Over the past decade, the widespread availability of information and new technologies has helped establish the most level playing field in financial markets we’ve ever seen.
But there’s an exception to this positive trend: Exchanges are quietly, yet dramatically, increasing the fees they charge for market data and access to compensate for their own dramatic declines in market share as the revenues of brokers, specialists, market makers and other users of stock-exchange services have toppled. The result is that the exchanges are making it more expensive to trade, and that’s harming investors.
The numbers tell the story: Total quarterly revenue of the major U.S. equity exchange groups (BATS Global Markets; Intercontinental Exchange, which owns the New York Stock Exchange and other futures and options markets; and Nasdaq) grew almost 16 percent from the first quarter of 2010 through the third quarter of 2015, to $1.8 billion from $1.5 billion. Diving deeper, the exchanges’ technology and data revenue increased 62 percent.
This occurred while their customers’ trading revenues declined sharply. For so-called liquidity providers, which include market makers and dealers, the fall was steep: 75 percent. The commissions paid by large money managers for trading stocks on their behalf dropped 20 percent, and the largest banks and brokers’ equity trading revenues shrank by 29 percent.
Unfortunately, market participants have no choice but to pay the exchanges’ ever-increasing fees for data and access, without which traders wouldn’t have the most up-to-date information, and brokers would run afoul of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s best-execution rules. With operating margins more than double many of their broker and market-maker clients’, exchanges seem to be taking advantage of this protected positioning. (Disclosure: Many of Tabb Group’s clients purchase market data.)
To understand why investors continue to get hit with higher fees, it’s important to consider exactly how exchanges make their money. Outside of listings, stock exchanges basically have two main revenue sources: the fees they charge for matching buyers and sellers, and the fees they charge for data and exchange access.
Historically, revenue from trading was considerable and reliable. In recent years, however, the emergence of new electronic trading venues has created a highly competitive marketplace, giving investors more choice, tighter bid-ask spreads, more attractive pricing and better execution.
The effect has been dramatic. A decade ago, the U.S.’s largest exchange, the NYSE, handled about 80 percent of the trades for its own listed companies. Today, that share has plummeted to about 20 percent. Nasdaq, the largest individual exchange today, has a market share across all equities of 15 percent, while the largest equity exchange group, Intercontinental, has only a 24 percent share.
Faced with declining volume and revenue, exchanges have sought to replace this lost business. This is where that second source of revenue — the fees they charge for market data and access — comes into play.