High Speed Trading – And DandD Alignments

half_elf_bard
Apparantly this is me in D&D, except I think minus the pony tail

I’m trying to figure out where electronic and high frequency trading firms fit with respect to Alignment, and how I feel about that.

Alignment

I mean “Alignment” the way a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) player means it (full disclosure: I’m a Lawful Good Half-Elf Bard in real life. I mean, in the game. I mean, outside of my writing. Whatever, you know what I mean.) All D&D characters are either Good, Neutral, or Evil, and act either Lawfully, Chaotically (law-breaking), or Neutrally (in between).

So, on our quest to understand electronic trading, it is helpful to know which alignments electronic traders fall under, including high frequency traders (HFTs)?

But First: A Definition

Instead of making human judgments about when and how much to trade stocks (or bonds, or currencies, or commodities or derivatives) electronic traders program computers to make those decisions, usually based on some set of conditions that indicate a momentarily profitable opportunity. Electronic, or ‘algorithmic’ trading, is about 25 to 30 years old. High frequency trading is a subset of electronic trading, except done at a humanly unimaginable pace – like 1,000 to 10,000 buy or sell orders per second. High frequency trading is about 10 to 15 years old. In recent years electronic trading accounts for between 50-75 percent of all stock market trading. Like SkyNet or Hal 9000, this naturally makes the humans nervous. But are they good or evil or neutral? [1]

Google_as_skynet
They slyly dropped “Don’t Be Evil” from their corporate motto

Are HFTs Chaotic Evil?

If you read Michael Lewis’ 2014 book Flash Boys the most widely read story about the high frequency trading industry to date – you would develop the strong impression that these firms hew to chaotic evil on the D&D alignment compass.

In Lewis’ story, HFTs operate as predatory sharks attracting unwitting investors inside broker-sponsored ‘dark pools,’ all the better to extract trading profits through quick-strike trading against slow-footed prey. These evil creatures also use ‘spoofing’ subterfuge and aggressive ‘front running’ tactics. I expand on these tactics below.

‘Spoofing’ – in which electronic trading firms send large numbers of false orders to market exchanges, only to cancel them immediately, is a ploy (I admit I can’t explain in plain English exactly how this would work) to manipulate markets, and is clearly chaotic. It’s also illegal, and would lead to enforcement action against any firm doing this and getting caught.[2]

‘Front-running’ – in which an electronic trading firm uses prior knowledge about a customer order to buy or sell ahead of a customer for its own profit is also evil, as well as clearly illegal.[3]

And Flash Crashes

Many blame recent occurrences of “flash crashes” on algorithmic trading. Flash crashes are exactly the kind of mess that chaotic evil-doers would wish on markets.

Increasing the frequency or severity of flash crashes is the most likely way in which electronic trading causes chaotic evil effects. I don’t mean intentionally, but rather as an unintended consequence of numerous market players pursuing their own strategy. Something like: All market signals indicate to the algorithms the need to sell – all at the same time – which becomes a self-fulfilling downward spiral for prices. That type of unintended effect, however, predates the rise of HFTs. The 1987 Crash, for example, stemmed from the rise of ‘portfolio insurance’ that caused many institutions to suddenly need to sell securities, all at the same time, to limit losses. In the absence of real news, prices drop on such rush-for-the-exits stampedes.

On the issue of crashes and market glitches, there’s the not-too-infrequent case of human traders – not only computer traders – doing a bad job of ensuring orderly markets. This happened in August in a high-profile case of the floor trader on the NYSE who halved the value of publically traded KKR, a company whose markets he was responsible for trading, for about 15 minutes, for no apparent reason. The right standard for comparing human trader to computer trader is probably not “error-free,” but rather frequency and severity of mistakes and glitches like this. My point here is that human traders can probably screw up markets just as badly as programmed computers.

Or Lawful Good?

My friend Peter Kovac wrote a book last year – Flash Boys: Not So Fast, as a response to Michael Lewis’ book, in which he argues not only that Lewis got many details of the industry wrong, but perhaps the HFTs should be regarded instead as something like Lawful Good (my words, not Kovac’s.)

