Blockchain technologies have the potential to change the world. A decentralized ledger of digital transactions and assets that's shared among many computers around the world will take friction out of the global economy, raise defenses against fraud, and reduce the number of middlemen in financial systems.

All of that sounds exciting, but who wants to deal with the extreme volatility of bitcoin and other blockchain-based currencies?

You're in luck. As it turns out, you can invest in a blockchain future without sinking your teeth into actual cryptocurrencies. Many well-known companies are betting on the blockchain by their own volition, so buying stock in these forward-thinking businesses is the next best thing to picking up your own basket of cryptocurrencies.

A steel chain curling across a white table, with the view zoomed in on one chain link covered in hexadecimal numbers.

Image source: Getty Images.

E-commerce veteran (NASDAQ:OSTK) has been exploring the blockchain for years and was one of the first retailers anywhere to accept bitcoin as a form of payment.

Some might say Overstock is taking this blockchain business too far, even.

The company runs a blockchain-focused division known as Medici Ventures. Through this channel, Overstock has set up substantial ownership positions in several small blockchain businesses. Moreover, Medici has launched an asset trading platform known as tZero, where traditional stock certificates and other paperwork are replaced by Overstock's own blockchain platform.

But that's not all.

Going one large step further, Chairman Patrick Byrne recently said he is thinking about ditching the whole online retail business. After selling that operation to the highest bidder, Byrne could then turn Overstock into a pure play on the blockchain market.

That idea is still up in the air, but it goes to show how deeply invested Overstock's leadership is into the blockchain. This is not a hobby but a way of life. Therefore, is just about as close as you can get to actually buying shares of a blockchain business.

Bank of America

You may have heard Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) CEO Brian Moynihan throwing shade on bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. The megabank's leader has called these coins everything from a fraud to a tool for criminals, and he often argues that real banks already do everything a cryptocurrency might aim to do -- only better.

At the same time, Bank of America is putting its back into blockchain research.

In fact, Moynihan's company holds at least 43 blockchain-related patents -- nearly twice as many as research titan IBM (NYSE:IBM).

These patents have nothing to do with running, creating, or managing cryptocurrencies. Instead, Bank of America has zeroed in on applying the blockchain to traditional banking operations such as fraud detection, transaction processing, and person-to-person cash transfers.

So Moynihan can criticize cryptocurrencies with a straight face while putting a ton of research into the underlying blockchain technology. And investors can look to Bank of America for leadership in the blockchain era. The bank hasn't made any attempts to implement its blockchain patents in the form of real banking services yet -- at least not to the best of my knowledge -- but this company is positioned to make blockchain waves at the drop of a hat.

Looking up at an IBM logo on a glass-clad skyscraper.

Image source: IBM.


International Business Machines is already a giant in this field.

"For us, blockchain is a set of technologies that allow our clients to simplify complex, end-to-end processes in a way that couldn't have been done before," said IBM CFO Jim Kavanaugh in Big Blue's latest earnings call.

The company has built blockchain support right into its big-iron mainframe systems. Through the programming tools of the IBM Blockchain Platform, IBM has worked with hundreds of clients on setting blockchain processes in motion. These partners involve banks around the world, the London Stock Echange, shipping giant Maersk, and the Beijing Institute of Technology.

In one recent example, Walmart (NYSE:WMT) built a food safety program around IBM's blockchain platform. By requiring blockchain entries at every step of the way from farm to table, the detective work of tracking down the source of contaminated food becomes a couple of clicks to shake that information out of the blockchain. Whether the problem was introduced by the farmer, a maker of prepared meals, some shipping service along the way, or anybody else, the relationships quickly become obvious when tied to a reliable tracing system like this. Walmart introduced this IBM-based blockchain tool for tracking pork shipments throughout China in December, following a U.S. launch of mango trackers.

IBM expects blockchain to drive a lot of workloads and business value on the mainframe. That way, the technology becomes a growth driver for Big Blue's mainframe systems as well as for the associated software and services.

Big Blue is taking the blockchain very seriously. That's one of many good reasons to invest in IBM today.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.