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

Photo: Getty Images
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David Cameron’s starter homes: poor policy, but good politics

David Cameron's electoral coalition of buy-to-let retirees and dual-earner couples remains intact: for now.

The only working age demographic to do better under the Coalition was dual-earner couples – without children. They were the main beneficiaries of the threshold raise – which may “take the poorest out of tax” in theory but in practice hands a sizeable tax cut to peope earning above average. They will reap the fruits of the government’s Help to Buy ISAs. And, not having children, they were insulated from cuts to child tax credits, reductions in public services, and the rising cost of childcare. (Childcare costs now mean a couple on average income, working full-time, find that the extra earnings from both remaining in work are wiped out by the costs of care)

And they were a vital part of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. Voters who lived in new housing estates on the edges of seats like Amber Valley and throughout the Midlands overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives.

That’s the political backdrop to David Cameron’s announcement later today to change planning to unlock new housing units – what the government dubs “Starter Homes”. The government will redefine “affordable housing”  to up to £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 and under within it, while reducing the ability of councils to insist on certain types of buildings. He’ll describe it as part of the drive to make the next ten years “the turnaround decade”: years in which people will feel more in control of their lives, more affluent, and more successful.

The end result: a proliferation of one and two bedroom flats and homes, available to the highly-paid: and to that vital component of Cameron’s coalition: the dual-earner, childless couple, particularly in the Midlands, where the housing market is not yet in a state of crisis. (And it's not bad for that other pillar of the Conservative majority: well-heeled pensioners using buy-to-let as a pension plan.)

The policy may well be junk-rated but the politics has a triple A rating: along with affluent retirees, if the Conservatives can keep those dual-earner couples in the Tory column, they will remain in office for the forseeable future.

Just one problem, really: what happens if they decide they want room for kids? Cameron’s “turnaround decade” might end up in entirely the wrong sort of turnaround for Conservative prospects.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.