Market utilities in financial services: What role will you play?

March 22, 2016

Executive summary

With increasing frequency, companies in the financial-services industry are pooling resources, expertise, and capabilities to create market utilities focused on specific functions such as client services and on-boarding, trading and execution, and cash and collateral management. We define a market utility as follows: a multiparty commercial cooperative that fulfills a common need in a mutually beneficial way based on the capabilities that each party brings to the cooperative and the role that each plays.

More than 40 market utilities have been founded in the financial-services industry over the past several years, and in some cases multiple utilities have sprung up to perform the same function — for example, trading and execution, or data management. Many of our clients have pondered whether the formation of these utilities is a fad, and if not, whether they need to participate and in what capacity. It is our opinion that market utilities are going to be a permanent fixture in the industry. The formation of cooperative functions is a necessary response to the massive structural changes — regulatory as well as macroeconomic — that are sweeping the industry and creating a common set of needs in areas such as liquidity, compliance, and data sharing. Companies can tackle these needs more efficiently if they work as part of a consortium rather than on their own.

Therefore, it is critical for industry participants to decide which market utilities they will participate in and what roles they will play. Should they team up with others to start and control their own utility? Should they join an existing utility with the idea of exerting some influence over its direction? Should they collaborate by offering expertise to a utility without concern for exerting control? Or should they simply use the facility and not worry about contributing capabilities or controlling its direction? For each organization, the answer will depend on the utility’s function, the level of control the company wants to exert, and the capabilities it will bring to the table.

We believe that in the near future, most financial-services industry firms will play different roles in several market utilities, and will thus need to manage a “portfolio” of market utilities in which they participate. With this in mind, we have developed a series of screening questions for executives to consider to determine if a particular activity done in-house is better suited to a utility and, if so, what role the organization should play in that utility.

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Which activities are right for a utility?

With market utilities addressing more and more components of the value chain, executive teams need a set of criteria to determine which current functions are candidates for moving to a utility. Cost savings are an important consideration; however, a decision based solely on anticipated cost savings may ultimately disappoint. The decision about whether to participate in a utility should be grounded in the organization’s competitive strategy.

To identify the functions within the enterprise that might be better suited to a utility, we have developed several questions that an executive team should consider about internal functions.

Does the activity create a competitive advantage? If the answer to this question is yes — meaning that the executive team believes that the activity is differentiating for the organization and creates a true competitive advantage — then the organization should probably keep the function in-house and not participate in a utility. If the answer is no — meaning the activity is non-differentiating and can be shared without a loss of competitive advantage — then the activity is suited to a utility.

Does the activity address a common need of many industry participants? If the answer is yes, then the activity is suited for a utility; the high demand for a common solution is likely to promote collaboration and engagement. If the answer is no, or if a common solution could create disagreement and rivalry, then the activity is better suited to an internal shared service.

Does the activity have critical mass or global reach across many industry participants? Here again, if the answer is yes, then the function is suitable for a utility; the critical mass/global reach will encourage quick adoption and thus more rapid economic benefits. If the answer is no, or if a lack of scale or global reach would distort the economic value proposition, then the activity is better addressed by a technology solution or internal shared service.

Does the activity meet the common need in a mutually agreed-upon way? If the answer is yes, then a utility is appropriate. By agreeing on a standardized solution, individual players aren’t inclined to customize their own solutions. If the answer is no, and this lack of agreement among individual players would lead to customization, then the activity is better served by outsourcing providers.

Is the need met by a combination of capabilities that can be provided by collaboration? Once again, if the answer is yes, then the function is a candidate for a utility. There is a powerful incentive for players to cooperate if they recognize that cooperation will result in a solution superior to any individual solution. But if the answer is no, or if a single industry player could offer its own solution, then the activity is better served by an outsourcing provider.

Conclusion: Managing a utility portfolio

Market utilities have been heralded by some as the solution to the industry’s stagnant ROE, providing a level of scale and efficiency unachievable by any single participant’s transformational efforts. However, although we believe utilities offer a massive opportunity for cost savings, they should not be thought of solely as an extension of the shared-services model. Rather, they are an opportunity to address common industry needs through cooperation and capability sharing.

As the market utility landscape develops, firms must carefully consider their own roles given the utility’s purpose, the capabilities required to make the utility successful, and the level of control necessary for the firm to execute on its own strategy. As more of the value chain comes into play and more utilities are formed, executives will need to manage a portfolio of utilities and strike the right balance of roles based on business priorities and resources.

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Market utilities in financial services: What role will you play?

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