Wall Street's looming finance vacuum

America’s $8 trillion corporate debt market is facing a liquidity crunch as banks retreat from the trade. And if Wall Street can't resolve the problem, US growth could suffer.

FT.com

On an overcast Wednesday morning last month, Boston’s leading asset managers called nine of Wall Street’s top banks to an emergency meeting in a skyscraper overlooking the city’s harbour.

Over back-to-back discussions – with a hurried lunch of sandwiches and biscuits – they tried to tackle one of the toughest problems confronting financiers and, potentially, the broader economy: America’s $8 trillion corporate debt market is running out of its lifeblood – liquidity.

To outsiders, this may seem a problem confined to the rarefied atmosphere of a swanky conference room on the 36th floor of Boston’s State Street Financial Center.

But if this liquidity crunch intensifies, some companies already battling a global downturn could find they will also face increasing costs in raising funds. This could then dampen growth in a US economy that appears once again to be straining to recover.

"Corporates face the risk of higher borrowing costs if liquidity continues declining,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Andrew Lo says.

So far, the problem has not spilled into the real economy. In fact, some of the biggest names in US business – IBM, Procter & Gamble and Walt Disney – have successfully borrowed billions of dollars at record low costs this year by selling bonds.

However, this robust picture could change if prominent Wall Street institutions cannot resolve an impasse that has stalled the corporate debt market.

The problem centres on large investment and asset management companies, known as the 'buy-side'. These are flush with cash and have sought to expand their massive portfolios with corporate debt. However, they are finding it harder to purchase or sell bonds from 'dealer' banks that act as the middlemen, the so-called 'sell-side'.

If investment funds have to spend more to trade, they could ultimately pass on their increased costs to companies whose debt they buy.

The banks cannot satisfy the buyside’s needs because they are reducing their own holdings of corporate bonds, partly because of a raft of new regulations proposed in the wake of the financial crisis.

These rules are already altering the way banks behave. While tougher capital standards under Basel III and the pending Volcker rule seek to avoid another meltdown in the banking system, they have had the unintended consequence of sucking liquidity out of the corporate debt market. If banks want to hold riskier assets – such as corporate rather than sovereign debt – they have to go to the greater expense of holding more capital to offset those investments.

As last month’s meeting in Boston ground on, fuelled by a stream of coffees, the delegates realised it would be impossible to forge a silver bullet that could solve their problems at a stroke.

The heavyweight Boston-based investment firms at the meeting included State Street Global Advisors, Columbia Management, Fidelity, Loomis Sayles and Wellington Management. One of the bankers in attendance says the big investors had a repeated, if impractical, refrain: "We want you, the dealers, to find a solution to make it all better.”

The asset managers certainly had grounds to grumble. The top banks have reduced their holdings of bonds to the lowest level since 2002. At about $45 billion, this figure had steadily declined from $235 billion in 2007, but went into free fall in the second half of 2011.

While top companies can still issue bonds easily, the banks’ increased reluctance to hold inventory is drying out bond trading in the secondary market, where they are traded later.

"Secondary liquidity is very important for lowering the cost of capital for issuers,” says Rick McVey, chief executive at MarketAxess, an electronic platform for trading bonds.

"If liquidity dries up further there is the risk that investors demand a higher premium and it becomes more expensive for companies to issue debt.”

Although the US corporate bond market is estimated at $8 trillion, its daily trading volume has averaged $18 billion so far this year, a low ratio. By comparison, the $10 trillion US Treasury market has experienced average daily trading volume of $532 billion in 2012.

It is this illiquidity that pushed the Boston asset managers to seek a solution from the banks, but the meeting simply represented an initial distress flare. We are probably only at the beginning of what looks likely to be a protracted encounter between the buy-side and sell-side.

Chris Rice, global head of trading at State Street Global Advisors, who attended the meeting, admits any transformation will take time.

"It is a conversation that will evolve,” he says.

One banker concedes the initial meeting yielded nothing. "It was really a bit disappointing,” he says.

The asset managers’ need to hold the meeting reflected intense exasperation. Simultaneously, some parties have been considering special computer-based trading platforms, which may or may not involve the banks. But so far there is little sense of what format a solution might take.

Beyond the hurdle of more regulation, the bond market has lost other key players who created liquidity. The demise of in-house proprietary trading desks at the banks, that formerly embraced bets on credit, has hurt liquidity, particularly for large blocks of bonds or those that trade infrequently.

This gap in the market worries asset managers as, historically, only banks could find large amounts of bonds. It does not help that, since the financial crisis, individual investors have sought to plough record amounts of cash into bond funds at the expense of equities. So for asset managers, the decline in Wall Street support is very serious.

The buy-side largely accepts it may not always get the best deal in a bond transaction, but balances that against the needs of dealers, who risk their capital in order to support liquidity of prices. Highly liquid trading prevents bonds splashing into a shallow market and roiling prices to the disadvantage of the parties involved.

"What the sell-side has provided for many years, which is very important, is liquidity, and that liquidity is akin to lubricant in an engine and if you take that away you are going to have problems,” says James Hirschmann, chief executive of Western Asset Management.

It is getting progressively harder for the buyside to find someone willing to undertake the risk of warehousing enough bonds to facilitate orders that are accumulated over days or weeks to avoid upsetting the market.

"The street has not been a market maker for some time, trading is by appointment,” says Jim Sarni, managing principal at Payden & Rygel.

Although the bond trade is now becoming alarmingly thin, trading volumes have never been particularly robust. Most debt is bought at issuance and then does not regularly trade in the secondary market.

Opportunistic fund managers wrestle with the nature of the bond trade as they want to shuffle their holdings in line with changing markets and interest rates. Such changes require a certain amount of liquidity in the secondary bond market, which is now shrinking further and pushing the buyside to contemplate a future where dealers may play a more limited role in trading.

With the industry searching for an alternative market that can boost bond trading, one difficulty is reaching consensus among a highly competitive group of dealers and investors with different agendas.

One solution that has been considered would be to create an open exchange-like platform where buyers and sellers of bonds could find each other directly, skipping over the traditional middleman role of the banks. However, this appears unlikely to solve all the industry’s woes.

While such platforms dominate the trading of equities, currencies and government bonds, corporate bonds have long been an outlier, with a low percentage of trades transacted on such platforms as MarketAxess, Bloomberg and Tradeweb.

This reflects the staggering number of individual bonds, as the market consists of more than 80,000 separate issues, market participants estimate. Some large companies with big funding needs may have many different bonds outstanding, making trading in this market far more complex than an investor wanting to buy or sell IBM stock. About 5,000 bond issues are estimated to trade actively.

Within this fragmented universe, large investors are sceptical an electronic market can function without a middleman to provide capital.

UBS has already rolled out an electronic trading network but so far it handles only about 30 trades a day. Goldman Sachs, the investment bank, and BlackRock, the world’s biggest money manager, are also working on their own platforms.

Greater electronic trading for corporate bonds is not, however, seen as a panacea for the current problems, partly because the business is so opaque, often conducted person-to-person over the phone. The buy-side is also resistant to electronic trading.

"You don’t want to be too transparent if you are doing a large strategic trade,” says Gavin James, director of portfolio operations for Western Asset Management.

"If you’re trading electronically you are out there, people know.”

This is particularly acute for a market that is increasingly a one-way street, where asset managers are either all buying at one time or all selling at one time.

"There is less diversity in the account base,” says a head trader at a Wall Street bank that attended the Boston meeting. "Now, everyone wants to buy at the same time and sell at the same time. An electronic platform does not fix this.”

Still, among major dealers, there is an acceptance that their stranglehold is ending, leaving a very uncertain future for the corporate bond market.

In fact, the meeting in Boston could even represent an industry considering how best to contend with total transformation or decline.

"You’re living the last few days of the Roman Empire,” says Fred Ponzo, founder of GreySpark Partners, which provides consulting to banks."It’s actually ended, but there’s still a bit of money to be made. Big dealers will try to milk it until it dies.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.