Who does early access to sensitive data really hurt?

Masters of the Universe, or dummies?

The Wall Street Journal reports on the perils of providing early access to sensitive economic data:

The early look at the consumer-sentiment findings comes from Thomson Reuters Corp. The company will pay the University of Michigan $1.1 million this year for rights to distribute the findings, according to the university. Next year, it will pay $1.2 million.

In turn, Thomson Reuters's marketing materials say the firm offers paying clients an "exclusive 2-second advanced feed of results…designed specifically for algorithmic trading."

Clients who pay a subscription fee to Thomson Reuters, which for some is $5,000 a month plus a $1,025 monthly connection charge, get the high-speed feed at 9:54:58 a.m. Eastern time.

Those who pay for Thomson Reuters's regular news services get the report two seconds later. At that point, it swiftly becomes widely available through other news providers as well.

Take a look at what happens to the trading volume in those two seconds:

That obviously makes sense. If you pay thousands of dollars for an advance connection, you're presumably doing to want to act on it. That two-second preview gives anyone who can afford it and some algorithms smart enough to parse the information a huge advantage in the market.

Except that every trade needs a counterparty. That is, if bad data comes out and you decide to sell some shares, someone else needs to buy them. If you know that some people in the market have access to secret data which you will get in less than two seconds, the reasonable thing to do is not trade for the next two seconds. Who are these idiots who make willing counterparties to traders with inside information?

One possibility is that people are leaving buy or sell orders open over the period of the release. So, for instance, if you decide on Monday that you want to buy a share of Acme Corp. for $100 when it's trading at $105, you may end up being stuck with it if the value plunges to $90 in two seconds on Tuesday. Of course, that's still a certain amount of stupidity, but it makes it easier to understand criticism that early access to such data hurts so-called "mom and pop" traders.

But there's another possible explanation, which is that all these trades are between people with early access to the data. We might both think the information is bad, but if you think its worse than I do, I may well be prepared to buy from you – albeit at a price lower than I would have before I found out the news. And if the release is borderline, it's even more likely that the counterparties also have information. Everyone thinks they're smarter than the crowd, otherwise they wouldn't bother trading.

If that's the case, then there are still dummies in the mix; but they're the ones paying thousands of dollars a month for the chance to take a stab in the dark two seconds before the general public.

A robo-trader, maybe. 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.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.