Streetwise Professor

April 23, 2014

File Under “Dog Bites Man”: Exchange Monopolies and Dark Pools

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 2:13 pm

An exchange chairman believes that all trading should take place on exchanges. In commenting on securities market structure, CME Group Chairman Terry Duffy criticizes fragmentation-especially the existence of dark pools-and touts the lack of fragmentation in futures trading.

The concentration of trading activity on futures exchanges, as opposed to the fragmentation across different exchanges (as well as off-exchange venues) in equities is due to a major difference in the treatment of orders. In futures markets, exchanges own their order flow: hypothetically, if there was another exchange posting a better price in a particular product, CME would not be obligated to direct an order to that better-priced market. When exchanges own their order flow in this way, traders direct orders to the exchange where they expect to get the best price. This is typically the market where most traders are. This creates a centripetal force that causes all activity to tip to a single dominant exchange. That is why CME, Eurex, ICE, etc., have monopolies or near monopolies in the products they trade. (And yes, Terry, even though no one is stopping anyone from competing with you, this order flow effect means that no one can do so effectively, leaving you a de facto monopoly. Only LIFFE’s idiocy in its battle with Eurex in 1998 allowed the Germans to get trading in the Bund futures to tip their way.)

This is the way it used to be in equities too. Prior to the late-2000s, the NYSE effectively owned its order flow, and 80-85 percent of trading volume in NYSE listings took place on the NYSE. The remainder occurred on “third markets” that catered to the verifiably uninformed (more on this below).  But in 2005 the SEC changed the rules in a fundamental way. It passed RegNMS, which socialized order flow by requiring exchanges to route orders to others displaying better prices. Within a very short period, a handful of exchanges executing between 8-20 percent of volume competed fiercely with one another. The NYSE’s effective monopoly had been broken.  This is why Goldman paid $6.5 billion for a specialist unit in 2000, and sold it for $30 million this year. The 2000 price capitalized monopoly rents: there are none to capitalize in 2014.

Duffy says he’s fine with this kind of fragmentation  of trading across exchanges with the associated intense competition (though that’s very easy for him to say because he doesn’t have to worry about that outcome given the lack of a RegNMS-type rule in futures markets), but he thinks dark pools should be shut down.

To evaluate this position, you need to understand what role dark pools play. Just like third markets and block markets of the pre-RegNMS era, dark pools (and internalization of retail order flow) are a ways of screening out informed traders. This reduces the costs of the uninformed who can trade on dark pools be reducing their vulnerability to adverse selection. This is good for them, but the overall effects are much harder to understand. Order flow on exchanges becomes more toxic (i.e., a higher proportion of the order flow is informed) which raises adverse selection costs on exchanges, and thereby raises trading costs there.

The net effect of this is very difficult to determine. This is another application of the second best. Since exchanges may have market power, the additional competition from off-exchange venues can improve efficiency even if it raises adverse selection costs for some traders. Moreover, as I’ve argued in my HFT posts recently, since some informed trading is of the rent seeking variety, by reducing the returns to informed trading dark pools can reduce wasteful investments in information.

This means that Duffy’s criticism of dark pools might be right. But it might be wrong.

One thing is definitely true. Market structure has huge distributive effects. Although the rules on dark pools have very uncertain efficiency effects, there is no doubt that these rules affect the distribution of costs and benefits across different types of traders. It is precisely these distributive effects which make the battles over market structure so divisive and protracted.

I’d also note that Duffy ignoring some features of futures markets, and derivatives markets generally, that perform functions similar to dark pools. For instance, CME allows block trading. Indeed, it is engaged in a tussle with the CFTC, which wants to reduce the amount of block trading in order to force more volume into the order book.

But block trades are a way that less-informed large traders can reduce adverse selection costs. They have long performed this function in equity markets, and are now doing so in futures. And by stripping out that order flow from the order book, block trades have the same effects as dark pools.  Blocks are a form of fragmentation.

Block markets are non-anonymous: that’s how they screen out the informed. Block traders won’t deal with those they believe likely to be informed, and by trading face-to-face traders can develop reputations for not being informed and profiting systematically at the expense of their counterparties.

