I thought my previous post on the brokerage industry would receive minimal hits as it is quite a dry topic and has no entertainment value. However, I am glad that I have been proven wrong. Considering that a lot of users are interesting in reading such dry topics, I will continue to publish such analysis in the future.

I had given a brief overview of the industry in the previous post. I will try to analyze the economics of the industry in this post

The typical research report (at least the free ones) on industry analysis typically give pages and pages of past and current statistics, without attempting to look at the broader picture or overall dynamics of the industry.

Why is that important?
If one has to make a long term investment in a company, it is crucial to understand the long term economics and direction of the industry and the company in particular. The statistics and various parameters of the industry are just the starting point of the analysis.

Lets try to evaluate the brokerage industry

The brokerage industry is currently characterized by a large number of companies (private or unorganized). In effect it is a fragmented industry with a large number of participants.The industry thus has monopolistic competition (text book term) – a large number of firms selling a slightly differentiated product.

Let analyze the industry based on Michael porter’s five factor model

Barriers to entry
The industry  now has a certain level of entry barriers. The primary brokerage firms need to have a certain scale and size as the business involves a high level of fixed costs in the form of technology platform, distribution network and back office operations. In addition brand recognition is also important to attract new customers.

A new entrant in addition to the above also needs a reasonable level of capital to fund the working capital requirements of the business (finance to customers, deposits with exchanges etc).

These scale requirements are increasing constantly and as a result a new entrant will require higher levels of investments in the future to enter the business.  As pointed out by ansh in the comments, it is unlikely that we will see many new entrants in the industry. On the contrary, it is likely that the smaller players will exit by selling out or closing shop.

Supplier power – not relevant in most segments except investment banking, where employees control client relationships and hence have to be highly compensated

Buyer power – This is important in the institutional brokerage business which involves high volumes and low brokerage charges. The extent of buyer power is very low to non-existent in all kinds of retail segments

Substitute product – Not applicable

Rivalry determinant – This industry is now in a fairly high growth phase. However the brokerage industry is very cyclical and is impacted by the activity levels in the markets. During the downturns such as 2008-2009 period, the smaller players were squeezed out of the business. As a result there is a constant consolidation happening in the industry.

In summary the industry has moderate to low level of competitive advantage. There is low level of customer lockin and a customer will move his/her business if the brokerage rates are not competitive with the rest of industry. The only competitive advantage for the companies in this sector comes from size and scale which enables them to leverage their size to reduce average costs and thus make a profit on low brokerage margins.

Other points of analysis
In addition to the high fixed costs, the industry has very low marginal cost. As a result the cost of adding an additional customer is low and per transaction costs are limited. Due to this reason, we are seeing a constant pressure on the brokerage rates (similar to telecom which also has a very low marginal cost). This downward pressure on the brokerage rates has intensified the competition in the industry and is resulting in consolidation with the top players.

The basic brokerage business is now sometimes a  loss leader to enable the brokerage firm to acquire customers and sell other products such as wealth management services, PMS or third party mutual funds. The agency business is thus a Iow margin, lower risk and a fairly predictable kind of business. This segment will provide adequate returns in the future for a company with scale.

The capital business involving financing is similar to a banking operation and is mainly a lending or a support business for the brokerage operation. This  is a high risk and sometimes a high return business. It is easy to grow in this segment by taking large quantities of debt and then investing in high risk assets. However the risk of a black swan or plain old recession wiping out your business is very high.

Finally the treasury business is a trading operation driven by the skills of a select set of individuals. In the same manner business such as investment banking is also a very competitive business driven by key customer relationships. It is difficult to evaluate the competitive advantage in these businesses as it is driven by a few key employees, who can leave and thus take away your revenue streams and profits

I personally prefer low to moderate businesses with above average returns. In view of this preference, I am likely to reject high growth/ high risk businesses in the brokerage space and likely to focus on companies which are focused on the agency business.

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