Thursday, April 30, 2009

‘You Sneeze, You Go Home’ Policy Slows Peso Trading

At Intercam Casa de Bolsa SA, a Mexico City-based brokerage, traders slip on face masks in between calls from clients and scrub down their desks with disinfectant wipes in an effort to keep the swine flu away.

Sneezers are told to leave.

“You sneeze, you go home,” said Roberto Galvan, one of Intercam’s 10 currency traders.

Measures to slow the spread of the virus are thinning the ranks of traders in Mexico’s $15 billion-a-day peso market and cutting into trading, Galvan said. Intercam’s daily volume, normally about $400 million, has dropped 30 percent this week, he said. At Mexico City-based Grupo Financiero Monex SA, peso trading is also down 30 percent from its normal $600 million-a- day level, according to Ruben Fernandez, a currency trader.

As trading dried up, the peso tumbled and then rebounded this week. It’s up 1.3 percent over the past three days to 13.8648 per dollar after sinking 5.1 percent on April 27 amid concern the outbreak suspected of killing 176 people in Mexico would deepen the country’s recession.

Talk among traders never strays far from the flu outbreak, said Galvan. The masks and newly installed disinfectant-gel dispenser on the Intercam trading floor serve as a constant reminder of the threat.

Omar Martin del Campo, a currency trader at Banco Ve Por Mas SA, said he finds wearing the mask a nuisance as he trades.

“Your breath gets caught in the mask, and you want to take a break,” Martin del Campo said from his office in Mexico City. “But it’s better than the alternative.”

‘Stuck in Here’

The government is recommending Mexico City residents wear the masks as part of an effort to check the virus outbreak. Intercam makes all of its workers wear them, Galvan said.

At Vector Casa de Bolsa SA in Monterrey, Mexico, masks are optional. Four of Vector’s six bond traders use them, said Juan Carlos Bermudez, a trader at the firm. A sneeze doesn’t get a worker sent home at Vector, though it does trigger nervous laughter, he said.

“We laugh,” Bermudez said. “We can’t really do anything about it because we’re stuck in here.”

Bond trading volumes have held up this week, Bermudez said. Government bonds gained, pushing the yield on the benchmark 10 percent securities due in 2024 down one basis point, or 0.01 percentage point, to 7.97 percent, according to Banco Santander SA.

Rush Home

Stock market trading has also held up, buoyed by earnings reports from companies including Mexico City-based America Movil SAB and Monterrey-based Cemex SAB. Daily volume has averaged 7.4 billion pesos ($538 million), up from 6.1 billion pesos last week. The benchmark Bolsa index has dropped 2.2 percent.

Many stock traders are rushing home after the market closes at 3 p.m. local time rather than going out for lunch with colleagues, said Manuel Lasa, director of equity markets at Interacciones Casa de Bolsa SA in the nation’s capital.

“Everyone wants to be at home,” he said.

Jokes about the flu swirl on trading floors to keep the mood light-hearted. One of them plays off of the earthquake that rocked Mexico City on April 27, Galvan said. Question: What did Mexico City say to the flu? Answer: I’m shaking with fear.

For Galvan, 34, the jokes mask his worries. His wife is nine weeks pregnant and he scrubs down his desk frequently out of concern he’ll pass the flu on to her.

“The important thing is to not get infected,” Galvan said.