The CAT Conundrum: A Cost-Benefit Analysis

| FinReg

By Shagun Bali and Alexander Tabb, TABB Group

Originally published on TABB Forum 

The Consolidate Audit Trail is one of those unique initiatives that the capital markets community agrees is important. The details, however, are reason for concern. Who will pay for the CAT and how remains the No. 1 question. But implementation timelines, data challenges, and how to incorporate options market data all remain critical challenges.

This is the second in a three-part series about the Consolidated Audit Trail (CAT). The first note, “The Consolidated Audit Trail: Stitching Together the US Securities Markets,”examined the process to date, how the industry arrived at this point, and where the CAT needs to go to be successful.

The Consolidate Audit Trail is one of those unique initiatives that the capital markets community agrees is important. When completed, it will be the single largest repository of financial services data in the world. The CAT will house more than 30 petabytes of data, connect to approximately 2,000 separate data providers, and enable regulators to reconstruct market activity at any point in time.

According to TABB Group interviews with 100 financial institutions from the buy and sell sides, the majority of the industry agrees that the CAT is necessary; everyone recognizes the benefits. But what concerns market participants are the details.

When questioned about the importance of the CAT, more than three-quarters of respondents said they viewed the CAT as an “important” or“critically important” element that contributes directly to the health and well-being of the US markets (see Exhibit 1, below).

Exhibit 1: Market Perceptions Regarding the Importance of the CAT  

However, the uncertainty in the process – which includes funding, implementation timelines, data challenges, and new participants from the options markets – has the community concerned. Cost and funding of the CAT is surely giving the community sleepless nights. First, the direct and indirect costs associated with the CAT are a concern for the broker-dealers, as they recognize that all funding avenues lead directly to their doorstep. In addition, they are deeply concerned over the fact that not only do they have to pay for the development and upkeep of the CAT, they also will need to cover the costs of FINRA’s Order Audit Trail System (OATS) and the SEC’s Electronic Blue Sheet (EBS) requests for at least five years after the CAT is started.

Yes, the CAT is necessary. But the big question among many on the sell side remains, “Can the industry afford it?” The broker-dealers need from the SROs a solution that will lighten their burden of investment and that will reassure them that the industry can indeed afford it.

In addition, elements related to data – gathering, storing, and data usage and governance – need heightened attention. To win the wholehearted support of the industry, the SROs need to put out clear strategies that address these challenges. The B/Ds understand the requirements, but ultimately are still uncomfortable with the idea of supplying this type of data with so many ambiguities left unanswered. The SROs need to address these issues head on and need to develop a solution that takes the concerns seriously – especially when it comes to data security and governance.

Furthermore, both TABB Group and the community recognize that the real wild card in the CAT process is the options market. Previously under-appreciated, adding options to the CAT mix greatly increases the complexity of the endeavor. A naiveté has been replaced with a clear understanding that incorporating the options markets into the CAT is no small feat and that whomever is tasked with this undertaking needs to understand all of the implications involved.

The same can be said of the need to solve the data storage and government questions, as well as the security and control issues associated with the program. Unfortunately, the CAT is a unique project, one whose size and scale are unmatched within the institutional capital markets. This means that the SROs do not have the luxury of learning from other people’s mistakes. They have to figure this all out in advance, with everyone looking over their shoulders and trying to influence the outcome.

Getting this right is critical for the success of the project. Market confidence is so fragile that authorities cannot afford to make mistakes in such harsh market conditions, when volumes are low and each participant is struggling with its bottom line numbers. Success is only possible if the SROs prioritize these key elements of the CAT and select a bidder that can deliver against all of the challenges. The entire onus and responsibility of the CAT’s success lies on the SROs’ ability to work out the problems and choose a solution that is in the best interest of the markets, and not their own.

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