Invention of Money

TALThe acclaimed radio/TV series, This American Life, aired a piece titled, “The Invention of Money”, in early 2011. There are two excellent stories – or “Acts” as TAL’s Ira Glass calls them – one on how a group of economists restored the public’s faith in the Brazilian currency, and another on how the Federal Reserve creates money. The piece starts with a story about aboriginal cultures using large, hard to move stones as money. I heartily recommend listening to this piece. You can find it here. The whole piece is just under an hour.

From the web site:


Ira Glass speaks with several members of the Planet Money team, who all found themselves—in the course of their reporting—independently asking the same stoner-ish question: What is money? Ira and Planet Money producer Jacob Goldstein discuss a pre-industrial society on the island of Yap that used giant stones as currency.

Act One. The Lie That Saved Brazil.

A trip to a country where the fiction that is money completely fell apart. And in this same country, through a truly incredible piece of policy making, the government tricked a 150,000,000 people into believing their money had value again. Chana Joffe-Walt reports. (16 minutes)

Act Two. Weekend At Bernanke’s.

Though the name of the Federal Reserve includes the word “federal,” it’s not actually part of the government. It’s an independent institution tasked with something very simple, but very huge: Creating money out of thin air. And during this last financial crisis, the leaders of the Fed did things that they would never have considered doing in the past. Alex Blumberg and David Kestenbaum report on what the Fed usually does, and how, since 2008, it’s taken a trip to what amounts to Fed Crazytown. (26 minutes)

What is gained from cross-border exchange mergers?

Cross-border exchange mergers are in the news. See Indian exchanges must go regional and then global and Global mergers and Indian exchanges, by Jayanth Varma, who points us to LSE and TMX merge by Jeff Carter on Points and Figures. Also see Stock exchange mergers: the fight for global dominance in the Telegraph.

An article in the Economist, Back for more: Has the global exchange industry lost its marbles again?, is skeptical about various stories that are being told about exchange mergers, but holds forth the possibility that there might be cost savings:

Joining forces does not in itself realise revenue gains or alter this
decline. But it may make it possible to combine the technology and
back-office platforms being used by different exchanges, cutting
costs. Efficiency savings are the one element of the last round of
consolidation that did arrive as promised.

Cost savings are being emphasised again now. The Deutsche Borse and
NYSE-Euronext combination should yield annual savings of ?300m
($412m), the two firms say, equivalent to about a fifth of the
combined entity’s pre-tax profits, while the LSE-TMX deal should
produce savings of about 7%.

In this article, I focus on the question: Is there a big opportunity for reducing cost through exchange mergers?

Getting a sense of the magnitudes

An exchange is an IT system that matches orders. The computational complexity of an exchange is all about taking in a lot of orders per second and computing a lot of trades per second. The output of the IT facility is purely measured by the number of orders that were produced. In the public domain, we see the number of trades, and not the number of orders. Hence, the number of trades is the best public domain source of the size of each exchange, from the viewpoint of cost.

To illustrate the magnitudes involved, last Friday, BSE got 34.1 million orders and did 1.94 million trades. This is an orders-to-trades ratio of 17.6:1 — for each trade that BSE produces, they have to have the IT capacity to process 17 orders. The only way to get up to these kinds of values is by having a good deal of algorithmic trading.

The revenue per trade is, of course, very different across countries. In India, the average trade size on the equity spot market
is $500 and the tariff for the exchange is hence tiny: NSE or BSE earn Rs.0.65 or $0.014 per trade. Using the above numbers, BSE’s earning Rs.0.04 or $0.000795 per order on average. These low low tariffs imply that the revenue, profit and valuation of an exchange in India is tiny when compared with what’s seen abroad. But on the question of cost, there is direct comparability: it costs as much to produce a billion trades in India as it does anywhere else.

From this perspective, let’s look at the biggest factories in the world that produce trades. This is data from the World Federation of Exchanges, for equity trades on the limit order book, in January 2011:

Rank Exchange ‘000 trades
1 NYSE Euronext 1,52,922
2 NSE 1,18,200
3 NASDAQ OMX 1,13,753
4 Shanghai SE 1,04,965
5 Korea Exchange 1,00,221
6 Shenzhen SE 76,268
7 BSE 35,157
8 Tokyo SE 27,557
9 Taiwan SE 20,313
10 London SE 19,132

Saving money through unification of data centres?

I do believe that in this business, there are economies of scale. To build a factory that produces twice the trades costs less
than twice the money.

Does this mean that exchange mergers can create value? Not necessarily.

Let’s take one plausible merger from the above. The London SE is a small exchange: they did 19.1 million trades in January. The BSE did 35.1 million trades.

Can one save money by producing 55 million trades in a single data centre? Yes.

Will a BSE+LSE merged entity drop down to one data centre? Of course not! The problem is the speed of light. Today, the
conversations between securities firms and exchanges are reckoned in milliseconds. And in one millisecond, light only travels 300 km. So even without reckoning for switching overheads (which are huge!) it is not feasible to unify data centres apart from local mergers such as CME and CBOT.

Since light moves at a glacial pace, it is simply not feasible to beam orders from London to a data centre in Bombay. So even if BSE
merged with London SE, there would be two data centres. This limits the cost saving. Until we find a way to speed up light, there is going to be no data centre consolidation in this business, other than within small geographical areas (e.g. within Chicago or within New York).

