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What has MiFID done for democracy?

Fascinating meetings with the Russian exchanges RTS and SPIMEX. After my reference to military intelligence yesterday, you may wonder whether SPIMEX is something to do with finding out who started the swine flu pandemic but no, it’s the St. Petersburg International Mercantile Exchange.

The two exchanges have very different start points and focal points, with RTS (the Russian Trading System) starting as a privately-owned exchange back in 1995 whilst SPIMEX is an initiative of the government to create a working commodities exchange.

I had been aware of RTS for a while as, during the MiFID investigations, their name came up many times as a working, highly automated exchange. Originally launched using NASDAQ’s trading platform, they soon developed their own products and services, covering algorithmic trading for equities, forex, future and options and more.

Today, the exchange is one of the best performing, with the RTS Index tripling in value during 2009 to an index high of 1,451 at yesterday’s close, compared to a market low back in February of under 500, although this is still well below the high of 2,487 in May 2008.

What is the reason for such volatility?

Oil.

Chris Weafer, Chief Strategist at Uralsib Bank, puts it in context: “We've recovered very strongly this year mainly because of the recovery in the oil price. Plus, the recovery and optimism in the rest of the world has allowed for the Russian ruble to stabilize."

Or is it because RTS is a keen innovator offering analysis across every trader’s portfolio and position in real-time, as the RTS people I spoke with yesterday said.

RTS now offers highly automated trading across 1,400 stocks, with 90% of the trades using automated systems and 10% Over-the-Counter (OTC). It is also one of the top 40 Global derivatives exchanges and trading is getting far more complicated, with around 15 trades per transaction on average today compared with 10 trades per transaction just two years ago.

Similarly talking with the SPIMEX guys, there is a clear vision that they are trying to avoid being another failed commodities exchange (around 60 have been launched since 1990).

Why did the previous exchanges fail?

Because no-one trusted them by the sound of it.

According to a SPIMEX advisor, it was because of a poor understanding of risk, a word rarely used because Russians do not allow risk to occur. This is why most exchange and exchanges are based upon ‘fundamentals’ – "if I can see it, touch it and trade it, then that’s ok. If you are looking for me to pay now for something that might pay back in the future, no way."

This is why most Russian banks do not provide trade finance, and why oil is an issue.

For example, oil producers currently do not co-operate because they do not trust each other, according to one of the guys at SPIMEX.

Most oil producers are local monopolies with no competitive mechanisms. As a result, when oil prices rose in 2007-2008, Russians were paying more for their oil than America and Europe, even though Russia has more oil reserves and production than most.

So SPIMEX was launched in September 2008 to overcome this, with the Russian anti-monopoly committee creating the right environment to trade on exchange by fining several of the oil producers for anti-competitive practices.

But the real common feature of both SPIMEX and RTS is real-time risk management.

Both exchanges proudly talk about their focus upon real-time analysis of traders’ positions.

In the case of SPIMEX, they offer real-time settlement and straight through processing, so there is no risk for trading.

In the case of RTS, they offer real-time positioning of every trader and every trader’s clients portfolios, not just in real-time for their own trades but also for the knock-on effect of their dealings in derivatives down the line.

I asked RTS about their risk management, and they made clear that for each transaction, the risk is calculated for the trader’s portfolio, including all orders to be filled, in real-time. There are then two clearing sessions during the day. One at 14:00, which takes three minutes to process, and the second is at end of day, and takes fifteen minutes.

If a margin call is made, the broker must cover their position within two hours or, if at end of day, before the start of the next day’s trading.

This discussion got interesting, as RTS and SPIMEX appear to be developing systems that ensure no trader can leverage risk to the levels where the market implodes, and they do this in real-time.

It is the nature of new trading systems and operations that they design things to work in the ideal way, as the outline above is what Europe and USA are trying to develop.

For example, the FSA’s £2 billion technology change program for real-time liquidity reporting is pretty much what RTS has today.

No wonder the gentleman from RTS turned to me towards the end of our chat and asked, straight-faced, “what has the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive (MiFID) done for democracy”.

He probed me about best execution and what it means: “is it just all about price, speed and cost (and likelihood of settlement)?”

I then realised what he was getting at.

Where, in all the developments of MiFID and its best execution, transparency and competitiveness objectives, was the mention of risk?

Where is the focus on real-time risk reporting?

Hmmmm … it’s obvious that RTS, and the Russian aspirations to build the next major Russian-Asian commodities exchange, is something to watch.

Meanwhile, the major thought that struck me in this dialogue, was that we have two opposites.

In Europe and America, we have an over-leveraged, casino capitalism culture of trading that is now being re-engineered to restrain excessive risk without responsibility.

In Russia, we have a risk avoidance trading environment through real time controls, which needs to increase liquidity and leverage in order to fuel the flow of commerce.

If Russia does not achieve this, then its commodities ambitions cannot be achieved.

So maybe there is a happy medium here between the Russian approach to risk controls of trading, and the Anglo-Saxon approach of using financial instruments to create liquidity.

Now there would be a thought …

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About Chris M Skinner

Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, the Finanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal’s Financial News. To learn more click here…

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