High Frequency Trading: Buggy Whip Deja Vu
Innovation can be a thorn in the side of dying legacy industries. With the advent of the internal combustion engine from Swiss inventor Isaac de Riva (1807) and the subsequent introduction of Henry Ford’s affordable Model-T automobile (1908), the buggy whip industry came under assault and eventually disappeared. I’m sure the candle lobbyists weren’t too happy either when Thomas Edison first presented the light bulb (1879).
Legacy broker dealers and floor traders are suffering similar pains as those in the buggy whip industry did. New competitors are shrewdly exploiting technology in the field of High Frequency Trading (HFT) and as a result are gaining tremendous market share. Supercomputers and complex mathematical algorithms have now invaded the financial market exchanges, shrinking the profit pools of slow-moving, fat-cat broker dealers (a.k.a., Slow Frequency Traders – SFT) by simply trading faster and smarter than the legacy dealers and exchanges. As Dan Akroyd says to Eddie Murphy in the movie Trading Places, before making millions on the commodities trading floor, “It’s either kill, or be killed.” And right now it’s the traditional broker dealers and floor traders that are getting killed. According to a study by the Tabb Group, 73% of U.S. daily equity volume currently comes from high frequency traders (up from 30% in 2005). And despite only representing 2% of the relevant, actively trading financial institutions, the HFT industry generated an estimated $21 billion in profits last year.
HFT Controversy: So what’s the big controversy regarding HFT? Critics of these high speed traders (including Joe Saluzzi at Themis Trading) claim the fast traders are unfairly using the technology for selfish, greedy profit motives, and in the process are disadvantaging investors. Screams of “front-running,” effectively using the information obtained from fast computer processes to surreptitiously trade before poor, unassuming individual investors can react, is a foundational argument used by opponents. Also the detractors argue that the additional liquidity (traditionally considered a positive factor by academics) provided by the HFT-ers is “low-quality” liquidity because the fast trades are believed to suck valuable liquidity out of the system and contribute to heightened volatility. HFT participants are equated to aggressive ticket scalpers, who in the real world buy low priced tickets and later gouge legitimate buyers by reselling the original tickets at outrageously high prices.
- On HFT Price Impact: If HFT is so damaging for individual investors, then why have price spreads narrowed so dramatically since the existence of this fast style of trading? The computerization and decimalization of trading has made trading more efficient – much like ATM machines and e-mail have made banking and document mailing more efficient. Investors can buy at lower prices and sell at higher prices – sounds like a beneficial trend to me.
- On HFT Volatility: If HFT-ers are demonized for the market crash, then why isn’t anyone patting them on the back or buying them a drink for the ~+50% surge in the equity markets since March of this year? Maybe the investment banks that were levered 30x’s, or the $100s of billions in unregulated mortgage debt stand to shoulder more of the volatility blame?
- On HFT Price Discovery: At the end of the day, if HFT partakers (robots) are actually manipulating prices, then reasonable and greedy capitalists (humans) will stabilize prices by either scooping up irrationally low-priced stocks and/or selling short illogically high priced securities.
On HFT Front-Running and Flash Orders: The New York Times recently ran an article describing a very specific one sided scenario where “flash orders” tipped off HFT traders to unfairly exploit a profitable trade in Broadcom (BRCM) stock. However, trades do not occur in a vacuum. Other scenarios could have easily been drawn up to show HFT-ers losing money on their computer-based strategy. “Quite possibly these flash orders are happening as an unintended consequence of an automated algorithmic trading program,” says Alex Green, Managing Partner at AMG Advisory Group, an institutional trading consulting firm. Flash orders are used when trying to display an order for a small amount of time while waiting to be displayed in the National Best Bid Best Offer (the bid-ask quotes viewable to the public).
In addition, if front-running is indeed occurring, it is happening at prices between the bid-ask spread, thereby incentivizing other market makers to lower their offer price and raise their bid price (a positive development for investors). Any trading occurring outside the bounds of nationally displayed regulated price quotes constitutes illegal activity and can result in time behind bars.
Common Ground – Dark Pools: One area I believe I share common ground with the SFT-ers is on the issue of “dark pools.” In this murky realm, trading occurs in pools of anonymous buyers and sellers where no price quotes are displayed. These pools are bound by the same regulations as other exchanges, but due to their opaqueness are more difficult to police. According to a recent WSJ article, intensified scrutiny has fallen on these dark pools by the SEC because a large number flash orders are routed to them. Although flash orders may not in and of itself be a problem, there is more room for potential abuse in these dark pools.
Conclusion: When all is said and done, it is very clear to me that innovation through technology has translated into a huge gain for individual and institutional investors. It may take a PhD to write the code for a complex high frequency trading algorithm, however it doesn’t take a genius to figure out spreads have narrowed and liquidity has risen dramatically over the last decade – thanks in large part to HFT technological innovation. Certainly technology, globalization, along with the introduction of electronic communication networks (ECNs) like Direct Edge, flash orders, and dark pools have made trading complex. With a denser group of players and structures, it is important that SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro continue to regulate financial market exchanges with the aim of improved transparency and equality. As long as the trends of heightened liquidity and narrowed spreads continue, investors will benefit while the buggy whip lobbyists (legacy broker dealers and floor traders) will continue to scream.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
Entry filed under: Financial Markets, Trading. Tags: Alex Green, amg, AMG Advisory, buggy whip, Dan Akroyd, dark pool, Direct Edge, ECN, Eddie Murphy, flash order, HFT, High frequency trading, Joe Saluzzi, Mary Schapiro, New York Times, SEC, Themis Trading, Trading Places, Wade Slome.