I’ll explore some of Kovac’s reasoning in follow-up posts, but for the moment I have in mind what I wish, and perhaps think to be true, regarding electronic traders.

Lawful Neutral

As a Dungeons and Dragons player (as well as a greedy capitalist,) I would hope for Lawful Neutral alignment among high-speed electronic traders. I mean, I don’t expect a trader to be saving the whales or reducing carbon emissions when he or she programs a computer algorithm to buy and sell securities at light speed. Their goals, as for-profit companies, are to make a profit. But I do expect them to always follow the law.

What Lawful Neutral means to me is that as long as they follow the rules – avoid conscious or even unintended evil-doing – then I’m ok with extraordinary profits accruing to electronic traders. That’s because I believe the profits of an algorithmic trading firm will mostly come at the expense of legacy Wall Street trading firms (the “old guard”) which are slower, or which operate at less efficient (meaning, wider) margins. I’ll write more about this next week as well.

 

A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express News.

Please see related posts:

Book Review: Flash Boys by Michael Lewis

Book Review: Flash Boys Not So Fast by Peter Kovac

Book Review: Inside The Black Box, by Rishi Narang

 

 

[1] Assigning corporate alignments in D&D fashion is not necessarily new. Google’s previous corporate motto “Don’t Be Evil” is a seemingly simple standard, for example, from which to begin to evaluate high frequency trading. I’m not sure Google founders Brin and Page ever played D&D, but let’s just say it’s not unlikely that they know their way around a 20-sided die, right? Also, did anybody else notice Google dropped “Don’t Be Evil” as a corporate motto? Do you think it means what I think it means?

[2] My sense is that while this has happened in the past, it’s not normal market practice among electronic trading firms, any more than spamming is normal market practice among marketing companies. Sort of like: there are spammers, and there are marketers, but these are different types of firms with different business models

[3] Incidentally, front running as a business practice is probably as old as any stock brokerage business, it just happens that speedy trading could make it more easily perpetrated, and more easily hidden, at least for a time. Any firm shown to front-run as a business practice, however, would be fined and regulated out of the trading business.

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Ask an Ex-Banker: Algorithmic Trading

A version of this post appeared in the San Antonio Express News

Algo-Trading

Dear Mike,

I spotted something on algorithmic trading on your blog, and finance and investment are a bit of a hobby of mine. I am sending you a press release about a Canadian trader who has worked out a successful trading technique based on an algorithm, and a new trio of former Harvard fellows have made an app allowing you to do it yourself.

Here’s an excerpt from the link he sent me:

AlgoTrades, the leading provider of automatic investing systems for individual investors, and EquaMetrics Inc., the leading provider of algorithmic trading systems and their Intuitive, drag-and-drop interface that lets you quickly build and edit complex algorithms – in a matter of minutes, today announced a strategic partnership that will arm both active traders and investors with the ability to have the AlgoTrades investing system traded for them, and build trading systems of their own[…]
Algotrades is seeing increased demand for its existing automated trading systems. The Algotrades futures system is hitting at 100% accuracy for the first 6 months of this year with a ROI of 12.3% to date. Max peak-to-valley drawdown is 2.4% and many of our clients are asking for more diverse and active automated trading solutions to expand their portfolios.

This intrigues me: My question is: What is your gut feeling about this? Apparently some of the big news journals like Barron’s and the Wall Street Journal gave this coverage, so it might be something, or not? Any ideas about it?

–Willem from the Netherlands

Dear Willem,

You probably saw on my site that I’ve written reviews of three books on this topic: Rishi Narang’s Inside the Black Box and Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys, as well as a review of a book by a friend from a high frequency trading firm who says Lewis got it all wrong, Flash Boys: Not So Fast.

As for the opportunity described in that announcement:
I would run, not walk, away from anything like that.

I have a long list of reasons for this advice, but I’ll just name a few.

