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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Five things Hillary Clinton’s released emails reveal about UK politics

The latest batch of the presidential hopeful’s emails provide insight into the 2010 Labour leadership contest, and the dying days of the Labour government.

The US State Department has released thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails. This is part of an ongoing controversy regarding the presidential hopeful’s use of a private, non-governmental server and personal email account when conducting official business as Secretary of State.

More than a quarter of Clinton’s work emails have now been released, in monthly instalments under a Freedom of Information ruling, after she handed over 30,000 pages of documents last year. So what does this most recent batch – which consists of 4,368 emails (totalling 7,121 pages) – reveal?
 

David Miliband’s pain

There’s a lot of insight into the last Labour leadership election in Clinton’s correspondence. One email from September 2010 reveals David Miliband’s pain at being defeated by his brother. He writes: “Losing is tough. When you win the party members and MPs doubly so. (When it's your brother...).”


Reaction to Ed Miliband becoming Labour leader

Clinton’s reply to the above email isn’t available in the cache, but a message from an aide about Ed Miliband’s victory in the leadership election suggests they were taken aback – or at least intrigued – by the result. Forwarding the news of Ed’s win to Clinton, it simply reads: “Wow”.


Clinton’s take on it, written in an email to her long-time adviser, Sidney Blumenthal, is: “Clearly more about Tony that [sic] David or Ed”.

Blumenthal expresses regret about the “regression” Ed’s win suggests about the Labour party. He writes to Clinton: “David Miliband lost by less than 2 percent to his brother Ed. Ed is the new leader. David was marginally hurt by Tony's book but more by Mandelson's endorsement coupled with his harsh statements about the left. This is something of a regression.”
 

Peter Mandelson is “mad”

In fact, team Clinton is less than enthusiastic about the influence Mandelson has over British politics. One item in a long email from Blumenthal to Clinton, labelled “Mandelson Watch”, gives her the low-down on the former Business Secretary’s machinations, in scathing language. It refers to him as being “in a snit” for missing out on the EU Commissioner position, and claims those in Europe think of him as “mad”. In another email from Blumenthal – about Labour’s “halted” coup against Gordon Brown – he says of Mandelson: “No one trusts him, yet he's indispensable.”

That whole passage about the coup is worth reading – for the clear disappointment in David Miliband, and description of his brother as a “sterling fellow”:


Obsession with “Tudor” Labour plotting

Clinton appears to have been kept in the loop on every detail of Labour party infighting. While Mandelson is a constant source of suspicion among her aides, Clinton herself clearly has a lot of time for David Miliband, replying “very sorry to read this confirmation” to an email about his rumoured demotion.

A May 2009 email from Blumenthal to Clinton, which describes Labour politicians’ plots as “like the Tudors”, details Ed Balls’ role in continuing Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s “bitter rivalry”:


“Disingenuous” Tories “offending” Europe

The Tories don’t get off lightly either. There is intense suspicion of David Cameron’s activities in Europe, even before he is Prime Minister. Blumenthal – whose email about a prospective Cameron government being “aristocratic” and “narrowly Etonian” was released in a previous batch of Clinton’s correspondence – writes:

Without passing "Go," David Cameron has seriously damaged his relations. with the European leaders. Sending a letter to Czech leader Vaclay Klaus encouraging him not to sign the Lisbon Treaty, as though Cameron were already Prime Minister, he has offended Sarkozy., Merkel and Zapatero.

He also accuses him of a “tilt to the Tory right on Europe”.

In the same email, Blumenthal tells Clinton that William Hague (then shadow foreign secretary), “has arduously pressured for an anti-EU stance, despite his assurances to you that Tory policy toward Europe would be marked by continuity”.

In the aftermath of the 2010 UK election, Blumenthal is apprehensive about Hague’s future as Foreign Secretary, emailing Clinton: “I would doubt you’ll see David again as foreign secretary. Prepare for hauge [sic, William Hague], who is deeply anti-European and will be disingenuous with you.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.