Yet again, the UK government has sided with the robotraders on a Robin Hood Tax

A financial transactions tax is the most economically efficient way to lessen the harm of HFT – but the government keeps fighting it.

Fifteen years ago the computer program Deep Blue made headlines around the world by beating chess giant Garry Kasparov. In the years since, computer algorithms have quietly gone on to dominate large parts of the financial markets.

Computer-driven trading now accounts for 70 per cent of trading in the US equity market, 36 per cent in the UK. Machines fire tens of thousands of trades a second, relying on state-of-the art technology and proximity to stock exchanges to shave microseconds off transaction times.

Yet tiny errors in the algorithms can have devastating consequences. During the infamous 'Flash Crash' of 2010 the Dow Jones index dropped nine per cent in a matter of minutes. Over the summer Knight Capital – a leading New York HFT (high frequency trading) firm – erroneously swamped the stock market with errant trades, wiping $440m from the firm's value.

That's why the European Parliament's powerful Economic Affairs Committee this week voted through legislation – the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive II – designed to curb HFT. A key proposal being that trades will have to be posted for at least 500 milliseconds (currently traders can execute 10,000 trades during the same period).

Proponents of HFT argue their churning sea of trades brings liquidity to the markets. The reality is more capricious - in times of crisis traders pull the plug, draining liquidity when it is needed most.

Adair Turner described such corners of financial markets as "socially useless". The Financial Times recently said “hard evidence and common sense point to a host of social benefits from removing unnecessary intermediation and curbing predatory trading strategies”, adding that in some areas Mifid II was simply too mild.

It's no surprise that high frequency traders themselves have mounted a defence against the reforms. What's of more concern is that in the days preceding the vote the UK Government lobbied for them to be watered-down. Its official response did not support the call for HFT firms to hold equities for a minimum period.

Yet as the Bureau for Investigative Journalism revealed last week, of a 31-member panel tasked by the UK Government to assess Mifid II, 22 members were from the financial services, 16 linked to the HFT industry. A study by the Bureau last year revealed that over half the funding for the Conservative Party came from the financial sector, 27 per cent coming from hedge funds, financiers and private equity firms. This perhaps helps explain how the interests of a select group of traders get confused with the interests of the economy as a whole.

It's a similar story for the Financial Transaction Tax. No longer a pipe dream, European Governments of all political hues, including its largest economies, are working towards its implementation by next year. The tax of between 0.1 - 0.01 per cent on financial transactions offers a more effective mechanism to limit market excesses by making certain speculative trades less profitable. But crucially, it is also capable of raising billions in much needed revenue that would ensure the financial sector pays it fair share for the damage caused to our economy.

Yet the UK Government has again chosen to stand apart in blocking a Europe wide-FTT, turning down billions in desperately needed revenue that could help save jobs, protect the poorest and avoid the worst in cuts to public services. Instead, advice of previous Party Treasurers Michael Spencer and Peter Cruddas was heeded, who infamously lobbied against the FTT. Both incidentally own multi-million pound financial firms which would be hit by such a tax.

Taken together, this tells the story of a post-financial crisis Europe: as governments embark on the arduous task of making markets once again work in the interests of society, the UK Government remains intoxicated by the Square Mile - protecting vested interests and relying on the same market principles that got us into this mess to get us out again. Best brace ourselves for a bumpy ride.

The EU Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images

Simon Chouffot is a spokesperson for the Robin Hood Tax campaign and writes on the role of the financial sector in our society.

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt