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April 15, 2009

Safeguarding Commission Dollars

By Peter Chapman

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  • Safeguarding Commission Dollars

Better safe than sorry.

That's the new mantra for money managers and broker-dealers concerned about the safety of balances held in commission-sharing arrangements. Both sides of the business are taking steps to protect the buyside's CSA balances in light of the troubles of last year and the precarious financial positions of many large trading houses.

Money managers are spreading their business around to more brokerages and reducing balances faster. Major banks are segregating CSA accounts away from their brokerage entities.

"A year ago, I don't think any of us were focused on how we protect our money in these CSA accounts," said Greg DeSalvo, Goldman Sachs Asset Management's chief operating officer of fundamental equity trading, at a recent industry conference. "Times are different now."

Lehman Brothers

Behind the move to safeguard balances is the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. Many money managers kept CSA balances with the large broker that became unavailable when the firm collapsed. Concerns over the financial status of other trading houses is also prompting the buyside to demand greater protection of its funds.

There are roughly three courses of action industry participants appear to be taking: 1) use more, not fewer, CSA brokers; 2) segregate accounts from the broker-dealer entity; and 3) pay down balances faster.

GSAM is diversifying its roster of CSA brokers and asking its brokers to segregate its funds. "Not every broker is ready for that," DeSalvo said. "Part of it is a negotiation." The executive was speaking at this year's TradeTech USA conference.

Brokers, at least those that are part of large banks, are taking steps to ease their clients' minds. State Street Global Markets, the brokerage arm of State Street Corp., for example, is in the process of converting all of its customers' CSA balances in the U.S., U.K. and Europe from brokerage accounts to "actual client accounts," Robin Howard, chief executive of State Street subsidiary Financial Sockets, told conference attendees.

"We are segregating their assets to ensure they are in the best possible condition in the event of some unfortunate circumstances," Howard said. The balances are rolled into money markets every night, Howard said, which gives them some protection by the Securities Investor Protection Corp.

Commission-sharing arrangements are also known as client commission arrangements, or CCAs. They are agreements between money managers and their sellside trading partners that permit the fund manager to trade with one broker and buy research from another.

The fund manager typically deposits funds into a CSA account at the trading brokerage upon completion of a trade. That broker then periodically doles out the funds to the money manager's research providers.

The arrangement has become popular in recent years because of clarifications made by the Securities and Exchange Commission regarding the practice of using one commission payment to obtain trading services from one broker and research from another.

Diversification

The move toward diversification may be benefiting smaller and mid-tier brokerages. A year ago, many in the industry were predicting that CSAs would hasten consolidation of trading into the hands of a few large bulge bracket firms. That outlook may be changing.