World Economy

Instability in Wall Street

Instability in Wall StreetInstability in Wall Street

There’s plenty of volatility, but what happened to the volume? From stocks to currencies and bonds, the upswing in turbulence to start the year is chasing all but the bravest traders from financial markets. Despite the recent rebound in US equities, volume in the S&P 500 Index is down 23%.

Speculative bets on the direction of currencies have also dropped to the lowest in two years, while average daily trading among dealers in US Treasuries is close to a seven-year low, Bloomberg reported.

Worries about the outlook for the US, Europe and China, as well as mixed policy signals from central bankers around the world, have all contributed to what UBS Group AG Chief Executive Officer Sergio Ermotti called a “paralyzing volatility” that’s scaring away clients and caused industry-wide trading revenue to tumble to the lowest since 2009.

Yet in some ways, it also underscores the changing nature of the market itself. Big banks have cut back on trading as post-crisis regulations like Dodd-Frank and Basel III force them to take fewer risks, particularly in fixed-income. Last year alone, Wall Street eliminated more than 20,000 jobs, with trading desks bearing the brunt of the cuts. And while automated traders have swept in to fill the void, some say they’ve made markets more prone to sudden shocks.

Investor concern over the state of the global economy is adding to “the structural pressure that’s been hurting banks for the last few years,” said Paul Gulberg, a banking analyst at Portales Partners LLC.

  Whipsawed Traders

Normally, a rise in volatility tends to lead to higher trading activity as traders jump in to bet on the market’s ultimate direction, according to Gulberg. That hasn’t been the case this time. Violent swings across assets have whipsawed just about everyone as concern deepens over the state of the global economy and the effectiveness of negative interest rates and quantitative easing.

At the start of the year, it took just six harrowing weeks for the S&P 500 to lose 11% and then a mere five weeks to recoup all the losses. What’s more, it came within months of its August swoon, the first time since 1998 that bull-market investors have suffered two such swings in close succession.

Even after stocks rallied in February, trading has fallen off. US equity volume has averaged 7.2 billion shares a day since the bottom, compared with 9.3 billion shares a day in the first six weeks of the year, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Daily moves in the S&P 500 have also averaged 0.84% since August, versus 0.55% in the prior two years.

  Currencies, Bonds

A similar picture is taking shape in other markets. After putting on a record amount of futures contracts in December, traders have since scaled back wagers on the direction of the dollar against eight major currencies as implied volatility jumped. The last time conviction was so weak in terms of positioning was in 2014.

In Treasuries, long considered the deepest and safest market on the planet, average daily volume among primary dealers fell to $444 billion in April, just above its low in December 2009. That occurred after some measures indicated that swings 10-year Treasury yields soared to record levels, according to TD Securities.

To a growing number of investors, the fact that markets have become more turbulent and less liquid is a direct and unintended consequence of the structural changes wrought by post-crisis regulations—which were intended to make banks safer.

Last quarter, trading revenue at the five largest US investment banks fell to a seven-year low. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. reported its worst first-quarter revenue of CEO Lloyd C. Blankfein’s tenure.

Trading in fixed income, currencies and commodities, has been particularly hard hit. Globally, the biggest investment banks have seen revenue from FICC sales and trading decline in five of the past six years, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.

Stung by disappointing results, UBS and Credit Suisse Group AG both say they’re focusing their businesses on wealth management rather than trading or making markets.