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.

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Lord Geoffrey Howe dies, age 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.