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
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.