Robo-trading: the superfast stockbroking strategy that affects your retirement funds

Advocates of HFT argue that it provides additional liquidity and so narrows the gap between buying and selling prices. Yet when market conditions turn adverse, HFT firms can switch off their robo-traders and then liquidity vanishes – as we saw in the “fla

The image of a crowded trading floor with brash young stockbrokers shouting into telephones has ceased to be representative of how most financial assets are traded. Most of today’s trading has migrated from trading floors to virtual electronic exchanges. The benefits include a more efficient system, because they provide liquidity and transparency, and also better price execution. However, in the past few years, an insidious new trend, “high-frequency trading” (HFT), has developed and is spreading stealthily.

A few critical factors explain the rapid development of HFT: the increase in computing power available to investment banks and trading firms, for example, and the deregulation of many stock exchanges in the United States and Europe.

HFT firms employ smart programmers to develop algorithms that can assess market conditions and enable computers to issue thousands of buy and sell orders automatically in less than a second. In this world, speed is everything. Certain exchanges are renting space to trading firms to allow them to locate their computers as close as possible to the exchanges, in order to reduce what is known as “latency”.

In another effort to obtain a speed advantage (of roughly six milliseconds), a dedicated transatlantic cable is being laid to connect London with New York.

Some exchanges are also selling real-time price information to the HFT firms, allowing the latter to obtain prior knowledge of order flow. This enables them to place buy or sell orders ahead of the average individual or institutional investor. (This is analogous to being in a line to buy tickets for the theatre and, as you approach the front of the queue, a tout appears ahead of you to buy the last ticket for, say, £30, then immediately sells it to you for £35.)

These speed and information advantages allow HFT firms to reap millions of dollars of low-risk profits by, in effect, “scalping” pennies off each trade. Because of the huge volume of trades, this adds up to billions of pounds overall.

So what does this mean for you and your retirement funds? Advocates of HFT argue that it provides additional liquidity and so narrows the gap between buying and selling prices.

Yet when market conditions turn adverse, HFT firms can switch off their robo-traders and then liquidity vanishes – as we saw in the “flash crash” of 6 May 2010, when the US market fell by 9 per cent in minutes. Even in normal market conditions, the algorithms used by HFT can increase the volatility of stock prices, which in turn affects the price for those investing your pension money.

What can be done? One simple idea is to limit trading firms’ ability to buy and sell in time increments of less than a second, or to impose a tax or tariff on trades that are held only for such a short time frame.

What is certain is that if nothing is done, pensioners who have saved all their working lives will lose out to the robo-traders that determine most of the current action in the stock markets.

Most financial assets are handled in a very different way to this nowadays. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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You may call me a monster – but I'm glad that girl's lemonade stall got shut down

What's wrong with hard-working public servants enforcing perfectly sensible regulations?

Who could fail to be moved by the widely shared tears of a five year old whose innocent lemonade stall was brutally shut down by evil bureaucrats? What sort of monster would not have their heartstrings tugged by the plaintive “I've done a bad thing” from a girl whose father tells us she “just wanted to put a smile on people's faces”?

Well me, actually.

There are half a million cases of food poisoning each year in the UK, and one of the reasons we have stringent controls on who can sell food and drink, especially in unsealed containers, is to try to cut those figures down. And street stalls in general are regulated because we have a system of taxation, rights and responsibilities in this country which underpins our functioning society. Regulation is a social and economic good.

It’s also pretty unfair to criticise the hard-working public servants who acted in this case for doing the job they are no doubt underpaid to do. For the council to say “we expect our enforcement officers to show common sense” as they cancelled the fine is all very well, but I’m willing to bet they are given precious little leeway in their training when it comes to who gets fined and who doesn’t. If the council is handing out apologies, it likely should be issuing one to its officers as well.

“But these are decent folk being persecuted by a nanny state,” I hear you cry. And I stand impervious, I’m afraid. Because I’ve heard that line a lot recently and it’s beginning to grate.

It’s the same argument used against speed cameras and parking fines. How often have you heard those caught out proclaim themselves as “law-abiding citizens” and bemoan the infringement of their freedom? I have news for you: if you break the speed limit, or park illegally, or indeed break health and safety or trading regulations, you are not a law-abiding citizen. You’re actually the one who’s in the wrong.

And rarely is ignorance an excuse. Speed limits and parking regulations are posted clearly. In the case of the now famous lemonade stand, the father in question is even quoted as saying “I thought that they would just tell us to pack up and go home.” So he knew he was breaking the rules. He just didn’t think the consequences should apply to him.

A culture of entitlement, and a belief that rules are for other people but not us, is a disease gripping middle Britain. It is demonstrated in many different ways, from the driver telling the cyclist that she has no right to be on the road because she doesn’t pay road tax (I know), to the father holding up his daughter’s tears to get out of a fine.

I know, I’m a monster. But hooray for the enforcers, I say.

Duncan Hothersall is the editor of Labour Hame