Saturday, July 19, 2014

empty floors

UBS AG's trading floor in Stamford, Conn., once teemed with traders occupying a space equal to two football fields. The Guinness World Records recognized it as the biggest such facility on the planet. And the Swiss bank used it to showcase its Wall Street credentials.

Stu Taylor, a former UBS managing director in trading who now runs trading-technology company Algomi Ltd., remembers when guests were brought around the gallery regularly. "It was very much a showpiece," he said.

Today, there are virtually no traders shouting into their phones or staring at terminals. UBS's cavernous floor is taken up mostly by back-office, legal and technology staffers, according to people familiar with the bank.

A spokeswoman for UBS said the trading floor was built for 1,400 traders, but wouldn't disclose the number of employees at the facility.

A deep slump in trading activity in everything from stocks and bonds to currencies is changing the face of Wall Street. Businesses that once contributed disproportionately to the revenues of the world's largest banks are now bleeding jobs and sparking fears of a permanent decline.

Today's markets are "boring," said Thomas Thees, a former head of North American credit trading at Morgan Stanley and a former co-head of fixed income at Jefferies Group. "This is affecting the opportunity to make money, and ultimately the earnings these [trading] businesses can provide."

Global revenue from trading in fixed income, currencies and commodities, or FICC, dropped to $112 billion last year, down 16% from a year earlier and 23% from 2010, according to Boston Consulting Group.

As big banks with large trading operations such as J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Citigroup Inc. report second-quarter earnings results this week, investors and analysts will be trying to find out whether the slowdown is a temporary funk or a lasting shift.

The forces arrayed against banks' trading businesses are powerful. Since the financial crisis, regulators have limited their ability to take risks with their own money, and have made the process costlier, prompting many to dial back or push in different directions. At the same time, global markets have fallen into an unusually placid pattern that has damped clients' desire to make trades.

"It's been absolutely dead," said Jarrod Dean, a municipal-bond trader at Sierra Pacific Securities in Las Vegas. Municipal-bond trading volumes are down about 30% since last August, he said, while profits are down more than 70%. "We've just got to keep toughing it out," he said.

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