The Dark Knight Capital Rises

Knight Capital lost $10m a minute. Bane could learn a thing or two.

Spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises follow.

While the obvious cinematic comparison with an automatic trading system going rogue for inexplicable reasons and losing its owners $440m in just 45 minute may be the Skynet system of the Terminator series, we can't help but be a little reminded of a key scene in the apex of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy.

Bane, the goatse-mouthed villain who sounds like an evil Father Christmas, breaks into the Gotham Stock Exchange, kills some guy, and then proceeds to use all manner of mild technowizardry to make huge amounts of bad trades under Bruce Wayne's name, bankrupting him and forcing him to relinquish his place on the board of Wayne industries.

Now, even in the film as it stands, it's not entirely clear why actually does that, as his next action involving the board is to storm in and force them to hand over a fusion reactor at gunpoint, something which he could have done with Wayne present. Nor is it really explained why Gotham Stock Exchange didn't just roll back any transactions made in the period when a gun-toting madman was holding the exchange hostage and executing obviously illegitimate trades, as the New York Stock Exchange did after Knight Capital's algos went a bit crazy on Wednesday. 

But really, we now know that Bane didn't have to do anything at gunpoint at all. If he had just got hold of Wayne's computer-aided trading wing – and come on, Bruce built a computer which could spy on an entire city using intercepted mobile phone transmissions, don't try to tell us that he didn't do computer-aided trading – he could have lost him almost $200,000 a second in untraceable, unrollbackable, instant transactions which would have left his corporate reputation in tatters. Silly Bane.

Knight Capital itself certainly isn't doing much better than Wayne Enterprises. That $440m it's lost, from selling all the stocks it accidentally bought during its computer glitch, easily surpasses the company's entire quarterly revenue for last quarter. Its own shares were down 75 per cent on their Wednesday morning peak, and are likely to fall further today. It has made itself the target of hostile takeover rumors, and probably irretrievably damaged its reputation for being a safe pair of hands. For a company which once handled 11 per cent of all American stocks, it's an ignominious fall from grace.

Bane: Surprisingly inept at losing large amounts of other people's money.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

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