Foreign exchange platform puts the brakes on high-frequency traders

EBS has changed its rules to discourage algobots.

EBS, a major interbank trading platform in in the foreign exchange market, is considering imposing a major change in the way it runs its market in order to discourage high-frequency trading from taking place.

EBS currently runs on the principle of "first in, first out" trading, where trades are dealt with in the exact order they are made. That is the way most people expect the market to work – but it also gives an advantage to those who can get their trades in quickest. That leads to the arms race that high-frequency trading has seen in the last few years, where traders pay to place their servers close to the exchange, to whittle off those last few microseconds.

Instead of this model, EBS is considering bundling together incoming trades and dealing with them in a random order. That way, every trade that came in in (for example) the tenth of a second between 12:00:00.0 and 12:00:00.1 would be grouped together and dealt in a random order, removing the advantage that the trader who got in at 12:00:00.01 would normally have.

Speaking to the FT, the chief executive of EBS explained why the company has made the decision:

The first twenty years of algorithmic trading have added great transparency and led to the compression of spreads – all great things. But there is a line beyond which marginal speed and smaller trade sizes add no value and actually harm the markets. At some point we, the public markets across asset classes, crossed that line.

The ‘first in, first out’ model sounds fair and plausible, but in modern public markets it implies ‘winner takes all’.

The classic example of how high(er)-frequency trading can have positive effects comes from the fact that the desire to shave seconds off the response time to financial information is the reason why the undersea cables linking London to New York are so high quality. Without that motivation to profit, the cables might not have been laid for decades after, and certainly wouldn't be as fast as they are now. (In fact, the USD/GBP exchange rate is still known as "cable" now, after the first transatlantic cable laid in 1858).

But as the speed of trades has increased ever higher, the side-benefits are shrinking. The difference in liquidity between a market where a tenth of a second and a thousandth of a second matters is minuscule; even if spreads might be a tiny bit tighter than they otherwise would be, no normal trader is helped by that "improvement".

So EBS's speed limit is a welcome step. By dealing with trades in a semi-random order, it removes the incentive to spend millions on shaving off the smallest fractions of time. Ironically, the companies which will benefit most in the short term are the high-frequency traders themselves, who already have the technology to trade speedily, and now don't need to worry about investing more on ever-diminishing returns. But eventually, more and more traders will match that capability, until the market becomes a level playing field again.

The other reason why traders – even high-speed ones – ought to thank EBS is that if the exchanges get HFT under control, then there's one less reason for governments to step in. Discouraging high-frequency trades is one of the strongest reasons for introducing a financial transaction tax. That hits everyone, not just the speedy traders.

A new data-centre in Manhattan. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty
Show Hide image

BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.