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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