Well, wouldn’t you know it, but this is how OTC derivatives markets work too. The lack of price transparency in OTC markets is often bewailed, but OTC markets are transparent in another important way that exchanges are not: they offer counterparty transparency, whereas exchanges are counterparty opaque. This benefits, say, firms that are trading to hedge in large volume (who are likely to be uninformed). It’s not a surprise that trading activity migrated from OTC to blocks on CME and ICE after Frankendodd made swaps trading more expensive. Both futures blocks and swaps are ways of reducing the execution costs of large, likely uninformed traders.

Put differently: blocks (and swaps) are a form of fragmentation, in the sense that they divert trading activity away from the limit order book. So Duffy shouldn’t be quite so sure about the superiority of the futures market model. It is fragmented in its own way, and has a lot more market power. But of course Duffy likes the last part, though he would never admit it.

 

 

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April 19, 2014

HFT, Dark Pools, Third Markets, and the Second Best

Filed under: Economics,HFT,Regulation — The Professor @ 12:05 pm

In his Atlanta Fed paper, Stiglitz uses second best considerations in his argument against HFT. My basic response is that second best considerations cut both ways.

Put simply, second best considerations mean that if one optimality condition is violated, then it may be efficiency enhancing to violate another optimality condition: or, one “market failure” can mitigate another. A simple example would be that it might be better for a polluting industry to be monopolistic or oligopolistic instead of competitive.  The monopolist’s reduction of output offsets the incentive to produce too much that occurs when there is an externality.

In the context of HFT, my second best argument is that since informed trading can be rent seeking, things that might otherwise be inefficient, such as anticipating orders or engaging in “arms races” to enhance trading speed, can be efficiency enhancing.

This is not a new theme with me. In fact, it’s quite old. I wrote a paper in 1998 titled “Third Markets and the Second Best” that applied this argument to off-exchange trading, and the free riding off of price discovery on exchanges. I discussed this further in my 2002 JLEO paper, “Securities Market Macrostructure: Property Rights and the Efficiency of Securities Trading“.

In these papers, I showed that off exchange trading venues-third markets-that free ride off of the prices produced by exchanges and limit trading to the verifiably uninformed can be efficiency enhancing even if this exacerbates adverse selection problems on the exchange because this free riding mitigates two problems: the market power of dominant exchanges (where the market power arises from the liquidity network effect) and rent seeking informed trading (i.e., the expenditure of real resources to obtain information in order to extract profits by trading with the less-informed who buy and sell for portfolio balance or risk management reasons).

Similar arguments can be applied to dark pools today. Indeed, many dark pools (and internalization) perform a similar function to third markets back in the day: they are venues that use various means to screen out informed traders, in order to reduce execution costs for the verifiably less-informed. This loss of uninformed order flow on “lit” exchanges tends to increase adverse selection costs there, but the same competition and rent seeking informed trading second best considerations arise here, meaning that the costs of lower liquidity on exchanges may be more than offset by other benefits.

And many of the very same considerations apply to HFT. Thus, contra Stiglitz, second best considerations do not unambiguously favor the adoption of restrictions on HFT.

Indeed, the thing that is most striking about the trading of financial instruments is that there are so many potential violations of optimality conditions that the entire analysis of market structure becomes an exercise in the theory of the second best.

Which can be a problem. For as George Stigler said, “Well, there are second best considerations” is a conversation stopper. But the conversation about market structure isn’t going to stop anytime soon, so we have to grasp the nettle of the second best if that conversation is going to shed more light than heat. It is good that Stiglitz makes the second best issue explicity. If only he had applied this reasoning more consistently, and recognized that informed trading can be a deviation from optimality which can be addressed by things that seem in isolation to be inefficient.

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April 18, 2014

Banning Banks From Physical Commodity Trading: The Battle Continues

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 3:33 pm

The battle over bank participation in physical commodities is reaching a climax. The deadline for commenting on potential Federal Reserve regulation of this activity is approaching, and many letters from groups representing banks (‘natch) but also from energy and commodity industry groups plead with the Fed to permit continued bank involvement in the markets. However, on Capitol Hill the sentiment largely runs the other way, and Senators Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren submitted a letter demanding that the Fed defenestrate banks’ commodities businesses.

Most of the Brown-Warren letter is stuff I’ve written about before, so I won’t comment more on it now. But this part stood out to me, and deserves a rebuttal:

Commodities activities present risks that are different from financial-market risks, are idiosyncratic, and have the potential to disrupt more than just the financial system. Global supply chain disruptions can affect industries in the broader economy that rely upon raw materials.

First, from a systemic risk perspective, the fact that commodities risks are idiosyncratic, and different (i.e., less correlated) with other risks in the banking system is a good thing. Diversification is beneficial in this regard.

I have looked at some evidence that speaks directly to this issue. Over the period of the crisis, the profits of the biggest physical commodity trading firms (the Glencores, Cargills, Vitols, etc.) did not suffer the same extreme drop as bank profits. Indeed, with a few exceptions (Bunge) profits of the major commodity trading firms rose from 2008 to 2009, when bank profits were in freefall.

This lack of cyclicality in trading firm profits, which is in stark contrast to the extreme cyclicality in prices (especially for energy and metals) is readily understood. Physical trading is a margin and volume business: these factors, not flat prices, drive profits. Due to the inelasticity of supply and demand for commodities, margins and volumes tend to be much more stable than flat prices. Prices, rather than quantities, tend to bear the bulk of the burden of responding to demand shocks. Moreover, some commodity trading activities-notably storage-tend to be countercyclical, providing a source of profit to physical commodity traders during recessions.

Commodity trading firms actually had more issues when prices spiked in 2008, because it was difficult for them to finance inventories at very high prices, and the low prices of 2009 eased these financing constraints.

The lack of cyclicality, which contrasts starkly to the pronounced cyclicality of earnings in traditional banking and capital market activities, means that physical commodity trading could reduce the systemic risk posed by banks. The effect will not be large, because even for the biggest banks  commodity trading revenues are small relative to those generated by the more traditional activities. But directionally, this lack of cyclicality in physical trading profitability makes it an attractive part of a bank’s portfolio, especially from a systemic risk perspective.

Second, the Brown-Warren warning about disruptions beyond the financial system are vastly overblown. Presumably what they mean is that if a large bank or several large banks with commodity trading operations were to run into financial trouble, this could disrupt global supply chains. But especially for the commodities that banks tend to focus on (particularly energy), they represent a small fraction of total physical market trading activity. If they disappeared overnight, others could step in and handle most of the business at a slightly higher cost. (Not to mention that it is kind of strange to justify driving banks out of the business by saying that if they leave the business it could disrupt global supply chains.)

But even more importantly, we know that even major disruptions in global supply chains are likely to have only trivial impacts on the global economy. Look at the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011. It devastated supply chains throughout Asia, far more than the loss of even several major commodity trading firms could have. Yet the effects on global growth were minimal. Several central banks examined the issue, and found that the catastrophe reduced global growth by around .1 percent for a couple of quarters. Even in Asia, the effect was minor.

As another example, the implosion of the merchant energy sector in the US in 2002 had no marked effect on US economic activity.

Another concern raised about bank participation in physical markets is environmental risk. This is potentially a serious concern, but even there legal protections (notably dealing through subsidiaries that protect a bank or bank holding company from liability) and insurance can sharply reduce the risk that legal exposure arising from an oil spill or the like could threaten the viability of a large financial institution. Also, since different commodity trading activities pose different environmental risks, a blanket restriction on commodity trading activities, some of which are not particularly environmentally risky, is not warranted.

In sum, the Brown-Warren arguments are not persuasive. Financially, the nature of physical commodity trading tends to reduce the cyclicality of of bank profits, which tends to reduce systemic risk. The fears about threats to global supply chains from the failure of any major commodity trader leading to adverse macroeconomic consequences are vastly overblown. Finally, the environmental/legal risk issues can be allocated away from banks through organizational structure and insurance. Since there also complementarities between traditional banking activities and commodity trading (which I discussed in posts from last summer) some commodity producers and consumers would pay higher costs if they could not enter into physical trading deals with banks: this is one reason why some of these producers and consumers object to limitations on bank participation in these markets. It’s hard to see the benefits of a ban (or restriction), but some costs are evident.

