London's market-making tradition and the presence of many international fund managers helped it to win this business. So did three other factors. One was stamp duties on share deals done in their home countries, which SEAQ usually avoided. Another was the shortness of trading hours on continental bourses. The third was the ability of SEAQ, with market-makers quoting two-way prices for business in large amounts, to handle trades in big blocks of stock that can be fed through order-driven markets only when they find counterparts.
A similar tussle for business has been seen among the exchanges that trade futures and options. Here, the market which first trades a given product tends to corner the business in it.The European Options Exchange (EOE) in Amsterdam was the first derivatives exchange in Europe; today it is the only one to trade a European equity-index option. London's LIFFE, which opened in 1982 and is now Europe's biggest derivatives exchange, has kept a two-to-one lead in German government-bond futures (its most active contract) over Frankfurt's DTB, which opened only in 1990. LIFFE competes with several other European exchanges, not always successfully: it lost the market in ecu-bond futures to Paris's MATIF.
European exchanges armoured themselves for this battle in three ways. The first was to fend off foreign competition with rules. In three years of wrangling over the EC's investment-services directive, several member-countries pushed for rules that would require securities to be traded only on a recognized exchange. They also demanded rules for the disclosure of trades and prices that would have hamstrung SEAQ's quote-driven trading system. They were beaten off in the eventual compromise, partly because governments realized they risked driving business outside the EC. But residual attempts to stifle competition remain. Italy passed a law in 1991 requiring trades in Italian shares to be conducted through a firm based in Italy. Under pressure from the European Commission, it may have to repeal it.
6.1 New Ways for Old
The second response to competition has been frantic efforts by bourses to modernize systems, improve services and cut costs. This has meant investing in new trading systems, improving the way deals are settled, and pressing governments to scrap stamp duties. It has also increasingly meant trying to beat London at its own game, for instance by searching for ways of matching London's prowess in block trading.
Paris, which galvanized itself in 1988, is a good example. Its bourse is now open to outsiders. It has a computerized trading system based on continuous auctions, and settlement of most of its deals is computerized. Efforts to set up a block-trading mechanism continue, although slowly. Meanwhile, MATIF, the French futures exchange, has become the continent's biggest. It is especially proud of its ecu-bond contract, which should grow in importance if and when monetary union looms.
Frankfurt, the continent's biggest stock-market, has moved more ponderously, partly because Germany's federal system has kept regional stock exchange in being, and left much of the regulation of its markets at Land (state) level. Since January 1st 1993 all German exchanges (including the DTB) have been grouped under a firm called Deutsche Borse AG, chaired by Rolf Breuer, a member of Deutsche Bank's board. But there is still some way to go in centralizing German share-trading. German floor brokers continue to resist the inroads made by the bank's screen-based IBIS trading system. A law to set up a federal securities regulator (and make insider-dealing illegal) still lies becalmed in Bonn.
Other bourses are moving too. Milan is pushing forward with screen-based trading and speeding up its settlement. Spain and Belgium are reforming their stock-markets and launching new futures exchanges. Amsterdam plans an especially determined attack on SEAQ. It is implementing a McKinsey report that recommended a screen-based system for wholesale deals, a special mechanism for big block trades and a bigger market-making role for brokers.
Ironically, London now finds itself a laggard in some respects. Its share settlement remains prehistoric; the computerized project to modernize it has just been scrapped. The SEAQ trading system is falling apart; only recently has the exchange, belatedly, approves plans draw up by Arthur Andersen for a replacement, and there is plenty of skepticism in the City about its ability to deliver. Yet the exchange's claimed figures for its share of trading in continental equities suggest that London is holding up well against its competition.
Are these figures correct? Not necessarily: deals done through an agent based in London often get counted as SEAQ business even when the counterpart is based elsewhere and the order has been executed through a continental bourse. In today's electronic age, with many firms members of most European exchanges, the true location of a deal can be impossible to pin down. Continental bourses claim, anyway, to be winning back business lost to London.
Financiers in London agree that the glory-days of SEAQ's international arm, when other European exchanges were moribund, are gone. Dealing in London is now more often a complement to, rather than a substitute for, dealing at home. Big blocks of stock may be bought or sold through London, but broken apart or assembled through local bourses. Prices tend to be derived from the domestic exchanges; it is notable that trading on SEAQ drops when they are closed. Baron van Ittersum, chairman of the Amsterdam exchange, calls this the "queen's birthday effect": trading in Dutch equities in London slows to a trickle on Dutch public holidays.
Such competition-through-diversity has encourage European exchanges to cut out the red tape that protected their members from outside competition, to embrace electronics, and to adapt themselves to the wishes of investors and issuers. Yet the diversity may also have had a cost in lower liquidity. Investors, especially from outside Europe, are deterred if liquidity remains divided among different exchanges. Companies suffer too: they grumble about the costs of listing on several different markets.
So the third response of Europe's bourses to their battle has been pan-European co-operative ventures that could anticipate a bigger European market. There are more wishful words here than deeds.