Streetwise Professor

October 23, 2012

La Plus Ca Change, Trading Edition

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 12:11 pm

On Friday’s anniversary of the ’87 Crash, the WSJ put some of the articles from the days after on its website.  This one in particular makes fascinating reading, and is quite enlightening for those who pine for the good old days, when markets were slow and the livin’  (and tradin’) was easy.

For even back in those lost and lamented days when trading took place face-to-face on the floors, during times of market stress things seemed to move fast.  Very, very fast:

And the stock-index markets were leading the way down — fast. In a nightmarish fulfillment of some traders’ and academicians’ worst fears, the five-year-old index futures for the first time plunged into a panicky, unlimited free fall, fostering a sense of crisis throughout U.S. capital markets.

. . . .

Within seconds of the open, S&P 500-stock index futures prices sank 18 points — surpassing the nerve-racking record declines scored in an entire day on Friday. Salomon Brothers Inc. began unloading contracts at an unheard-of rate of 1,000 at a time, dumping more than $600 million in stock-index futures in the first hour of trading alone, one pit trader estimated. Salomon officials couldn’t be reached for comment on the estimate.

[Emphasis added.]

Note too that the big orders are not a modern phenomenon that arose only when HFT algos came on the scene.

And liquidity suppliers fleeing the market is not the monopoly of modern computerized trading where HFT is prevalent:

Then, as buyers fled the market in alarm, trading nearly dried up, temporarily preventing the markets from functioning as a hedging mechanism — their principal reason for existence.

. . . .

Yesterday, as institutions and investors scrambled to lay off at least some of their risk in futures, trading in the index markets virtually dried up at several points, threatening a liquidity crisis on the Merc’s trading floor. At mid-morning, the S&P prices were moving up two points, then back down, in less than a minute, as sellers scrambled to fill orders at any price they could get.

One difference between human and computerized market makers.  Computers don’t cry:

Up the street at the Chicago Board Options Exchange, a market maker wept softly in the men’s room.

One other thing from the article caught my eye:

With trading delayed in many major New York Stock Exchange issues because of order imbalances, Chicago’s controversial “shadow markets” — the highly leveraged, liquid futures on the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index — were, for just a few minutes, the leading indicator for the Western world’s equity markets.

Shadow markets. Really?  The only market that was open for a while, the only one that was discovering prices-that’s the shadow market?  An interesting comment on the WSJ’s-and Wall Street’s-attitude towards futures markets at the time. Note that now, futures markets are considered worth emulation, and the demonization has been focused on the new “shadow market”: OTC derivatives trading.

As I’ve written numerous times: things aren’t all that different now.  The economics of markets and market making are pretty much the same in computerized and open outcry environments.  When it hits the fan, things move very rapidly in both.  There is no Golden Age of leisurely markets.

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