Buy-side seeks new solutions to cover fixed income shortfall
US buy-side firms have raised concerns that
current electronic trading platforms for bonds will be unable to fill the gap left by
brokers that may soon find it challenging to fulfil their traditional role as market
In addition to BlackRock and Goldman Sachs, which are preparing to launch their own bond trading venues, a group of buy-side firms are reporting collaborating to build a trading platform for fixed income instruments that seek to capitalise on
increasing electronification in the asset class as well as regulatory change.
Goldman Sachs’ new platform, G Sessions,
will offer trading in corporate bonds. A spokesman for Goldman Sachs indicated that
the platform would likely run short trading sessions for each bond, of around
two or three minutes each.
Rather than operating as a continuous matching platform, Goldman Sachs will act as a market maker on G Sessions and post
a minimum level of liquidity in specific instruments. It is expected to launch imminently, the
BlackRock, which has over US$3.6 trillion in assets under management globally, has said it will launch its own crossing platform for bonds that will be open to other buy-side firms during this year, while UBS already offers an automated
fixed income trading platform as part of its PIN crossing network service.
"UBS PIN compares client trade requests
against our own inventory, including retail liquidity on our wealth management
side,” said Paul Hamill, head of matched principal trading, Americas, UBS. “We
also internalise trades through our trading desk, looking at any external sources,
such as electronic communications networks, for every source of liquidity we
can. We also use this to increase efficiency around responding to the primary
sources of requests for liquidity, such as Tradeweb and MarketAxess."
The new launches come as US market participants face increasing
concerns over the availability of liquidity in fixed income markets.
Under Basel III, the latest set of standards for ensuring banks are adequately capitalised, brokers will be required
to hold capital reserves based on risk-weighted calculations that are made for
each type of asset held. Furthermore, the Volcker rule, part of the Dodd-Frank
post-crisis reform package, will restrict the ability of some sell-side firms
to engage in proprietary trading and has been frequently cited by institutional
investors as a cause for concern.
At the same time, there are moves by Gary
Gensler, chairman at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, to apply equity
market principles of pre-transparency to bonds, with some market observers pointing out that this could lead liquidity to disappear from the fixed income
“We feel liquidity is acceptable today, but
I’m not convinced it will be in a year or two,” said one senior buy-side
representative who wished to remain anonymous. “Making 30-year bonds totally
transparent overnight would have a huge impact on the market. Who can handle
all that risk? It’s crazy.”
But there are signs that the oncoming
legislation is already beginning to take its toll on liquidity on broker dealers. The inventory
of corporate bonds held by broker-dealers is down to US$40 billion, from a
pre-financial crisis level of US$265 billion, according to estimates provided
in corporate bonds has been shown to have reduced dramatically,” said Hamill. “If
traditional liquidity providers are less willing to provide liquidity, one
solution is to bring other participants together. At the same time, there are
so many different bonds that finding a counterparty that wants to trade the same bond
at the same time in the same size is hard. Erosion of liquidity is a major concern
for a lot of investors in fixed income markets."
The concern is also shared by other
market participants, who question the viability of the market, should sell-side
capital be too constrained.
“Dealer capital is absolutely vital to the
functioning of fixed income markets,” said James Rucker, chief operations
credit and risk officer at MarketAxess. “Without it, the buy-side simply can’t
get their trades done.”
Early-stage discussions are ongoing between
several large buy- and sell-side firms, including State Street Global Advisors, Fidelity and others, about a new centralised electronic market for fixed income. Yet market operators are keen to point out that alternative electronic bond trading
platforms already exist.
Established two years ago, Bonds.com is a
zero subscription fee online trading platform for corporate bonds. The platform
focuses on trading small lot inventories electronically, and has 200 market
makers contributing to its system daily. Bonds.com currently accounts for 1,000
trades daily, according to its own figures.
Users can access the platform either via
logging into a Bonds.com front end, or by using a separate application
programming interface. Trading on Bonds.com is anonymous. George O’Krepkie,
president at Bonds.com, says that his platform provides the ideal central limit
order book for fixed income.
“Out there in the current market, it could
take you all day to find a counterpart for your bond trade,” said O’Krepkie. “Our
platform makes that much quicker. Instead of five phone calls, in one click the
order gets done. It’s easier to buy a bond now than it is to book a hotel room.”
“The recent discussion is long overdue,”
added Tom Thees, CEO of Bonds.com. “Market structure is changing, and a
centralised approach, delivered electronically, goes a long way to ensuring the
ongoing viability and health of fixed income markets.”
However, some larger institutional
investors are sceptical about the readiness of any of the existing platforms to
fulfil institutional buy-side demand. “The platforms that already exist are
retail-focused. Most are not really focused on trades in institutional sizes,”
said the anonymous US buy-sider. “The central platform will only work if
everyone is involved.”
Others raised questions over the viability
of a single platform in principle, due to the nature of bond market trading. The large majority of bonds are thinly traded
because they are held until maturity, compared to equities, which can be traded
hundreds of times a day. Corporate and sovereign bonds can also have multiple
issues, for example in different tenors and currencies – so it will be harder
to fit all fixed income trading onto a single platform.
The largest US fixed income platform is run
by MarketAxess. Using a client-to-dealer request-for-quote platform – whereby members request prices for trades from a number of potential counterparts – MarketAxess claims it is better placed to handle institutional size trades.
MarketAxess’ fixed income offering boasts
a large network of institutional investors in the US, with approximately 12% of daily US high grade bond
volumes and a network of some 850 buy-siders and 87 dealers.
“Users can make their request for quote public
to all users on our platform if they so wish,” said Rucker at MarketAxess.
“Buy-side participants can also set up a watch list for certain kinds of
counterparty and liquidity they would like to interact with – so when a request
is posted, the buy-side can find each other through a dealear of their choice. We help bring the buy-side together.”