Saturday, April 5, 2014

On Lewis and HFT


I’m amazed at what’s happened since the Mike Lewis/60 Minutes interview. It’s like the book has unearthed some heretofore unknown information. As a result of these ‘revelations’ the Press has gone mad (it’s a global story), and the FBI, SEC and DoJ have announced they are looking into the evils of HFT.


WTF? This is a very old story. Did the world forget about the Flash Crash? That was 4 years ago! Anyway, my hat is off to Lewis; he’s stirred this pot big time. So how might this turn out? My guesses, presented on the probability of the outcome.


#1 – Nothing happens at all. In a week or so the HFT headlines will die and people will quickly forget about something they have no clue what it is about. The SEC/FBI/DOJ inquires are just noise intended to calm public nerves because of the ‘news’ that the stock market is ‘rigged’. The D.C. response is at least four years late, and the stock market has always been rigged. Those investigations will go no where.


Note: The process of how Wall Street allocates the shares of hot IPOs (and secondary offerings) to friends (AKA “Big Customers”) is a much bigger deal for small investors than HFT. ‘Club Deals’ have been around for, well, forever.


#2 – Something Small from Washington. There could be steps taken to restrict some aspects of HFT. However, the rebates the exchanges currently pay are not going to end, so HFT will not only survive, it will get a blessing from the regulators.


#3 – Something Big from D.C.  The SEC and FBI may scare the HFT crowd to death – but the DoJ could kill them. If the lawyers in blue suits find an avenue that concludes that HFT is in restraint of trade (or something of the same legal ilk) then it is cease-and-desist – ASAP.


#4 – Something from the HFT side. Consider the position these folks are in:

-They have the Feds up their asses! Every email/doc is coming out. Who really owns what, and what side deals exist will be disclosed. The investigations will make the player’s lives miserable.

-They have a terrible public image.

-Investors in these outfits (especially the big institutional players) must be getting cold feet.

-The legal bills for the Federal probes will be huge.

-They will get sued. It costs next to nothing to file a suit, it costs bundles to defend against them.


What might the owners of the computers do? They might offer some concessions (limits on certain types of activity, opening up some channels to level the playing field). – All bullshit steps, however,  the bluff of cooperation might work.

On the other hand the HFT folks are potentially facing extinction. If they believed they were holding a bad hand, they might consider some desperate measures. They could gamble it all with a challenge to the market. A few of the players in this sandbox could ‘temporarily’ shut down their computers, and let the chips fall where they will. Given the well publicized attack on HFT by the D.C. polices forces, I think there is a case to be made for those in charge of the computers to limit the scope of their activities until the dust settles.


Me? I would love to see #4 (long shot). What might happen if the computers went into snail mode? I think it has the potential to blow up the markets. Volatility might spike as trading volume is cut in half.  This kind of outcome would have the regulators (and the exchanges) crawling on their knees for the HFT crowd to get back to work. What a bizarre outcome that would be.


HFT is a bit like QE. It has been around for so long, and is now such a big part of the market structure that it’s not feasible to dial back the clock without consequences.






  1. High Frequency Journalism says:

    Spot on BK. Journalism is dead, and financial journalism is an oxymoron. Keep on writing, you’re a lone voice in a wilderness of idiots.

  2. Good article.
    The picture however is of a naval steam plant / reactor plant / electric plant control panel.
    Spent many hours behind one.


  3. Here is the problem with your amazement that you don’t seem to recognize, and that amazes me.

    You are part of the financial blogging elite and your knowledge is NOT common knowledge.

    What is common knowledge to you, is NOT unknown knowledge for the press or the masses who are saturated with entertainment pop culture and sports media. They generally know nothing about financial matters that can be well covered in blogs, but never make the front page news which most people don’t read anyway.

    It is like FATCA, which I am sure you know about, and the capitulation of the worlds governments to U.S. sanctions. Now that, along with the OECD Common Reporting Standards, or GATCA is creating, a massive financial and tax data collection and auto exchange mechanism that is widely covered in specialized financial journals, articles and blogs, but is NOT common knowledge as the Mass media don’t cover it. If you like NSA spying, I am sure you like FATCA, but say FATCA to the common man, and the response is FWhat?

    So, I am NOT amazed that Michael Lewis book is a hit. His other books are great, Liar’s Poker, The Big Short, Money Ball, and he is very good at writing a narrative that captures the attention of the mass media. It is good that this is getting wider discussion as it is an area that needs it, and not just left to those in the know to know.

    Back to HFT, you might enjoy this podcast from Planet Money sometime back about the Father of High Speed Trading. It was both informative and entertaining.


  4. Chance You Take says:

    Good post. BTW, I agree with Marvin and Precious Kettles…

  5. Bruce, nice to get a new post from you. Here’s a TEDx video on HFTs which is fairly interesting to HFT-clueless people like me. The speaker attempts to explain how that flash crash happened. Would be interested to hear if you agree, including his assertion that the market is now almost entirely controlled by machines.


  6. Marvin, here is a good write up on FACTA and bits and pieces on the Marxist who wrote it harry reid.


  7. Bruce,
    Why do you have to use the language that you do. It causes me to disrespect you. Please change your ways and increase your credibility.

    • Not sure what Brickshots point is but if he is complaining about your description of a head in a nether region I am ok with that because it is an excellent description of a painful bother.

      Just keep writing as you normally do because changing that description will have no affect on your credibility.

  8. Great point Bruce, I’m an avid reader of your blog and a huge fan. Please keep on writing, I highly value your insight on many things.

  9. If hft’s are jumping in front of limit orders, then it’s just sour grapes from people who are in the way of progress.

    But there have been rumors for years about other stuff.

    If hft’s can see market orders and then jump in front of them to scoop up shares, and if hft’s can cancel their own limit orders when they see an order about ready to hit their bid, then there should be a lot of people in jail.