Van der Moolen ( VDM) is the latest Wall Street firm to swing the ax on its specialist business. The Dutch company is cutting 30% of its staff, or 55 jobs, at its Van der Moolen Specialists USA division. Van der Moolen will take a charge for severance costs of approximately $1.3 million in its first-quarter earnings. The layoffs will take effect immediately. The staff reduction is expected to produce $4.5 million in annualized savings, the firm says. But the layoffs are clear sign that days of the specialist and old-fashioned open-outcry trading are in rapid decline at the New York Stock Exchange ( NYX). In fact, Van der Moolen is blaming the Big Board's move toward a "hybrid" trading system, which combines both electronic trading and auction-style floor trading, as the main reason for layoffs. The Big Board has been working feverishly to bring trading on the exchange into the electronic era, particularly as the Nasdaq Stock Market ( NDAQ), smaller regional exchanges and proprietary platforms such as BATS Trading take center stage in the trading arena. But the move to the hybrid system is rendering floor-based trading obsolete more quickly than many imagined. The exchange's parent, NYSE Group, has been making a host of announcements that are cutting into the specialist's business model, including the closing of certain trading rooms. To be sure, the NYSE has attempted to provide relief for those specialist firms whose profit margins were most by creating a revenue-sharing program and eliminating some monthly transaction fee caps. But observers say the move is just a band-aid on a more fundamental problem that will virtually eliminate the role of a specialist as we know it.
Last week several other firms including Lehman ( LEH), Goldman Sachs ( GS) and Bank of America ( BAC) said they were cutting additional specialist positions. Another large specialist firm, LaBranche ( LAB), has let more than half of its staff go, with more to come, Chairman and CEO Michael LaBranche has said. Specialist firms, which earn commissions for matching buyers and sellers on an exchange, also make money from trades made to smooth out fluctuations in stock prices. The firms are permitted to make proprietary trades for their accounts, but not at the expense of any customer. Shares of Van der Moolen fell 27 cents, or 4.5%, to $5.72.