Why the London Metal Exchange is investing £1m in new technology for old-style 'pit trading'

By Graeme Burton
26 Jun 2014 View Comments

The trading floors of stock exchanges used to be legendary: noisy, crowded, sweaty and very physical: any trade for stocks, shares, commodities or whatever it was that the exchange specialised in trading, was done on the trading room floor, face to face, between either buyer and seller, or their representatives phoning in their orders.

Most of those "open-outcry trading floors", however, are long gone. The last physical trading exchange still going in Europe is "the Ring" of the London Metal Exchange (LME) on Leadenhall Street, where clerks, still write down and relay phone orders to poker-faced traders in the Ring who buy and sell directly with each other.

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And instead of closing it down and going 100 per cent electronic, the LME announced this week that it will be investing £1m in bringing its trading floor up-to-date.

"We had a complete review [of the Ring] and we think it still serves a purpose. We think it co-exists well with the electronic trading system and the telephone market, too," says Robin Paine, who was appointed chief technology officer at the LME in June 2013 in advance of a plan to in-source IT development work from Xchanging, in order to improve the organisation's agility.

While the LME accounts for some 80 per cent of the world's traded metals, the Ring accounts for just five per cent of this - typically peaking at midday, just before lunch, and 4pm, just before traders have to do their paperwork before packing up for the day. The reason? "It still serves an important value in terms of price discovery - determining the price of copper, aluminium and so on," says Paine. It also provides valuable liquidity to the market, particularly at key times.

The plans for the Ring, continues Paine, involve vastly increasing the level of information available on the trading floor via upgraded screens, updated communications that will prevent clerks from getting tangled up in phone cords and, potentially, the use of hand-held devices, such as iPads - although precise plans for how far-reaching that may be haven't been fully decided yet.

"There will be mobile devices, 'wall boards' to ease the dissemination of data and other technology as well to ensure that there is no divergence of pricing" between the various ways in which people trade on the exchange, says Paine.

The board of the LME believes that in an era of market abuse scandals, such as the Libor price fixing scandal, trading face-to-face can act as a check on potential abuses by providing an open price-discovery process for metals in a closely policed environment.

Indeed, the Ring is replete with security measures, too. These include a "referee" who sits in the Ring to oversee activity, and sensitive microphones to record negotiations so that if a lady's or gentleman's word proves not to be their bond, the market can adjudicate.

Strictly speaking, there is one other physical trading floor still left in Europe, although it is rarely used: that is at the LME's back-up facility in Essex, where a replica of the Ring will, likewise, also be upgraded.

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