Traders at the New York Stock Exchange. (Photo: AP) Traders at the New York Stock Exchange. (Photo: AP)

U.S. regulators blocked stock exchanges’ request to raise some fees for market data, an unusual step suggesting closer scrutiny of an increasingly important slice of their businesses.

The fees that firms including NYSE Group Inc., Nasdaq Inc. and Cboe Global Markets Inc. wanted to boost are relatively obscure.

There is currently a monthly cap on how much retail brokers and other customers can be charged for the vital data feeds that supply prices for U.S. stocks. The exchanges sought approval from the Securities and Exchange Commission to increase the cap for a subset of those feeds.

But the move is still significant because the SEC has historically rubber stamped these requests. If the top stock-market regulator were to change its approach, it would be meaningful for exchanges. The trading platforms released data in March that showed they shared almost $400 million of market-data revenue in 2017.

‘Unprecedented Step’

“This is an unprecedented step for the SEC to say to the exchanges that they have to do a better job justifying their changes,” said Tyler Gellasch, executive director of the Healthy Markets Association, an investor advocacy group. “My suspicion is that this dramatically clamps down on market data hikes and fee changes by the public markets.”

Exchanges set these rates through committees they run, a setup that dates back to the days when they were private institutions run for the benefit of their members, brokers and traders. Now, they’re mostly owned by publicly traded companies. Investors and brokers have criticized the fact that they’ve been allowed to set rates with limited oversight.

Mark Dowd, a spokesman for the exchange-run committees that oversee the data feeds, declined to comment.

The SEC said in its filings that the proposed increase in fee caps “raises questions as to whether the changes will result in fees that are fair and reasonable.”

Clayton Focus

SEC Chairman Jay Clayton has made clear he wants this system examined. In an April 10 speech in Chicago, he said the regulator would hold three roundtables in the months ahead to discuss controversial industry practices.

One was examining market data, including the “differing views surrounding the governance model behind the operation of the SIPs, and whether that model is subject to conflicts of interest that could impede its ability to arrive at the best possible outcomes for investors,” according to his prepared remarks. SIPs refers to Securities Information Processors, the legal entities that actually distribute the market data.’

The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, a trade group for brokers, banks and other members of the financial industry, has criticized exchanges’ fee increases. Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP is a member of Sifma.

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