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First up on our list is
IntercontinentalExchange(ICE - Get Report), a firm that operates four regulated futures and OTC exchanges located in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. Times have been changing for financial exchange operators, and ICE is no exception. The firm's status as a relative newcomer to the field means that ICE is less entrenched and more flexible with the products that it carries on its exchanges. That flexibility has helped IntercontinentalExchange build an attractive niche in the energy derivatives business, a market that could grow quickly in the next several years.
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By focusing on what I call "less commoditized commodities," IntercontinentalExchange is able to earn more for its trouble of pairing buyers with sellers -- and that shows up in the firm's hefty net margins. The firm's clearing business is a very attractive complement to its exchange and OTC trading arm -- it essentially lets ICE fill a role that a third-party would otherwise get a piece of.
Regulation is the biggest barrier to a takeover deal for ICE. The firm has been a takeover target in the past, taking an offer from
Nasdaq OMX Group(NDAQ) that ultimately unraveled because regulators were hostile. While that fact limits the takeover options for ICE, there are plenty of potential courters in the financial sector that wouldn't draw the same regulatory pushback. Other companies want IntercontinentalExchange's foothold on a lucrative corner of the exchange and clearing business, and they're willing to pay for it.