Machines rule the trading world, and are getting even faster, leaving us wonder if humans still play a necessary role in trading.
On August 1st, 2012 at 9:30 am, in a matter of only 45 minutes, Knight Capital Group lost $440 million due to a computerized trading system malfunction. Five days later, a consortium of four firms rescued Knight and diluted shareholders, with the company’s stock dropping from $10 to $3. A victim of their own creation, the machines rule the trading world, and are getting even faster, leaving us wonder if humans still play a necessary role in trading.
Knight is a trading firm and one of the largest market makers in a number of stocks in the United States. Its high-frequency trading system malfunctioned that morning, or was accidently tested before it was ready[i], as it simultaneously entered buy and sell orders in the same 148 stocks, sending prices fluctuating wildly. According to reports[ii], trading volume on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) was six times more than average.
Through the 1970s, the most sophisticated mode of communication for the financial world remained the same for nearly 100 years. The telegraphic ticker system gave prices of stocks and the telephone allowed the communication of orders until then. Now, high speed servers send orders through fiber optic cables with speed as the main objective; one millisecond means the difference between profit or loss.
High frequency trading (HFT) programs make money in multiple ways , usually less than a penny per share at a time (as stock quotes are to the penny but real prices are up to six decimal places). Sometimes the programs simply provide liquidity taking the other sides of trades and getting rebates from the exchanges. In the more dubious ‘flash trades,’ programs ‘flash’ buy or sell orders to pinpoint the limit price orders of other participants and then quickly soak up orders until the limit is filled at the most profitable levels for the HFT program.[iii] The brainpower for the trading comes from the mathematics and physics PhDs applying a variety of theorems from other scientific fields to financial data in a lighting fast manner.
Speed is the number one concern among these program traders. The following charts from Nanex and Zero Hedge provide a great visual as to what it is like trying to compete with these machines. The first image is a massive jump in price for this particular instrument. The entire “spike” took only 275 milliseconds to complete. This image represents what a human sees during this spike.
The next picture shows what the High Frequency Trade algorithms sees during that same 275 milliseconds time frame during the “spike” from the image above.
Speed is everything in the competitive world of HFT programs. Putting servers right within the walls of the stock exchanges helps with speed. In addition, networks with the shortest distance between the two major trading hubs of Chicago and New York help facitiliate even faster trading.
Source: Wired Magazine
The original cable took data 14.5 milliseconds per roundtrip, while a much shorter cable through Cleveland took this down to 13.1/roundtrip. But due to physics and the refraction of signals, the faster way of sending the signals is through towers using microwaves, which the McKay Brothers just finished while Traderworx will finish its towers this winter. This will take the roundtrip time for data to 9.0 milliseconds and 8.5 milliseconds, respectively. More high speed cable is being laid across the Atlantic at a cost of $300 million, as cost is hardly an object when the HFT all but are guaranteed to make money trading, if the fastest data speed is on their side.
Unfortunately, problems invariably arise with such complex systems trading so much money so quickly. With shares traded in decimals as opposed to eights and profit margins for brokers at razor thin levels, the human market maker is becoming extinct. Many estimate that 70% of dollar trading is now HFT and supporters say the benefit of liquidity is worth it, but its shortcomings are evident. Whether it is the flash crash when the Dow fell 1,000 points in May 2010 or the Facebook IPO debacle during its first day of trading, the periodical computerized mishaps are common place. A solution is more human market makers, who have cognitive ability to recognize berserk trading while most systematic trading simply processes information and send out directions as ordered.
Regulators allowed this to happen and are considering the previous missteps. The German DAX and NASDAQ exchanges are considering doing away with HFT while the SEC is looking into banning it, though we are far from it becoming rule.
Per one of our investment managers, “[Stock market] volatility is going to keep people away from what is the most promising investment opportunity because it is ‘uncomfortable’… this is the result of regulatory overreach with no market makers now, which were replaced by short term trading, people anticipating price moves that fool real investors and take pennies from them [investors] which amount to millions every day. It’s too bad.”
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