The death of a stockbroker?

It's been a bad year for the broking industry with losses and reversals. And there could be a lot of scrapping before things settle down. But what will be left by the end of 2010, asks Simon Evans

The debate about bonus payouts at Royal Bank of Scotland continues to grab the headlines but, for a large section of the Square Mile, this Christmas is unlikely to bring much festive cheer.

In the independent broking market, the unfashionable backbone of the City of London, no such arguments rage. Instead, there is widespread resignation over the belief that there won't be any bonuses this year. And if there are payouts, they certainly won't be stellar.

Quite simply, the sector has gone through the most difficult 12 months in its history.

"The combination of the end of last year and the first three quarters of this have added up to make this one of the most difficult times in the City I can remember," says Tim Linacre, the chief executive of Panmure Gordon.

The results of the brokers (see box) certainly show that 2009 has been a torrid year.

Just last week, Numis, the broker led by Oliver Hemsley, posted a loss of more than £10m for the year. The loss came despite the broker raising nearly £800m for its corporate customers looking to bolster their ailing balance sheets.

"If Numis is losing money, it says a lot about the state of the independent broking market at the moment," says one rival who declined to be named.

Profits have been hard to come by across the board, with the smaller players in particular having been hit hardest.

The listed groups Arden Partners, Astaire Securities, Daniel Stewart and WH Ireland have all lost money. And accounts recently released by privately owned firms including Altium Capital and Fairfax make grim reading too, while the American firm Pali International has, in effect, raised the white flag on its London foray by slashing its staff numbers.

The travails of the smaller players in the sector have inevitably given rise to consolidation and sales.

A number of sell-offs, still in their infancy, include the disposal of Peel Hunt by its Belgian parent, KBC. The price tag for the business, which has performed relatively well throughout the crisis, is believed to be as little as £30m – a fraction of the £220m KBC paid for the business in 2000. It is thought that as many as 10 firms could table offers for the group.

Noble, the troubled Scottish independent, is set to be gobbled up by Execution, the broker run by the former Deutsche Bank trader Nick Finegold. Execution is itself likely to buddy up with a larger player as well, namely Portugal's Banco Espirito Santo, rather than the reported Lloyds Bank, which may seem the likelier partner.

QInvest, a Middle Eastern-based investor, bought a 44 per cent stake in Panmure Gordon, one of the City's oldest brokers, at a bargain basement price earlier in the year, while Altium Capital and Seymour Pierce, led by the football financier Keith Harris, are thought to be on the shopping list of other foreign predators looking to gain access to the London market.

For the independent firms battling for survival during 2009, the lifeblood has been the rights issue.

Estimates suggest that around £40bn worth of capital has been raised by British companies so far in 2009. A large proportion of that amount has been raised by small and medium-sized companies outside the FTSE 100 index. And as with the large investment banks, there have clearly been winners and losers in the independent pool.

Oriel Securities, which had a tough time in 2008, is on course to post record numbers this year. The privately owned group has raised more than £1bn for corporate clients this year – quite a feat, given total sales at the Simon Bragg-led firm were just £13.5m last year.

"Oriel is on track for a record year," says Mr Bragg. "Certainly, 2009 will go down as the year of the rights issue. Institutions injected a huge amount of capital into the system in effect refinancing UK plc."

Such injections have not been without controversy though.

Numis, Evolution and Panmure Gordon sent a letter to the City minister, Lord Myners, last month crying foul over the bullying tactics by the largely state-owned bank RBS, using its considerable might to "force" companies that owe it money to buy their equity advice on capital-raising matters.

"All we want is a level playing field, so that [partially] state-owned banks can't bully their way into winning broking and capital markets business unfairly," said Numis's Mr Hemsley at the time.

Lord Myners gave the letter pretty short shrift, but it is believed that a number of brokers have since taken up his advice to contact the Office of Fair Trading about perceived grievances.

For brokers largely frozen out of the rights issue game, many have had to look hard in order to diversify their revenue streams.

Evolution, which has relatively prospered during the downturn, has developed a highly successful debt business to make up the shortfall from equities. Others have sought to follow suit, perhaps less successfully.

"I understand why some firms look to other areas, but it takes at least two years to develop new business divisions successfully, so we have decided to stick to what we know and ride this out," says Panmure's Mr Linacre, who thinks the worst is now firmly behind for most brokers.

"I have no doubt that 2010 will be an excellent year. Why? Because there is definitely a good pipeline of IPO activity coming, and secondary business too with further restructurings. Crucially, a lot of firms have got their houses in order and they are running with lower costs bases."

Many smaller firms are pinning their hopes of resurgence in the new listings market, which has largely been closed in 2009. Flotations across the Continent in 2009 have been worth less than 10 per cent of the £60bn raised at the top of the bull market in 2007.

Already, the markets are seeing plenty of cash-hungry private equity firms readying flotation plans for next year, including the likes of Gartmore, part-owned by the American private equity group Hellman & Friedman, which is looking to list the company at a price many believe to be expensive.

"I certainly think you'll see a lot more syndicates of banks working with an independent next year on a lot of these IPOs," says Mr Bragg. "The institutions backed last year's rights issues at an average discount of more than 30 per cent, so they are not going to back IPOs that are unrealistically priced. That's where the independent voice can come in and keep the big investment banks honest."

Whether the independents get a place at the top table of flotations next year is likely to be a key consideration in the survival of many.

But as one investment banker put it: "We aren't just going to roll over and let the small guys get in at every opportunity. There's going to be plenty of scrapping for every crumb on the table in 2010."

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