What most people seem to have missed about high-frequency trading

I finished reading Michael Lewis’ new book Flashboys last week. I wasn’t a specialist of high-frequency trading (HFT) at all, so I found the book interesting. Overall, it was an easy read. Perhaps too easy. I am always suspicious of easy-to-read books and articles that supposedly describe complex phenomena and mechanisms. Flashboys partly falls in that trap. Lewis has a real talent to entertain the reader. He unfortunately often slightly exaggerates and attacks the HFT industry without giving them the opportunity to respond. More annoyingly, the whole book reads like a giant advertising campaign for IEX, the new ‘fair’ exchange set up by Brad Katsuyama. In the end, I was left with a slightly strange aftertaste: the book is very partisan. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Flashboys

The book, as well as HFT, have been the topic of much discussion over the past few weeks*. I won’t come back to most of those comments, but I wish here to highlight what many people seem to have missed. Lewis, as well as many commenters, drew the wrong conclusions from the recent HFT experience. They misinterpret both the role of regulation and the market process itself.

What is most people’s first answer to the potential ‘damage’ caused by HFT? Regulation. I would encourage those people to read the book a second time. Perhaps a third time. This is Lewis:

How was it legal for a handful of insiders to operate at faster speeds than the rest of the market and, in effect, steal from investors? He soon had his answer: Regulation National Market System. Passed by the SEC in 2005 but not implemented until 2007, Reg NMS, as it became known, required brokers to find the best market prices for the investors they represented. The regulation had been inspired by charges of front-running made in 2004 against two dozen specialists on the floor of the old New York Stock Exchange – a charge the specialists settled by paying a $241 million fine.

Bingo.

Until 2007, brokers had discretion over how to handle investors’ trade orders. Despite the few cases of fraud/front-running, most investors didn’t seem to particularly hate that system. In a free market, investors are free to change broker if they are displeased with the service provided by their current one. At the very least, nothing seemed to really justify government’s intervention to institutionalise and regulate the exact way brokers were supposed to handle trade orders. In fact, when government took private discretion away, investors started feeling worse off. This is the very topic of the book (though Lewis didn’t seem to notice): government and regulation created HFT.

Brad Katsuyama sums it up pretty well (emphasis mine):

I hate them [HFT traders] a lot less than before we started. This is not their fault. I think most of them have just rationalized that the market is creating inefficiencies and they are just capitalizing on them. Really, it’s brilliant what they have done within the bound of regulation. They are much less a villain than I thought. The system has let down the investor.

Brad is definitely less naïve than Lewis, who still believed in the power of regulation throughout his book**:

Like a lot of regulations, Reg NMS was well-meaning and sensible. If everyone on Wall Street abided by the rule’s spirit, the rule would have established a new fairness in the U.S. stock market.

Meanwhile, David Glasner questioned the ‘social value’ of HFT on his blog:

Lots of other people have weighed in on both sides, some defending high-frequency trading against Lewis’s accusations, pointing out that high-frequency trading has added liquidity to the market and reduced bid-ask spreads, so that ordinary investors are made better off, not worse off, as Lewis charges, and others backing him up. Still others argue that any problems with high-frequency trading are caused by regulators, not by high-speed trading as such.

I think all of this misses the point. Lots of investors are indeed benefiting from the reduced bid-ask spreads resulting from low-cost high-frequency trading. Does that mean that high-frequency trading is a good thing? Um, not necessarily.

I believe that here it is Glasner who completely misses the point. Should we blame HFT traders from exploiting loopholes created by regulation? Economists are better placed than anyone to know that people respond to economic incentives. The resources ‘wasted’ by HFT on ‘socially useless informational advantages’ emanate from government intervention. It is highly likely that HFT would have never developed under its current form should Reg NMS had not been passed. What we instead witness is another case of regulatory-incentivised spontaneous financial innovation.

 

The second problem lies in the fact that most people seem to have become particularly impatient and dependent on short-term (and short-sighted) regulatory interventions. They spot a new ‘problem’ in the way markets work (here, HFT) and highlight it as a ‘market inefficiency’. This evidently cannot be tolerated any longer and regulators need to intervene right now to make markets ‘fairer’ (putting aside the fact that they were the ones who created this ‘inefficiency’ in the first place).

This demonstrates a fundamental misinterpretation of the market process. Markets’ and competitive landscapes’ adaptations aren’t instantaneous. This allows first movers to take advantage of consumers/investors demand and/or regulatory loopholes to generate supernormal profits… temporarily. In the medium term, the new economic incentives attract new entrants, which progressively erode the first movers’ advantage.

This occurs in all industries. Financial firms are no different (assuming no government protection or subsidies). And, despite Lewis’ outrage at HFT firms’ super profits, the fact is… that the mechanism I just described has already applied to them. It was reported that the whole industry experienced an 80% fall in profits between 2009 and 2012 (which Tyler Cowen had already ‘predicted’ here).

Besides, the story the book tells is a pure free-market story: a group of entrepreneurs wish to offer an alternative platforms to investors who also decide to follow them. There is no government intervention here. The market, distorted for a little while, is sorting itself out. Even the big banks see the tide turning and start switching sides (Goldman Sachs is depicted in a relatively positive light in the book). Lewis’ book itself is also part of that free-market story: the finger-pointing and informational role it plays is a necessary feature of the market process. To me, this demonstrates the ability of markets to right themselves in the medium-term. Patience is nevertheless required. It unfortunately seems to be an increasingly scarce commodity nowadays.

 

There was a very good description of HFT and its strategies published by Oliver Wyman at the end of last year (from which the chart below is taken). Surprisingly, they described HFT’s strategies and the effects of Reg NMS before the publication of Lewis’ book, without unleashing such a public outcry…

Oliver Wyman_Trading Process

 

* See some there: FT’s John Gapper, The Economist, David Glasner, Noah Smith, Zero Hedge, Tyler Cowen (and here), ASI’s Tim Worstall, as well as this new paper by Joseph Stiglitz, who completely misinterprets the market process. See also this older, but very interesting, article by JP Koning on Mises.org on HFT seen through both Walrasian and Mengerian descriptions of the pricing process.

I also wish to congratulate Bob Murphy for this magical tweet:

Bob Murpy tweet

** This is also despite Lewis reporting this hilarious dialogue between Brad Katsuyama and SEC regulators (emphasis his):

When [Brad, who had just read a document describing how to prevent HFT traders from front-running investors] was finished, an SEC staffer said, What you are doing is not fair to high-frequency traders. You’re not letting them get out of the way.

Excuse me? said Brad

And to continue saying that 200 SEC employees had left their government jobs to go work for HFT and related firms, including some who had played an important role in defining HFT regulation. It reminded me of this recent study that showed that SEC employees benefited from abnormal positive returns on their securities portfolios

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