A senior buy-side head trader has penned a stark warning on the rise of front-office outsourcing, and its potential impact on the trading community. At their request, this opinion piece is published anonymously. The TRADE welcomes responses to the arguments presented.
There have been multiple articles and thought pieces on outsourced trading over the past year. Many of these have been perpetuated by providers and consultants who are directly incentivised by the proliferation of outsourced trading, but earlier this year, The TRADE itself published an in-depth feature on the subject, which was commendably sober. Just because the media is saturated with articles stating how marvellous something is, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is.
The Financial Conduct Authority’s Conduct of Business Sourcebook (COBS) clearly states that outsourced trading is a service. The question that the end client needs to ask is: ‘who is paying for that service?’ An internal trading desk is paid for by the fund management company, but an outsourced trading desk is generally paid for by the fund, as The TRADE has confirmed through its own research.
From my own personal experience, I have witnessed outsourced trading desks approaching the CEO, CIO and COOs at asset management firms, essentially suggesting they can transfer the cost of trading to the funds. How does a fund management company explain that to their investors if this is the case?
Internal trading desk execution rates currently stand at 3.5 bps for low-touch, and 5 bps for high-touch execution.
If an outsourced trading desk proposes a rate of 3 bps to fund managers, they are essentially undercutting this.
But if the cost of execution for the outsourced desk is 1 bps, which is often the case, the outsourced trading desk keeps the 2 bps margin.
One possible outcome of the incentive to maximise the margin could be lower execution quality, as outsourced trading providers may avoid certain trading methods which command a higher execution rate in favour of low-touch algorithms. As far as I am aware, many outsourced trading desks also have very different broker networks compared to internal buy-side trading desks.
Most asset managers I know employ highly educated, experienced professionals who have seen several market cycles. In comparison, it is often the case that outsourced trading desks are staffed by sales traders, some with less experience of buy-side trading or working with a fund manager as a collaborative process. This is important as the skillset of a buy-side trader is very different to that of a sales trader. Furthermore, as referenced by The TRADE in its own research on outsourced trading, clients of outsourced trading could lose market insight by giving up control of execution.
What happens when there is a big market correction? How will an outsourced trading desk with multiple clients deal with it? If you had multiple fund managers per asset manager trying to give orders with instructions to an outsourced trader at the end of a telephone – I’d pay to be a fly on the wall on that day.
Then, there is the question of liability. What happens if the fund manager sends the wrong order? The outsourced trading desk can’t see the underlying position. What happens if the outsourced desk has a dealing error? Who pays for that? Do all outsourced trading desks have the necessary balance sheet to rely on?
Remember, it is not possible to outsource the obligation to demonstrate there is a process in achieving best execution.
My advice to the buy-side:
If you drop your low-touch execution to 1 bps this could take away some of the appeal for C-suite executives at buy-side firms to turn to outsourced desks for cheaper execution.
My advice to buy-side C-suite executives:
You need to be able to demonstrate that outsourcing is better for the underlying clients in terms of cost, service level, experience, liability, risk and quality of execution.
My advice to the sell-side:
If you continue to offer 1 bps to the outsourced trading desks, you may increasingly face outsourced trading desks only.
Are you an outsourced trading provider with a view on this? We welcome your comments. Please get in touch with Hayley McDowell, senior reporter at The TRADE – firstname.lastname@example.org.