Last week's high profile trading debacle has put the focus on high speed algo programs once more. Like all the other times there is a dislocation of such sort, after a few days, all the fuss will die away and business as usual (70% of all trades now computerized) will continue. There appears to be no end to it as these folks create so much volume, and exchanges make money off that. Frankly if there was no real push back after the frightening flash crash of 2010, I don't know what will ever cause real reform. Whatever the case there is a nice write up in Wired Magazine that interested readers may want to go read for more on the subject and what is coming down the pike – both real and theoretical.
- One of the major themes of this year’s conference was “the race to the bottom,” the cost-is-no-object competition for the absolute theoretical minimum trade time. This variable, called latency, is rapidly approaching the physical limits of the universe set by quantum mechanics and relativity. But perhaps not even Einstein fully appreciated the degree to which electromagnetic waves bend in the presence of money. Kevin McPartland of the Tabb Group, which compiles information on the financial industry, projected that companies would spend $2.2 billion in 2010 on trading infrastructure—the high-speed servers that process trades and the fiber-optic cables that link them in a globe-spanning network. And that was before projects were launched to connect New York and London by a new transatlantic cable and London and Tokyo by way of the Arctic Ocean, all just to cut a few hundredths of a second off the time it takes to receive data or send an order.
- The data center of NYSE Euronext, the international conglomerate that includes the New York Stock Exchange, is in a building in suburban Mahwah, New Jersey, 27 miles from Wall Street. Besides “matching engine” computers that process trades on the exchange, it also houses high-frequency trading servers, which receive data and spit out orders according to programs—algorithms. Traders pay to put their servers in the same building, and to make things fair, engineers scrupulously add extra lengths of cable to equalize the runs among all the servers. Yes, we are talking about a few feet plus or minus. At nearly the speed of light.
- Because of some complicated physics, the speed of light through any medium is inversely proportionate to the medium’s index of refraction—so signals travel about 200,000 kilometers per second through fiber-optic cable, compared with 300,000 through the atmosphere. The fastest communication between New York and Chicago would be line-of-sight through the air, which requires a chain of microwave relay towers. Tradeworx is building such a network, as is McKay Brothers, a California firm that hopes its system will be the fastest, with a round-trip latency of less than 9 milliseconds.
- Furthermore, trade on it now, this microsecond. It is only a matter of time, perhaps a few decades, says Alexander Wissner-Gross, a Harvard physicist, before some hedge fund decides it needs a particle accelerator to generate neutrinos, and then everyone will want one. Yes, they travel slower than light, but they indisputably can tunnel through the earth, cutting thousands of miles off an intercontinental message.
- High-frequency traders make money in a vacuum, grabbing for pennies that appear and disappear like the virtual particles of quantum field theory. Their goal is to end each trading day “flat”—out of the market, their profits safely in the bank. Depending on their model, they can do well winning as little as 55 percent of their trades. They are continuously testing prices, looking for patterns and trends or the chance to buy something in one place for $1 and sell it somewhere else for $1.01, or $1.001. Sometimes they aren’t even looking to make money on the trade itself. Under the “maker-taker” model, some exchanges offer tiny incentive payments, or rebates, for posting a quote (to buy or sell a stock) that results in a trade. The exchange charges the other side in the trade, the taker, a slightly higher fee and collects the difference. So an algo can buy a stock, earn a rebate, then sell the stock and earn a rebate for that too. All of this is governed by algorithms whose lifespans can be as short as a few weeks.
- High-frequency trading raises an existential question for capitalism, one that most traders try to avoid confronting: Why do we have stock markets? To promote business investment, is the textbook answer, by assuring investors that they can always sell their shares at a published price—the guarantee of liquidity. From 1792 until 2006, the New York Stock Exchange was a nonprofit quasi utility owned by its members, the brokers who traded there. Today it is an arm of NYSE Euronext, whose own profits and stock price depend on getting high-frequency traders in the door. Trading increasingly is an end in itself, operating at a remove from the goods-and-services-producing part of the economy and taking a growing share of GDP—twice what it did a century ago, when Wall Street was financing the enormous industrial expansion of the economy.
Any securities mentioned on this page are not held by the author in his personal portfolio. Securities mentioned may or may not be held by the author in the mutual fund he manages, the Paladin Long Short Fund (PALFX). For a list of the aforementioned fund's holdings at the end of the prior quarter, visit the Paladin Funds website at http://www.paladinfunds.com/holdings/blog