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.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.