Streetwise Professor

April 12, 2014

A Serious Question For Brad DeLong

Filed under: Economics,Exchanges,HFT,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 4:39 pm

This is totally serious. 100 percent snark free. The answer (and more importantly, the explanation) will help make explicit assumptions and logic, and thereby advance the discussion.

So here it is:

Do you oppose or support laws prohibiting trading by corporate insiders on material, non-public information? (Alternative formulation: Do you support the expenditure of resources to enforce laws prohibiting trading by corporate insiders on material, non-public information?) Explain your reasoning.

The explanation is more important than the answer.

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Yes, Brad, It’s Just You (And Others Who Oversimplify and Ignore Salient Facts)

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,HFT,Politics,Regulation,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 2:48 pm

Brad DeLong takes issue with my Predator/Prey HFT post. He criticizes me for not taking a stand on HFT, and for not concluding that HFT should be banned because it is a parasitic. Color me unpersuaded. De Long’s analysis is seriously incomplete, and some of his conclusions are incorrect.

At root, this is a dispute about the social benefits of informed trading. De Long takes the view that there is too little informed trading:

In a “rational” financial market without noise traders in which liquidity, rebalancing, and control/incentive traders can tag their trades, it is impossible to make money via (4). Counterparties to (4) will ask the American question: If this is a good trade for you, how can it be a good trade for me? The answer: it cannot be. And so the economy underestimates in fundamental information, and markets will be inefficient–prices will be away from fundamentals, and so bad real economic decisions will be made based on prices that are not in fact the appropriate Lagrangian-multiplier shadow values–because of free riding on the information contained in informed order flow and visible market prices. [Note to Brad: I quote completely, without extensive ellipses. Pixels are free.]

Free riding on the information in prices leading to underinvestment in information is indeed a potential problem. And I am quite familiar with this issue, thank you very much. I used similar logic in my ’94 JLE paper on self-regulation by exchanges to argue that exchanges may exert too little effort to deter manipulation because they didn’t internalize the benefits of reducing the price distortions caused by corners. My ’92 JLS paper applied this reasoning to an evaluation of exchange rules regarding the disclosure of information about the quantity and quality of grain in store. It’s a legitimate argument.

But it’s not the only argument relating to the incentives to collect information, and the social benefits and costs and private benefits and costs of trading on that information. My post focused on something that De Long ignores altogether, and certainly did not respond to: the possibility that privately informed trading can be rent seeking activity that dissipates resources.

This is not a new idea either. Jack Hirshleifer wrote a famous paper about it over 40 years ago. Hirsleifer emphasizes that trading on information has distributive effects, and that people have an incentive to invest real resources in order to distribute wealth in their direction. The term rent seeking wasn’t even coined then (Ann Kreuger first used it in 1974) but that is exactly what Hirshleifer described.

The example I have in my post is related to such rent seeking behavior. Collecting information that allows a superior forecast of corporate earnings shortly before an announcement can permit profitable trading, but (as in one of Hirshleifer’s examples) does not affect decisions on any margin. The cost of collecting this information is therefore a social waste.

De Long says that the idea that there is too little informed trading “does not seem to me to scan.” If it doesn’t it is because he has ignored important strands of the literature dating back to the early-1970s.

Both the free riding effects and the rent seeking effects of informed trading certainly exist in the real world. Too little of some information is collected, and too much of other types is collected. And that was basically my point: due to the nature of information, true costs and benefits aren’t internalized, and as a result, evaluating the welfare effects of informed trading and things that affect the amount of informed trading is impossible.

One of the things that affects the incentives to engage in informed trading is market microstructure, and in particular the strategies followed by market makers and how those strategies depend on technology, market rules, and regulation. Since many HFT are engaging in market making, HFT affects the incentives surrounding informed trading. My post focused on how HFT reduced adverse selection costs-losses to informed traders-by ferreting out informed order flow. This reduces the losses to informed traders, which is the same as saying it reduces the gains to informed traders. Thus there is less informed trading of all varieties: good, bad, and ugly.

Again the effects of this are equivocal, precisely because the effects of informed trading are equivocal. To the extent that rent seeking informed trading is reduced, any reduction in adverse selection cost is an unmitigated gain. However, even if collection of some decision improving information is eliminated, reducing adverse selection costs has some offsetting benefits. De Long even mentions the sources of the benefits, but doesn’t trace through the logic to the appropriate conclusion.

Specifically, De Long notes that by trading people can improve the allocation of risk and mitigate agency costs. These trades are not undertaken to profit on information, and they are generally welfare-enhancing. By creating adverse selection, informed trading-even trading that improves price informativeness in ways that leads to better real investment decisions-raises the cost of these welfare-improving risk shifting trades. Just as adverse selection in insurance markets leads to under provision of insurance (relative to the first best), adverse selection in equity or derivatives markets leads to a sub optimally small amount of hedging, diversification, etc.

So again, things are complicated. Reducing adverse selection costs through more efficient market making may involve a trade-off between improved risk sharing and better decisions involving investment, etc., because prices are more informative. Contrary to De Long, who denies the existence of such a trade off.

And this was the entire point of my post. That evaluating the welfare effects of market making innovations that mitigate adverse selection is extremely difficult. This shouldn’t be news to a good economist: it has long been known that asymmetric information bedevils welfare analysis in myriad ways.

De Long can reach his anti-HFT conclusion only by concluding that the net social benefits of privately informed trading are positive, and by ignoring the fact that any kind of privately informed trading serves as a tax on beneficial risk sharing transactions. To play turnabout (which is fair!): there is “insufficient proof” for the first proposition. And he is flatly wrong to ignore the second consideration. Indeed, it is rather shocking that he does so.*

Although De Long concludes an HFT ban would be welfare-improving, his arguments are not logically limited to HFT alone. They basically apply to any market making activity. Market makers employ real resources to do things to mitigate adverse selection costs. This reduces the amount of informed trading. In De Long’s world, this is an unmitigated bad.

So, if he is logical De Long should also want to ban all exchanges in which intermediaries make markets. He should also want to ban OTC market making. Locals were bad. Specialists were bad. Dealers were bad. Off with their heads!

Which raises the question: why has every set of institutions for trading financial instruments that has existed everywhere and always had specialized intermediaries who make markets? The burden of proof would seem to be on De Long to demonstrate that such a ubiquitous practice has been able to survive despite its allegedly obvious inefficiencies.

This relates to a point I’ve made time and again. HFT is NOT unique. It is just the manifestation, in a particular technological environment, of economic forces that have expressed/manifested themselves in different ways under different technologies. Everything that HFT firms do-market making, arbitrage activities, and even some predatory actions (e.g., momentum ignition)-have direct analogs in every financial trading system known to mankind. HFT market makers basically put into code what resides in the grey matter of locals on the floor. Arbitrage is arbitrage. Gunning the stops is gunning the stops, regardless of whether it is done on the floor or on a computer.

One implication of this is that even if HFT is banned, it is inevitable-inevitable-that some alternative way of performing the same functions would arise. And this alternative would pose all of the same conundrums and complexities and ambiguities as HFT.

In sum, Brad De Long reaches strong conclusions because he vastly oversimplifies. He ignores that some informed trading is rent seeking, and that there can be a trade-off between more informative prices (and higher adverse selection costs) and risk sharing.

The complexities and trade-offs are exactly why debates over speculation and market structure have been so fierce, and so protracted. There are no easy answers. This isn’t like a debate over tariffs, where answers are much more clean-cut. Welfare analyses are always devilish hard when there is asymmetric information.

Although a free-market guy, I acknowledge such difficulties, even though that means that implies that I know the outcome is not first best. Brad De Long, not a free market guy, well, not so much. So yes, Brad, it is just you-and other people who oversimplify and ignore salient considerations that are present in any set of mechanisms for trading financial instruments, regardless of the technology.

* De Long incorrectly asserts that informed trading cannot occur in the absence of “noise trading,” where from the context De Long defines noise traders as randomizing idiots: “In a ‘rational’ financial market without noise traders in which liquidity, rebalancing, and control/incentive traders can tag their trades, it is impossible to make money via [informed trading].” Noise trading (e.g., in a Kyle model) is a modeling artifice that treats “liquidity, rebalancing and control/incentive” trades-trades that are not information-driven-in a reduced form fashion.  Randomizing idiots don’t trade on information. But neither do rational portfolio diversifiers subject to endowment shocks.

It is possible-and has been done many, many times-to produce a structural model with, say, rebalancing traders subject to random endowment shocks who trade even though they lose systematically to informed traders. (De Long qualifies his statement by referring to traders who can “tag their trades.” No idea what this means. Regardless, completely rational individuals who benefit from trading because it improves their risk exposure (e.g., by permitting diversification) will trade even though they are subject to adverse selection.) They will trade less, however, which is the crucial point, and which is a cost of informed trading, regardless of whether that informed trading improves other decisions, or is purely rent-seeking.


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April 9, 2014

The Great White Swims, the Capital Flies

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:04 pm

Sometimes it’s hard to keep up. Yesterday, the Russian Central Bank reported that capital outflows from Russia totaled $50 billion in the first quarter, nearly equal to last year’s total of $60 billion (which was already a high number). Check that: today the RCB updated the number to $63.7 billion. What will it be tomorrow?

Last ruble/dollar to leave: please turn out the lights.

