On May 6th, 2010, the U.S. stock markets experienced an unusual decline (and an immediate upswing) that temporarily erased $1 trillion in market value (the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged about 1000 points) and puzzled both actors and experts following the markets. Given the ongoing controversy about “flash orders” and its portrayed usage by high-frequency traders, this incident was quickly referred as the flash crash and just as quickly blame fell on the electronic trading industry. While it is true that some high-frequency trading firms stopped running their algorithms when the decline started (human traders stopped participating in the markets in Black Monday as well), some of them stayed in the market, and helped the markets recover just as quickly as the decline happened.
Fast forward two years and we find a twit from the Associated Press with supposedly breaking news that President Obama was injured due to explosions at the White House. That report made $136 billion in market value temporarily disappear, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average quickly dropping 150 points before swinging back.
Examples of dramatic swings can go all the way back to the origins of stock markets. We only need to take a look at Black Monday, October 19th, 1987, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped by 508 points, 22.61%; by the end of October, stock markets in the United States had fallen by 22.68%, not showing any improvement for many weeks. Meanwhile, on May 6th, the Dow Jones had regained most of the drop only twenty minutes later.
Like major technology innovations in the past, computer trading was blamed for Black Monday back in 1987; as observed by economist Richard Roll though, program trading strategies were used primarily in the United States, and not in markets such as Australia and Hong Kong where the crisis started. Therefore, it is unsurprising by now that high-frequency trading has been blamed for the flash crash, the now called Twitter crash, and mini-flash crashes of certain stocks, commodities and currencies.
As Manoj Narang, CEO, Tradeworx, says in my book The Speed Traders, no matter what regulators do, there will be times when herd-like behavior among long-term investors will all be stampeding for the exits at the same time, and simply there won’t be enough high-frequency trading to cover the demand for liquidity. That is exactly what happened on May 6th, as described in painstaking detail in the CFTC/SEC report of September 30th, 2010; the report made clear that a mutual fund, identified by Reuters back in May 14 as Waddell & Reed Financial Inc., initiated a program to sell a total of 75,000 E-Mini contracts (valued at approximately $4.1 billion), certainly influenced by the pessimism in the markets due to street protests in Greece, among other reasons; the computer algorithm used to trade the position in the futures markets was set to target an execution rate set to 9% of the trading volume calculated over the previous minute, but without regard to price or time. Similarly, we will always experience technology and human errors. Dave Cummings, Chairman, Tradebot, would ask about the flash crash, “Who puts in a $4.1 billion order without a limit price?” That was the catalyst that initiated the flash crash. Knight Capital Group Inc.’s $440 million trading loss in August 1st, 2012, when the firm lost approximately $10 million per minute, is another recent example that comes to mind.
On March 7th, 2013, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission announced Regulation SCI (Systems Compliance and Integrity). As explained by Commissioner Luis A. Aguilar, the proposed rule would move beyond the current voluntary program and require entities to establish, maintain, and enforce written policies and procedures reasonably designed to ensure that its systems have adequate levels of capacity, integrity, resiliency, availability, and security to maintain the entity’s operational capability and promote the maintenance of fair and orderly markets, mandate participation in scheduled testing of the operation of the entity’s business continuity and disaster recovery plans, including backup systems, and coordinate such testing on an industry- or sector-wide basis with other entities, and finally make, keep, and preserve records relating to the matters covered by Regulation SCI, and provide them to Commission representatives upon request.
Electronic trading, like any other area of finance, should have sensible regulations imposed to promote sound trading practices and protect the average American investor from predatory behavior. If a market participant who does not use high-frequency trading believes that he or she cannot enter into fair transactions, then that individual will not invest in that market. But regulators could restore trust in the market without eliminating high-speed trading. They simply must be armed to analyze trading activity in real time.
In an area of finance predicated on speed, regulation must be as well. Real-time information would allow regulators to see everything that is occurring in the markets, no matter how quickly the order information is being posted and transactions are occurring. This would require significant commitments to invest in both human capital and information technology, but the investment is worthwhile: it is vital for regulators to level the playing field of electronic trading in general.
Real-time policing for potential malfeasance is the most efficient way to regulate high-frequency trading. Analysis of real-time data would provide for effective regulation of these trades. This in turn would provide peace of mind for market participants big and small.
Having spoken with professionals in the world’s most important financial centers, I can attest that America’s capital markets continue being the envy of the world, thanks to the innovation people like high-frequency traders, educated in the country’s top schools, bring to the markets. Let’s allow innovations like high-frequency trading to continue and regulators to police them accordingly, and not try to ban them, as vocal activists tried once with major innovations such as automobiles and derivatives.
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