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Tough times for world's top brokers

Jan 03 2013 18:02 Reuters
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London - The world's top brokers face a fight to hold onto hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue this year when US legislation throws open the vast swaps trading market to stock exchanges.

Brokers like ICAP and BGC Partners make around a third of their revenue from the $640 trillion industry for trading swaps - financial instruments used by companies to cover their exposure to changes in interest rates, foreign exchange rates and credit ratings.

Exchanges like CME Group, NYSE Euronext and the IntercontinentalExchange, meanwhile, dominate the much smaller market for futures, which give similar protection, but are more standardised and so tend not to offer exact cover.

However, new US swap rules enshrined in the Dodd-Frank Act, due to be finalised in the coming weeks and take effect in the middle of this year, could drive business to the exchanges and away from the brokers, and reshape the industry globally due to the size of US markets and the power of their regulators.

"It is going to be tough for the brokers. The exchanges are huge with deep pockets and they are not the types of companies you'd want invading your space," said Simmy Grewal, a senior analyst at research house Aite Group.

Swaps trading involves brokers matching buyers and sellers in murky over-the-counter (OTC) markets. It has historically been less tightly regulated than futures trading on exchanges.

US regulators want to drive swaps trading onto electronic platforms, like those run by exchanges, to make it more transparent and easier to regulate, and to protect the global financial system from problems that arose after the collapse of US bank Lehman Brothers, one of the largest swaps traders.

These changes will effectively see brokers and exchanges starting to compete directly for swaps business later in 2013, with exchanges eager to grab a chunk of a huge market.

According to the Bank for International Settlements, the swaps industry was worth $639 trillion at the end of June 2012, compared with $25 trillion for futures trading.

The world's top five brokers - GFI, Tradition  and Tullett Prebon as well as ICAP and BGC - made a combined $2.7bn, or 35%, of their revenues in their last full financial years from interest rate swaps, the most common type.  

The exchanges have hinted half the swaps market could be up for grabs under Dodd-Frank, which, if true, could see hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues moving to them from brokers.
    
Regulatory swap

The US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) wants two new categories of regulated markets called Swap Execution Facilities (SEFs) and Designated Contract Markets (DCMs).

Brokers are likely to trade swaps through SEFs, while the exchanges are set to offer swap-like futures as DCMs.

Analysts are reluctant to estimate the extent of likely broker losses at this stage but early research suggests the reforms will have a significant impact.

Three-quarters of respondents to a Berenberg Bank survey in July predicted the reforms would cut OTC trading levels by up to 30% while one in eight saw regulation reducing swaps trading by between 31% and 50%.

In a note published in November, Morgan Stanley analysts flagged potential risks to the world's largest swap broker, ICAP, which in its last financial year made £681m ($1.1 bn), or about two fifths of its revenue, from interest rate swaps.

"The greater certainty in the futures model ... will favour futures over swaps, leading to cannibalisation of the swaps market," they predicted.

$8bn question

The exchanges received a boost in October when the CFTC said any company trading more than $8bn of swaps in a year must register with it as a "swap dealer", a designation which increases capital and collateral requirements.

That could encourage some swaps traders to switch to futures to avoid the hassle of registering with the CFTC.  

Top banks, which trade billions of dollars of swaps each day, will smash the $8bn limit and some 65 of the top swaps traders, like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley  and JP Morgan Chase registered as dealers on Wednesday.

However the CME, the world's largest futures exchange, said it saw a definite shift to futures contracts over swaps in the weeks following the CFTC announcement.

Exchanges are also doing everything they can to encourage the shift. ICE, the leading energy futures market, in October transformed its energy swaps to futures, allowing clients to continue hedging their energy exposure without adding to their swaps total.

Since the CFTC's October announcement, shares in ICAP have fallen 7.5%, while Tullett's have shed 13%.

But the brokers are fighting back. ICAP, Tradition and Tullett have all launched swap broking platforms in a bid to retain business.

ICAP's i-Swap and Tradition's Trad-X reported strong demand late last year as clients switched to the new regulated swap systems. Analysts say these efforts should help to stem the flow of business to exchanges, though brokers concede they face a fight.

"In terms of regulation, some parts are better crafted than others, but we are where we are and we have to make sure ICAP is well positioned," ICAP boss Michael Spencer said in November.

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