B-Ds See Light Ahead

Terry Flanagan

Despite a difficult operating environment for broker-dealers, many are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

“(We) continued to perform well despite volatile markets and a challenging global economy,” said Mark Casady,” LPL Financial chairman and chief executive officer in a conference call with reporters. “Despite a very strong year, we experienced softness in the fourth quarter, driven by ongoing market volatility and uncertainty in the global economy.”

LPL Financial is one of the largest independent broker-dealers in the U.S. It recently reported a fourth quarter 2011 profit of $39.4 million on the heels of the addition of over 300 new advisors over the last six months.

Aside from a period of high volatility during the third quarter of 2011, trading volume has largely been on an ongoing decline in recent years. Equities trading volume in the U.S. has averaged about 7 billion shares per day thus far in 2012. This is down from the 8.2 billion seen during the same period last year, which was in turn down from the 9.1 billion in early 2010. This has inevitably put the squeeze on market participants, particularly exchanges and broker-dealers.

Most of the concerns facing investors for much of 2011 have still not been alleviated. Europe’s debt crisis is still front and center, while the U.S. economy continues to be stagnant amid high unemployment and with the presidential election looming on the horizon. Investor confidence as a result has remained depressed.

“We’re in a difficult environment,” said Robert Hackel, managing director of R.F. Lafferty, an independent broker-dealer. “If there’s one thing the markets don’t like, it’s not knowing anything. Market participants want to know what’s coming, and they like clarity. That’s not coming from Europe right now.”

Market volatility has itself been volatile, as the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index indicated. Two and three percent intraday swings became the norm. The surges came in the wake of a slew of macroeconomic events, including the European debt crisis and the U.S. debt downgrade. The VIX reached a high of 48 on Aug. 8, 2011, as the markets reacted to the lengthy U.S. debt ceiling negotiations and the Standard & Poor’s downgrade of U.S. debt. As of mid-day Feb. 10, the VIX was trading at about 21 after having hovered around 18 for several weeks.

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