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 Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR