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Can a System Save$1B on Commissions?

Investors in externally managed and sub-advised accounts could save about $1 billion a year in commissions paid to brokerage firms by their fund managers.

So says UAT, a Denver-based technology firm specializing on serving externally managed funds and the sub-advisor industry.

Launched last year, the firm started off life providing pre-trade compliance and commission-saving software to sub-advisors. But in late February, UAT launched a new web-based system called iPerX that it said could triple the rate of commissions recaptured. Where existing service providers recapture 25% of commissions paid out to brokers, UAT says its system recaptures 75%.

Roughly speaking, if a fund manager thus spends $1,000 with a broker-dealer on commissions, UAT says it can save the fund manager about $750 while other commission recapture firms win back about $250 of that amount.

Externally or sub-advised accounts are pools of assets managed by a firm other than the one holding the assets. About 13% of mutual fund assets are externally managed while 42% of variable annuity assets are, according to Financial Research Corp., a Boston-based research firm specializing in investment and asset management.

"Money managers overseeing these assets can increase the efficiency of their trading desk as they gain an automated algorithm that saves their institutional clients millions annually for the benefit of the underlying individuals in these products," claims Tom Warren, president of UAT, which has won five patents from the U.S. Patent Office for its technology and business methodology.

Here is how iPerX works.

At its core is an algorithm that allows money managers to categorize their orders using a real-time rules based process as either high-touch or low-touch based on their potential market impact.

The big savings are in putting "low touch" orders into low-cost venues.

That's because the low-touch, low-impact orders can account for 75% of an account's order flow. That flow, which can be largely automated, gets routed to designated low-cost agency brokers to maximize commission savings.

The money manager's trading desk then "works" the high-touch orders to provide value-added services on orders with significant market impact. iPerX is customizable down to the individual identification number of the security involved. The fund manager or sub-advisor controls the rules of the algorithm while the sub-advised fund can have real-time access to how the trade is being divided and which broker-dealer is executing the order. This is achieved through the Web portal.

Warren says that it is because of iPerX's ability to separate low-touch from high-touch orders that money managers are able to save so much on commissions.

UAT has agreements with several agency broker-dealers that can execute those orders cheaply-for as little as 0.8 cents a share.

Because it is not a registered broker-dealer, UAT makes fees based on a percentage-it won't disclose what that is-of the total value of the assets in the sub-advised account.

What do incumbent commission recapture firms think? "If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is," says David Choate, senior vice president at Capital Institutional Services, an agency brokerage and commission management specialist in Dallas.

For one, Choate says, commission recapture is a misnomer when it comes to iPerX. "UAT is attempt to make its program sound familiar to prospective clients but its really not commission recapture but trade recapture," asserts Choate. The phrase typically refers to the practice of fund managers "recapturing" a percentage of the commissions paid to broker-dealers after they are paid.

Semantics aside, Choate disputes UAT's premise that the cost savings can be achieved by UAT's broker-dealer partners executing part of the block order.

UAT, for instance, believes that any order that represents 4% or less of the average daily volume of a stock can and should be handled in an automated or "low touch" way.

Four percent seems "very high" given the fact that a trade involving 20% of the average daily volume of a stock can take the entire day to process, Choate says. He suggests a cap of 1%.

"A 4% order can easily be a two-hour execution process, and I don't know many traders who would put an order in a box for two hours and walk away," Choate says.

His other two concerns: information leakage and potential competition. Investment managers of sub-advised accounts are very concerned about others knowing what they are trading.

Given the fact that UAT may decide to execute the order through one of its trading partners, money managers of the sub-advised accounts would face immediate competition.

Presumably, the money manager would send the UAT-related portion of the block trade at the same time the remaining block is sent to the sub-adviser's trading desk for execution. Should UAT elect to execute its piece, two firms would be competing for the available shares and the situation becomes even worse if the sub-adviser has more than one fund using UAT's technology.