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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder