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How responsible leverage and ESMA’s rules are changing the face of the industry today

By Andrew Edwards, CEO of Saxo Capital Markets 

On 30th July 2018 the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) introduced rules and restrictions on the sale and marketing of contracts for difference (CFDs), which are used by traders to get both long and short exposure without owning the underlying assets.

In February this year the rules were extended by three months, maintaining the amount of leverage which can be offered to retail clients trading such products. ESMA originally proposed limits on leverage and a guaranteed limit on how much a client can lose in these trades after concerns that inexperienced retail traders do not fully understand the levels of risk involved.

Andrew Edwards
Andrew Edwards

Saxo Capital Markets has been a vocal supporter of the proposals set forth by ESMA from the outset and we have always believed that consistent, harmonised regulation at a European level will be positive for clients and the industry as a whole. ESMA’s intervention was a timely reaction to the very high leverage levels in general available in the market as well as a significant increase in companies taking advantage of free passporting across Europe. This operated from countries with low regulatory governance which focused their marketing efforts on less sophisticated customers and offering them high leverage and incentives to potentially trade beyond their means.

What is particularly interesting to observe is that, since the ruling last year, shares in all the industry’s big listed trading firms have fallen between 30 and 40 per cent, reflecting the fact that the new regulations will continue to compress the margins of firms in the sector overall. At the same time, this will discourage new firms from entering the market as lower profits become less attractive for those counting on business models which rely on leverage.

Prior to the introduction of the rules, the levels of leverage which were being offered by some trading firms were disproportionate compared to the risk tolerance of an average retail client. In some cases, they were plain irresponsible, unethical and led to a race to the bottom in the trading industry. Parts of the margin trading industry were simply not sufficiently focused on protecting clients’ interests. It is important in this debate, however, to not to lose sight of the fact that this is a leverage problem – not a product problem. Responsible caps on leverage rather than outright banning of products is key to consumer protection.

That is not to say that we believe leverage should be banned altogether. Trading with CFDs and FX instruments brings a number of advantages allowing traders to trade the full global macro cycle, build a diversified capital allocation and hedge their market exposure in a flexible and efficient way. Clients will often use the option to short a CFD as a hedge on a long stock portfolio or short a stock index as a hedge against general market moves on a single stock investment. Options have for a long time been reserved to institutional investors and HNWI-segments of the larger banks. Products such as CFDs democratize access to such possibilities and trading strategies, levelling the playing field between larger market participants and smaller retail investor. Leverage also opens the door to increased diversification for clients with smaller account sizes.

With too much leverage, however, the risks of trading these products can significantly outweigh the benefits and ironically higher leverage can increase the chances of clients losing money, resulting in earlier stop-outs.

Despite the initial reactions from parts of the industry to ESMA’s changes, we believe the regulation will be a positive for trading firms across Europe. For several years, many firms have competed on leverage and often, through misselling, have used incentives to lure investors – not focusing on the principal customer offerings of product, price, platform and service which lead to long-term client retention.

From the very beginning Saxo Capital Markets made a clear strategic decision not to compete on high leverage, which places us in a good position to maintain and grow the business in this new regulatory environment. We have always taken a dynamic approach to leverage, adapting margins to volatility, market capitalisation when trading stocks and available liquidity in the market. Indeed, one strategy that Saxo Capital Markets feels can benefit investors is multi-asset investing which brings in the long-term benefits of diversification, incorporation of market cycles and risk management. Multi asset investing can provide investors with more opportunities and greater flexibility while at the same time offering needed diversification and opportunities to build a balanced portfolio.

We continue to believe that offering very high leverage, which is out of sync with underlying market conditions at any given time, is irresponsible. Looking ahead, we fully expect that the regulations imposed by ESMA will continue to impact the margins of some firms in our sector. In turn, marketing budgets will be cut as non-compliant firms fall into an unrecoverable decline. Some firms will look to sell their CFD client books which concurrently creates opportunities, but those companies that rely on high leverage, incentives and miss selling will close down reluctantly, be forced to shut their doors or potentially try and find a buyer. Regulation should however not deter high quality firms with ethical and strong business models which adhere to the new regulations. They may find this to be an opportunity to acquire client books and embark on M&A activity.

From our own experience at Saxo Capital Markets, we know that running a profitable business and being a responsible market participant are not mutually exclusive. For the industry to survive and grow over the long term, it should welcome the move away from competition on leverage and embrace competition on quality of platform, price, product and service.