ECONOMY

Stockbrokers face crisis as investors are wary of ASE

Stockbrokers are increasingly looking as if they are trapped in shifting sands. Three days before Thursday’s election of a new board for their association, SMEHA, brokerage managers agree that this is the most difficult period for their sector in many years. The low turnover on the Athens Stock Exchange, the large number of investor accounts in the red and the continuing reluctance of those investors who entered the market in the good old days of 1998 and 1999 to return are slowly asphyxiating the majority of brokerages due to lack of liquidity. Many brokers are seriously considering shutting their brokerages and offering their clients’ accounts to one of the big banks. After all, developments have been favoring those brokerages that are bank subsidiaries at the expense of independent firms. There is no stronger indication of a crisis than the fact that SMEHA’s own president, Panayiotis Voilis, was forced to close his brokerage earlier this month. Another brokerage, Rate Capital, also terminated its operations. The closure of P&A Voilis SA took place after the Capital Market Commission, the market watchdog, discovered that, in the last three ASE sessions during which P&A Voilis participated, it accumulated losses of some 2 million euros. After an extraordinary session the Commission’s board decided to suspend Voilis. Also in early September, Geniki Bank (formerly General Bank) announced that its own brokerage would stop accepting buy and sell orders on October 25. In a statement, Geniki said that all its customers will receive in coming days a letter instructing them on how to transfer their portfolios to the brokerage of their choice. Geniki’s decision is part of the choice of its new majority shareholder, France’s Societe Generale, to develop the retail banking activities and terminate its brokerage operations. Despite Geniki’s example, the brokerage subsidiaries of other Greek banks consolidate their domination of the sector in 2003. The top five brokers, by turnover, are all bank subsidiaries. The banks’ wide client network and ability to offer a variety of investment products are a major weapon against independent brokers. Last year was one of recovery from a protracted period of decline for the ASE, while lasted a total of 42.5 months (Sept. 17, 1999-Mar. 31, 2003). This provided a boost in turnover which, however, proved temporary: 12 months ago, for example, turnover per session averaged over 200 million euros. This year, a year of stagnation, it exceeds 100 million only occasionally. Last year’s recovery gave a lease of life to middle-ranking brokers who also managed to contain their costs. The greatest increase in turnover (203.2 percent) was by a relatively new firm, G-Trade. The fact remains, however, that the number of active brokers (78) is way too high for a small market like Greece’s. If the ASE’s stagnation continues, a big shake-up in the sector is inevitable.