No wonder Putin is soliciting donations to the comment box on how to arrange a quick turnaround of the Russian economy. Too bad he doesn’t understand he is the biggest money repellent in Russia (with the exception of the dirty money that sticks to him like glue.)

Given this, it is rather remarkable that Russia is urging companies that have listed abroad to delist and trade on the Moscow exchange exclusively instead.  Deputy PM Igor Shuvalov promises that Russia will create “attractive” conditions for Russian companies that come home.

Good luck with that.

It is ironic, given that in the mid-2000s in particular Putin’s Russia was encouraging its companies to list abroad.

No doubt that this is driven in large part by fears that this capital is vulnerable in the event of a pronounced escalation of tensions (or conflict) between the West and Russia.

So we are observing a process of the reversal of Russia’s integration into the world financial system. A sort of push me-pull you process. Money is being pulled out of Russia, and Russia is taking actions that will push foreign investors out of big Russian companies.

These processes will get even worse if the Ukraine situation deteriorates. Or if there is a Latvia/Lithuania/Estonia/Finland/Poland situation.

And a worsening geopolitical situation is likely. Putin reminds me of a great white shark. If he doesn’t keep moving, he will die. Crimea boosted him, but that effect will dissipate. He’ll need another boost, and that will almost certainly not come from some domestic achievement, particularly an economic one. So another foreign confrontation seems necessary for the shark to survive.

And so much for the notion that financial ties will soften and westernize Russia. Putin will sacrifice these ties to his civilizational mission, domestic political considerations and the the corruption imperative.

Actually, I have the tense wrong there. He is sacrificing them. He has been sacrificing them.

The great white will keep swimming, and the capital will keep flying.


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Smith and Bodek on Equity Market Reforms: Good, Bad, and Ugly

Filed under: Economics,HFT,Regulation — The Professor @ 1:44 pm

Fellow Houstonian Cameron Smith (of HFT shop Quantlab) and HFT gadfly Haim Bodek have an oped in the FT that makes recommendations on how to fix the US equity markets. (That’s a key right there. There’s HFT in futures, but it doesn’t generate near the heartburn as it does in equities.)

The recommendations are a mixture of good, bad, and ugly. The good are recommendations to fix RegNMS, specifically by allowing locked markets, and moving away from one-size-fits-all tick sizes.  The bad/ugly are their recommendations on dark pools and especially on exchange policies regarding data access and pricing.

All of this is too much for one post, so I will defer discussions of RegNMS reform and dark pools. I will focus here on the data issues.

Here’s what they say about data access and pricing:

Make market data free
Free market data would eliminate the disparity between professionals and investors. It would also cut the $400m of revenues divided among exchanges – which essentially subsidises the creation of otherwise useless markets. At the same time, we must ensure that data disseminated by the public consolidator is synchronised with the private exchange data feeds so that all the data are received by investors at the same time, eliminating the perception of unfairness. A technology company should be dedicated to this task.

This is bad/ugly because overlooks the basic microeconomics of entry and investment into HFT. Let’s think through the implications of this recommendation.

The fundamental error is in the first sentence: making data free would not eliminate the disparity between professionals and investors. Nor would making it possible for all participants to access the data simultaneously by synchronizing the data feeds.  To understand where Smith and Bodek err, it is necessary to think through the equilibrium effects of their recommendation.

There would still be disparities because access to data is a necessary but not sufficient condition to eliminate them. HFT firms take the private data feed they get from exchanges, and also make additional investments in hardware and software in order to use that data to drive their trading strategies. Without these complementary investments, the data is useless in implementing HFT-type strategies. Given the cost of private data feeds, there is investment in hardware and software and other supporting resources to implement HFT. In a reasonably competitive market, entry and investment in these other resources will proceed to the point where for the marginal HFT firm, risk adjusted profits cover its cost of capital. We’ve seen that process in action: HFT profits were high in 2008-2009, but have subsequently fallen substantially as entry and investment into this business has occurred.  This is the way that competitive markets work.

Note that not everybody decides to make the investments in the resources necessary to implement HFT. Even many big institutional investors eschew doing so. Certainly individual investors do. This is because the returns on the investment in hardware and software (where returns depend on the costs of data) do not cover the related capital costs. This is why disparities exist. The disparities in speed and strategies are the result of maximizing choices made by myriad market participants, and these maximizing decisions reflect the costs of engaging in various market activities.

Understanding this, let’s consider the economic effects of mandating free access to data and synchronizing access. To a first approximation, data charges are a fixed cost. Therefore, making data free would reduce the fixed costs of becoming an HFT firm. Reducing fixed costs will induce entry into HFT: costs are just covered by the marginal firm when data must be paid for, meaning that when data is free all existing firms at existing scale will earn profits above the cost of capital.  This economic profit induces entry. Entry means there will be more HFT activity when data is free. (If lowering data charges also reduce the marginal costs of HFT, existing HFT firms will expand, reinforcing this effect.)

Again, entry will occur to the point where the profits of the marginal HFT firm cover the cost of capital.  Moreover, many market participants will choose not to make the additional investments required to engage in HFT. There will still be disparities. Some firms will be faster than others (i.e., the firms that make the investments necessary to engage in HFT will be faster than “investors” who don’t make the investments in hardware and software and people necessary to engage in HFT.) Moreover, there will be more HFT activity, for the simple reason that the cost of engaging in HFT has gone down.

In other words: if you want to want to reduce disparities and discourage entry into HFT, don’t make data free, tax it. Smith and Bodek’s policy recommendation will have the exact opposite effect from what they intend.

There are other things to consider here. Data revenues represent a substantial source of income for exchanges. Forcing them to forego these revenues will affect their economics. It is conceivable that the loss in revenue will induce some exchanges to exit, reducing competition which would tend to result in an increase in fees paid by investors. Even if exit doesn’t happen, the loss of revenue may affect exchange decisions on other margins: they may choose, for instance, to invest less in systems or technology. I just raise this as a possibility: the effects of the loss of data revenues on these other decision margins are likely to be complex and subtle, and I don’t pretend to understand them, and to do so would require considerable research and thought. (Moreover, given my agnosticism about the welfare effects of financial trading generally, the effects of adjustments on these other margins on welfare are even more complex and mysterious.)

This analysis brings out a general point. You need to think through the equilibrium implications of policy changes, taking into account how market participants will respond on all margins. Making data free reduces the costs of engaging in HFT. This induces entry into HFT, and leads to more of it, not less.

In other words, in analyzing HFT and market structure generally, not just microstructure is important. Microeconomics 101 is too.


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April 8, 2014

Tales From the Crypt of Corruption

Filed under: Economics,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:58 pm

The vicissitudes of life have prevented me from writing-or even reading much-for the last few days. But a few Russia-related things caught my eye.

Most notably: Putin calls for swift action to improve Russia’s business climate.

Talk about low hanging fruit! Give me a hard problem, Vladimir Vladimirovich! If you resign, and take your judo clique and Sechin and the rest of the St. Petersburg gang with you, Russia’s business climate would improve dramatically and swiftly!

No charge for this sure-fire advice. It’s on the house.

The Russian economy is sputtering, but it would be quite easy to crater it. As I’ve discussed before, the US could squash the Russian economy like an overripe grape, but the markets have decided that the US and the west are all bark, no bite. The initial post-Crimea selloff has been largely reversed:

President Vladimir Putin’s pledge not to expand beyond the Crimea peninsula in Ukraine is driving short sellers out of the Russian stock market.

Traders have scaled back bets on declines in theMarket Vectors Russia (RSX) exchange-traded fund to 5 percent of outstanding shares from a record-high 21 percent on March 3. That’s the largest drop for a comparable period since June, according to data compiled by Bloomberg and Markit.

As short sellers retreat, the market is rebounding, with the Bloomberg Index of Russia’s most-traded stocks in New York posting the longest stretch of weekly gains since October. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at the end of last month that there’s no intention to go beyond Crimea, fueling speculation that tensions with the U.S. and the EU are abating. Putin told lawmakers in Moscow on March 18 that Russia isn’t about to occupy Eastern Ukraine.

Let me put it this way. The article is wrong. The market isn’t taking Putin at his word that Russia won’t invade Ukraine. The market just believes that even if he does, nothing will happen. The west will wuss out. Again.

Yeah. I’m looking at you, Germany. And you, Obama.

Believe me. Putin is drawing the exact same conclusion.

Make sure you are sitting down for this last one. Sophisticated Russian hackers were responsible for mounting a massive attack on Nieman Marcus. But that’s not the shocking part. The US approached the Russian government for help and . . . nothing. Crickets:

Attempts to shut down the criminal network have failed despite international sting operations and secret meetings with Russian intelligence officials, according to two former U.S. officials who asked not to be named because they weren’t authorized to discuss the activities. Federal Bureau of Investigation officials visited their Russian counterparts in 2008 and 2009 to share information that could help locate and stop hackers, one of the former officials said.

“The FBI has tried to get cooperation, the State Department has asked for help and nothing happens, so law enforcement options under the current circumstances are pretty negligible,” said Richard Clarke, special adviser for cybersecurity under George W. Bush.

Law enforcement officials describe Russian stonewalling as just one obstacle as they try to curb the burgeoning theft of credit-card data that has sparked a Congressional inquiry and left banks and retail chains blaming each other for the failures of outdated credit-card technology.

