Sunday, 26 July 2009

The Way Markets Work (in the age of speculative capital)

This past Friday, the New York Times had a front page article on “high frequency trading”. Under the heading “Stock Traders Find Speed Pays, In Milliseconds”, it said that “powerful computers, some housed next to the machines that drive marketplaces like New York Stock Exchange, enable high frequency traders to transmit millions of orders at lightning speed and, their detractors contend, reap billions at everyone else’s expense.”

The paper went on to explain how high frequency trading works. You can read the full article here. But you don’t have to. In high frequency trading, large orders by the institutional traders are shown – “flashed” – to equally large trading houses a few milliseconds before they are made public. The trading houses then exploit this information by getting ahead of the market.

Flash trades are available to anyone for a fee, in the same manner that live price quotes are available to anyone for a fee. The rest have to live with the “delayed” prices. So pompous posturing of Schumer notwithstanding, there is nothing unusual or unethical about it, certainly not with the prevailing standards in capital markets. In fact, the concept is the evolution of the “day trading” that attracted quite a following in the early 1990s.

The destruction of capital that took place in the recent crisis eliminated the possibility of creating “equivalent positions”, so speculative capital has had to return to its roots of buying and selling the same security. That is what day traders did in the early 1990s, only now the size of capital must be much larger. Gone forever are the days where a few street smart kids with $50,000 in capital and their “level II” machines could earn a living. It is this wholesale nature of the markets that creates perception of “unfairness”. The real unfairness though, lies in the fact that some folks have money, others don’t.

The Times had the good sense to focus on buying. Intercepting a sell order from an institutional investor is trickier because it might – and probably would – run afoul of rules designed to prevent short sales. But I am sure no institution that has allocated billion of dollars to trading and has placed its machines next to NYSE computers – to minimize the distance traveled by electrical signals – would contemplate any improper conduct.

High frequency trading is the “natural” way markets operate in the age of speculative capital. Whether you have a problem with it or not, I suggest you get used to it.