Knight Capital: Just a Warm-Up For the Big One?

RickAckerman's picture


Anyone betting that the global financial system will continue to muddle along indefinitely deserves to reap the whirlwind that’s coming.  As the rest of us well know, the international banking system is being kept afloat solely by political lies, stupidity, corruption, greed and, most of all, egregiously misplaced confidence. It would seem to be only a matter of time before the rotted timbers of this belief system give way.  But what will be the catalyst?  The possibility or even likelihood that the financial system will be toppled by some event no one was expecting was an implicit theme of Nassim Taleb’s widely read 2004 book, Fooled by Randomness.  In the New York Times, Taleb asserted the following:  What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.



In the seven years since Taleb’s book rose to the top of the bestseller list, any number of factors could have caused the banking system to implode but did not. Thus has the passage of time strengthened his thesis by challenging still-widespread expectations of a collapse “any day now.”  The possibility has not been negated, of course, but it seems increasingly unlikely that any of the well-known dreadnoughts that have been bearing down on us, including the Mayan calendar’s prophecy of the end of days, will terminate economic life as we know it. For in fact, the financial system has survived the de facto bankruptcy of Europe; a U.S. budget deficit now growing by more than a trillion dollars a year; the collapse of real estate prices in the U.S. and around the world; intractably high unemployment nearly everywhere; and “austerity” enough to push Europe to the brink of Depression.  And yet, here’s the U.S. stock market on yet another bullish tear, ignoring all of the bad news to focus instead on the latest drivel from the ECB’s Draghi.  In a sane world, Draghi’s words would go unremarked, and those who believe the central banks can reverse the collapse of, for one, a quadrillion-dollar financial derivatives bubble would be intellectual exiles.


So what will finally topple the house of cards?  The answer probably lies no farther from us than Knight Capital’s near-death experience last week.  One of the biggest players in the trading world, the firm’s computer’s went berserk and lost a reported $440 million in just 30 minutes. Two scary facts should not be lost on those who breathed a sigh of relief when Knight was rescued over the weekend by a group of erstwhile competitors. First, the entire edifice of global banking is hard-wired to the markets in exactly the same way that Knight is, driven by algorithms that are too quick to be overridden by humans. And second, the catastrophic failure of this fragile network seems all but inevitable.  Indeed, it keeps happening over and over again on a smaller scale – first with the May 2010 Flash Crash on Wall Street, then with several other high-profile computer failures, one of them involving a programming error that botched the IPO for BATS Global Markets, a firm that had built its reputation on systems expertise.


“Rogue algorithms” have gotten most of the blame, but even those who have created them cannot claim to know what to do about it. Slow the markets down?  It’s being talked about, but that would be like trying to control a rabid dog with tranquilizers. Speed has been bred into the DNA of global markets, and there is no going back. When a rogue instruction finally capsizes a market perhaps a hundred times the size of the one Knight was trading in, the devastation will be unstoppable.  At that point, we will have unleashed a “monster from the id” like the one in the 1950s sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet.  Loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Krell civilization had designed an infinitely powerful reactor that could materialize whatever they desired. What they failed to reckon with was that the machine materialized murderous demons from their primitive subconscious while they slept. Will the vastly powerful computers that facilitate  lightning-fast trading on the world’s exchanges similarly run amok and destroy their creators?

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
SystemsGuy's picture

The swallows of Capistrano. Most trading bots are designed as "intelligent" agents that have actions predicated upon specific trading conditions - stock momentum vectors, exchange rates, volatlity and so forth. The agents don't actually understand anything about news or sentiment, they simply see the world in terms of vectors. What that means in practice is that, when you have enough of these bots chasing similar strategies, the induce positive feedback loops which guarantee volatility (which is precisely what most of their traders are banking on, as highly volatile trading environments tend to produce greater returns by playing both sides of a trade.

However the volatility is not pure noise. Pure noice cancels out, but because the agents are generally designed to seek out active trades, they will flash crash with ever greater regularity. Trade resets are bad things for the exchanges in the long run, because they reduce the market's credibility, and, as with Knight, can result in incredible losses when they don't get reset. Volume disappears, except when it looks like the market is crashing, and then it's Russian roulette for some hedge fund or investment firm.

