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Slump catches up with Warsaw's gravity-defying brokers

Monday, 1 Oct 2012 | 7:04 AM ET

* IPO boom let brokers ride out global downturn until now

* Listings now drying up, brokerage revenues down

* Firms laying off staff, some may close Poland operations

By Adrian Krajewski and Pawel Bernat

WARSAW, Oct 1 (Reuters) - Brokerage houses in Warsaw are scaling back operations and in some cases could leave altogether because the boom in stock-market listings that helped them escape blood-letting in other financial hubs is fizzling out.

Staff in the Polish capital barely batted an eyelid as their counterparts in New York and London cleared their desks after global markets crashed four years ago, but market insiders say the reality of the slowdown is finally catching up with them.

Brokerages helped transform Warsaw over the past two decades from a drab post-Communist city with no bourse to a financial centre with eastern Europe's leading stock exchange as well as a Gucci store and Ferrari dealership where bonuses can be spent.

Even when confidence drained out of global markets after the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers, a slew of initial public offerings (IPOs) of state-owned firms in Warsaw allowed brokers to defy gravity and keep earning big commissions.

Now though, the state has few choice assets left to privatise, and with the global recovery still too uncertain to pick up the slack, the volume of businesses being handled by Warsaw's brokers has slumped.

Last year the bourse had 38 IPOs worth a total of 8.5 billion zlotys. This year, that is down to an expected 13 listings worth no more than 2 billion zlotys.

"None of the investment banks or brokerage houses is doing particularly well at the moment," said Jan Sykora, chairman of the board and one of four partners controlling Wood&Co, a Czech-based brokerage with operations in Warsaw.

"The difference is some are making bigger losses and some smaller," Sykora told Reuters. "Some institutions may either exit the Polish market or curb their businesses," he added, stressing that his firm was not planning to quit Poland.

In the good times, almost 2,600 licensed brokers and 1,300 other financial advisers shot up around the Warsaw Stock Exchange , as Eastern Europe's largest economy floated its former Communist monopolies.

The bourse's 435 companies, worth 694 billion zlotys ($216 billion), helped Warsaw replace Vienna as central Europe's biggest stock market.

Warsaw's blue chip WIG20 index owes more than half of its members to the Polish treasury's privatisation drive, worth 52 billion zlotys in the four peak years before 2012.

But the exchange now faces more delistings than IPOs. Joint turnover on the Warsaw bourse tumbled by over a quarter in the year to August, to 139.4 billion zlotys.

BROKERS TIGHTEN BELTS

This drying-up of new listings has left the 56 Warsaw brokerage houses strapped for income. Among those already trimming their local operations are Wood&Co. and Credit Suisse.

Wood&Co. managing director Pawel Tamborski and Credit Suisse's managing director Tomasz Bardzilowski moved on earlier this year, with Tamborski now in charge of what is left of privatisations as Poland's deputy treasury minister.

"Weak turnover causes cost cuts and old names among brokers give way to young wolves," said a Warsaw-based broker, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Grzegorz Letocha, head of the local Brokers and Advisors Union, ZMiD, predicted tough times ahead.

"Two or three brokerage houses may fall out of the market," he said. "The brokerage house market will consolidate."

The local unit of Portugal's Espirito Santo , a newcomer to the local brokerage market, has already announced that it is cutting its sales headcount by half.

Belt-tightening is also affecting long-established Deutsche Bank Securities, after its parent company in Germany, Deutsche Bank , announced cuts.

"I would not be surprised if Deutsche Bank Securities were left with half of its current staff," a bank insider said.

($1 = 3.2191 Polish zlotys)

(Writing by Adrian Krajewski; Editing by Catherine Evans)

((adrian.krajewski@thomsonreuters.com)(+48 22 653 97 09)(Reuters Messaging: adrian.krajewski.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

Keywords: POLAND BOURSE/

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