At Goldman Sachs, APIs point the way toward a platform future

Opening up its 'secret sauce' has the financial giant's peers scratching their heads. Now there's unambiguous research that its plans make a lot of financial sense.

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Credit: iStockphoto

For a few years now, Goldman Sachs, the $68 billion Wall Street financial giant, has baffled both the financial and tech world.

On Wall Street, Goldman built a reputation for its considerable technical and software chops that it parlayed into a strategic advantage for plotting the timing of trades and averting losses.

For years one of its closely guarded secrets weapons lay in much of its internally developed software. The big one was Securities Database or SecDB which can compute more than 20 billion prices per day on millions of positions the bank holds in stocks and other securities. Traders use it to test out their trading scenarios before acting on them. The part that has baffled people is this: Goldman Sachs has started to give access to SecDB away for free. Why give away the secret weapon?

As The Wall Street Journal sought to sum it up in a Sept. 7 takeout, the move was a response recently imposed restrictions by federal regulators in response to the financial crisis that had the effect of blunting Goldman’s advantages. As The Journal put it the aim is to “Deploy its technology to win more business from clients.”

And while that’s true, it probably understates Goldman’s aims. When you consider how the financial juggernaut that employs 35,000 software engineers has so aggressively opened up the doors on its once-secret sauce, its strategic line-of-sight is clear: Goldman is marching toward a future where the software it has built or influenced becomes digital oxygen of finance and banking, and in the process creates new business opportunities that didn’t previously exist, and disrupting the ones that do.

And while the evolution of platform businesses are well understood – Uber, AirBNB and EBay are the textbook examples – there’s new evidence from academic research suggesting that adopting an open API is a possibly the most important step on the platform journey. A study released last week by the Boston University economist and MIT Fellow Marshall Van Alstyne found that companies who adopt APIs see boosts in sales and profitability and in the long-term value of their companies. Using data from Apigee, an API management company recently acquired by Google, Van Alstyne and his collaborators Seth Benzell and Guillermo Lagarda tracked the results of more than 120 large companies in the manufacturing, retail and information industries who opened their APIs to outside developers. They compared their financial results to peers who didn’t.

It was the first time that the direct economic impact of open APIs has been measured, and the results were unambiguous: The investment in opening and maintaining APIs produced increases in sales, profits, market valuations and the book value of intangibles. And while the results varied by type of company, a $2 million annual investment in APIs yielded a 13.5 percent return. And that, as Val Alstyne argues, creates additional business activity that didn’t exist before. “Outside developers gain new opportunities to increase agility and speed of deployment, while the API-providing firm gains complementary added value,” he writes.

For Goldman, it’s a matter of “increasing the surface area where people can interact with us,” as Goldman’s CIO Marty Chavez put it in a 2015 interview at a tech conference. “It used to be the only hook to access Goldman Sachs was to call your broker on the phone….“Everyone can now come to us through an API.” (Full disclosure: I helped produce that conference.)

And it’s also creating new businesses through software. Chavez said the firm had identified 160 individual steps related to taking a company public in an IPO. Many are “ripe for automation” by software could be standardized across the banking industry. And that software could be sold as a subscription service that Goldman could create from its own expertise and experience.

The open API philosophy also extends to Goldman’s outside investments. Kensho, a machine learning startup that answers natural language questions about real-world events like elections and disasters can impact financial markets has open APIs that can be found on GitHub.

And Symphony, a secure messaging company backed by investments from a Goldman-led consortium of banks and Google, has leveraged APIs to link its service with outside data firms like Dow Jones and FactSet and mainstream business apps like Salesforce.com, Jira and Trello. 

Van Alstyne’s paper presents a clear “before and after” results of companies who adopt open APIs and those who don’t. It will in turn spur many companies to ask some hard internal questions about following Goldman’s lead and exposing their own APIs to the world. Some may find their questions are coming too late.

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