I doubt that will matter much in the end though. Commodities are a politically sensitive issue. Banks are a politically sensitive issue. Put them together, and the sensitivities are acute. Meaning that politics will largely drive the outcome.

Update. One other amusing part of the Brown-Warren letter. They say:

Some have argued it is preferable to allow commodities activities and physical asset ownership within the regulated banking system, rather than at the more lightly regulated commodity trading houses. As a general matter, the CFTC maintains authority to police fraud and manipulation in the commodities markets, regardless of the party engaging in such behavior.

So are banks somehow less subject to deterrence by the threat of CFTC action? If the objective  is to reduce the amount of manipulation and fraud, to justify forcing banks to eschew commodity trading it is necessary to argue that banks are  somehow less responsive to CFTC action than commodity trading houses. Maybe, but it’s not obviously true and I’ve seen no evidence that would support my view.

This relates to a point I made in earlier posts, namely, that if the economics are such that banks find it tempting to manipulate, non-banks will also find it tempting. Meaning that moving a business (e.g., metal warehousing) from a bank to a non-bank is unlikely to reduce the amount of manipulation.

One other thing needs to be said in this context. The Brown-Warren point is correct to the extent that it demonstrates that the term “lightly regulated” is used far too sloppily. Yes, trading houses are less subject to less of some kinds of regulation than banks, but they are subject to anti-fraud and anti-manipulation rules just as banks are. Similarly,  environmental laws and anti-trust laws and many other laws apply to these firms. “Lightly regulated” does not apply uniformly to all forms of bad conduct. The fact that commodity traders are not subject to some regulations that banks are (e.g., capital requirements) makes sense, given the differences between them.

Whenever anyone says “unregulated” or “lightly regulated”, I get suspicious and skeptical. Often those using these phrases are playing a shell game.

 

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Stiglitz on HFT

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,HFT,Regulation — The Professor @ 11:39 am

Joe Stiglitz presented a paper on HFT at the Atlanta Fed conference earlier this week that has received a lot of attention. The paper is worth reading, but I actually recommend Felix Salmon’s synopsis, which breaks out the issues nicely.

I agree with Stiglitz in part, and disagree in part. The agreement is that Stiglitz hits many of the themes of my recent posts on HFT, notably that when there is private information, financial markets are unlikely to reach first best outcomes, and that making welfare comparisons is very difficult: I would say nigh-on to impossible, actually. Stiglitz also recognizes that HFT affects the incentives to collect information, which is another theme that I’ve emphasized.

Where I disagree is that Stiglitz (like DeLong) concludes from these insights that HFT is wasteful and should be restricted. This conclusion does not follow at all, and can be traced to some implicit assumptions about the nature of informed trading by non-HFT traders.

Stiglitz says “HFT discourages the acquisition of information which would make the market more informative in a relevant sense.” And by “relevant sense” he means fundamental information about the real economy. He laments that HFT “can be thought of as stealing the information rents that otherwise would have gone to those who had invested in information.” Further, he criticizes that much of what HFT does is merely accelerate the revelation of this information, and this acceleration is so small that it cannot improve any decision on any margin, and hence the resources used by HFT are wasted.

But this implicitly assumes that the information produced by non-HFT traders, the collection of which is reduced by the “stealing of information rents”, is in fact fundamental information that would improve decisions. But as I’ve noted repeatedly, many of the informed traders who HFT firms sniff out are producing information that does not improve any economic decision on any margin. Getting better information about an impending earnings report can be very profitable, but revelation of this information doesn’t improve decision making.

By assuming that non-HFT informed traders are producing information that invariably improves decisions, Stiglitz misunderstands what a great deal of informed trading is about, and thereby ignores a benefit of HFT order anticipation-based trading, and crucially, of HFT quote adjustments that cause markets to run away from big traders and thereby limits their ability to profit on their information.

One way to think about it is that there is cash flow relevant information, and decision relevant information. Pretty much all decision relevant information is cash flow relevant, but not all cash flow information is decision relevant. One major example is what Stiglitz emphasizes: the slight acceleration of revelation of information. But I claim that a lot of the information produced by institutional traders is of exactly this type. Stiglitz (and DeLong) ignore this, which leads them to biased appraisals of the efficiency of HFT.

