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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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.