Stock image: the New York Stock Exchange reopens after the Easter holiday, 21 April. Photo: Getty
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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

Photo: Wikimedia Commons and Getty
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“Rise like lions after slumber”: why do Jeremy Corbyn and co keep reciting a 19th century poem?

How a passage from Percy Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy became Labour’s battle cry.

“If I may, I’d like to quote one of my favourite poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley,” Jeremy Corbyn politely suggested to a huge Glastonbury audience. The crowd of nearly 120,000 – more accustomed to the boom of headline acts than elderly men reading out romantic poetry – roared its approval.

“Rise like lions after slumber, in unvanquishable number!” he rumbled. “Shake your chains to earth like dew, which in sleep had fallen on you: ye are many – they are few!”

The Labour leader told the crowd that this was his favourite line. It’s the final stanza of Shelley’s 1819 poem, The Masque of Anarchy, written in response to the Peterloo Massacre earlier that year, when a cavalry charged into a non-violent protest for the vote.

Though it was not published in Shelley’s lifetime – it was first released in 1832 – the poem has become a rallying cry for peaceful resistance. It has been recited at uprisings throughout history, from Tiananmen Square to Tahrir Square.

Corbyn’s turn on the Pyramid Stage was not the first time he’s used it. He recited the stanza during his closing speech on election night in Islington, and the audience began quoting along with him:


It was also used by comedian and celebrity Labour supporter Steve Coogan at a rally in Birmingham:


During Corbyn’s second leadership campaign, his ally Chris Williamson MP told a public meeting that this part of the poem should be “our battle cry” . He delivered on this the following year by reciting the poem to me in his Renault Clio while out on the campaign trail in England’s most marginal constituency (which he ended up winning).

You can hear it echoed in Labour’s campaign slogan: “For the many, not the few”.

Corbyn’s election guru, James Schneider, told the Standard at the time that “it would be a stretch” to say the slogan was taken directly from the poem, but that “Jeremy does know Shelley”. Yet even he took the time to recite the whole stanza down the phone to the journalist who was asking.

Corbyn is famously a fan of the novelist and author Ben Okri. The pair did a literary night at the Royal Festival Hall in London’s Southbank in July last year, in which the Shelley lines came up at the end of the event, as reported by Katy Balls over at the Spectator. Okri announced that he wanted to recite them, telling Corbyn and the audience:

“I want to read five lines of Shelley . . . I think there are some poems that ought to be, like you know those rock concerts, and the musician starts to sing and the whole audience knows the lines? And sings along with them? Well this ought to be one of those, and I’d like to propose that we somehow make it so that anytime someone starts with the word ‘Rise’, you know exactly what the lines are going to be.”

Which, of course, is exactly what Corbyn did at Glastonbury.

“We have this huge, abundant literature on the left and it’s hardly known”

The former left-wing Labour leader Michael Foot loved the poem and recited the lines at demos, and Stop the War – the campaign group Corbyn supports and chaired – took a line from it as the title of its 2014 film about anti-Iraq War action, We Are Many.

So why does the Labour left rally around some lines of poetry written nearly 200 years ago?

“It’s a really appropriate poem,” says Jacqueline Mulhallen, author of Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary (Pluto, 2015). “Shelley wrote a poem about the fact that these people were protesting about a minority taking the wealth from the majority, and the majority shouldn’t allow it to happen.

“He was writing at the beginning of industrial capitalism, and protested then, and 200 years later, we’ve still got the same situation: food banks, homeless people, Grenfell Tower, more debts – that’s why it has great resonance when Corbyn quotes it.”

“Shelley said there’s loads of us, it’s just a little corrupt crew – well, of course that applies now”

Michael Rosen, the poet and former Children’s Laureate, also describes the poignancy of Shelley’s words in Corbyn’s campaign. “You’ve got a sense of continuity,” he tells me. “Shelley was campaigning for freedom, for free thought, for free love. He was campaigning for a fairer society; it was a time of incredible oppression. He said there’s loads of us, it’s just a little corrupt crew – well, of course that applies now.”

Rosen celebrates the poem’s place in the Labour movement. “When any of us from the left quote people from the past, we’re saying that we have traditions... We’re making a claim on our authenticity,” he says. “Just in the same way as the right and the establishment draw on the pageantry of the Queen, or talk about Parliament or quote Winston Churchill. These are our traditions, which are different. You hardly ever come across it, either in newspapers or history lessons or anything.”

Rosen, a friend of Corbyn’s, believes his speech brings a left-wing tradition alive that is often forgotten. “We have this huge, abundant literature on the left and it’s hardly known. What’s great about Jeremy calling on it is to remind us . . . This stuff sits in old museums and libraries, gathering dust until it’s made active and live again. It’s made active and live particularly when being used in an environment like that [Glastonbury]. He was making the words come alive.”

Read more: 7 things we learned from Jeremy Corbyn on The One Show

The Masque of Anarchy’s final stanza has been recited at high-profile protests throughout history – including at the 20,000 garment workers’ strike in 1909 in New York, the student-led demo in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, anti-Poll Tax protests, and at Tahrir Square in Egypt during the Arab Spring, according to Mulhallen. The way civilians were treated by the authorities in many of these protests echoes what happened at Peterloo.

So does Corbyn’s penchant for the verse mark a similar radical turning-point in our history? “It’s indicating a change in attitude that people should start thinking about redistributing the wealth again,” says Mulhallen. “People are becoming much more aware.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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