That is, once one recognizes that some informed trading is rent seeking, and socially wasteful, “stealing of information rents” by HFT can be a feature, not a bug.

Stiglitz also ignores that even if HFT reduces the amount of decision relevant information produced and incorporated into prices, reducing this source of private information still reduces the adverse selection costs incurred by uninformed investors trading for portfolio rebalancing or hedging reasons. This reduction in adverse selection costs tends to improve the allocation of risk. This benefit must be weighed against any cost arising from the reduction in the production of decision relevant information.

In brief, Stiglitz and I agree that HFT reduces the incentive to collect information. Where we differ is that Stiglitz believes this is an unmitigated bad, whereas I strongly believe that this is totally wrong, because Stiglitz’s characterization of informed trading is very unrealistic. My point is that non-HFT informed trading can be parasitic, but Stiglitz does not recognize this or account for it in his analysis.

Stiglitz also complains that HFT liquidity is junk liquidity. In particular, prices move before large orders can be executed.

This is a variant on the criticism that HFT reduces information rents. Moreover, Stiglitz fails to make comparisons between realistic alternatives. The ability to adjust quotes faster reduces adverse selection costs, and allows HFT to quote tighter markets. Restricting HFT in some way will lead to wider spreads and lower quoted depth. Either way, big orders will have a price impact.

Stiglitz also claims that HFT reduces other, better forms of liquidity. Salmon actually explains this point more clearly:

HFT does not improve the important type of liquidity.

If you’re a small retail investor, you have access to more stock market liquidity than ever. Whatever stock you want to buy or sell, you can do so immediately, at the best market price. But that’s not the kind of liquidity which is most valuable, societally speaking. That kind of liquidity is what you see when market makers step in with relatively patient balance sheets, willing to take a position off somebody else’s book and wait until they can find a counterparty to whom they can willingly offset it. Those market makers may or may not have been important in the past, but they’re certainly few and far between today.

HFT also reduces natural liquidity.

Let’s say I do a lot of homework on a stock, and I determine that it’s a good buy at $35 per share. So I put in a large order at $35 per share. If the stock ever drops to that price, I’ll be willing to buy there. I’m providing natural liquidity to the market at the $35 level. In the age of HFT, however, it’s silly to just post a big order and keep it there, since it’s likely that your entire order will be filled — within a blink of an eye, much faster than you can react — if and only if some information comes out which would be likely to change your fair-value calculation. As a result, you only place your order for a tiny fraction of a second yourself. And in turn, the market becomes less liquid.

These points are pretty dubious. The kinds of market makers that HFT displaces (locals on futures exchanges, specialists, day traders) were hardly characterized by “relatively patient balance sheets.” Their holding periods were also quite short. Indeed, one of the filters academics use to identify HFT traders is firms that end the day flat: this exactly what most locals and specialists strove to do. And most traders that “do a lot of homework on a stock” were not doing so to supply liquidity through limit orders that they did not adjust frequently. Those who do a lot of homework are usually liquidity takers, not liquidity suppliers.

In sum, although Stiglitz’s analytical framework and broad conclusions are correct, his specific conclusions about HFT are not. They are not correct primarily because he has a very unrealistic view of the nature of informed trading. Once one recognizes that much informed trading is a form of rent seeking-the point that Hirshleifer made over 40 years ago-most of Stiglitz’s objections to HFT dissolve. Put differently, Stiglitz is right to believe that the financial sector may be too big, in part because there can be excessively strong incentives to collect information and trade on it, but he fails to take this point to its logical conclusion when evaluating HFT.

I do find it rather odd that strongly left-leaning economists like Stiglitz and DeLong who are broadly skeptical of financial markets focus their criticism on one new feature of those markets-HFT-without considering the implications of their broader critiques of the financial sector. At root, their criticism is that much financial market activity is rent seeking. If you believe that, you have to consider how HFT affects these rent seeking activities. Once you do that, it is impossible to sustain the critiques of HFT, because even if there are rent seeking aspects to HFT, it also can reduce other forms of rent seeking.

 

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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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