The proliferation of trading Web sites promises to eat away at yet another hallmark business of the nation's money-center banks - foreign exchange.
Two Internet services, known as "aggregators" or "auction" sites, have sprouted up in recent months and include the participation of large U.S. and foreign banks. Underscoring the trend are findings from a survey by the Connecticut consultant Greenwich Associates, which predicts that Internet foreign exchange trading will double in the next two years - from 11% of total volume to about 22%.
Forty-six percent of foreign exchange traders who were not using the Internet told Greenwich Associates they are thinking about using it.
The two new services boast that they hasten and simplify bidding by offering corporate treasurers simultaneous price quotes - but in a more manageable way than on the telephone - from a range of banks. Eventually the services could bundle trading with market data.
"It's a very efficient way to handle competitive bidding compared to having four or five people on the phone at the same time," said Steve Ticcininni, vice president and deputy treasurer at MasterCard, which already handles about 90% of its foreign exchange trading through Currenex Inc.'s namesake Web site, which went live a month ago.
Online trading threatens to erode, at least at the margins, revenues for companies such as Chase Manhattan Corp. and Citigroup Inc., which have invested billions of dollars in their own electronic foreign exchange systems.
Analysts said these banking companies must reckon with the Internet.
"Auction sites will be the major way institutions wind up buying securities, currencies, or other financial instruments," said Lawrence Tabb, a group director at Tower Group, a Needham, Mass., research firm specializing in technology and financial services.
Some banks are already moving in that direction. State Street Corp. in Boston offers its institutional customers online foreign exchange from a range of banks as a function of its custodial and asset management services. "You're probably going to see a number of large banks get together with an industry-sponsored initiative," Mr. Tabb said. "This is still pretty much green territory, and it doesn't make sense for them not to."
Critics said that though auction sites for foreign exchange may be good for individual transactions between corporations and a handful of banks, they may be less successful at handling the enormous volume of trading - $1.5 trillion - that goes through the worldwide foreign exchange market every day.
Simon Lock, managing director and head of electronic markets at Chase, argued that things aren't as straightforward as the auction sites claim. The services focus on small trades and do not cater to the more complex needs of large institutional and corporate customers, he said.
"Your typical money manager handling 50 to 60 accounts can wind up with dozens of small foreign exchange transactions going in different directions on a daily basis," Mr. Lock said. "What they are looking for instead is the ability to automate and net out a block of transactions into three or four trades."
Still, some banking companies are flocking to a variety of online trading ventures.
Currenex of Menlo Park, Calif., has 20 participating banks, including Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Bank One, Royal Bank of Canada, Bank of Montreal, National Westminster Bank, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Beyerische Hypovereinsbank, and Deutsche Bank.
CFOWeb.com, a foreign exchange auction site that also offers risk management services, has 2,300 registered corporate customers and four participating financial firms: Bank of America, ABN Amro, Standard Chartered, and American International Group. CFOWeb, a unit of the Mountain View, Calif., portal developer Integral, said it plans to add a French financial company soon.
More such sites are in the works. Bankers said they are debating whether to participate, buy them, or start their own.
The emergence of Internet foreign exchange trading comes after the launching of sites for trading other financial instruments, such as bonds, with price quotes from several banks or brokerage firms rather than just one.
Chase teamed up with Bear Stearns & Co. and J.P. Morgan & Co. in January to introduce MarketAccess, a trading site for sovereign, high-grade, agency, emerging-market, and municipal bonds that targets money managers.
Chase has also developed a related system, ChaseBond, that lets issuers see the prices buyers are willing to pay for new bonds. Merrill Lynch & Co., Goldman, Sachs & Co., Citigroup's Salomon Smith Barney unit, and Credit Suisse First Boston have a site called Tradeweb for fixed-income securities.