A look through this month’s headlines shows a heated controversy
over a complicated area of the market that many average investors probably
don’t spend much time thinking about: high speed trading. From
Dean Baker at the NY Times and
Clem Chambers at Forbes to the Associated Press, it seems everyone has a heated (and different)
opinion over whether the phenomenon of high speed trading is a help or
a hindrance to individual investors and to the market.
"For several years, the Wall Street wizards who built a faster, more
fragmented stock market justified their creation by pointing to the benefits
it yielded for investors in the form of lower trading costs,” wrote
Nathaniel Popper in a NY Times pieces this month.
“But as the speed and complexity of the markets have continued to
change at a rapid pace - with trade times now measured in millionths of
a second - a growing number of studies and market participants suggest
that those benefits to investors have stalled or even started to reverse.”
Chambers and others, however, disagree.
“The investor is not affected [by high frequency trading],”
wrote Chambers on Aug. 13. “High-frequency trading … is mainly
discomfiting to traders and speculators, not to those we think of as investors—who
concern themselves with a company's long-term performance,”
wrote Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., a WSJ columnist, on Aug. 10.
And yet, a recent report prepared by New York trading and research firm
Pragma Securities LLC indicates that the frequently expressed argument
that high frequency trading technology can’t negatively impact the
average, long-term investor may be incorrect.
“Investors trying to trade cost-effectively often find themselves
standing in line behind the fleet-footed traders and are forced to wait
to execute their trades, which in turn can cause poorer results,”
said the report, according to the WSJ.
A look at the data suggests that the true winners in the high-speed trading
game are not investors but the high-speed trading firms, which utilize
software, vigilant employees, and fast data connections to detect and
act upon tiny differences between stocks on different exchanges.
writes economist and author Dean Baker, “many of these programs are designed to pick up large trades and
effectively jump in ahead of the trader. For example, if a major investor or
mutual fund was in the process of selling a large amount of G.E. stock, a high-speed
program may detect the movement. The high-speed trader could then short
G.E. stock and buy it back immediately after the big sale and get a guaranteed
profit. This has the same effect on the stock market as insider trading.
Insider trading is bad for markets because it means that normal investors
will get a smaller share of the gains. The same holds true with the high-speed
trading platforms that now dominate the market.”
Reuters’ financial blogger Felix Salmon agrees:
“The stock market today is a war zone, where algobots fight each
other over pennies, millions of times a second. Sometimes, the casualties
are merely companies like Knight, and few people have much sympathy for
them. But inevitably, at some point in the future, significant losses
will end up being borne by investors with no direct connection to the
HFT [high-frequency trading] world, which is so complex that its potential
systemic repercussions are literally unknowable.”
Salmon’s correct that the casualties caused by Knight Capital’s
$440 million meltdown were restricted to the company, but that’s
only because the company’s partners bailed it out. What happens
when another company’s algorithms go haywire and there’s no
one to pick up the pieces? Like with the over-valued shares of Facebook
that resulted from its flawed initial public offering, average investors
will be stuck with the fallout. Hopefully, after Knight’s meltdown
this month, regulators will begin to turn an increasingly scrutinizing
eye to high frequency trading firms and the practices of high speed trading.