Is this the best time for an event such as Brexit?

Is this the best time for an event such as Brexit?

It is difficult to read financial news at present without coming across extensive coverage of the Brexit referendum in the UK and its possible impact. As part of the financial sector, capital markets could be at the forefront in terms of bearing the impact of any likely change. There are already widespread claims of how London could lose its position as the premier European financial center. Of special relevance is the advantage that London has due to the 'passporting' principle, which allows leading U.S. or Asian banks and other firms to access the Europan market without any restrictions. Certainly with regard to these firms, if the UK leaves the EU, US and Asian banks that have based their teams in London while serving the European market will have second thoughts about doing so. Different alternatives have been touted, including Paris, Frankfurt and even Dublin. Some believe that all of these cities, and some other European financial centers as well, would benefit from the departure of the leading global banks from London, but this could lead to fragmentation in the European financial industry and reduce the effectiveness and competitiveness of European firms. 
There are various views and opinions that have been expressed during the run-up to the referendum. Many of these hold water. But in my humble view, when it comes to competitiveness, if the departure of the UK from the EU does lead to a fragmentation of the European financial industry, then this is the best time for it to happen. Technology has today advanced to a level that to an outsider, there would be little tangible difference if a thousand people in a bank are based across four difference financial centers in Europe instead of being in one place they were earlier, namely, London. There would certainly be a one-off rise in cost due to such as move, but the industry should be able to take that in its stride. Furthermore, a more fragmented industry in Europe would also have the ability to address national and regional requirements better than a single leading financial center. So financial creativity and innovation might get a boost across Europe. One would expect that London would continue to be a leading financial center globally, but it might be forced to reinvent itself to continue to be relevant for global banks and financial firms from outside the UK. Therefore, as a neutral and a student of capital market technology trends, Brexit does not necessarily hold many fears and might even lead to some interesting outcomes. Whether people in the City of London or the rest of the UK or indeed Europe have the same view, is of course, another matter!

Proof of artificial intelligence exponentiality

Proof of artificial intelligence exponentiality

I have been studying Artificial Intelligence (AI) for Capital Markets for ten months now and I am shocked everyday by the speed of evolution of this technology. When I started researching this last year I was looking for the Holy Grail trading tools and could not find them, hence I settled for other parts of the trade lifecycle where AI solutions already existed.

Yesterday, as I was preparing for a speech on AI at a conference, one of my colleagues in Tokyo forwarded me an Asian newswire mentioning that Nomura securities, after two years of research, would be launching an AI enabled HFT equity tool for its brokerage institutional clients in May –  here it is: the Holy Grail exists, and not only at Nomura. Other brokers have been shyly speaking about their customizable smart brokerage, e.g. how to use technology so that tier5 clients feel they are being served like a tier1. Some IBs are working on that, they just don’t publicly talk about it.

Talking to Eurekahedge last week I realized that they are tracking 15 funds that use AI in their strategy, I would argue there are even more than that because none of those were based in Japan (or Korea where apparently Fintech is exploding as we speak).

All this to reiterate that AI is an exponential technology, ten months ago there were no HFT trading solutions using AI, and we thought they were a few years away but no, here they are NOW. And the same with sentiment analysis, ten months ago they were just a marketing tool, now they are working on millions of documents every day at GSAM. Did I forget to mention smart TCA that’s coming to an EMS near you soon?

Stay tuned for more in my upcoming buy side AI tools report.

Regulators to end ASX’s clearing monopoly

Regulators to end ASX’s clearing monopoly

In an interesting development Australian authorities are looking to end Australian Stock Exchange’s (ASX) monopoly on equity clearing and relaxing ownership restrictions that removes a potential hurdle to the ASX’s participation in overseas mergers. First, some background: Australia for long was like many other Asian markets with a single incumbent national exchange that is vertically integrated carrying out clearing and settlement activity. Departing from other Asian market practices, regulators introduced competition in the local exchange space by allowing a foreign player Chi-X, which entered the market in 2011 and quickly took significant share away from ASX. However, clearing of trades, including those conducted at Chi-X, was still conducted by ASX as it was the only clearing agency in the country.

Chi-X has been complaining for some time that this situation gives ASX unfair advantage and possibly creates conflicts of interest in that Chi-X has to depend on its competitor for clearing of its own trades. They have therefore called for introducing competition in the clearing space to mitigate the situation, bring down clearing fees, and accelerate innovation. ASX has cut clearing fees in the past, and again indicated that it would further cut fees by 10% from July, 2016. It has also argued that the Australian clearing market size is not big enough to make multiple clearing houses viable.

