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

European People's Party via Creative Commons
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Ansbach puts Europe's bravest politician under pressure

Angela Merkel must respond to a series of tragedies and criticisms of her refugee policy. 

Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, is supposed to be on holiday. Two separate attacks have put an end to that. The first, a mass shooting in Munich, was at first widely believed to be a terrorist attack, but later turned out to be the actions of a loner obsessed with US high school shootings. The second, where a man blew himself up in the town of Ansbach, caused less physical damage - three were seriously injured, but none killed. Nevertheless, this event may prove to affect even more people's lives. Because that man had come to Germany claiming to be a Syrian refugee. 

The attack came hours after a Syrian refugee murdered a pregnant Polish woman, a co-woker in a snack bar, in Reutlingen. All eyes will now be on Merkel who, more than any other European politician, is held responsible for Syrian refugees in Europe.

In 2015, when other European states were erecting barriers to keep out the million migrants and refugees marching north, Merkel kept Germany's borders open. The country has resettled 41,899 Syrians since 2013, according to the UNHCR, of which 20,067 came on humanitarian grounds and 21,832 through private sponsorship. That is twice as much as the UK has pledged to resettle by 2020. The actual number of Syrians in Germany is far higher - 90 per cent of the 102,400 Syrians applying for EU asylum in the first quarter of 2016 were registered there. 

Merkel is the bravest of Europe's politicians. Contrary to some assertions on the right, she did not invent the refugee crisis. Five years of brutal war in Syria did that. Merkel was simply the first of the continent's most prominent leaders to stop ignoring it. If Germany had not absorbed so many refugees, they would still be in central Europe and the Balkans, and we would be seeing even more pictures of starved children in informal camps than we do today. 

Equally, the problems facing Merkel now are not hers alone. These are the problems facing all of Europe's major states, whether or not they recognise them. 

Take the failed Syrian asylum seeker of Ansbach (his application was rejected but he could not be deported back to a warzone). In Germany, his application could at least be considered, and rejected. Europe as a whole has not invested in the processing centres required to determine who is a Syrian civilian, who might be a Syrian combatant and who is simply taking advantage of the black market in Syrian passports to masquerade as a refugee. 

Secondly, there is the subject of trauma. The Munich shooter appears to have had no links to Islamic State or Syria, but his act underlines the fact you do not need a grand political narrative to inflict hurt on others. Syrians who have experienced unspeakable violence either in their homeland or en route to Europe are left psychologically damaged. That is not to suggest they will turn to violence. But it is still safer to offer such people therapy than leave them to drift around Europe, unmonitored and unsupported, as other countries seem willing to do. 

Third, there is the question of lawlessness. Syrians have been blamed for everything from the Cologne attacks in January to creeping Islamist radicalisation. But apart from the fact that these reports can turn out to be overblown (two of the 58 men arrested over Cologne were Syrians), it is unclear what the alternative would be. Policies that force Syrians underground have already greatly empowered Europe's network of human traffickers and thugs.

So far, Merkel seems to be standing her ground. Her home affairs spokesman, Stephan Mayer, told the BBC that Germany had room to improve on its asylum policy, but stressed each attack was different. 

He said: "Horrible things take place in Syria. And it is the biggest humanitarian catastrophe, so it is completely wrong to blame Angela Merkel, or her refugee policies, for these incidents." Many will do, all the same.