Monday, January 14, 2008

The ‘Race to Zero’ Zooms On

The fact that commissions are drying up, and that brokers are competing over a half or a quarter of a penny at this point to win execution dollars, is nothing new. However, the Race to Zero will kick into high gear in 2008, as research desks get slashed at large firms (which used to be an ‘add on’ that justified higher execution pricing), and the surge in unbundling execution from research sends clients searching for best execution providers.

Brief History

With the onset of the tech era, commissions started facing their first hurdles in the 90’s. New execution providers flooded the market promoting faster and cheaper execution than ever before. Existing brokerage firms were able to implement similar technologies that also touted volume scalability that kept them in the game. As technology improves commissions become increasingly more commoditized, and thus coined was the ‘Race to Zero.

Current State of the Union

Large brokerage firms now look primarily to volume, not pricing as the key to feeding the execution beast. However, as most large brokerages look to slash their workforce, the research departments – long considered a ‘cost center’ and often referred to as the ‘red-headed stepchild' of the brokerage world – will certainly take a hit. With less research being written internally to justify higher execution pricing, unbundling research will almost evolve organically from the current issues in the market.

Mid and small executing brokers who provide research – despite their hopeful musings that the sky is not in fact falling - are facing some trouble. Many seem to have hung their hat on the idea that hedge funds want to continue to use an over-abundance of executing brokers, so that competitors won’t be able to follow their trading patterns. Based on our talks with market insiders, this notion seems rather unreasonable. We’re not suggesting that any hedge fund out there is handing his entire trade book over to one execution firm, but minimizing the number of executing brokers is not only something most have said they’re willing to do – from a cost point of view, it’s a priority.

Mid and small guys who recognize the threat on the horizon still have the opportunity to choose a business, any business – either research OR execution – not both – and have a chance at survival.