1. Algorithmic trading typically involves high volume trading activity. For an individual investor the trading costs and – equally importantly – the tax bill make this extremely tax and cost inefficient. Brokers and certain types of professional institutional investors get trading costs lowered dramatically, and are not subject to the same capital gains tax laws as individuals (at least in the US) based on high volume buying and selling of stocks, so they don’t have that inefficiency problem. But for you, high volume trading is likely deathly to your individual account, due to costs and taxes.

2. The ROI (Return On Investment) claim in that press release makes me very wary. Even assuming its true, this is an extremely short time horizon, and barely tells us anything, except the juicy part, namely 12.3% ROI in just 6 months’ time.

In my experience, professional investors who can consistently achieve 12.3% ROI over 6 months (24.6% per year, annualized) never, ever, (ever!), seek to share that technology with others. They don’t market secrets like this. Why should they? Instead, they just quietly compound 24.6% per year for a few years and they can get extremely wealthy all by themselves.

3. Be skeptical of groups or strategies that claim high returns over short time periods, and market their services and technology to the general public. Many strategies can make (or lose) impressive amounts of money over a short time frame. If the strategy could – reliably, provably – earn that kind of return over 10 years, now I might be interested. But again, see point #2 above, because those folks wouldn’t be interested in sharing the strategy with you or me if they had a 10 year track record of 24.6% annual returns. They’d already be extraordinarily rich without us.

4. The successful institutional algorithmic and high frequency traders that make money have extraordinary advantages over individuals trying to mimic their techniques. The kind of traders described in Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys for example, invest tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in software and hardware to give them every technological advantage over the kind of individual traders targeted in this press release. I simply do not believe this ‘algorithmic app’ for individuals could possibly compete with the knowledge, technology, and capital of established firms in this competitive space.

In sum, and to recap: Don’t walk away.

Run!

 

 

Please see related posts:

 

Book Review of Flash Boys by Michael Lewis

Book Review of Flash Boys: Not So Fast by Peter Kovac

 

Book Review of Inside The Black Box by Rishi Narang

As well as:

Would You Like to Understand High Frequency Trading?

The Rise of the Machines

 

 

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Book Review: Flash Boys: Not So Fast by Pete Kovac

Peter Kovac wrote Flash Boys: Not So Fast, as a point-by-point refutation of the major premises of Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys. At the end of Kovac’s book – well actually, after just the first few pages – you’re left with the strong impression that Lewis wrote a tale built on speculation about a dramatic – but not particularly true – conspiracy theory about high frequency trading (HFT) and the US equity markets.

I’m reminded of a core reason I started Bankers Anonymous

After the 2008 crisis I got tired of reading the journalistic errors and omissions about mortgage bonds and credit default swaps. Having worked in those markets, I know how frustrating it can be to read some overly simple or mostly false journalistic narrative in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal.

I would think: “No! That’s not how it works.”

Then I’d end up shouting at the breakfast table, angrily poking the newspaper,[1] scaring my small daughters and leaving my wife eager to get to work as quickly as possible.

That’s one of the reasons I started Bankers Anonymous. To offer better explanations. The other reason was to maybe learn how to write a book.

Speaking of writing a book. Can I admit to a bit of jealousy?[2]

Kovac is a friend. Until recently he worked for a high frequency trading firm. When he read Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys, the errors and omissions about his industry bugged him so much that he decided to write a response.

A few months and 115 pages later, he has written the definitive take-down of Flash Boys.

Kovac is funny, informed, and he has specific examples and excellent metaphors to make the somewhat opaque world of high frequency trading accessible to us.

Who is Pete Kovac?

Kovac’s biography is a key to understanding his response to Michael Lewis’ book.

He started as a programmer for his HFT firm, named EWT, in 2003 and then rose to Chief Operating Officer, overseeing everything from compliance and working with regulators. I’ve footnoted a fuller description of Kovac’s bio here.[3]

As Kovac himself points out, you could read his biography and immediately think: “Oh, just one of those insiders, defending his own industry.”

