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HFT: the latest scam devised by Wall Street and the City

Felix Martin discusses Flash Boys by the American financial writer Michael Lewis, which examines high-frequency trading (HFT).

Flash Boys, the new book by Michael Lewis, America’s explainer- in-chief of all things financial, is an account of “high-frequency trading” (HFT) – a technique developed by financial firms that deploys vast computing power to trade electronically on the world’s stock exchanges at extreme speed.

That may sound pretty esoteric. However, the book is generating an enormous amount of attention because it argues that HFT is the latest in the litany of scams that Wall Street and the City have devised to relieve unwitting investors of their money.

Whenever you hit Enter to buy shares through an online brokerage, Lewis shows, your order does not go straight to the stock exchange as you might think. Instead, HFT firms get a look-in first – and they use their superior speed to “front-run” your order by buying the shares ahead of time and then offloading them into the market at a marginally higher price. The resulting profits are tiny on any individual order but they run into the billions when you add them up. And they are made at your expense. Given how many people have a stake in the stock market these days with their Isas and their Sipps, this is certainly a disturbing revelation. Lewis deserves all the praise he is getting for exposing it.

Yet, to my mind, Flash Boys is even more important than this. For it exposes HFT as a prime example of one of the major problems of our age: the unintended consequences of technological innovation. Technologists, regardless of their political bent, tend to be idealists – it probably requires a healthy dose of idealism to take the risks required to innovate. But all too often, idealism can slip into naivety. The unstated assumption is that if new technology can be used to better the lot of the individual, it will. Everything will be OK so long as you “don’t be evil”.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work like that in the real world. The new technologies developed by well-intentioned young geeks in Silicon Valley and Old Street get grafted on to an economy that is still dominated by big, profit-seeking corporations run by shrewd old-economy dinosaurs. Innovation is driven by the admirable belief that new technology is a tool for the emancipation of human creativity and self-fulfilment. Less thought is given to what might happen after, say, News International buys your app.

The point is more general than just the compromises that come with commercialisation by big business. What the technologists are missing is the crucial importance of the social context in which new technology is deployed and, above all, the role of that most reliable of social scientific regularities, the law of unintended consequences.

The canonical problem is that we design some new technology to solve a problem but in doing so we make a crucial assumption: that everything else will remain unchanged and in particular the way that people interact, the social context, will be unaltered. What happens is that behaviour adapts. The technology succeeds – the old problem is eliminated – but new problems arise.

An example that is almost guaranteed to have infuriated anyone reading this at some time or other is the computerisation of personal credit scoring. Companies such as Experian or Equifax apply information technology to the problem of deciding who should and should not get loans.

In an economy where mortgages and mobile-phone contracts are considered essentials, the decisions that their computers churn out are important. Their claim is that their algorithms are not just cheaper than the Captain Mainwaring-style bank manager of old but also more objective and therefore fairer.

If it were true that people’s behaviour had remained constant after the introduction of computerised credit scoring systems, that might be the case. But in reality, people game the system. Personal finance articles and chatrooms warn them that cappuccinos and city breaks flag them for a downgrade, so they take a breather for three months before applying for a mortgage – and then they start up again as soon as the ink on the contract is dry.

It is no different from the snag that the Soviet Union discovered with a planned economy. You could solve the problem of low productivity – at least as the bean-counters captured it – with more demanding targets. The underlying disease of demotivation proved more resilient, however. As an aphorism of the period had it: “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.”

The story that Lewis tells of HFT is a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences at work in the technological transformation of the stock market, one of the most basic institutions of our capitalist economies. The computerisation of stock exchanges that began in 1986 promised to make them simpler and more efficient. The world of barrow-boy traders bellowing at one another in the pit and the old-boys network of City stockbrokers was abolished in favour of anonymous electronic trading on a virtual exchange.

The intention was to stop investors being ripped off by an uncompetitive industry. However, this assumed that behaviour would not adapt. The stockbrokers and pit traders did hang up their red braces and garish blazers but a new generation of rent-seekers emerged in their place. As Flash Boys documents, the fixed commissions levied by the stockbrokers of yesterday were replaced by the cuts taken by the HFT firms of today.

So, what is the lesson to be learned from Lewis’s latest blockbuster? Well: this past week, the government’s ambassador for digital industries announced that schoolchildren should learn less French and more code. Maybe. But the lesson of the burgeoning HFT scandal is that the naive application of technology can be a uniquely dangerous force. We should be teaching our budding technologists not just code – but the law of unintended consequences.

Macroeconomist, bond trader and author of Money

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.