A problem in many modern financial trading environments is that you are trading directly with the opposing principal to your trade. Your opposing principal is whomever is selling when you are buying, and buying when you are selling.
This is often referred to as “counter-party risk”.
An opposing principal’s interest conflicts with yours, because what is best for them – i.e. to sell you something for the highest possible price – is clearly not best for you. Professionals on markets quickly develop a sixth sense, which they use to detect whether or not you are a buyer or seller, and they adjust their price to suit. There is usually not much you can do about it.
Except, of course, to choose who you do business with! Especially when buying gold or buying silver.
This conflict of interest has been well understood for 300 years and many traditional financial exchanges around the world were structured to eliminate it by forcing market access to come through member agents.
In markets structured with member agents each agent knew the marketplace intimately, but did not own inventory and was barred from buying from or selling to customers. This meant that an agent had no conflicting interest in overpricing what was bought on the customer’s behalf, and could be relied upon to act within the market in the customer’s best interest. One of the best ways of doing that was to skilfully hide from the principal whether the agent was acting for a buyer or seller.
The problem with this old structure was that agents were remunerated by commission, which they supposedly earned by assiduously checking the marketplace for the best available price, negotiating hard with principals in the market, and by otherwise generally taking care of the customer. But as investment buying power concentrated in fewer and fewer large financial corporations they grew to resent paying commissions to agents when they themselves were well capable of locating and acting with opposing principals on their own behalf.
These big exchange users, the mutuals and their global equivalents, demanded the right to trade direct with the market principals.
So the agent structure was widely discarded and the principal conflict re-appeared. It was thought that if the conflict was allowed back in, but strict rules were made telling firms how not to abuse it, then they wouldn’t; and meanwhile the big market users would be happy too.
The main rules implemented to defuse the direct principal trading conflict were:
- When a firm dealt as principal it should declare so, which would flag the conflict to the customer. Unfortunately the subtlety of the principal /agency dilemma was not understood by many customers, who have tended to assume that as long as the second rule was obeyed they were being fairly treated.
- The second rule was that when a firm dealt as principal with its customer it must at least match the best price available elsewhere on the market. This was widely called the ‘duty of best execution’.
But the rules approach failed.
A problem with almost all financial exchanges is that there is a delay from trade to settlement, which imposes a risk that one side or another can default (which means fail to pay for, or deliver, what has been traded).
Remember when Lehman Brothers failed?
An exchange based on competing prices only works where the identity of the opposing principal is irrelevant in credit risk terms. Otherwise buyers and sellers only deal with people they trust, and the exchange degenerates into an over-the-counter system where offering the best price doesn’t necessarily win business.
So on modern exchanges the delay in settlement – and the credit risk of default – ends up being managed by a central clearing mechanism, which guarantees the performance of every trade, regardless of counterparty. This makes price the only remaining material fact in selecting who you’re going to deal with.
Yet no central clearer is prepared to extend that guarantee against default unless it has some measure of control over who is receiving it, so clearers at the centre of exchanges require an exclusive membership which is monitored for creditworthiness. Then the advertising of competing prices is reserved exclusively to those members.
And this is where the system starts to go wrong. When exchange member firms are granted exclusivity on posting prices each is soon best served by making an effort to specialise in a narrow range of instruments. As they develop this specialised liquidity they deliberately don’t post their own trading prices publicly, and they allow posted market spreads to widen as liquidity drops across all the less specialised competition.
But to their own customers they trade inside the illiquid, posted and wide prices – apparently serving their customers well and enhancing their own reputation in their chosen specialisation.
The end result is that many orders do not make it to the public exchange, and no-one knows what the best exchange price is. A wide spread soon accumulates to specialists at very little risk, and the cost is borne by buyers and sellers not through commissions but through the difference between wide buying and selling prices.
BullionVault offers an overdue solution to the dilemma. Unlike the legal rights to a stock, or a bond, recorded in a central clearer, the ownership of physical gold can be exchanged instantaneously for money – just as if it were bought in a street market.
So BullionVault settles gold trades immediately. This eliminates the credit exposure involved in settlement delays.
By demanding that the cash and bullion resources are on hand for all participants at the instant of trade the exclusive monitored membership problem disappears, and the technology of the order board can be deployed openly to anyone – via the internet.
The only way to buy or sell gold on BullionVault is through transmitting your order directly to the market, and everyone does this on their own account. The result is that when you trade it can be said with true confidence – and proven – that there were no better available prices. BullionVault cannot hide customers’ prices, suppress competition, and take the turn. Everyone competes openly on price.
And this is why dealing spreads available to the retail customer are so narrow on BullionVault.
Open a free account at BullionVault, get a free gram of gold, and start trading almost immediately.