Naturally, one of the inherent problems of understanding finance is that the experts tend to have a stake in the system somewhere. Outsiders, with no stake, tend to not be experts. Well, Kovac’s an expert and an insider. That seems relevant when evaluating an outsider’s claim about an industry.

Nevertheless, most importantly, he’s the kind of expert that Lewis didn’t consult in the course of writing Flash Boys.

Lewis’ problem in Flash Boys

Lewis’ key advantage over most other financial journalists has always been his semi-insider status. Meaning, he actually worked as a salesman on the Solomon bond-trading floor for two years, and he actually understands the mindset and motivations of the Street better than most scriveners.

Michael_lewis_author
Best-selling author Michael Lewis

And yet, the biggest problem I found with Flash Boys is that he seems to have had no access to actual high frequency traders, making him far more outsider than insider this time. This makes his theories on HFT more speculative than they ought to be. In my earlier review of the book, I felt his lack of specific information or details or access on HFT led him to demonize and simplify their actions.

In his earlier books, the ‘bad guys’ tended to be at least humorous and specifically obnoxious, not facelesslessly manipulative and devious. Unfortunately the HFTs of Flash Boys are more faceless cartoon villains than real villains.

In addition to Kovac, other reviewers of Flash Boys have also pointed out the unusual number of either 1. errors or 2. simplification of equity markets and HFT. Again, Lewis’ lack of access to real live HFTs probably accounts for both.

 

Are HFT engaged in a vast front-running conspiracy against slower investors?

You kind of have to read Kovac’s full refutation of the vast conspiracy, and also know something about market structures and market orders to follow this, but I trust that – at the very least – Lewis was speculating about how front-running by HFTs might work. But Lewis didn’t really have any idea what would work or not.

Kovac goes point by point to show that Lewis’ speculation is basically impossible and nobody Kovac’s ever worked with in the HFT world could make money that way.

In addition – and this is probably the strongest part of Kovac’s book – Lewis’ description of what might have happened is so rife with errors or impossibilities according to the way the US equity market actually works that Kovac is left stunned.
Reading Kovac’s book I’m reminded of me, poking angrily at the morning paper “NO! It can’t happen that way! I can’t believe you’re claiming this and non-financial readers won’t know how to see through your BS! Argh!”

What about Brad Katsuyama, the hero of Flash Boys?

Kovac is sharp-witted about the incredulousness of Brad Katsuyama, the protagonist of Flash Boys. Katsuyama set out to create a (relatively) slow-trading exchange in order to foil the HFTs.

Brad_katsuyama_iex
Brad Katsuyama and the IEX Team

Katsuyama repeatedly appears to believe in HFT actions and schemes that have little basis in the markets Kovac knew and participated in.

Far from a hero to Kovac, Katsuyama represents the legacy model of trading equities – expensive, slow, and self-interested.

When Katsuyama alleges a HFT front-running conspiracy that his new IEX exchange will correct, Katsuyama (in Kovac’s telling) becomes focused on his sales pitch even though his new exchange may be a solution in search of a problem.

Worse, Lewis appears to swallow and then amplify Katsuyama’s sales pitch for IEX, despite data and evidence that refutes their central thesis.

Want to know what else is wrong with Flash Boys?

Kovac’s book is a comprehensive, chapter-by-chapter, point-by-point critique of Lewis’ errors.

Here’s a few more examples that Kovac explains in detail.

rise_of_the_machines

Did Reg NMS in 2007 give rise to the machines as Lewis implied?

Nope, HFT was already 20% of the trading volume on US exchanges prior to 2007. As Kovac points out, Lewis himself provides this data that undermines his own argument. In addition, US equity trading is only one small portion of HFT trading strategies. The others, with currencies, commodities, bonds, and futures, are unaffected by Reg NMS.

Did HFTs cause the 2010 Flash Crash?

