High net worth investors are being lured away from traditional stock brokers by a new breed of fast-growing spread betting company. The industry leaders now have dedicated desks focusing on attracting and serving these wealthier individuals, who can be relied upon to have larger sums to invest and trade more regularly.
It's a move that seems to be paying off. Many firms claim to have noticed a significant increase in the number of high fliers using their services and they expect this trend to continue as more seek to take charge of their finances.
It may be a fairly small group, but it's an important one, says Michael Hewson, market analyst at CMC Markets. "They are a very small part of the market but they can be very lucrative," he says. "All spread betting firms rely on turnover and volume so the more someone trades the more income gets generated and the better it is."
So why are high net worth individuals drawn to this area of the market? Paul Inkster, head of product at Barclays Stockbrokers, says the broad appeal of spread betting is the same for everyone – regardless of how much money they have to place.
"It offers investors the opportunity to speculate on major indices, currencies, commodities and individual equities quoted on leading exchanges," he explains. "Spread betting's versatility offers a flexible alternative to traditional trading by allowing investors to profit from both rising and falling markets."
Manoj Ladwa, senior trader and market commentator at ETX Capital, believes they see one of the key advantages of spread betting as the fact that all gains are tax free. For anyone getting hammered by the tax laws this will be very attractive.
"They also like the fact everything can be done from one account, regardless of whether they want to hedge currency exposure or trade Japanese stocks," he adds. "It saves them from having three or four brokers being involved."
By their very nature, a lot of these individuals are extremely busy and will view their investments in the same light as their other business interests. That's why being able to attend to them quickly, easily and efficiently is vitally important. "You tend to find what they do with us runs alongside their other business and personal interests," adds Ladwa. "They may have a very well paid job and a property portfolio but now want to make some money out of the markets as well."
David Jones, chief market strategist at IG Index, believes another reason for their interest is due to them having a higher amount of disposable cash, which gives them the freedom to be more active with their investments.
"Until recently they would have seen fairly poor returns from pensions and investment products, such as individual savings accounts, due to the stock market performance," he says. "For those willing to apportion a part of their investments to a higher risk approach, spread betting has a lot of appeal."
The fact that some financial institutions have made such a disastrous job of managing people's investments will continue to encourage them to take control of their own financial situations, predicts Hewson.
"Spread betting is obviously one of a number of ways in which people can look to manage their earnings as part of an overall investment strategy," he says. "They are also more confident about the industry, because it is regulated by the FSA, whereas in years gone by its name gave it more of a bookmaker or punt feel."
These days, a lot of the people operating in the industry are experienced former trading professionals who know the markets inside out. This is likely to be hugely comforting for anyone looking to take their first steps into spread betting, he adds. It's also easier to become involved – and to learn about the subject – while the fact that many spread betting firms offer demo accounts means people can familiarise themselves with the layout of trading platforms and learn without losing any money.
"There are definitely more resources available to teach would-be spread betters," agrees Hewson. "A lot is available via the internet, which means people can trade from home without the need for specialist software. All they require is a broadband connection and a semi-decent computer and they're off."
So what do high net worth individuals want from a spread betting firm? According to Ladwa, a key component for them will be the personal service that can be provided to them at any time of the day. "Those customers will get a dedicated broker looking after them who knows their interests as opposed to someone on the customer services team who will pick up the phone and not know them from Adam," he says.
The last thing they need is someone clearly fresh out of university without the requisite knowledge. "They want a person who knows and understands the market," he explains. "It will be important for them to have someone who is proactively keeping an eye on their trades and looking out for anything that may potentially be of interest."
Generally, firms say high net worth spread betters can be split into two camps. In the first are those who thrive on volatility and want to trade assets that are moving, such as currencies. In the second it's those trading traditional stock markets and shares.
However, there are risks involved – even for those with more money to commit to spread betting on a regular basis, points out Inkster. Being successful in this market requires a level of analysis and understanding. "Investors who want to try this type of trading for the first time need to bear in mind that although it presents an opportunity to make significant profits, the geared nature of the product means that a relatively small movement in price of the underlying security will result in a much larger movement in the trader's profit and loss, so it is possible to lose more than the initial deposit," he explains.
So what is the future likely to hold? Many of the spread betting firms are convinced that more high net worth individuals will be drawn into this market because they are becomingly increasingly sophisticated and want to exert more control over their investments.
All that can derail the growth would be some form of external pressure, according to Hewson. If everything stays the same then the industry will thrive, he believes, but it's dependent on the economic backdrop remaining stable. "The unique selling point of spread betting has always been that you get to keep all your winnings," he says. "However, there's always the worry that the Government will suddenly see a lucrative industry and tax it."
For Hewson and the rest of the spread betting world this would be the ultimate nightmare scenario. "I can assure you that if they tax the spread betting industry they will kill it stone dead, but given the deficit problems that all countries have at the moment I wouldn't put it past anyone to kill the goose that's laid the golden egg."
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