It's a question of Risk!
Put three men and a FIXGlobal’s Edward Mangles around a table; serve them lunch and let the tapes roll. FIXGlobal listened in on a conversation that ranged from regulators to risk and from FX to FIX.
Edward: In defense of the regulator … how should they know what’s going on when neither the sell nor buy-side seem to know?
Vincent: Recent events have shown the divide between the financial market participants and the regulator. For example, the Lehman’s mini bond issue has forced a strong dialogue between the regulator and, in particular, the broker side. But the engagement is slow.
Kent: Retail brokers tend to have a strong voice here in Hong Kong and over the years have developed a strong working relationship with the regulators. Local brokers can at times be pretty outspoken and have proven on many occasions to be an effective lobbying group. From our perspective international brokers tend to be less visible in some of these debates. We see certain common characteristics across Asia where understandably there is a good deal of focus on protecting the retail investor given the high retail investor participation in many of the stock markets in Asia including Taiwan and Korea. The challenge has certainly been in the retail space where there is an overlap of regulatory responsibility in approving and offering products.
Edward: Are we asking the impossible of the regulator to create the same rule book for retail and institutional investors?
Kent: The general principal is that retail investors are less savvy and experienced and regulations need to be explicit. There is a general assumption that as professional investors, institutions can operate with greater flexibility since they can understand the risks in a more sophisticated way. Taking account of this framework then it will not be possible to standardize for both types of investor. The risk is that setting minimum requirements to protect the retail investor may not suit the way business is transacted at an institutional level. Here we advocate consultation and support stronger trade associations.
Vincent: I don’t think you can realistically expect the same regulations for retail traders as for big institutional investors. That’s a utopia that’s never going to exist. These two groups of investors have different needs. Many regulators – in Europe for example and Luxembourg in particular with their efforts to push through the UCITS 4 protocol – understand that you need different protocols for retail investors.
Kent: But Vincent, every investor has the same goal: making money. It’s only the detailed requirements that are different.
Gerry: There’s certainly a larger burden on the big firms to uphold ethical, legal and fiduciary standards.
Kent: Yes. Retail investors don’t generally have the same constraints on their activities. Institutional investors need a more developed investment process and must ensure fair treatment across all clients regardless of size and fees. Institutional investors will undoubtedly be looking at different investor objectives – for one, they need to be able to implement their strategies in much greater volumes, and in scale, for example.
Edward: How about the role of regulators in curtailing short-selling in many markets? Knee jerk or long-term strategy?
Kent: I’d like to see the ability to short-sell fully resumed as soon as practically possible. We’re now in a situation where some markets have suspended it, and some are allowing it again. This is not ideal. I certainly see the temporary prohibition as a knee-jerk reaction and understandable given the groundswell of public opinion and corporate pressure as the financial crisis took hold – not all of this opinion was entirely rational. In fact, short-selling restrictions can reduce volumes for trading in the markets overall. For one, we have a 130-30 fund. So in this fund, if we’re limited in the number of attractive long-short pair trades we can put on then we’ll just end up trading less. So it’s business that never happens and the unknown would-be client on the other side of our trade – whether they’re institutional or retail – through the exchange, never gets to take advantage of the liquidity. What we need is a greater understanding of how shorting operates. There is a lot of misconception around this issue.
Gerry: I see the value and merit in allowing short selling in varied markets. In markets that don’t allow it, the regulators need to develop this functionality. It encourages more liquidity and volume. But I do understand that in the current environment the regulators have little choice. We won’t know the full impact until later on.
Vincent: The problem is that there’s no consistency among the regulators. Some only forbid short selling on financials. It’s a disruption to competitiveness between various sectors.
Kent: Yes. And not being able to short, will reduce derivatives trading. The fact is, a lot of the shorting that goes on isn’t just one-way, but a strategy with a ‘long’ component to it as well. And funds that relied on the little performance boost from securities lending fees have also seen their returns diminished. The equity finance desks at the brokers have seen a real drop-off in trade volumes because of this.
Vincent: Now the regulators are trying to encourage investors to buy again in a bear market – and there’s a lot of inconsistency between the messages they’re sending now and what they were telling us six months ago.