With the Athens Stock Exchange (ASE) dropping to its lowest level since spring 1998, to 1,703.69 points, yesterday – 72.19 percent below its September, 1999 all-time high of 6,355.04 points – it was inevitable that the crisis would hit brokerages. More than 6,000 brokers have been fired in recent months. Hardest hit are the smallest brokerages which mushroomed throughout the country in 1999, the so-called «order reception and transmission companies» (ELDE) that could not trade directly on the ASE but worked through one of about 90 members of the stock market. It is a real surprise that only 60 percent of these have shut down; one wonders how most of the rest are faring, since they are now deeply in debt. Three years of decline is a very long time for investors, most of whom entered the market at its peak and who invested years of hard-earned savings. It is no surprise that most of them have abandoned the stock market and are unlikely to return. In the summer of 1999, over 1.5 million people had opened accounts to trade on the stock market. Nowadays, there are about 100,000 accounts, of which barely 30,000 are active. It is also estimated that, of the current account holders, six out of seven have been losing money on their investments. Trade volume has been declining steadily. In 2001, about 0.42 percent of all stocks held changed hands every day. This dropped to 0.24 percent in 2002. The ASE-member brokerages are not in very good shape, either. It is estimated that 9,300 of their accounts, individual and corporate, have defaulted, costing brokerages about 125 million euros. Brokerages have also lent upward of 100 million euros to clients to allow them to buy stocks on margin. It is said that the majority of the ASE-member brokerages are kept afloat through the reserves accumulated in 1999. No one, however, can say how long this will last. Currently, presidents of brokerage firms meet almost daily, looking for a solution to their severe liquidity problems. Brokerages that are subsidiaries of banks are in relatively better shape, while worst off are the family-run brokerages, which remain the majority of ASE-member firms. In such a climate, merger talks thrive. Sigma and Kappa brokerages, which first considered merging a year ago, have resumed talks. Among midsized brokerages, Voillis and Pentedekas are also discussing a possible merger.