This, no doubt, is because the FSB received a cut of the hackers’ take.  I am sure you are standing there, mouth agape, in shock at this stunning news.

But this corrupt, criminal colossus is twisting the far wealthier, far more powerful west around its little finger. There is a pronounced asymmetry in power, but an even greater asymmetry in the will to use it.

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April 5, 2014

Pinging: Who is the Predator, and Who Is the Prey?

Filed under: Economics,Exchanges,HFT,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 11:59 am

The debate over Lewis’s Flash Boys is generating more informed commentary than the book itself. One thing that is emerging in the debate is the identity of the main contending parties: HFT vs. the Buy Side, mainly big institutional traders.

One of the criticisms of HFT is that it engages in various strategies to attempt to ferret out institutional order flows, which upsets the buy side. But the issue is not nearly so clearcut as the buy side would have you believe.

The main issue is that not all institutional orders are alike. In particular, there is considerable variation in the informativeness of institutional order flow. Some (e.g., index fund order flow) is unlikely to be informed. Other order flow is more informed: some may even be informed by inside information.

Informed order flow is toxic for market makers. They lose on average when trading against it. So they try to determine what order flow is informed, and what order flow isn’t.

Informed order flow must hide in order to profit on its information. Informed order flow uses various strategies based on order types, order submission strategies, choice of trading venues, etc., to attempt to become indistinguishable from uninformed order flow. Uninformed order flow tries to devise in strategies to signal that it is indeed uninformed, but that encourages the informed traders to alter their strategies to mimic the uninformed.

To the extent that market makers-be they humans or machines-can get signals about the informativeness of order flow, and  in particular about undisclosed flow that may be hitting the market soon, they can adjust their quotes accordingly and mitigate adverse selection problems. The ability to adjust quotes quickly in response to information about pending informed orders allows them to quote narrower markets. By pinging dark pools or engage in other strategies that allow them to make inferences about latent informed order flow, HFT can enhance liquidity.

Informed traders of course are furious at this. They hate being sniffed out and seeing prices change before their latent orders are executed. They excoriate “junk liquidity”-quotes that disappear before they can execute. Because the mitigation of adverse selection reduces the profits they generate from their information.

It can be frustrating for uninformed institutional investors too, because to the extent that HFT can’t distinguish perfectly between uninformed and informed order flow,  the uninformed will often see prices move against them before they trade too.  This creates a commercial opportunity for new trading venues, dark pools, mainly, to devise ways to do a better way of screening out informed order flow.

But even if uninformed order flow often finds quotes running away from them, their trading costs will be lower on average the better that market makers, including HFT, are able to detect more accurately impending informed orders. Pooling equilibria hurt the uninformed: separating equilibria help them. The opposite is true of informed traders. Market makers that can evaluate more accurately the informativeness of order flow induce more separation and less pooling.

Ultimately, then, the driver of this dynamic is the informed traders. They may well be the true predators, and the uninformed (or lesser informed) and the market makers are their prey. The prey attempt to take measures to protect themselves, and ironically are often condemned for it: informed traders’ anger at market makers that anticipate their orders is no different that the anger of a cat that sees the mouse flee before it can pounce. The criticisms of both dark pools and HFT (and particularly HFT strategies that attempt to uncover information about trading interest and impending order flow) are prominent examples.

The welfare impacts of all this are unknown, and likely unknowable. To the extent that HFT or dark pools reduce the returns to informed trading, there will be less investment in the collection of private information. Prices will be less informative, but trading will be less costly and risk allocation improved. The latter effects are beneficial, but hard to quantify. The benefits of more informative prices are impossible to quantify, and the social benefits of more informed prices may be larger, perhaps substantially so, than the private benefits, meaning that excessive resources are devoted to gathering private information.

More informative prices can improve the allocation of capital. But not all improvements in price efficiency improve the allocation of capital by anything near the cost of acquiring the information that results in these improvements, or the costs imposed on uninformed traders due to adverse selection. For instance, developing information that permits a better forecast of a company’s next earnings report may have very little effect on the investment decisions of that company, or any other company. The company has the information already, and other companies for which this information may be valuable (e.g., firms in the same industry, competitors) are going to get it well within their normal decision making cycle.  In this case, incurring costs to acquire the information is a pure waste. No decision is improved, risk allocation is impaired (because those trading for risk allocation reasons bear higher costs), and resources are consumed.

In other words, it is impossible to know how the social benefits of private information about securities values relate to the private benefits. It is quite possible (and in my view, likely) that the private benefits exceed the social benefits. If so, traders who are able to uncover and anticipate informed trading and take measures that reduce the private returns to informed trading are enhancing welfare, even if prices are less informative as a result.

