The most awkward flash-crash possible

When your stock exchange wipes 99.75 per cent off its own value in less than a second, it might be t

Felix Salmon shows us his chart of the day, from Zerohedge (click for big):

He explains:

What you’re seeing here is the price of shares in BATS, at 11:14 [Friday] morning [ET]. The white spots are trades: there are 176 of them altogether. They start just below the IPO price of $16, and then just fall lower and lower and lower until the stock is trading for mere pennies. But the key number you want to look at here is not on the y-axis. Instead, it’s the chart report at the very top:

Elapsed Time: 900 Milliseconds

BATS, which stands for Better Alternative Trading System (a name which will surely come to haunt them), is a stock exchange based in Kansas. While most American stocks are listed in one of the two big exchanges, NYSE or Nasdaq, there are multiple venues where stocks can be traded – around 50. These exchanges communicate with each other to work out a "national best bid/offer" (NBBO), which is kept consistent throughout the venues. At least, that's the plan.

What appears to have happened is that a "software bug" (BATS aren't particularly forthcoming with the details) severed, or otherwise corrupted, the link between BATS and the NBBO system for all stocks beginning with A or B. This combined with the high-frequency trading that operates heavily in BATS (indeed, which it was largely set-up to enable) to allow stocks to plummet in less than a second.

For the most part, no-one was hurt. The error was confined to the one exchange, which rolled back the transactions. We would have all learned a valuable lesson about the dangers of computer-aided trading, the proponents of a financial transactions tax would have another weapon in their armoury (high-frequency trading isn't financially viable with a financial transactions tax in place), and everything would go back to normal. We would have, were it not for an excruciating coincedence:

The share that is charted above is that of BATS itself - that is, the company running the stock exchange which suffered the glitch. Not only that, it is the value of BATS on the day it held its initial public offering. Awkward.

BATS the company was supposed to be the first one to be listed (as opposed to merely exchanged) on BATS the exchange. For a smallish company based in a suburb of Kansas City, that is quite a big power grab. Needless to say, it didn't go to plan. The IPO is now cancelled, and the company has "no plans" to try it again soon. Which is unsurprising.

London 2004, back when trades were done by people, not Skynet. Credit: Getty

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

Photo: Getty Images
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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.