A comprehensive review by regulators found no evidence of this, but rather a series of compounding triggers from multiples sources in the equity markets. Lewis dismisses the regulators as either dupes or self-interested, but I trust Kovac’s closeness to that trading situation, his professional contact with regulators, as well as his careful reading of the report.

Is trading data impossible to track and assemble for the purposes of uncovering frontrunning or wrongdoing – or “does the data not exist” as Lewis claims?

Kovac reports that every single trade, in addition to every single text, instant message, trading program and order gets tracked and recorded by all the exchanges and regulators. It would be, and is, possible to track bad behavior from HFTs, says Kovac, who has served in the compliance role at his firm.

Lewis makes the claim that tracking this would be impossible.

On a related note, Lewis paints market regulators as generally either compromised or behind the curve when it comes to regulating markets and high frequency traders in particular. Kovac, who worked professionally with many regulators over the years, found the opposite to be true.

Kovac compares them to the Supreme Court. They often passed judgment he disagreed with, but they were always thoughtful. Regulators laid out extensive reasoning for their decisions, and attempted to create fair markets for the general good.

Criticisms of Kovac’s book

Readers unfamiliar with Lewis’ Flash Boys may not follow along with Kovac’s rebuttals, as he takes a chapter-by-chapter approach to critiquing Flash Boys. It’s undoubtedly more interesting to read this if you already know the original work.

In addition, while Kovac is quite clear in his writing, there are moments of technical explanations – I’m thinking of the explanations of market orders as one example – in which I got lost a bit in the weeds. Less financially-savvy readers may suffer somewhat as well.

Finally, at times Kovac is so astonished by Lewis’ one-sidedness with the HFT narrative that he lapses into sarcasm.

When I’m really mad at someone or something I do this too, so I recognize it in Kovac’s writing as well. It doesn’t happen much with Kovac, but I can hear my own internal editor telling me “don’t do that.”

Final Analysis

As a result of Kovac’s book, I’m convinced that Lewis pretty much blew it in covering the HFT story. I’m still left with some questions – for example ‘how do HFTs really make consistent profits?’ and ‘should we be collectively worried about future flash crashes as a result of algorithmic trading, and how do we prevent that?’

But if you really liked and believed in Lewis’ narrative, you owe it to yourself to hear another side, from someone who actually knows the business.

 

Please see related post: All Bankers Anonymous book reviews in one place!

 

Please see related posts:

Book Review of Flash Boys by Michael Lewis

Book Review of Inside The Black Box by Rishi Narang

 

Would You Like to Understand High Frequency Trading?

The Rise of the Machines

 

[1] Yes, I subscribe to physical newspapers. Yes, kids, I was born when dinosaurs roamed the earth, during the late Mesozoic Era, or Triassic Period. Ha ha ha. Now shut up and keep scrubbing.

[2] File this jealousy under the label “Every time a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” I’ve been talking about writing a book for a while now, and he just goes out and does it. And it’s good! Damn him. *Shaking my fist.

[3] In Kovac’s own words: “I am an industry insider, the kind of person who could have saved Lewis from making some really basic mistakes. I started programming trading strategies in 2003. After years in the trenches, I moved into management and ultimately became chief operating officer of my firm, EWT. I handled regulatory compliance, risk management, finance, trading operations, and a portion of the IT and software development teams – and I had to know every aspect of the stock market inside and out. By 2008, our company was one of the largest automated market-making firms in the U.S., trading hundreds of millions of shares of stock daily, and had expanded into many other asset classes domestically and internationally. I left it all three years ago when EWT was sold to Virtu Financial (in which, in the interest of full disclosure, I still retain a small stake).

Those eight years at EWT provided me with a front row seat to all the events described in Flash Boys, and much more. During that time, I shared my experience and perspective in discussions with regulators and lawmakers here and abroad, advocating for the continued improvement of the markets discussed in the book. Many of my comment letters on these topics are publicly available on the SEC website. Even though I no longer work in trading, I can still get answers from a diverse set of close sources when a truly new question arises.”

Flash_Boys_Not_So_Fast

 

 

 

 

 

 

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