Beyond HFT

Last week I 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.

Back Office Outsourcing by Buy Side Firms

In the last few years buy side firms have had to make lot of changes in their mid and back offices. There are primarily two drivers that have forced firms to make these changes. Leading up to 2007, the economic climate was favorable, and profits were rising, which meant technology budgets were also on the rise. Many firms made technology investments on an ad-hoc, or as per need, basis. Since the front office trading departments are primary revenue generators in trading firms, the technology decisions were largely determined by front office staff based on their immediate needs for certain asset class or execution methods. The mid and back office activities were largely ignored and continued to be run by legacy systems. The crisis of 2008 changed firms’ priorities dramatically. Revenues dwindled and margins were hit. In tumultuous economic climate managing costs became an utmost priority. While downsizing enabled cost cutting in the short run, firms had to consider long term cost savings opportunities by improving operational efficiency and making strategic technology decisions. Against this backdrop the mid-back office was ripe for attention. Many institutions still use legacy systems. Most of them are based on simple excels, offline communication, and handled manually without much automation. There is little integration in the mid-back office of the disparate platforms used in the front office. These create huge operational inefficiencies, and if not addressed adequately, can diminish or even nullify the efficiency gains achieved in the execution of trades. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the regulatory environment has undergone rapid changes and is still evolving. This has created additional obligations for mid-back office processes in the areas of risk management, reporting and regulatory compliance. It has become essential that firms address the complete trade cycle in a much more holistic way, and are on top of their processes almost on a real time basis to be able to adequately address regulatory and business needs. These two drivers are often conflicting with each other. In the short term, firms have to prioritize technology investments to address regulatory and compliance related issues. Large numbers of impending regulations and a finite technology budget have meant most of the spending is being made to meet regulatory issues, which leaves little room to invest in projects on efficiency and process improvement. Some firms have mentioned to us as much as 60% to 80% of their change management budget is being spent on regulatory and compliance related issues. In this backdrop, outsourcing of mid-back office processes by buy-side institutions is becoming popular. Since almost all of them have to make same, or similar, arrangements to adhere to regulators’ demands, there is good potential for the development of shared utility services whereby firms can outsource some or all of their back office functions to a third party service provider. While the trend of outsourcing in back office function is not new to the industry, this practice is gaining greater traction as buy-side firms realize the complexities of reconciling higher volumes of more complex trades – this is increasing the strain on staff and IT. At the same time, service providers have improved their capabilities and now offer a wide variety of choice for their buy-side clients. Custodian banks are seeing a surge of interest in their outsourcing services from buy-side firms. Increasingly custodians are finding that clients are asking for solutions specifically to deal with the new derivatives regulations. The concentration of flow driven by outsourcing is likely to accelerate within derivatives operations. However, we expect the trend will eventually affect cash securities operations as buy-side look to rationalize their back office functions. Through outsourcing services, investment manager will move fixed cost into variable ones and decrease the complexity of their back office operations. This evolution will be particularly acute in derivatives operations due to the complexity of dealing with the new regulatory regime, DFA and EMIR. Prime brokers will be able to leverage their back office capabilities to insource additional flow, especially around derivatives operations. While there are similarities in the mid-back office functions and processes at global institutions, large banks also need significant customization to manage firm specific needs. The challenge in developing a utility based service model is to design a common platform that will still have room for addressing custom needs. Many providers are considering of coming up with such an offering. There is a race to accomplish this at the earliest as they understand that the first one to offer it would have a big advantage over others.

Tokyo Roundtable 2013: The Capital Markets Revolution in Japan and Asia

Tokyo, home to Asia’s largest capital markets, is also wonderful in May, and was a perfect location for two recent Celent roundtables.

The first was Exchange Panel: Drivers of Innovation and a Market in Transition. We invited Executives from five major global exchanges; CME Group, JPX Group, Korea Exchange, NYSE Euronext, and Singapore Exchange Limited. Representatives from both Asian and global exchanges discussed changing equities derivatives market structures, business models, challenges, and opportunities in Japan’s and Asia’s capital markets.

