Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Sold SGX, a quarter of the portfolio in cash

Singapore Exchange Limited (“SGX”) wishes to announce an investment of $250 million in technology, comprising $70 million for a new securities trading engine and $180 million for infrastructure outsourcing services and data centres, collectively known as the Reach initiative. The investment of $70 million was previously announced by SGX on 4 March 2010.

The investment in the Reach initiative is to create the fastest access to Asia by implementing a new high-performance trading engine, a state-of-the-art data centre, as well as introducing co-location services to its customers. The Reach initiative also includes establishing presence at key data centres in Chicago, London, New York and Tokyo. The infrastructure outsourcing services will enable SGX to benefit from improved access to technical capabilities, implementation of enhanced processes and comprehensive infrastructure management tools. (3 June 2010)

We sold SGX (finally!) at $7.28 today, bringing the portfolio's cash level to almost 25%. We actually bought SGX at around the $4+ level in mid-March 2009, in the belief that the company (and its stock price) were sure beneficiaries of a market recovery. The stock's returns have been decent since, but we see little upside from current levels, despite the hype over the new $250 million trading system which promises to boost revenues. The exchange expects additional annual recurring expenses of $12 million due to this new system, which is paltry compared to the $200+ million operating expenses SGX racks up every year, but we are sceptical that the new trading system will actually provide a substantial boost to revenue.

The problem we have with SGX is that growth for the exchange is difficult to create. The new CEO, Magnus Bocker, is pulling out all the stops to try to increase revenue, and the latest $250 million investment represents a foray into algorithmic trading, which Mr Bocker hopes will drive trading velocity in cash equities trading. In our opinion, it will be difficult to induce algorithmic traders into providing liquidity for a large number of stocks listed on the exchange - either due to a low free float or a distinct lack of buying interest. The small market capitalisation of many counters also compounds the problem. More likely, algorithmic trading will be focused on the usual suspects (the market darlings which adorn the daily top volume list) and some of the larger capitalisation companies. Traders need other buyers and sellers in order to make money, so why focus on low investor interest companies where they have to make a market to induce buyers? As has been the case in the past, higher velocity and investor interest in a select group of stocks will likely drive investors away from others, more like a zero-sum game.

Moreover, Singapore's positioning as a financial hub (and "Asia's exchange") remains in question, given that Hong Kong already enjoys tremendous levels of trading volume. Much of this stems from Hong Kong's proximity to China, whose citizens possess tremendous household wealth. Hong Kong is already facing stiff competition from the Shanghai exchange, and going forward we expect to see Shanghai obtain a more-than-fair share of new large-cap listings. What does this leave SGX? Zilch (except for numerous poor quality third-tier S-Chips).

SGX's monopoly status looks safe at present, with its infrastructure setup preventing other players from quickly stealing market share in the local market. However, with the limited growth from local retail investors, SGX is looking overseas for growth. While this could be a way to boost revenue, SGX already charges one of the highest clearing fees in the world, and there could be downward pressures on pricing, reducing margins. The ASX has recently announced lowered fees as a result of the entrant of new competitors, which could be something that SGX may face further down the road.

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