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.

Photo: Getty
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Millennials are caught between limited opportunities and declining sperm counts

The lifestyles led by those picturing a future family could make it much harder to have one.

Amid all of the balanced and scientific responses to the news that male sperm counts have decreased by 60 per cent in the last 40 years, one outlet could be relied upon to give a level-headed analysis.

“Humans could become EXTINCT as sperm counts plummet 60 per cent in 40 years – and modern living is to blame,” shouted the Sun’s bold typeface and capitalisation. While extinction is a long way off – at least from this particular threat – there are serious concerns about birth rates in the year to come, with 15 per cent of the report’s 7,500-strong sample size seeing their fertility impaired.

This is not a position men are used to being in. For once, it is our ability to procreate that is being attacked. Scientists behind the study hope that calling into question men’s reproductive privilege will serve as a “wake-up call” for health authorities and fellow scientists to investigate the causes, and for men to take their lifestyles more seriously.

And yet, at this point, many men would be hard-pressed to care. In blaming “modern living”, the Sun predictably jumps the gun – the study was only designed to confirm or disprove a decrease. Research into causation will now follow, but potential factors hypothesised by the study include “endocrine disrupting chemicals, pesticides, heat and lifestyle factors, including diet, stress, smoking and body mass index”. A poor diet, stress, smoking and a high BMI? It all sounds scarily familiar.

That 21st century life creates stressful conditions in which our health is adversely affected is not exactly breaking news. Mental health diagnoses have increased – with many NHS trusts seeing a rise of 30 per cent in referrals, according to recent figures from BBC Radio 5 Live – and obesity is still a huge concern.

It's no surprise that reproductive health will be compromised, too. But there is a cruel irony in that the very same conditions which erode our reproductive health are precisely those which mean we might not care.

For the majority of millennials, the atmosphere preferred for raising a family – owning a house, financial security, and long-term job prospects – has never seemed so distant. This is despite working longer hours, for more years. That cliché notion of “settling down” is far beyond the horizon, something unimaginable for many trying to claw their way on to the housing ladder, or into a steady and secure career.

By the time that millennial men reach the point in their lives where they have battled stress, a poor diet and caffeine dependency in order to become financially – or romantically – stable enough to want to build a family, sperm counts might be irreparably damaged. There are, after all, fears that the rate of decline is not only stable, but rising.

The findings of the study do indicate that sperm levels are still within the “normal” range, so we’re not at Children of Men levels yet. But if the threat of apocalypse doesn’t spur men into action, the thought of declining health definitely should.

Perhaps it is the complacency derived from better living conditions, higher birth rates and longer life expectancy that leaves us so cold when it comes to these findings – but continuing to take risks with our health will have longer-term side-effects.

It shouldn’t take a study to tell us that 21st century living is bad for our health. Scientists behind the research have a point: we must “wake up” and make more of an effort to keep ourselves in good health.

We must eat fewer processed meats, smoke fewer cigarettes, take more time away from our desks and, to quote “Fitter Happier”, Radiohead’s ode to modern misery, get “regular exercise at the gym, three days a week”. We might not be able to change millennial living, but we can certainly create our own space within it.

Who knows – our lives, those of our as-yet-unconceived children and, if the Sun is to be believed, the entire human race, might depend upon it.