While the new changes indeed pave the way for newer players to enter, whether and when that materializes would be interesting to see. The Financial Times observes that these changes are “unlikely to result in the establishment of a rival clearing house in the near future”, but will “create a regulatory framework that gives competition authorities the power to arbitrate disputes about access by rivals to the ASX’s clearing and settlement services.” It may be noted that competition in the OTC clearing space was introduced a while back and LCH.Clearnet has already entered and captured significant market share. Merger with an overseas player, in spite of the rule changes, may not be easy. In Asia, the issue of national pride associated with national entities such as exchanges is a particularly important factor, and can make mergers and acquisition by foreign entities tricky, as was seen in Singapore Exchange’s failed bid to acquire ASX previously.

ASX on its part has been active in upgrading its technology and systems to stay abreast with international best practices and ahead of potential competition. In some cases it is taking the lead in the industry and looking to build innovative solutions that could transform trade processing operations. It would be interesting to observe how these initiatives shape up and what impact these changes have on the Australian and global exchange landscape.

Asian post-trade landscape: CCPs, CSDs aiming for global standards

Asian post-trade landscape: CCPs, CSDs aiming for global standards
The Asian financial services market is highly fragmented along national boundaries. Lack of unified political will has resulted in regulatory and market practices that vary widely among the countries. The trading landscape in the Asian countries has undergone radical transformation in the last 10 to 15 years. As the countries in the region slowly open up their economies to the outside world, investors from the developed economies have flocked to emerging Asian countries in search of higher returns and portfolio diversification needs. This has resulted in expansion of products and asset classes. Electronification of trading activities has resulted in growing demand for electronic trading tools and ever-lower latency. Consequently, trading activity is high in the Asian countries; in fact many of them rank highly in the world in terms of equity trading volume at their exchanges as well as in exchange traded and over the counter derivative turnover. Continuous evolution in the trading landscape necessitates changes in the value chain, namely the post-trade functions. Post-trade functionalities generally include clearing, settlement, and custody services that are served by central counterparty clearing houses (CCPs), central securities depositories (CSDs), and custodians. The CCPs and CSDs are fundamental in ensuring smooth, efficient, and stable operations of trading markets. Historically post-trade industry has not received adequate attention, but that is changing now due to greater regulatory focus on managing risks at systemically important institutions. In a recent report we discuss the trends and developments taking place among Asia’s CCPs and CSDs. Some of the highlights from the report include:
  • There is a great deal of “vertical integration” in the Asian post-trade industry, with exchanges holding majority stakes in most CCPs and many CSDs. There is also a trend toward “horizontal integration” among the Asian post-trade players with growing coverage of products and asset classes.
  • Asian regulators have traditionally taken a conservative approach in shaping their financial markets. Therefore since the crisis of 2008, risk management has emerged as the single most important item on the regulators’ agenda. This has brought greater attention to policies and practices at the CCPs and CSDs.
  • Liberalization of Asian economies is creating opportunities for trading and clearing new products and asset classes. The post-trade players are developing capabilities and infrastructure to support new products.
  • Almost every Asian country is mandating central clearing of OTC derivatives and reporting of trades. Incumbent national CCPs are called upon to facilitate central clearing of OTC derivatives.
  • There is not much competition in the Asian post-trade industry, and except in a few markets that is likely to be so going forward.
  • Most Asian post-trade players, particularly the CCPs, are undertaking major technology transformation initiatives spanning years and spending significant resources to upgrade and overhaul their systems and processes.
Find out more about this report here.

Is the Saudi Arabian equity market the last emerging market frontier?

Is the Saudi Arabian equity market the last emerging market frontier?
The Saudi Arabian equity market, the Tadawul, has recently begun  the process of easing access for foreign investors. A late entrant on the global equity scene, the market itself is not something to be scoffed at, being larger than the likes of the Mexican, Russian, and Indonesian equity markets in terms of market capitalization. And this is without the Saudi oil firms, which are state-owned. However, there are some significant restrictions on foreign investment such as limits on the minimum asset size a firm should have, the percentage a foreign investor can own in any one stock, and the T+0 settlement period which is a challenge for any foreign investor. The opening up has been a gradual process. Some investors such as HSBC have shown their hand by moving early, but most leading global investors seem to be taking a wait and see approach. Also, some foreign institutional investors are in the process of completing their application for the Qualified Foreign Investor license. So while it will be some time before the Tadawul becomes as important as some of its other emerging market counterparts in the international context, it seems to fit the bill of the last frontier for global investors among the large emerging markets. A possible bright spot for an asset class that has been under the weather of late..

