Wall Street Fears the End of an Era
Alastair Marsh

Wall Street Fears the End of an Era

Dealers uncharacteristically failing to address a threat to the once mighty FI revenue engine.

The masters of the corporate-bond world believe one of their few remaining preserves is slipping away. But they’re not letting it go without a fight.

Credit traders at some of the world’s largest banks are convinced hedge funds and brokers have penetrated their members-only club. The claim -- based on interviews with more than 16 bankers, including seven who head trading desks -- is that rivals and even clients are now accessing information from trading platforms that have long been the exclusive domain of the banks.

These wholesale trading venues are operated by firms known as interdealer brokers. And according to practices developed over decades, they were used solely by big banks that have served as the primary market makers for institutional investors looking to trade corporate bonds and other debt.

The platforms allow the banks to anonymously unload unwanted positions or source bonds from each other, as well as gain pricing intelligence. Effectively, this has helped the banks maintain a significant amount of control over who gets what and how much is paid in a marketplace that now trades more than $30 billion a day.

New Rules

But post-crisis regulations that curbed the banks’ ability to take risks -- while ushering in a wave of new trading venues -- diminished the banks’ role. What has followed is a brutish world where bankers, investors and smaller brokers jostle for influence and profits.

“The banks are trying to defend their turf and maintain the advantages they used to enjoy,” said Suki Mann, a debt-market analyst who previously ran credit strategy in Europe for Societe Generale SA and UBS Group AG. “But they’re fighting a losing battle.”

Caught in the middle of all of this are the interdealer firms, such as TP ICAP Plc, BGC Partners Inc. and Cie. Financiere Tradition SA. They’re fighting for a share of a shrinking pie while trying not to alienate their primary clients -- the banks.

Credit traders at 11 of the world’s largest banks -- including some that head trading desks -- said that they’re convinced that pressures faced by the interdealer brokers to boost commissions is prompting them to let investors and brokers onto platforms where dealers trade -- giving them access to a bigger universe of product and prices.

Market Conventions

The traders, who asked not to be identified because they’re not authorized to talk about their business operations, based those suspicions on trades they saw on the platforms and client queries about trades. The head of a credit trading unit at a U.S. bank also said a hedge fund client told him that they had access to the platforms.

The traders aren’t claiming any laws are being broken. But they say that -- in addition to their own profits -- it’s threatening long-standing conventions that have helped maintain market integrity and liquidity. One senior trader at a French lender said banks often try to buy or sell bonds for clients in the interdealer market, and if those investors are also present on the platforms then their ability to trade will decrease.

Spokesmen for TP ICAP, BGC and Tradition declined to comment on the bankers’ claims about their industry. Four credit brokers employed at interdealer firms spoke to Bloomberg News, asking not to be identified because they’re not allowed to talk about their business dealings. They said they hadn’t seen first-hand evidence of non-bank entities trading on their platforms.

Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, also offers bond-trading services to banks and fund managers.

Higher Costs

The tensions emerged after new rules intended to prevent another financial crisis forced banks to pull back from some risky trading activities. The regulations also made it costlier for them to facilitate trades by holding debt on their own balance sheets or maintaining large warehouses of securities.

As the banks’ roles were reduced, that allowed others to step in -- namely smaller brokerage firms that simply match buyers and sellers without taking assets on to their balance sheets. Investment firms, like asset managers and hedge funds, have also increased trading among themselves since they can no longer rely on deposit-taking giants to always help them enter or exit a trade.

Read the rest of the article via Bloomberg here

Have a question?

Please complete the form below and we’ll be in touch within one business day.