Liffe faces revolt

Local dealers fight exchange's move to screen-based trading
THE COMPLETION of Liffe's electronic revolution is under threat from the exchange's "local" dealers, who feel victimised by the introduction of Connect, the new screen-based trading system.

Locals, who uniquely trade the exchange's derivative products with their own money, say that the exchange has offered them free use of the new screens. They claim the offer of free software, hardware and exemption from transaction charges is motivated by Liffe's concern that the new system will fail. Liffe denies having made any such offer.

Two large UK banks, thought to be Halifax and NatWest, are said to be backing the locals in their drive to preserve the open-outcry pits, which have characterised the exchange through- out its 17-year existence.

The Euribor and short sterling markets, which enable participants to bet on the direction of European and UK interest rates, are next month due to convert to Connect. The move is expected to bring to an end open- outcry trading, where deals are executed by traders standing side-by-side in "pits".

Liffe has already switched most of its other contracts to Connect, but experts predict that the transfer of Euribor and short sterling will prove more troublesome.

The locals say that Liffe has offered them an olive branch out of concern that its business will dry up should they decide to give up. Some say they have been summoned to meetings where the exchange's management has expressed its eagerness for them to continue trading after the conversion to Connect.

However, Liffe's charm offensive has failed to assuage the bitterness felt on the exchange's floor at the way the transfer to Connect has been handled.

One local said: "Liffe has not consulted us at all about this so it is a bit strange that they have suddenly become concerned about us."

Having lost the vast majority of the German government bond futures market to Eurex, the automated German ex-change, Liffe is desperate to retain its dominance of the Euribor market to preserve its reputation as a global player. However, some of the banks who make up Liffe's customer base have argued that complex short-term interest rate products like Euribor and short sterling are best-suited to trading on open-outcry. They point out that Eurex's electronic screens have only managed to capture about 12 per cent of the Euribor market, even though the service is free.

Trading in both short sterling and Euribor will operate in tandem in the pits and on screens until at least March. Although Liffe has said that it will let the market determine which platform it prefers, locals claim that the exchange is set on closing the pits and transferring all its business to the screens. They are so incensed by this alleged intransigence that they are planning to hold a protest in the near future by boycotting the exchange for a day.

There is also concern that unlike pit traders, screen-based dealers do not need to be registered with a regulator. This has led to fears that the screens do not provide adequate security against rogue traders like Stephen Humphries, from Sussex Futures, who recently lost pounds 750,000 on unauthorised deals in the UK government bond futures market.