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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”