Friday, April 13, 2012

high frequency trading is cuckoo

BusinessSpectator | In the Australian Stock Exchange’s Sydney data room, which is about the size of a big lounge room, there are six “cuckoos”. These are the banks of servers installed by high frequency traders.

They sit against the wall opposite the ASX servers and each is connected directly into the host by a fat fibre optic pipe. Each cable is precisely the same length by agreement with the ASX so that none gets an advantage; if one server is closer to the input, its cable is looped around to lengthen it.

Think about that: one less metre of optic fibre carrying data at 299.8 million metres per second would give one share trader an unfair advantage over the rest. It suggests that something pretty quick is going on.

The question is whether it’s fair to the rest of us; whether those six parasites with their suckers fastened directly into the heart of the ASX should be allowed to get away with it.

The ASX is no longer a regulator, just a business, so it says that if the practice is legal and it pays a fee – not to mention a handy rent in the data room – then it can’t and won’t stop them.

For global regulators it’s actually too late: high-frequency trading accounts for as much as 70 per cent of the volume on American stock exchanges, including the NYSE; the time to control it was ten years ago.

What do the computers and their algorithms do? Well, as my relatively low-frequency brain can understand it, these machines constantly monitor order flow into the ASX servers and the sophisticated programs can pick up patterns that indicate when a reasonably large order has been placed. What they then do, in effect, is “front-run” – that is, they buy ahead of the order and make a small spread selling into it.

In other words, by operating at the speed of light they can “feel” a buy order coming and can dart in front of them and ensure that the buyers pay a little bit more than they were going to, without noticing a thing.

These operators begin each day owning no shares and end each day in the same position but they make a lot of money by doing thousands of trades every day: it’s a high volume, low margin business.

It’s not known how much money the HFT traders make, but whatever it is they weren’t making it 10-15 years ago, and stockmarket returns have not gone up in that time, so whatever they make has come out of someone else’s pocket.

That someone, of course, is you.


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