Sunday 21 December 2014

Nervous times as brokers take stock of a fast changing world

Firms are eyeing each other and wondering who will be first to fall

Published 21/05/2009 | 00:00

'The number of
shares bought and
sold in Dublin fell to
just 3.8m last month
compared with 9.4m
in the same month
last year and 14.9m in
the same month two
years ago. The slump
is a body blow to
brokers who make
their commissions
when investors
buy and sell'
'The number of shares bought and sold in Dublin fell to just 3.8m last month compared with 9.4m in the same month last year and 14.9m in the same month two years ago. The slump is a body blow to brokers who make their commissions when investors buy and sell'

STOCKBROKERS the world over like to present themselves as stable edifices with vast experience in the arcane arts of money making.

Local brokers are no different but behind the facades of their offices in central Dublin and the IFSC, most of the bigger brokers have seen changes in ownership in the past ten years as well as the usual staff defections characteristic of the industry.

Some brokers, such as ABN Amro have pulled out of Ireland while others including BNP have merged. Two have gone bust. The world of stockbroking is far less stable, and rather more exciting, than many brokers would have you believe.

Today, in the middle of a recession that has claimed the scalps of the some of the world's greatest financial blue bloods, Dublin's stockbrokers are eyeing one another somewhat nervously and asking who will be the first to fall victim to the depression which has gripped the land?

The country currently has two large, and half a dozen medium-sized, brokerages but most observers believe this cannot continue indefinitely, as sales from trading commissions and fees from corporate deals tumble.

Stockbrokers serve two main functions; to buy and sell shares and to help companies with their listings on the stock exchange. Problem is that there isn't much call for either service right now.

Volume slump

The number of shares bought and sold in Dublin fell to just 3.8m last month compared with 9.4m in the same month last year and 14.9m in the same month two years ago. The slump is a body blow to brokers who make their commissions when investors buy and sell.

The number of companies with primary listings on the Irish Stock Exchange is also falling as companies merge or delist which is bad news for brokers who advise those companies.

Davy Stockbrokers, the house broker for 70pc of listed Irish companies, has just 49 companies on its client list today, according to the firm's weekly book. The company had 55 clients in October 2007.

It is hard to know how Davy is doing right now because, like its smaller rivals, it has not yet filed results for 2008.

The biggest of the Irish brokerages has been owned by the staff since they bought a 90pc stake in the 83-year-old firm from Bank of Ireland in 2006 for just over €316m with help from Anglo Irish.

Brokerage

Sources insist the brokerage is still making a profit but the broker won't comment on how it did last year. Davy made a profit of around €50m in 2007 but was then forced to set aside €35m for a potential loss linked to problems with advice the firm gave to the country's credit unions.

Media leaks suggest Davy made a pretax profit of €30m in the first-half of 2008 but this was before Lehman Brothers went bust, the Irish banks had to be saved and Ireland's international reputation was left in tatters.

Without up-to-date figures, the easiest way to assess what is going on inside Davy is to look at staff numbers. The firm slashed its workforce by 120 to 400 last year and cut pay for most of those who survived by 5pc. The cull was worst in the private clients business which helps members of the public to buy and sell shares.

Davy's biggest issue is that it no longer has a big partner to help the firm through bad times.

While rival Goodbody is part of ailing Allied Irish Banks, Davy belongs to its senior management, some of whom borrowed heavily from Anglo Irish to buy a stake in the company when it was sold at the top of the boom.

Rivals believe that this could drive business away from Davy in the coming years.

Nobody will say it openly but it is clear that some believe that a combination of Davy's high costs and high debt without any parent company could pose problems for the nation's largest stockbroker.

That may be wishful thinking on their part. Davy recently helped CRH with the company's rights issue, the biggest in Irish corporate history and a lucrative deal for all the brokers involved.

Davy's bond desk is also thriving as the economy tanks. As the only Irish primary dealer, Davy is also benefiting from the Government's voracious appetite for cash.

The Government's fifth bond sale took place earlier this week and there are many more in the offing; all with the potential to generate hefty fees for Davy. As the demand for Irish shares shrinks, the broker is also seeking to begin coverage of foreign companies.

Things appear to be a little better at Goodbody, the country's second largest brokerage, which employs 300 people and is 137 years old. Goodbody has never enjoyed Davy's dominance in the corporate finance area and has no bond desk but leads its larger rival in the private client business. Unlike Davy, it has not yet shed staff and was one of the star performers for parent AIB last year. Some Goodbody staff had agitated to buy the brokerage two years ago but one staff member, who asked not to be named, admitted this week that he was glad this had never come to pass.

Still, it won't be plain sailing for Goodbody which faces the prospect of increased State control and salary caps following the Government's €3.5bn recapitalisation of AIB.

Goodbody made a bid to draw even with Davy back in 2003 when it attempted to snap up NCB Stockbrokers which was being sold by Ulster Bank. In the end, NCB's senior management engineered an MBO with the help of financier Dermot Desmond.

MBO

That MBO may have saved NCB's senior managers from losing their jobs but it has not all been plain sailing for the rank and file. IFSC-based NCB said last month it may make as many as 20 people redundant out of its 160-strong workforce.

The company, which is now 25pc owned by billionaire Sean Quinn, fired a further 15 people last year to save money.

Merrion Capital, unlike most of its rivals, is up front about recent losses. The firm has 94 employees after cutting six employees in the past year and saw pretax profit more than halve to €11m.

The brokerage, which was formed by a group of disgruntled NCB employees, has had a interesting time of late. Management bought Merrion back from Icelandic basketcase Landsbanki for about €30m in January.

The deal, which was backed by Bank of Ireland, saw chief executive John Conroy buy back Merrion for about a third of what Landsbanki paid last year to take a large controlling stake.

Across the river, on St Stephen's Green, 14-year-old Dolmen Stockbrokers completed another MBO in April 2007 and narrowly escaped being bought by Irish Life & Permanent last summer.

Like NCB, the firm is owned by staff and a millionaire who made his money out of the boom, in this case property developer Garrett Kelleher.

There was a lot of movement among Irish brokerages during the good times but hardly a deal has been cut since the financial crisis began in earnest. Observers say that this is almost certain to change over the next 12 months.

Across the water, smaller brokerages are merging or seeking new shareholders almost weekly and this is likely to be repeated here.

Merger

Two months ago, specialist UK stockbrokers WH Ireland and Blue Oar announced a merger while last month it was the turn of Panmure Gordon, one of the City of London's oldest stockbrokers, which secured its future with a £17.3m cash injection from a private equity firm.

Irish Life was rumoured to be considering paying €80m for Dolmen last year before backing out because of a shortage of capital.

Merrion is rumoured to have tried to buy smaller Bloxham for about €25m sometime ago and some sort of deal like this is likely to come to fruition over the next 12 months although the sums paid will be smaller than would have been the case two years ago.

The nation's stockbrokers have often been accused of dishonestly pedalling an overly confident economic picture but many of the leading figures within those stockbrokerages followed their own advice during the good times and borrowed to buy their own businesses.

Now, they find themselves in the same position as many of the nation's homeowners; in debt and with declining incomes. The problem for both home owners and stockbrokers is that things won't get better until the imbalance between supply and demand narrows.

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