I cannot see any way of evaluating the welfare effects of financial trading, and in particular informed trading. The social benefits (how do more informative prices improve the allocation of real resources) are impossible to quantify: they are often difficult even to identify, except in the most general way (“capital allocation is improved”). Unlike the trade for most goods and services, there is no reason to believe that social and private benefits align. My intuition-and it is no more than that-is that the bulk of informed trading is rent seeking, and a tax on the risk allocation functions of financial markets.

It is therefore at least strongly arguable that the development of trading technologies that reduce the returns to informed trading are a good thing. To the extent that one of the charges against HFT-that it is better able to detect and anticipate (I will not say front-run) informed order flow-is true, that is a feature, not a bug.

I don’t know and I am pretty sure nobody knows or even can know the answers to these questions. Which means that strongly moralistic treatments of HFT or any other financial market technology or structure that affects the returns to informed trading is theology, not economics/finance. Agnosticism is a defensible position. Certitude is not.

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April 2, 2014

Michael Lewis’s HFT Book: More of a Dark Market Than a Lit One

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,HFT,Politics,Regulation,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 2:35 pm

Michael Lewis’s new book on HFT, Flash Boys, has been released, and has unleashed a huge controversy. Or put more accurately, it has added fuel to a controversy that has been burning for some time.

I have bought the book, but haven’t had time to read it. But I read a variety of accounts of what is in the book, so I can make a few comments based on that.

First, as many have pointed out, although this has been framed as evil computer geniuses taking money from small investors, this isn’t at all the case. If anyone benefits from the tightening of spreads, especially for small trade sizes, it is small investors. Many of them (most, in fact) trade at the bid-ask midpoint via internalization programs with their brokers or through payment-for-order-flow arrangements. (Those raise other issues for another day, but have been around for years and don’t relate directly to HFT.)

Instead, the battle is mainly part of the struggle between large institutional investors and HFT. Large traders want to conceal their trading intentions to avoid price impact. Other traders from time immemorial have attempted to determine those trading intentions, and profit by trading before and against the institutional traders.  Nowadays, some HFT traders attempt to sniff out institutional orders, and profit from that information.  Information about order flow is the lifeblood of those who make markets.

This relates to the second issue. This has been characterized as “front running.” This terminology is problematic in this context. Front running is usually used to describe a broker in an agency relationship with a customer trading in advance of the customer’s order, or disclosing the order to another trader who then trades on that information. This is a violation of the agency relationship between the client and the broker.

In contrast, HFT firms use a variety of means-pinging dark pools, accessing trading and quoting information that is more extensive and obtained more quickly than via the public data feeds-to detect the presence of institutional orders. They are not in an agency relationship with the institution, and have no legal obligation to it.

And this is nothing new. Traders on the floor were always trying to figure out when big orders were coming, and who was submitting them. Sometimes they obtained this information when they shouldn’t have, because a broker violated his obligation. But usually it was from watching what brokers were trading, knowing what brokers served what customers, looking at how anxious the broker appeared, etc.  To throw the floor of the track, big traders would use many brokers. Indeed, one argument for dual trading was that it made it harder for the floor to know the origin of an order if the executing broker dual traded, and might be active because he was trading on his own account rather than for a customer.

This relates too to the third issue: reports that the FBI is investigating for possible criminal violations. Seriously? I remember how the FBI covered itself in glory during the sting on the floors in Chicago in ’89. Not really. The press reports say that the the FBI is investigating whether HFT trades on “non-public information.”  Well, “non-public information” is not necessarily “inside information” which is illegal to trade on:  inside information typically relates to that obtained from someone with a fiduciary duty to shareholders. Indeed, ferreting out non-public information contributes to price discovery: raising the risk of prosecution for trading on information obtained through research or other means, but which is not obtained from someone with a fiduciary relationship to a company, is a dangerous slippery slope that could severely interfere with the operation of the market.

Moreover, it’s not so clear that order flow information is “non-public”.  No, not everyone has it: HFT has to expend resources to get it, but anybody could in theory do that. Anybody can make the investment necessary to ping a dark pool. Anybody can pay to get a faster data feed that allows them to get information that everyone has access to more quickly. Anybody can pay to get quicker access to the data, either through co-location, or the purchase of a private data feed. There is no theft or misappropriation involved. If firms trade on the basis of such information that can be obtained for a price that not everyone is willing to pay, and that is deemed illegal, how would trading on the basis of what’s on a Bloomberg terminal be any different?

Fourth, one reason for the development of dark pools, and the rules that dark pools establish, are to protect order flow information, or to make it less profitable to trade on that information. The heroes of Lewis’s book, the IEX team, specifically designed their system (which is now a dark pool, but which will transition to an ECN and then an exchange in the future) to protect institutional traders against opportunistic HFT. (Note: not all HFT is opportunistic, even if some is.)