Though similar at first glance, the exchanges from the East and West presented a marked contrast. Asian exchanges insisted that competition, diversity, and deregulation are the keys to growth. Exchanges based in Europe and the United States said they found the diversity and competition excessive; they would prefer order and market discipline. All exchanges stressed the importance of innovation and collaboration, and all agreed the distinction between investment and speculation is important.

Such differences between East and West reflect the history of the global exchange business. Differences in time and distance are shrinking as networks grow, but, ironically, the advent of global capital markets has led investors to recognize the importance of individual trading venues.

For the second roundtable, The Capital Markets Revolution in Japan and Asia, we invited the top players. From online securities companies, Monex, Inc., from buy-side, Nissay Asset Management Corporation, and from sell-side, Nomura Securities Co., Ltd. This session focused on the emerging low latency landscape and the opportunities and challenges in the region’s equities and derivatives markets. In Japan and Asia, since the introduction of arrowhead, the latency has been lowered enough and the attention has shifted to its execution quality. Technologies such as Big Data and transaction cost analysis (TCA) are the focus of their challenges.

Finally, in response to questions from audience of the venue, we asked the panelist to comment on high frequency trading (HFT). There were two comments; one was “the opportunity to get everyone used to HFT is here”, and another “HFT is welcome in Japan”.

The market environment has changed drastically. Conversion of monetary policy, “Abenomics,” and the “three arrows” were a volcanic combination. Magma flowed, but all indicators began to rise.

FIG 1:Tokyo Equities Market last six months

Tokyo Roundtable 2013_GraphSource: NIKKEI, Celent
These discussions will continue in New York in June. Celent will continue to explore the market trends of tomorrow. We are looking forward to meeting you again.

Accepting the need for Electronic Trading

In its recent history,the Asian market has been characterized by the adoption of technology in a much more compressed time-frame as compared to its counterparts in the western world. This has been true of the industrial as well as the services sector, where it is also holds true for electronic equity trading. Asia is well poised for a rise in the share of electronic trading in the next few years. Markets such as Japan, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong and India are seeing a lot of investment happening that is related to Direct Market Access (DMA), Smart Order Routing (SOR) and High Frequency Trading (HFT). The associated infrastructure such as market data services, co-location and so on are also being paid attention to, as is the requirement for helpful regulation. However, in some markets, the regulators are not very confident about and supportive of the needs of greater electronic trading. This is partly because of the financial crisis and rising requirements for risk management, and also due to the flash crashes that have occurred in the NYSE and OSE markets. We expect the regulatory framework to become more flexible in most markets, but there is still an important element that needs to be addressed across the board in the Asia-Pacific. That is the role of smaller brokerages and the buy-side. Unlike larger brokerages, these are still reluctant to adopt electronic trading and to make the investments required to have the same. While attitudes and capabilities do not change overnight, I believe that market investors in Asia need to be made aware of some harsh realities. To start with, the way HFT and algorithmic trading evolved in the US and European markets, there was very little time for market participants to react to and adopt such trading. The change happened so quickly that a number of brokerages and buy-side firms were unable to cope and had to operate in a more constrained fashion or even shut down. The incentive that HFT provides for those trading larger volumes means that the smaller players are at a relative disadvantage. This increases even more if they are slow to react and do not adopt electronic trading. So it is not just the speed of trading that is important to succeed, it is also the speed of thought. Hence, smaller brokerages and buy-side firms in Asia should be more positive and not be afraid of investing in DMA, SOR or HFT. The gains from these might not be apparent immediately, but if the lessons from the western markets teach us anything, it is that the quick and nimble-footed firms were the most successful during the rise of electronic trading. With the trading infrastructure in Asia changing so rapidly, there is little reason to believe things are going to be different here.