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A mouse clicks: the deal is done

The computer magic that created Jurassic Park is set to reshape broking, Charles Arthur finds
ON THE computer screen, a number of green and red objects - some shaped like bullets, others like peculiar ice-cream cones - seem to float against a blue grid. To the casual observer, they might look like new designs for vases or lampshades. John Osborne clicks the mouse button on one of the shapes, and it begins whirling around like a top. "Now if Barings had had this," he says, "they would have spotted Nick Leeson in no time."

Mr Osborne, a director of Fusion Systems in London, is promoting a new piece of software, one of an emerging category which could revolutionise broking and risk management. Instead of describing asset values and exposures with numbers, powerful computers can now render the information as three- dimensional pictures.

On another screen, lines assemble like armies under national flags. Above the lines, spines project up the screen, indicating the value of an asset. Russell Amer, of the computer consultancy Logica, moves the mouse pointer over the American flag and deftly manipulates it. "Now we see what happens if the dollar falls against the yen," he says. Some of the spines shrink, while over by the Japanese flag, others grow.

A number of software companies are seizing the chance to get into some of the biggest markets in the world. On the first screen described above, the width of the shape at any point indicates the value of that stock or bond at that point in time. Ice-cream cones are good news: they indicate stocks or bonds whose value has appreciated since they were bought. "Bullets" are bad news, since they indicate an asset whose value has fallen. The computer is programmed to change the shape's colour from green to red if the asset's value falls below its purchase value.

An asset's exposure to foreign exchange or bond price movements can be represented by how much it "spins". A well-hedged asset runs as smoothly as an axle; a badly positioned one like a child's top winding down. Software like this, argues Mr Osborne, could have let managers at Baring's get a quick view of the activities and exposures of all their traders. Mr Leeson's positions would have spun like drunks on a dance floor.

Even so, City asset managers are wary. "Certainly, a picture is worth a thousand words," says John Sharman, head of global bonds at Henderson Administration. "But I'm happy here to see the numbers in a spreadsheet which I can toggle along to find the information I want." But he finds even that a revelation, since at his previous employers, six months ago, he was working with pencil and paper to calculate exposures and liquidity.

However, the City is usually slow to accept new technologies. It seemed quite revolutionary when the Stock Exchange had its Big Bang in 1986, and market-makers could spot share price changes by the change in colour: blue for upwards movement, red for downwards. When the crash came in October 1987, traders referred to their screens "running with blood".

But computers can now do far more, far faster, with real-world data. "The surface of what this can do has hardly been scratch- ed," says Mr Amer, who is head of Logica's investment software division. "The problem before wasn't price. These financial companies can afford to buy this stuff - if it works and gives them an edge."

William Wright, head of Visible Decision, a company that has written some of the software to help visualise such data, says:"If you can show finance houses a solution to a problem, they will do anything to get it. And they love it if they're the only ones to have it."

Mr Amer is showing off a new software package written on a Silicon Graphics workstation, more commonly used for intensive applications such as digital retouching in films: if you have seen Jurassic Park or Terminator 2, you have seen what its computers can do with film. Now they want to do the same for finance.

Silicon Graphics is presently working on a project for the New York Stock Exchange to put the data that presently occupies more than 16 screens on to just two. Other buyers include the Bank of Nova Scotia, Chase Manhattan Bank and Lehman Brothers.

"You can do things with your portfolio that you couldn't with slower machines and static reports," says Mike Durland, Bank of Nova Scotia's general manager. "This visual representation really helps us see what's going on when we're working on hedging positions with securities."

Mr Osborne is sure that the market will take up these products, simply because it will start moving so fast that not thaving the latest software will mean risking losses.

"We can program this so that if you don't like the shape of one of your assets, or how it's spinning, then with just four clicks of your mouse you can liquidate the position. Traders want that. It's going to come."