AIIB, NDB and the global capital markets

AIIB, NDB and the global capital markets
We have recently seen the advent of two multilateral lending institutions that could have important ramifications for the global financial markets, including specifically the capital markets. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is an initiative led by China, and the New Development Bank (NDB) is a combined effort of the BRICS nations, namely, China, Russia, Brazil, India, and South Africa. The AIIB would be based in Beijing and the NDB in Shanghai. If successful, these banks could challenge the domination of the IMF and the World Bank, and strengthen China’s claim as being a counterbalance to the US domination of the global financial markets. But not everyone sees these new organizations as competitors for existing lending bodies. The World Bank and IMF have themselves come out in support of the AIIB, as it could create a much needed emphasis on infrastructure development in Asia. Also, AIIB is hoping to learn from the past experience of World Bank, including by hiring its alumni. Such new banks could also lead to changes at the IMF and World Bank which might be forced to streamline their operations in order to remain meaningful. From the capital market point of view, an important effect of AIIB and NDB could be an increase in the importance of the Renminbi as a reserve currency, and a decrease in the relevance of the US dollar. While this would make for a more diverse marketplace, it might also create friction between the leading global economies, as evidenced by the US refusal to support the AIIB at a time when all its allies welcomed or indeed joined it. Finally, it is possible to see AIIB & NDB as institutions that allow emerging markets such as the BRICS countries to assert themselves on the world stage, something that IMF has not allowed them to do, as it has failed to reform in the last few years to take their economic growth and increased buying power into consideration. We will just have to wait and see to find out if they are indeed able to live up to their promise in this regard.

Evolution of trading technology for exchanges in the Asia-Pacific

Evolution of trading technology for exchanges in the Asia-Pacific
Several Asian economies and capital markets have witnessed rapid growth in the last few years. This has led to an expansion in the market infrastructure and a string of notable investments by the leading regional exchanges in trading platform technology. The exchanges in Asia-Pacific have adopted varying strategies to meet their technology requirements. Some exchanges have used their in-house capabilities to develop trading platforms. Others have used a mix of in-house platforms and technology from third party providers. Finally, some have relied mainly on outside technology, using best-of-breed solutions. The objective has been to modernize exchange infrastructure and ensure that the exchange remains competitive in the face of pressure from leading global players as well as other regional exchanges. An interesting feature of the Asia-Pacific markets has been the linkages and tie-ups between the regional exchanges, as well as those with leading global exchanges. The market is exhibiting a unique mix of cooperation and competition. The most notable recent inter-linkages have been the Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect and the ASEAN Trading Link. Both are still in early stages of being set up and there are some inevitable glitches before we see significant volumes. But what is important to note is that this kind of connectivity is spurring other exchanges to also try and increase access to their products from outside markets and exchanges. While there are certain advantages for exchanges in the Asia-Pacific, there is nevertheless room for improvement. There is potential to turn the market data function into a significant profit center. Some exchanges are already successful in this, but others need to follow suit. Also, there needs to be greater emphasis on market surveillance and tighter regulation in what is a fast-evolving market landscape. I have been working on an upcoming research report that looks at the issues discussed here in further detail.

On the cusp: regional integration in Asia

On the cusp: regional integration in Asia
It’s 2015, the mid-point of the decade and a good time to start looking at major trends in Asian financial services over the next five to ten years. One of the major themes will be regional integration, which is another way of saying the development of cross-border markets. There are at least two important threads here: the ongoing internationalization of China’s currency, and the development of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in Southeast Asia. RMB internalization is really about the loosening of China’s capital controls and its full-fledged integration into the world economy. And everyone seems to want a piece of this action, including near neighbors such as Singapore who are vying with Hong Kong to be the world’s financial gateway to China. The AEC is well on its way to becoming a reality in 2015, with far-reaching trade agreements designed to facilitate cross-border expansion of dozens of services industries, including financial sectors. While AEC is not grabbing global headlines the way China does, we see increasing interest in Southeast Asia among our FSI and technology vendor clients. From Celent’s point of view, both trends will open significant opportunities across financial services. In banking, common payments platforms and cross-border clearing. In capital markets, cross-border trading platforms for listed and even OTC products. In insurance, the continued development of regional markets. Financial institutions will be challenged to create new business models and technology strategies to extract the opportunities offered by regional integration. It’s the mid-point of the decade, and the beginning of something very big.

