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11:48 AM
Robert Sales
Robert Sales
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The Hybrid Zone: Who Holds the Key to Trading Single Stock Futures?

Though its rivals plan to trade single-stock futures in fully-automated environments, the Amex is sticking with its strategy to roll out the hybrid product on its floor. But will the Amex be able to compete with the likes of NQLX and OneChicago? And what factors will determine the success or failure of each SSF market? WS&T searches for answers.

As rival all-electronic markets such as NQLX and OneChicago get prepared to launch, the American Stock Exchange defiantly remains committed to trading single-stock-futures contracts on its floor. But will the Amex's specialist-driven environment be able to match up with fully-electronic competitors, in terms of offering its customers liquidity, speed and best execution?

Do not adjust your eyes. Do not make a mad dash for another cup of coffee. You are about to take a journey into the unknown, into an unpredictable financial-markets landscape filled with controversial business models and sophisticated trading platforms. Be prepared. There is no turning back. You are now entering, The Hybrid Zone.

Our story begins with the pending launch of single-stock futures (SSF), hybrid contracts that have not seen the light of day in the United States in more than 20 years. The main character in our tale is the American Stock Exchange - a multi-faceted securities market that has defied conventional thinking in recent years.

SSF - futures based on individual stocks - have spawned the creation of four separate markets, including NQLX, OneChicago, the Island Futures Exchange and the Amex's SSF unit. Pending the expected resolution of a few regulatory issues, the exchanges will make their debut later this year. But while NQLX, OneChicago and Island all plan to trade SSF contracts electronically, on a full-time basis, the Amex has decided to swim against the current by trading the contracts in a specialist-driven, open-outcry environment.

Logically, you may ask, why would Amex shun the trend toward automation in favor of a model that could potentially have a hard time competing against all-electronic competitors in areas such as speed? The answer, in a word, is liquidity. Over the past two years, the Amex has been able to turn around its fortunes via the launch of exchange-traded funds, a new product line, and the enhancement of its incumbent equity-options business. Though they are supplemented by electronic-trading applications, both product lines are still traded in the Amex's open-outcry pits, and the exchange believes it can leverage its options success by trading SSF contracts on its floor.

"When you start talking about futures on individual stocks, we have a large captive audience of liquidity providers who already trade in virtually all of the names that we would trade futures on," says Michael T. Bickford, senior vice president in charge of options at the Amex. "Our plan is to put the (SSF contracts) in the same crowd with the options, so that Intel futures will trade at the same post and in the same pit as the Intel options will. And we think there are enormous synergies that will go on between the two - synergies that will provide extra trading and liquidity in both."

Today, options trading at the Amex is supplemented by technology. About 70 percent of options trades are electronically routed to specialists' order books, via the Amex's so-called common-message switch, says Bickford. Moreover, he says that between 13 and 15 percent of Amex's options volume is executed automatically via the exchange's trade-matching engine. Bickford refuses to say whether the Amex is projecting similar numbers for SSF trading, but asserts that the exchange expects to attract sufficient interest from independent software vendors (ISVs) that can electronically route customers' SSF orders to the Amex's floor. "It's my belief that a lot of these (vendors) already do business with us, and are coming into our system through CMS," he says.

However, three large ISVs currently have no intention of routing their customers' SSF orders to Amex. Sonic Trading, a direct-access broker focusing on equities; patsystems, an ISV specializing in derivatives; and Interactive Brokers, a direct-access vendor that provides access to a variety of equities, options and derivatives markets - all presently have no intention of building SSF interfaces to the Amex.

Sonic and patsystems cite a lack of customer demand as their primary reason for passing over access to Amex, while IB says that Amex's open-outcry model does not fit with its strategy. "We're not particularly interested in the Amex. Our model has always been electronic. We focus on being the cheapest and quickest, and offering customers best execution. And we don't feel that a floor-based model offers that," says Steve Sanders, vice president of business development at IB.

That said, Amex has attracted SSF interest from at least a few ISVs. Blackwood Trading, in contrast to its direct-access competitors, is leaning towards offering its customers immediate access to the Amex's SSF contracts. Craig Schlifstein, chief strategist and founder of Blackwood, says the vendor already routes listed-equity orders to Amex via CMS, and is optimistic about Amex's chances to succeed in the SSF market. "Our development philosophy is that we'll write to any pool of liquidity. So if the Amex is able to make a market in single-stock futures, and have some liquidity there, then we'll certainly write to it," he says.

OneChicago and NQLX: Speedier Alternatives?
Like Sonic, patsystems and IB, Blackwood plans to write interfaces to the trading engines employed by NQLX and OneChicago (see sidebar). NQLX, a joint venture between the Nasdaq Stock Market and the London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange, is going to be driven by a central-limit-order book, supplemented by market makers. Multiple market makers will be responsible for maintaining two-sided quotes in each SSF contract NQLX trades, and Liffe Connect, Liffe's matching engine, will be responsible for matching all of the buy and sell orders that are electronically delivered to the exchange.

Thomas Ascher, chief executive officer of NQLX, says that Liffe Connect's open architecture is one of the factors that should differentiate NQLX from its competitors. "We are not mandating that you must use this front end or that front end, and that comes from an architecture built around having an API and a community of ISVs."

Anthony Orantes, vice president of finance and brokerage operations at Sonic, says the vendor is impressed at the speed with which Liffe Connect turns around orders. Moreover, he says NQLX deserves credit for being the first SSF market to actively recruit ISVs. "They sought out liquidity providers, or anyone that could add liquidity to the market, as aggressively as possible. I received relentless phone calls from them, on a daily basis," he recalls.

However, though he gives NQLX the edge in technology, Orantes also describes OneChicago - a joint venture comprised of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Chicago Board Options Exchange and Chicago Board of Trade - as the SSF market with the most potential to attract immediate liquidity.

OneChicago plans to trade SSF contracts in an electronic-auction environment, employing so-called Lead Market Makers (LMMs) to maintain two-sided quotes. Each LMM will serve as the primary liquidity provider for the SSF contract (or contracts) he or she is assigned.

From a technology point of view, OneChicago will rely on CBOEdirect - the CBOE's electronic-trading platform - as its matching engine. Participants in OneChicago will have a choice of either routing an SSF order directly to CBOEdirect or entering a trade into Globex - the CME's trading platform.

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