Putting the best foot forward, by choice

The recent City Day organized by SunGard in Mumbai provided interesting insights into India’s equity trading industry. Mr. Damodaran, ex-head of SEBI, the capital market regulator put India’s liberalization and globalization into perspective by pointing out that often in its recent history India has been forced to take actions that are seen to be desirable in hindsight. In 1990-91, it was the precarious forex reserves situation that forced India to open up its economy. Moving on two decades down the line, one hopes that electronic trading in the form of Direct Market Access (DMA), Smart Order Routing (SOR) and algorithmic trading would be something that our capital markets adopt out of choice and because they see the merit in doing so, as opposed to either being forced to do it, or even worse, not doing it at all and facing the possibility of extinction once the global broker-dealers enter the market in a big way. A trend that usually follows the widespread adoption of electronic trading is the concentration of trading, especially in one financial center across a region. In Europe, London happened to be the center that benefited most from the introduction of these technologies. Similarly, markets such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong are adopting high frequency trading in a big way. India cannot afford to be left behind in this context. The same goes for the leading brokerages in the Indian markets. It takes a trading desk between six months to a year to fine-tune its electronic trading capabilities. The longer the delay in getting the buy-in to do so, the lower the chance of success and indeed survival. The buy-side also has to be decisive and quick in its approach. Moving on to some of the other presentations in the event, there were useful inputs given into the issues that are cropping up in terms of the infrastructure for electronic trading. While NSE has a fast matching engine, the rest of the infrastructure has a long way to go. As pointed out, in Indian centers outside Mumbai the contrast between Indian and international capabilities is even more stark and communication networks have been found lacking. Data quality is also something that brokers, especially the smaller ones are struggling with. In this scenario, it is important that India opens up its markets to globally renowned vendors, while at the same time encouraging its local IT firms to also compete in the market. The Indian market is large enough for a number of firms to participate and be able to meet the various requirements for electronic trading.

Electronic and cross-border trading in Asia

I recently participated as a moderator in two panel discussions on the South East Asian markets in the SunGard City Day held in Singapore on 14th July, the topics being electronic trading and cross-border trading respectively. An important point that came out of the discussions was that Asia-Pacific cannot be seen as one market, unlike the European Union. It comprises of various national markets at different stages of development. Japan, Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong are the leading markets in the region. By comparison, markets such as Indonesia, Malaysia and China are lagging behind. The difference can be seen in terms of infrastructure, e.g., the differences in the latency of the exchanges, as well as the number of products that can be traded on them. In the leading markets, the circumstances are becoming more conducive to high-frequency trading and the operation of alternative trading systems, including dark pools. Co-location services are being provided by the exchanges and the regulators are reducing the barriers on off-exchange transactions, such as the limits on the size of transactions and the time limit within which a transaction has to be reported. A crucial factor in the adoption of greater electronic and algorithmic trading will be the willingness of the buy-side to develop the infrastructure for the same. An interesting example that was quoted in the event was that a buy-side trading desk took three months just to fine-tune the latency of their connectivity to the exchange. What this highlights is the fact that while many in the local sell-side and increasingly the buy-side are convinced of the need to have algorithmic trading, it will take time to put the necessary systems in place. Also, the local players are not sure about whether they can afford the level of investment (and the time taken) required to create the trading infrastructure. Hence, the barriers to adoption of technology are more practical than theoretical, unlike earlier. In fact, most of the panelists stressed that there has been a sea-change in the mindset of the domestic market participants in the last 2-3 years and they are much more open to having algorithmic trading and dark pools now. It is further expected that once ADR/GDRs can be traded in these exchanges, the level of algorithmic trading will go up, with the greater presence of exchange-traded funds also playing a similar role. However, the level of off-exchange trading in the next 3-4 years is expected to go up to 5% at the most, up from the current 1% but much below the 30% levels seen in Europe. Cross-border trading in the ASEAN region has picked up in the last few years. Regulation has also paved the way for this, e.g., in Malaysia, regulation has recently allowed up to 30% of the NAV of a firm to be used in trading assets abroad. Even before the recent ASEAN linkage between six countries was announced, cross-border trading was a prevalent phenomenon. The linkage is expected to increase the level of electronic trading and also make it cheaper and more efficient. The next step should be to develop the post-trading infrastructure and linkages between the central securities depositories.