Streetwise Professor

January 12, 2013

BATS Hit or BAT Sh*t?

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,History,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 12:37 pm

There is an I-told-you-so tizzy going on about the revelation of the BATS exchange that a system (or programming) error had resulted in the execution of about 450,000 orders at prices worse than the best bid/offer (BBO).  Oh, the humanity!

A little perspective here.  According to BATS, the total loss (which is a wealth transfer, mind you) totaled . . . brace yourselves now . . . $420,000.  Excuse me.  $420,360.

There seems to be some presumption that there was a Golden Era of trading, before the invasion of the dreaded machines, when intermediaries had hearts of gold rather than a hunger for it.  When bids and offers were never violated.  When there were never trading errors.

Wrong.  There was no Golden Age.  Nirvana is still just a band.

Think that the BBO was never violated on exchange floors?  Think again.  Sometimes this was inadvertent in the chaos of the pits/trading posts during active markets.  Sometimes it was very advertent (is that a word?)  May I remind everyone of the FBI sting on the CME and CBT, which discovered that some brokers would collude with locals to execute customer orders at off-market prices, and split the proceeds, sometimes delivered by bagmen-literally, guys passing paper bags of bills.   Given the relatively crude time stamping of trading cards, it was very difficult to construct an accurate audit trail.  Trades couldn’t even be sequenced with precision, and since the bid/offer were not recorded continuously or time stamped, it was impossible to see whether  a trade violated the BBO.  There were pit monitors who tried to keep an eye on things, but no human monitoring was capable of detecting all violations.  Indeed, the sociology of the floor and the member domination of exchanges (a subject I’ll turn to shortly) meant that social pressure discouraged cracking down too aggressively, particularly on the most powerful.

Enforcing the BBO on the floor was in many ways constrained by a lack of data.  If anything, current market monitors have the exact opposite problem: they are drowning in a sea of data.  But as BATS shows, it is possible to go back through years of this data and pick up mistakes that cost customers about $1 per error.

Then shall we discuss out-trades?  Out-trades-trading errors, where trade terms submitted by the buyer and seller didn’t match-were common on the floor.  Brokers were on the hook for errors, and there were stories of brokers writing six figure checks to make a customer whole for a loss.  I would not be surprised that on an inflation adjusted basis, a single broker wrote a check to a customer that exceeded $420,000 in 2013 dollars.

But this reality of the way things were doesn’t stop the hue and cry about the fallen state of today’s computerized markets.  The biggest huer-and-crier (emphasis on the crying) is Jackass Joe Saluzzi of Themis Trading.  Here Joe outdoes himself, by suggesting that we need to go back to the days of non-profit exchanges in order to restore public confidence in broken markets. (h/t Blivy.)

JJ apparently believes the old mutual non-profit exchanges were freaking charities, like the March of Dimes or something.  Uhm, no.

Let’s look at the facts.  The old mutual exchanges were cartels of intermediaries.  They restricted membership in order to enhance the rents of those members.  For decades, most of them ran brokerage cartels that fixed commissions.  Some created monopoly privileges for some members (e.g., NYSE specialists).  Others (NASDAQ comes to mind) had order handling rules that basically precluded public customers from competing with member market makers in supplying liquidity: NASDAQ was also the nexus of a flagrant conspiracy among market makers to fix spreads at supercompetitive levels.

Non-profit status had nothing whatever to do with the charitable urges of old time brokers and market makers.  As I showed in research done just as the transition from non-profit to for-profit status was occurring, exchanges chose the non-profit form because the non-distribution constraint inherent in that form prevented the exchange from choosing pricing policies that transferred wealth among heterogeneous members with very specialized human capital.  (An abbreviated version of the argument is here.  The full version was published in J. Law & Econ. in 2000.)  Electronic trading undermined the rents and the specialized assets that drove the choice of non-profit form, so the move to electronic trading in turn impelled the transformation of exchanges to for-profit entities.

In other words, non-profit form was chosen by very greedy, profit-driven individuals to protect their profits.  And a good chunk of those profits resulted from the exercise of market power and the adoption of collusive arrangements by exchanges.

So spare me nostalgia.  Indeed, methinks that a good deal of the nostalgia-and the related criticism of modern electronic markets-is a shriek of rage by those who profited under the old system, and are furious that someone ruined their racket.

Joe does get one thing right (cf. blind hog, acorn).  He attributes the specific BATS problem, and the increased complexity of the equity markets, to RegNMS.  This is correct.  The information-and-linkages approach chosen by the SEC led it to adopt regulations that socialized order flow.  This was done with the explicit goal of encouraging competition among trading platforms.

Another example of “be careful what you ask for: you might get it.”  Pre-RegNMS, NYSE executed about 85 percent of the trades in its listed stocks, and the bulk of the remainder was executed in Third Markets which did not contribute to price discovery.  NYSE was essentially the natural monopoly supplier of price discovery.  Now, NYSE market share is in the low-20s, and executions are shared pretty much equally among a handful of platforms.

But this socialized order flow model requires linkages between the execution venues.  It is that necessity that accounts for the complexity of the current equity markets.  The interconnection imperative is directly responsible for the proliferation of order types that many find so vexing, and which indeed give advantages to specialized electronic traders.  Note that the BATS error was in an order type designed to ensure compliance with RegNMS rules relating to the BBO.

You can criticize this market structure.  But if you do so, you have to grasp the nettle of the fundamental trade-off.  The choice is binary.  You can choose to socialize order flow, or not.   If you do, you get something like the current equity market structure, with intense competition among execution venues linked by a complex web of fragile connections and a proliferation of order types.  If you don’t, you get something like the pre-RegNMS market structure, or futures market structure past and present.  A market that tips to a single execution venue that exercises market power, either by restricting access (the old mutual model) or by charging supercompetitive prices (the new for-profit exchange model).

Those are the choices.  But the debate is almost never framed that way.  Instead, bat sh*t crazy people like Saluzzi (enabled by folks like the CNBC talking head in the BATS Hit video) take up all the oxygen screaming about how bad the current market structure is and retailing myths about some Golden Age that never was.

Political economy considerations almost certainly ensure that the SEC is not going to go back on RegNMS, and it is truly invested in the information-and-linkages approach it chose.  So we are likely to see a continued series of controversies over problems that are inherent in the socialized order flow model.  The SEC will pull its chin, and deal with each problem as it appears in an ad hoc way, just adding to the complexity as the new games are devised to exploit the new rules implemented to stop the old games that exploited the old rules.  This will make for never ending media appearances for the likes of Joe Saluzzi, but  don’t buy his line about the good old days.  The good old days that existed when regulation effectively opted for the other binary choice (no socialization of order flow) weren’t all that great.  There was a different set of problems, and a different set of people and firms profiting off the inefficiencies that inhere in the network nature of financial trading.

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  1. SWP, keen insight into BATS and them being battered by the old boy gangsters/SEC… But my question is what came first when equity markets developed under an August tree? Were the original brokers well-mannered and anxious to trade shares efficiently? Only later did they pursue rent-seeking and licensed monopolies. Or, alternatively was the equity market terribly rigged in the early days, and we are slowing moving towards efficient price discovery with exchange competition, (and commensurate complex order schedule).

    Comment by scott — January 14, 2013 @ 10:21 am

  2. Thanks, @scott. Initially, NYSE traded bonds, mainly government bonds. Equity markets developed later.

    But that’s really a pedantic point. IMO, all exchanges, including the NYSE, exhibited the yin and yang of cooperation from the moments of their births. On the one hand, they did adopt rules that facilitated efficient exchange, most notably rules relating to handling defaults and improving performance on contracts. On the other hand, they adopted rules and practices that facilitated collusion and rent seeking. There has always been elements of rigging and self-dealing and rent-seeking, and right along side these have been elements of efficiency-enhancing cooperation and innovation. Never black-and-white. Not then, not now.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — January 14, 2013 @ 9:59 pm

  3. No dispute on the ying and yang, or ebb and flow of the exchanges. Rarely is anything monotonically increasing or decreasing, particularly in human affairs. But the point is not pedantic. I would like to probabilistically forecast the future health of financial trading, and it seems that the flow towards efficiency and cooperation is winning over the rent-seeking of the major players- at least on a time scale of hundreds of years. But… is Franken-Dodd just a shorter episode of an ebb phase of rent-seeking and regulatory stagnation on the long-haul to cooperation?, or is FrankenDodd the fatal blow to hundreds of years of financial innovation? The banks are now clearly state utilities, and an innovative company like BATS could never emerge under the current rules. IMO, either financial trading withers over many decades to come (and we still have pit-trading in Chicago in 2050), or the state collapses and a wild-west of new companies emerge without the stifling effects of FrankenDodd to facilitate the transfer of risk in a new world order. Yin/Yang, (or perhaps mean-reversion in trading terms) is useful for describing steady-state conditions, but we are nearer to a gap event.

    Comment by scott — January 15, 2013 @ 1:48 am

  4. @scott-

    I wasn’t accusing you of being pedantic. Sorry about the confusion. I was just pointing out that they were trading bonds not equity under the Buttonwood Tree. Not snarking about your substantive point/question.

    I think that there is a trend towards efficiency, and that’s part of the cause of the shrieks of criticism against HFT. WRT FrankenDodd . . . I don’t know if it is a fatal blow, but I do think it is a step backwards, definitely. As my post over the weekend on FrankenDodd’s effect of increasing concentration in the banking/financial sector suggests, that will tend to impede innovation.

    We could be near a gap event primarily because I think the FrankenDodd edifice is unsustainable. It bears within it the seeds of its own destruction.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — January 15, 2013 @ 9:10 am

  5. No the confusion was mine on “pedantic”. I read your reply once, posted the comment, and then immediately re-read your original reply and noticed the comment on pedantic referred to bonds and equities. My mistake, but the speed of the blogosphere is worth these mistakes. Thanks for your continued efforts on writing. much appreciated.

    Comment by scott — January 17, 2013 @ 2:39 pm

  6. I think that the current market structure is flawed. I think it has more to do with the regulatory environment than electronic trading. If there wasn’t a tiered market structure and things were more horizontal, markets would be more competitive and the end user would get a fair shake.

    With regard to the floor, I have pretty good knowledge of what went on. 95% of the time, things were on the level. Certain pits were worse than others. For example, the pork belly pit at CME was rife with corruption. Certain brokers were worse than others. But most of the brokers were on the level. Certain desks were worse etc.

    Sometimes, the desk made an error-and it approached the broker to make a “business decision”. The shit flowed downhill to the locals. There was enough juice in the market that things could even out-legally.

    For example, unemployment comes out and the market is going to drop based on the data. A broker might have a resting bid. A local that had done him a favor might be “heard” before any other locals and get the whole trade.

    In today’s electronic environment, there is less play. But, there is just as much shit going on. Co-location, quote stuffing, fake orders etc are all de rigeur when it comes to trading strategies of HFTs. That I have a problem with.

    Comment by Jeff — January 19, 2013 @ 11:12 am

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