LONDON -- Turnover in European equities trading is at its lightest since the euro zone debt crisis began and is set to stay low as shaky economies and stricter regulation shrink business for the financial industry.
Those two major drags mean the equity trading industry is unlikely to benefit much in 2013, even though leading investment banks are increasingly advising clients to buy the region's cheap shares after policymaker efforts to fix the debt crisis.
Shares worth 14.8 trillion euros changed hands in Europe in the first 11 months of 2012, down 17.3 percent year-on-year and the lowest total since 2009, according to Thomson Reuters Equity Market Share Reporter data.
The low turnover reflects a lack of investor confidence after three years of the debt crisis, reducing the funds available to put into equities as Europe's economy and the financial industry contract.
"If you are confronted on a daily basis with uncertainty with regards to policy you simply do not jump into the water," Patrick Moonen, a strategist at ING Investment Management in Amsterdam, said. He added inv e stors would wait for better economic data before moving back wholeheartedly into equities.
Crisis-fighting plans from central banks have recently driven down bond yields, fuelling an 18 percent low-volume rally in European stocks since June and leading European fund managers to increase the share of their portfolios invested in equities to a 20-month high in November.
But with European economies likely to stay weak and new rules making equity investment less attractive, volumes were expected to grow by a meagre 3 percent in 2013, according to Europe's largest exchange, BATS Chi-X.
"Any pickup in equity volumes from asset reallocation will be offset by a decline in volumes for other reasons, such as regulation, transaction taxes and general austerity," a London-based trader said.
Alongside economic weakness, equity volumes were likely to be constrained over the longer term by tighter capital requirements imposed on financial companies in an effort to make them better able to withstand financial turmoil.
European insurers, which have investments of 7.7 trillion euros, according to industry body Insurance Europe, will have to put up more capital against holdings of risky assets.
The new Solvency II rules, which are due to take effect in 2014 but may be delayed, mean insurers will need to hold capital equivalent to nearly 40 percent of the value of a stock position, compared with around 10 percent for a triple-A rated, five-year government bond, according to BNP Paribas Investment Partners estimates.
AXA Investment Management estimates the prospect of the reform has driven a 500 billion euro shift out of equities and into debt since 2009, reducing total return on European shares by up to a quarter.
"Even if Solvency II is delayed, the discipline will remain in place at insurance companies. They've moved from a culture of performance to a culture of risk control," said Anita Barczewski, head of AXA IM's Framlington unit.
Similarly, banks have been asked to triple the basic capital they hold to comply with the Basel III reform, a global response to the financial crisis due to be phased in from next year.
This is leading many to scale back capital-intensive trading businesses, including proprietary, or "prop", desks that invest the banks' own money -- contributing to the drop in volume.
By taking capital out of equities, these large, long-term buyers reduce market liquidity, denting businesses that depend on volumes, such as execution trading houses, which buy or sell according to orders from portfolio managers.
Investment banks are feeling the pain. Revenues from equities for the top 10 banks was $26 billion in the first nine months of 2012, down 10 percent on a year before, according to analytics group Coalition. Cash equities revenues were down about a quarter.
The impact of the fall in volume was clear last month, when Citigroup laid off 50 staff from its cash equity unit as part of broader redundancies in investment banking, sources told Reuters.
Major banks have cut 160,000 jobs since early 2011, with redundancies in Europe outnumbering Asia or the United States, according to Reuters analysis.
"At a prop level, people are less prepared to risk their reputation because in this environment it takes very little for your bosses to say 'you screwed up, you're out'," a pan-European, Milan-based broker said.
"After the (2007-09 financial) disaster people thought we'd come back quickly but that hasn't been the case. Now people are starting to think we'll never go back to a pre-crisis world or that it would take a lot of time."
The value of the average trade on the Euro STOXX 50 index dropped to around 24,000 euros in October from around 36,000 euros in early 2008, according to Credit Suisse.
Traders said plans for a transaction tax in 11 euro zone countries, intended to make the financial sector contribute to the cost of the debt crisis, were already curbing plans to expand trading activity.
One London trader said the new rules were suppressing volumes and making investment less worthwhile.
"One day (regulators) might realise this but it's a long way off, and by that time the industry will probably look substantially different to how it is now."
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