What is a Prime Brokerage and Who Uses Their Services?

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A prime brokerage is a bundled group of services offered by investment banks and other financial institutions. Investment banks may offer these services to hedge funds and other large investment clients that have a need to be able to borrow securities (or cash), in order to engage in “netting” to achieve “absolute returns”.

What is Netting?

Netting refers to offsetting the value of multiple positions, or payments, due to be exchanged between two or more parties. Typically, it’s used to determine which party is owed compensation in a multiparty contract.  Additionally, utilized as a method of reducing risks in financial contracts by combining or aggregating multiple financial obligations to arrive at a net obligation amount. Netting reduces settlement, credit, and other financial risks between two or more parties.

What is an Absolute Return?

An absolute return indicates the return an asset receives over a specific period. This measure looks at the appreciation/depreciation that an asset – such as a stock or mutual fund – has achieved over time. Absolute returns differ from relative returns in that there’s no benchmark comparison. The absolute return is concerned with the return of that specific asset over a period of time. An easier way to think of an absolute return is by its other reference, total return. Therefore, the gain or loss of an asset or portfolio is measured independent of any other standard. Absolute returns may be positive or negative and they may also bear no correlation to other market activities.

Who Typically Utilizes Prime Brokerage Services and Who Provides Them?

Hedge funds would amongst the first category of prime brokerage clients. Legally, clients may not access prime brokerage services for less than $500,000 in equity, even though it’s typical for clients to have over $50M in equity. High net worth private investors are another popular category of prime brokerage clients.

On the other hand, prime brokerage services are generally offered by large investment banks. These institutions benefit from economies of scale to bundle multiple financial service offerings with more efficiency, at a cheaper cost. Some of the most notable firms who offer prime brokerage services include Goldman Sachs, BAML, JPMC, Citigroup, and BNY Mellon. Services bundled include largely “back office” tasks like asset custody, financial reporting, cash/securities lending, investor introductions, and risk consulting.

Historically, Goldman Sachs has been known as the most reputable prime brokerage. However, their prime brokerage agreements are such that smaller hedge funds would have difficulty meeting their expected capital requirements. More recently, Pershing – an elite BNY Mellon subsidiary – has become the backbone of the prime brokerage street business. Combining the custodial services BNY Mellon is renowned for, with Pershing’s uniquely skilled investments and alternatives specialists, gives the duo a unique marketing position within the prime brokerage business. Pershing’s “prime services” are highlighted by risk management consulting. Additional offerings include securities lending, financing solutions, trade execution, technology, liquid alternative investments, and more. Within the alternative investment niche, which is extremely frequently accessed by hedge funds, Pershing has built an impeccable reputation.