That’s great. An example of how technological and institutional innovation can address an economic problem. I would emphasize again that this is not a new issue: just a new institutional response. Once upon a time institutional investors relied on block trading in the upstairs market to prevent information leakage and mitigate price impact. Now they use dark pools. And dark pools are competing to find technologies and rules and protocols that help institutional investors do the same thing.

I also find it very, very ironic that a dark pool is now the big hero in a trading morality tale. Just weeks ago, dark pools were criticized heavily in a Congressional hearing.  They are routinely demonized, especially by the exchanges. The Europeans have slapped very restrictive rules on them in an attempt to constrain the share of trading done in the dark. Which almost certainly will increase institutional trading costs: if institutions could trade more cheaply in the light, they would do so. It will also almost certainly make them more vulnerable to predatory HFT because they will be deprived of the (imperfect) protections that dark pools provide.

Fifth, and perhaps most importantly from a policy perspective, as I’ve written often, much of the problem with HFT in equities is directly the result of the fragmented market structure, which in turn is directly the result of RegNMS. For instance, latency arbitrage based on the slowness of the SIP results from the fact that there is a SIP, and there is a SIP because it is necessary to connect the multiple execution venues. The ability to use trades or quotes on one market to make inferences about institutional trades that might be directed to other markets is also a consequence of fragmentation. As I’ve discussed before, much of the proliferation of order types that Lewis (and others) argue advantage HFT is directly attributable to fragmentation, and rules relating to locked and crossed markets that are also a consequence of RegNMS-driven fragmentation.

Though HFT has spurred some controversy in futures markets, these controversies are quite different, and much less intense. This is due to the fact that many of the problematic features of HFT in equities are the direct consequence of RegNMS and the SEC’s decision (and Congress’s before that) to encourage competition between multiple execution venues.

And as I’ve also said repeatedly, these problems inhere in the nature of financial trading. You have to pick your poison. The old way of doing business, in which order flow was not socialized as in the aftermath of RegNMS, resulted in the domination of a single major execution venue (e.g., the NYSE). And for those with a limited historical memory, please know that these execution venues were owned by their members who adopted rules-rigged the game if you will-that benefited them. They profited accordingly.

Other news from today brings this point home. Goldman is about to sell its NYSE specialist unit, the former Spear, Leeds, which it bought for $6.5 billion (with a B) only 14 years ago.  It is selling it for $30 million (with an M).  That’s a 99.5 decline in market value, folks. Why was the price so high back in 2000? Because under the rules of the time, a monopoly specialist franchise on a near monopoly exchange generated substantial economic rents. Rents that came out of the pockets of investors, including small investors.  Electronic trading, and the socialization of order flow and the resultant competition between execution venues, ruthlessly destroyed those rents.

So it’s not like the markets have moved from a pre-electronic golden age into a technological dystopia where investors are the prey of computerized super-raptors. And although sorting out cause and effect is complicated, the decline in trading costs strongly suggests that the new system, for all its flaws, has been a boon for investors. Until regulators or legislators find the Goldilocks “just right” set of regulations that facilitates competition without the pernicious effects of fragmentation (and in many ways, “fragmentation” is just a synonym for “competition”), we have to choose one or the other. My view is that messy competition is usually preferable to tidy monopoly.

The catch phrase from Lewis’s book is that the markets are rigged. As I tweeted after the 60 Minutes segment on the book, by his definition of rigging, all markets have always been rigged. A group of specialized intermediaries has always exercised substantial influence over the rules and practices of the markets, and has earned rents at the expense of investors. And I daresay it would be foolish to believe this will ever change. My view is that the competition that prevails in current markets has dissipated a lot of those rents (although some of that dissipation has been inefficient, due to arms race effects).

In sum, there doesn’t appear to be a lot new in Lewis’s book. Moreover, the morality tale doesn’t capture the true complexity of the markets generally, or HFT specifically. It has certainly resulted in the release of a lot of heat, but I don’t see a lot of light. Which is kind of fitting for a book in which a dark pool is the hero.


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March 28, 2014

A Victory for Neanderthal Rights: Rusal Defeats the LME in Court. But the Neanderthal Is Still Endangered.

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:01 pm

Late last year, the company of My Favorite Neanderthal, Oleg Deripaska’s Rusal, sued the London Metal exchange, claiming that the LME’s new rules on load out of aluminum violated Rusal’s human rights.  Yesterday, a judge in Manchester, UK gave Oleg a victory.

Although the judge found the human rights issue “an interesting and difficult question,” he did not rule on it.  Too bad!  That could have been entertaining.

But he did hand Rusal a victory, ruling that the LME’s process in adopting the new rule was flawed (bonus SWP quote).  As a result, the LME will not implement the rule, and has to go back to the drawing board.

