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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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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era