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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George Osborne takes up job at BlackRock - but what does it mean for politics?

The former Chancellor insists he hasn't forgotten about the Northern Powerhouse.

George Osborne is to take up a part-time role at asset management giant BlackRock.

The former Chancellor is understood to have been hired by the chief executive of the world's biggest investor, Larry Fink. He will be working alongside his former economic adviser Rupert Harrison.

The appointment has been approved by the Independent Appointments Committee and Osborne intends to continue as a backbench MP.

He said: "I am excited to be working with the BlackRock Investment Institute as an adviser. BlackRock wants better outcomes for pensioners and savers - and I want to help them deliver that. It's a chance for me to work part-time with one of the world's most respected firms and a major employer in Britain. 

"The majority of my time will be devoted to being an MP, representing my constituents and promoting the Northern Powerhouse.  My goal is to go on learning, gaining new experience and get an even better understanding of the world."

Once tipped as a future Prime Minister, Osborne's career ambitions were stymied after he backed Remain in the EU referendum and was sacked in Theresa May's Cabinet reshuffle. Whether he will find the halls of fund managers more comfortable than the green back benches is yet to be seen, but for now he has been clear he intends to continue his constituency duties. 

He will work at the BlackRock Investment Institute, which researches geopolitical, technological and economic trends. 

He is expected to provide insights on European politics and policy, Chinese economic reform, and trends such as low yields and longevity and their impact on retirement planning. 

While the pay packet has not been officially confirmed, Sky News quoted a source saying it would be hundreds of thousands of pounds.

But the move will also place a pro-Remain former Chancellor at the heart of the City of London, just as his Tory front bench is losing its support over Brexit negotiations.

Speaking shortly after the EU referendum vote, BlackRock chief executive Fink said he "didn't get a lot of sleep" the night of Brexit, and that the decision had led to greater uncertainty. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.