400ms of insider information

High frequency (insider) trading.

Nanex Research has found what looks like insider trading in the natural gas market prior to the release of the US Energy Information Administration's natural gas report. The quirk is that that insider trading happened just 400 milliseconds before the report was released:

On January 31, 2013, approximately 400 milliseconds before the official release of the EIA Natural Gas Report, trading activity exploded in Natural Gas Futures and ETFs such as UGZ, UNG and BOIL. Now that the Feds have stated (as claimed by a recent WSJ article) that they don't think there is merit in prosecuting people who get news information earlier than others by milliseconds, is it any wonder?

It is worth pointing out that the EIA Natural Gas Report comes out weekly (every Thursday at 10:30) and the market reacts within a few milliseconds. This is because the report centers on one number which makes it easy for machines to process and take action.

As Nanex points out, a recent SEC investigation into whether some news organisations gave investors access to economic data "a fraction of a second before the official release time" resulted in no charges being brought. At the time, it was speculated that there were two reasons for that: the first being that such a prosecution would stretch the definition of insider trading, and the second being that it was difficult to conceive of such a head start leading to any measurable advantage.

Insider trading is typically defined as acting on information which has not yet been made public (the legal definitions are far more complex than that, but that's largely owing to the byzantine nature of financial regulation). The problem with prosecuting news organisations for that is that typically, information hitting the newswires is the definition of it being made public. This has caused problems before: last year, Netflix's CEO faced trouble from the regulators for announcing on his Facebook page that the company had had over a billion cumulative viewing hours in one month. Facebook is not, apparently, "public" enough for the SEC.

If one of the newswires publishes information a fraction of a second before the others, that might constitute a broken embargo, or an undesirable leak; but it probably doesn't constitute insider trading, because the very act of publishing made formerly private information public (even the etymology's the same! "Publish" literally means "to make public").

But the second argument was that, in the seconds leading up to a potentially market-moving data release, trading slowed down and waited for the news. After all, there's no one — not even an algorithm — which isn't going to think a trade a fraction of a second before a data release offered at a markedly different price isn't a tiny bit suspicious.

That argument might not hold as much water if Nanex's data is accurate, though. It shows a definite collapse in the price of a natural gas exchange-traded fund (ETF) over the course of a hundred milliseconds. A fall of one per cent — even one which is then followed by an even greater fall once the actual data is released — is not to be sniffed at.

It's not clear who the counterparties in these trades were — who, that is, was convinced to make trades milliseconds before a major data release — but it's pretty likely that they were also algobots. Insofar as this represents a transfer of income from one set of computer-owners to another set, it's not the most concerning news. But it does raise further questions about how the market for information is shaped in the near future, and whether the simple dichotomy between public and not public information can hold up in that new world.

"UNG showing trades color coded by exchange between 10:29:59 and 10:30:04." Chart: Nanex Research

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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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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