Until a new rule is adopted, the bottleneck in the LME aluminum warehouses (notably Metro in Detroit) will remain stoppered.  Premiums will remain high and volatile.

And that’s the point.  By keeping the huge stocks of aluminum that accumulated in LME warehouses during the financial crisis off the market, the bottleneck keeps the prices of aluminum ex-warehouse artificially high.  This harms consumers, but enhances producers’ profits.  Which is precisely why Rusal sued.

But the victory may well by a Pyrrhic one.  For despite the fact that the warehouse bottleneck props up aluminum prices, and despite the fact that Rusal and other producers have reduced capacity, there is still a substantial supply imbalance that has weighed on prices: due to the bottleneck, prices are higher than they would be otherwise, but they are still quite low.  As a result, Rusal just posted a whopping $3.2 billion loss.

The company is heavily indebted, and the chronic losses imperil its ability to pay this debt.  The company has been frantically negotiating with its lenders, and says that if it does not get relief it will default.  Given that Deripaska has pledged shares as collateral for some borrowings, his status as a billionaire is in jeopardy.

Deripaska has been in such straits before.  He is in some ways the Donald Trump of Russia.  Putin bailed him out in 2008/2009.  Will he do it again?

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March 25, 2014

The Wages of Being a Petrostate: Using the Energy Weapon is Economic Suicide

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 12:07 pm

Although the Euros wring their hands at the costs they would bear if serious economic sanctions were imposed on Russia, as I’ve said, there is a huge asymmetry in vulnerability: Russia is substantially more vulnerable to a cutoff in trade, especially the energy trade.  Take gas.  Germany imports about 12b Euros of gas annually.  Its GDP is about 2.5t Euros.  So natural gas expenditures are about .5 percent of GDP, and even a substantial price increase would represent a relatively small burden on German expenditures.  In contrast, Russian energy exports (63 percent of which are to Europe) account for 50 percent of the country’s budget.  So trade restrictions would be an inconvenience for Europe, and pose an existential challenge for Russia.

Such are the wages of being a petrostate.  Using the energy weapon is national economic suicide.

FT Alphaville has a nice overview of this and other asymmetries.

One quibble, related to this:

In response to Iran-style sanctions, Russia could muster one unprecedented measure. It and its allies could stop buying euros, dollars, and Western government debt. However, Western governments should be able to brush this manoeuvre aside.

If it comes to a trade and finance showdown, it won’t have the money to be buying anything.  So a cutoff of purchases of dollars, euros, etc., is not something that Russia could threaten: it would be an inevitable consequence of a trade and finance war.  And Russia is not such a big buyer that it would make all that much of a difference anyways.

The FTA piece also dispatches the fantasy Russians and their fellow travelers are peddling: that China will assist Russia by waging economic combat against the West.  China is a huge dollar and UST long, so it would be an incredible act of economic masochism to dump dollars or Treasuries.  And Russian fantasies aside, China is not that into them.

The asymmetry of power, especially economic power, couldn’t be more obvious.  But that is counterbalanced by an asymmetry in will, and heretofore that has proved the decisive difference.  Putin has wagered that Europe is unwilling to suffer any discomfort to counterattack against Putin’s anschluss.  So far, he has been right.


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I Didn’t Know the Half of It: US Leverage Over Foreign Banks

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 11:01 am

In my post from Sunday I mentioned how commodity trading firms require dollar funding and trade in dollars, and that anything that touches a dollar is vulnerable to US sanctions.  This detailed post from The Banker’s Umbrella shows just how much leverage the US has over foreign banks, as a result of the Patriot Act.  The most interesting thing is that you can do a deal in Euros or any other non-dollar currency, but you are vulnerable to asset seizure as long as your bank has a correspondent account at a US bank.  Money quote (pun intended):

So as you can see, from a purely technical perspective, bringing Russia and Putin to his knees is really not that difficult a task. The legislative framework is there and it is brutally effective. The question is does the USA have the political will and the stomach to face the inevitable repercussions of such actions, or is it just easier to say a few words of support in favour of the Ukraine and then let things carry on as before?

Putin surely knows this.  And apropos Obama’s mantra that Russia is acting out of weakness rather than strength, he can only have calculated that the USA (not to mention the Euros) does not “have the political will and stomach” to exploit its strengths and Russia’s weaknesses.

It is remarkable that Gazprom in particular has not been subject to sanctions, given that it will receive stolen property: gas blocks off the Crimean coast, blocks that Ukraine was going to explore.  It is a state company, that helps bankroll the state.  If it isn’t sanctions bait, what company is? And as the Banker’s Umbrella shows, like any other Russian company, it would be extremely vulnerable.

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