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

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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