IV of the Dodd-Frank Act has gained national attention and was covered in a Business Week article and other journals. He is the author of a book chapter on Investment Advisers and Investment Companies in the Securities Law Handbook published by Edward Elgar.
He has also been a consultant to major corporations and hedge funds regarding various aspects of financial markets and regulation.

 Wulf A. Kaal
Associate Professor
University of St. Thomas School of Law
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