Beyond HFT

Beyond HFT
I recently attended the Tokyo Financial Information Summit, put on by Interactive Media. The event was interesting from a number of perspectives. This event focuses on the capital markets; attendees are usually domestic sell side and buy side firms and vendors, including global firms active in Japan. This year there was good representation from around Asia ex-Japan as well; possibly attracted by the new volatility in Japan’s stock market. The new activity in the market was set off by the government’s Abenomics policies aimed at reinvigorating the Japanese economy. But I suspect the fact that Japan’s stock market is traded on an increasingly low latency and fragmented market structure gives some extra juice to the engine. Speaking of high frequency trading, Celent’s presentation at the event pointed out that HFT volumes have fallen from their peak (at the time of the financial crisis) and that HFT revenues have fallen drastically from this peak. In response to this trend, as well as the severe cost pressures in the post-GFC period, cutting-edge firms seeking to maintain profitable trading operations are removing themselves from the low latency arms race. Instead, firms are seeking to maximize the potential of their existing low-latency infrastructures by investing in real-time analytics and other new capabilities to support smarter trading. HFT is not dead, but firms are moving beyond pure horsepower to more nuanced strategies. Interestingly, this theme was echoed by the buy and sell side participants in a panel at the event moderated by my colleague, Celent Senior Analyst Eiichiro Yanagawa. Even though HFT levels in Japan, at around 25 – 35% of trading, have probably not reached their peak, firms are already pulling out of the ultra-low latency arms race–or deciding not to enter it in the first place. The message was that for many firms it is not advisable to enter a race where they are already outgunned. Instead they should focus on smarter trading that may leverage the exchanges’ low latency environment, but rely on the specific capabilities and strategies of a firm and its traders. Looking at this discussion in a global context, it seems interesting and not a little ironic that just as regulators are preparing to strike against HFT, the industry has in some sense already started to move beyond it.

The Market structure debate in Asian context

The Market structure debate in Asian context
The recent debate about the impact of High Frequency Trading (HFT) and on the issue of market structure in general is no more confined within the US market. Regulators and market participants worldwide are discussing this issue seriously. The chairman of the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) recently detailed the position of the Australian authorities in this regard. Incidentally Australia, along with Japan, is one of the few Asian countries that have multiple trading venues, a necessary condition for the growth of advanced trading and order routing capabilities, including HFT. It is worthwhile to look at the state of adoption of the Asian region in terms of adoption of advanced trading tools, and the role of the Asian exchanges in that regard. The different Asian markets are at different levels of maturity, and therefore it is difficult to analyse the region as a single homogenous entity; rather the Asian markets can be grouped into two broad categories. The first category belongs to the advanced economies like Australia, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore which have well developed capital markets. Exchanges in these countries are at par with western competitors in terms of latency and adoption of advanced trading technologies. The second category consists of exchanges in emerging economies like India, China, Malaysia, Korea which are somewhat lagging their Asian counterparts in the first category. However, there is a common factor that runs across the two categories of exchanges – lack of competition from alternative trading venues. This means that most of the Asian exchanges are largely national monopolies without significant competition from alternative providers, though the situation is slowly changing in some markets (e.g., Australia, Japan). This is one aspect which distinguishes Asia from the western markets where the competition among exchanges and alternative trading venues is severe. Another key challenge in Asia is the fragmentation of markets and lack of harmonization – regulatory, economic, monetary and technological – in trading and settlement practices. This restricts the growth of cross border trading volumes and greater regional integration at an Asian level. The ASEAN initiative is a move in that direction, but it is still early days to judge its potential for achieving regional integration. Asia has also lagged the western markets in terms of adoption of advanced trading tools and technologies (like DMA, algorithmic trading, high frequency trading etc). Some of the Asian exchanges, particularly the ones in the advanced economies, have adopted latest technologies with low latency and colocation offerings, but some of the above mentioned factors still present challenges. For example, lack of multiple trading venues limits arbitrage opportunities. Lack of regional integration means cross border flows have yet to realize its full potential. These prevent growth of trading volumes, need for advanced trading tools and technologies, and participation of foreign players in domestic markets. Regulators in Asia are traditionally very conservative. Therefore decision making for significant changes in market structure and practices takes time. In a rapidly evolving trading world, this means Asian exchanges find hard to stay abreast with global trends. Also because domestic exchanges are perceived more as national utilities, any proposal that threatens the position of incumbent exchanges is met with resistance and difficult to implement. Some of the Asian exchanges have been very aggressive in exploring newer avenues beyond the traditional revenue sources. The Singapore exchange is a good example of that. It started offering clearing services for commodity derivatives through its AsiaClear offering a few years ago. In addition to providing CCP services as mandated for OTC derivatives under the proposed reforms, the SGX is collaborating with the Korea Exchange to develop the latters’ OTC clearing capabilities. Therefore in some markets (like Singapore) the incumbent exchanges are taking a leading role in clearing of OTC derivatives as proposed by new regulations. It will be interesting to see if new players will be able to enter and succeed in this business. Low volumes in the Asian markets, proliferation of CCPs, and competition from international ones may result in each CCP specializing in specific niches along product lines or local currency instruments.