Tuesday, June 30, 2009

High Frequency Traders

Interesting article on high frequency traders.

It is now generally understood that high frequency traders (HFTs) are dominating the equity market, generating as much as 70% of the volume.

HFTs are computerized trading programs that make money two ways, in general. They offer bids in such a way so as to make tiny amounts of money from per share liquidity rebates provided by the exchanges. Or they make tiny per share long or short profits. While this might sound like small change, HFTs collectively execute millions of trades a day, making it an extremely profitable business.

I have had a theory that part of the reason we have so much volatility in the markets these days is the increased use of electronic trading programs. Hedge funds electronically buy and sell once the market hits their set point. I haven’t been following the market all that long and to be honest I don’t even watch it that closely but it does seem like every other day the market is drastically shifting up or down. I think it might be because many of these HFT’s aren’t really acting with any logical thought behind them, they are merely just milestones that are being met that trigger a predetermined action. Couple the high frequency traders with the market information overload that is shoved down every investor's throat everyday and I am amazed the market isn't more volatile! Some of the points in this article are scary to say the least.

There’s a lot to worry about:

1. HFTs provide low-quality liquidity

In the old days, when NYSE specialists or NASDAQ market makers added liquidity, they were required to maintain a fair and orderly market, and to post a quote that was part of the National Best Bid and Offer a minimum percentage of time. HFTs have no such requirements. They have no minimum shares to provide nor do they have a minimum quote time. And they could turn off their liquidity at any time. When an HFT computer spots a real order, the HFT is not likely to go against it and take the other side. The institution is then faced with a very tough stock to trade.

2. HFT volume can generate false trading signals

This can cause other investors to buy at a higher price, or sell at a lower price, than they would otherwise. A spike in HFT volume can cause an institutional algorithm order based on a percentage of volume to be too aggressive. A spike can attract momentum investors, further exaggerating price moves. Seeing such a spike, options traders can start to build positions, which, in turn, can attract risk arbitrage traders who believe there’s potential news that could affect the stock.

3. HFT computer servers are faster than other trading systems

Because most HFT servers are co-located at exchanges, they can beat out institutional or retail orders, causing them to pay more or sell for less than they should have for a stock.

Then there are the “what if” problems that could be created by HFTs:

1. What if a regulation like the uptick rule were enacted?

Volumes could implode and stocks that appeared highly liquid could become extremely difficult to trade with wide spreads and no depth in the quote.

2. What if a “rogue” algorithm entered the market?

Many HFTs are hedge funds that enter their orders into the market through a “sponsored access” arrangement with a broker. Many of these arrangements do not have any pre-trade risk controls since these clients demand the fastest speed. Due to the fully electronic nature of the equity markets today, one keypunch error could wreak havoc. Nothing would be able to stop a market destroying order once the button was pressed.

Gives new meaning to the term “mutually assured destruction”?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I'm waiting for your comments on rocket design, and brain surgery, assuming you also haven't been doing either of them very long. Just to maintain a nice equivalent quality to the observations.

watching the british open, struck by the IBM commercial, talking about how more data is generated every day than exists in all the world's libraries. One of the reasons cited: trading information. The point of the commercial is that turning data into knowledge makes for more intelligent decisions. In this brave new world, that's exactly what HFT's are doing. It's not mysterious, it's not pathological, it's not destructive. It's using modern machines to mine the knowledge out of the data and taking actions which take that knowledge into account. It's not manipulating the market, it's not increasing volatility (lord help us if hft didn't exist post lehman to provide some sort of braking to the total meltdown). It's simply acquiring knowledge and using it. Folks like Themis Trading, a virulently anti-HFT outfit, use old fashioned technology, get their clocks cleaned, and whine. Beware the current mania regarding HFT, try to learn about the self interests of those making comments before passing judgement.