Saving money on software development?

Okay, let’s look further. Could there be cost saving by building one software system and deploying it twice? We’d still spend money to
run two data centres, but we’d have only one expense of building software. Could this work?

It’s much harder than it sounds. It is not often that one gets to fully transplant an exchange software system in a new location: all
too often, the systems have to be significantly different. Regulatory differences, local preferences, history, what users prefer and are
used to: all these shape immense diversity in exchange systems. There can actually be diseconomies of scale, with engineering and
political problems of handling multiple versions.

Another key problem lies in the sizing of the software system. An exchange system that works for BSE will generally involve a different set of engineering tradeoffs when compared with the LSE setting. So ground-up implementations could be more efficient. By this logic, there may be a useful role for cooperation between similar-sized exchanges (e.g. NSE and Shanghai), but not across divergent sizes which are more than 2x apart.

When decision makers think `a system’ can be readily transported across highly diverse order intensities, without regard for the
inefficiencies introduced in this process, I think this has something to do with the lack of engineering backgrounds among these decision makers. On a related note, there isn’t much of a role for exchange software as a software product, other than in the zone of tiny exchanges where an android phone will suffice for order matching. By the time you get to anything in the top 20 exchanges of the world, an efficient implementation will involve large amounts of ground-up development.

A skeptical perspective

NYSE merged with Euronext. Did we see cost reductions? A lot was said about cost reduction at the time of the merger, but I haven’t
particularly seen evidence of this filtering out post-merger.

ASX-SGX: Will they drop down to one data centre? Of course not. Will they unify systems? What will be the cost of system
unification? Does it make any sense to unify systems? It helps that both are similar-sized small exchanges, but the institutional settings are highly different.

NSE and NASDAQ produce a similar number of equity spot trades. In the latest year, NSE spends roughly $150 million a year doing this, while NASDAQ spent $850 million. (NSE produces derivatives trades also, and the NSE number includes the cost of the clearing corporation, so the cost-per-trade edge at NSE is probably of the order of 10x when compared with NASDAQ). The two exchanges are similar in size in terms of the trades per second. Yet, this is not an easy merger opportunity. There will certainly be no data centre
unification. NSE’s knowledge can be used to run the NASDAQ data centre more cheaply, but complex organisational dynamics would have to be navigated in achieving the transition, and this could take decades to pull off. It is hard to get management teams that are
able to play for such long-term gains.

Also see Are exchange mergers always good? by Mobis Philipose in Mint.

There is one kind of exchange merger which I have become increasingly skeptical about: one in which a parent foists computer
systems upon the recipient. I have started worrying that this is a bit of a con, a method to generate revenues from system sales under the garb of partnership or strategic alliances. This is done to some extent by firms that are primarily in the business of selling software and not in the business of running exchanges. Or, to the extent that high-cost exchanges are able to do this, the systems/software revenues are able to mask the deeper problem of a high cost structure.

I have watched the grand global deal-making between exchanges for a long time. In my reckoning, most of it has been a waste of time and money. As one specific example, in my observation in India, some foreign investments into Indian exchanges has been irrelevant, others have directly done damage. None has as yet helped improve product offerings or cost efficiency.

One contract that comes to my mind as one that really worked was Mutual Offset (MOS) between CME and SIMEX, which was done way back in 1984. This was one deal that really mattered and was a good idea. But it was useful in the age before capital account openness – such connections are less important today when capital flows freely anyway. And, remember that it was a mere contract, it involved no complications of ownership and management. So I do think there will be value if the Nifty futures on SGX, CME and NSE are all unified through a mutual offset system: but this does not require anything more complex than signing a contract.

Jayanth Varma says:

It is tragic that at this point of great opportunities and strategic challenges, the energies of Indian exchanges and their regulators are entirely consumed by the debate about whether exchanges should be regulated like public utilities

I disagree. The global exchange M&A story seems to be overrated, apart from the extent to which systems like MOS which can
alleviate home bias (and only require contracts). There isn’t much to gain there. On the other hand, the problem of sound regulation and supervision of exchanges in India is a GDP-scale issue. Indian experience and evidence does not support a complacent approach that the regulation and supervision will work out.


My thinking on this was improved through conversations with Ravi Apte and Ashish Chauhan.

Economic Events on March 2, 2011

The Mortgage Bankers’ Association purchase index was released at 7:00 AM EST, and there was a week to week decrease of 6.1% in the Purchase Index and a week to week decrease of 6.5% in the Refinance Index.

The Challenger Job-Cut Report will be released at 7:30 AM EST, providing an estimate of the number of layoffs in February.

At 8:15 AM EST, the ADP Employment Report will be released.  Investors will be watching this number to get advance notice on the state of the job market in advance of the government’s report on Friday.

At 10:00 AM EST, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke will give his semi-annual monetary policy report to House Financial Services Committee.

At 10:30 AM EST, the weekly Energy Information Administration Petroleum Status Report will be released, giving investors an update on oil inventories in the United States.

At 2:00 PM EST, the Beige Book report will be released, giving us more information about economic conditions in each Federal Reserve district in advance of the next Fed meeting.

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