The Black Swan isn't a flash crash. It's a flash crash when the big banks suddently realize they can't bail out the mark because it'll leave them too undercapitalized, and the exchanges are suddenly afraid to hit the reset switch. It's the difference between a power outage lasting an hour and one lasting a month. I suspect we'll see far more of the latter very, very soon.

Mutatto's picture

Seems to me, all they have to do is calculate the number of trades that can be afforded by XYZ bank (or taxpayers) and simply cancel the rest, problem solved.




YouAreBliss's picture

The beginning of the "Mother of All" bear markets will begin (IMO) in the bond markets.  After this 7 sigma, on it's way to an 8 sigma, bull move crushes the last of the bond market vigilantes and bond market spec shorts; we will see a massive sell off in all bonds corps, munis, hy, and most of all Treasuries.

By the way, a seven sigma move has a yearly probability of .00000000004% or the odds of occurring once every 7,700,000,000 years.

The global reverberations will be like a giant asteroid produced tsunami - no where to hide.

The US risk free interest rate is THE linchpin to the entire complex system we call the "Global Financial Market".

When that blows out it will be very, very, very ugly.  No entity is large enough, with enough financial leverage to stop it.

ONLY by Federal Nationalization, Price Controls, Rationing, MARSHALL LAW can the system remotely function.  Until a new system replaces it (possibly a new political one as well).

Our Government leaders and Regulators through purposeful neglect have allowed this structure to mutate beyond reason.

That it will happen is a virtual mathematical certainty - the debate should be what will replace it.  Thoughts?



Everybodys All American's picture

What is interesting is that some of the trades were backed out while many were not which leads to the Knight losses. That's the part I don't get. Either the whole thing should have been backed out or none of it. The regulator is totally captured in the regulation on this mess.

ddtuttle's picture

There is no such thing as a "Rogue Algorithm", only stupid or mallicious programmers.  It's 100% human error or mischief.  Machines just do what they are told.

tradewithdave's picture

Are you trying to say that the Geico-caveman inspired statement from the CFTC of "Technology good" isn't, uh, good?

Slightly Insane's picture

Do you know what GEICO stands for?  Try Government Employee Insurance Co.  It was set up to take advantage of "Government Employees" (initially those of a given rank and above in the military).  I think it has morphed into a giant money sucking squid of it's own .... and the reason Buffet has it?   Money.  I must admit that I have a strong aversion to the British sounding salamander using idiotic lingo to justify purchase of "stupidity insurance" (Insuring against events that have little probability .... and do not result in catestrophic losses, but very manageable losses, were they to ocurr). 

I think that they had to abanon the "Caveman" as it was easily surmised that the "Caveman" was the client .... the same one watching American Idol or Jersey Shore or some other less cerebral waste of time ... some of the potential clients learned the "rub" and would seek risk mitigation through a company that didn't treat all their clients like they've got IQ's less than 80.  Would you want to be part of a risk pool where all your fellow "shareholders" are potential members of the Darwin Awards?  It's not for me.

GreatUncle's picture

Try a Lehman moment handled differently!

If Knight has gone down with a bang likely they would have gone bust but if you stage manage it through a rogue computer program nobody is any the wiser.

Minimizes the value the company would lose if it had to be bailed out and gets a hidden bad debt of the books. With the higher value it may even then be taken over keeping the asset value far higher.

Could be a method in the madness.

[EDIT] With the amount of debt in the system another Lehman and the lot would go so you got to figure a way to keep it all going. Seeing as the debt is real leaves just three basic options. No debt (not going to happen), bust (if you do nothing) or ..."stage managed" and hope.

Purge the debt or losses.

moneyline's picture

I am with you on this. Were they assets or actually debts? It is what ever we say it is. So suddenly this bad debt we had, which we laundered then packaged as a "security"....suddenly it loses "value" and we have to be "rescued" by some friendly competitors? WTF? Sounds like some CMBSs just got flushed down the toilet.

Confundido's picture

What will finally topple the house of cards? Someone wrote precisely about this here:

"Why the repo market will take us to the end of this crisis"

And here:

trillionaire's picture

The Knight Capital incident will be used to put circuit breakers in place for excessive volume, that is why the incident happened.  It will be used as an excuse to put more PP stops in place.

Kiwi Pete's picture

They could use it as an excuse to ban High Frequency Trading altogether. Too dangerous...Causes unacceptable systemic risk...

Afterall, never let a crises go to waste!

Conax's picture

Since they can 'reset' the deals if they want, the way to bring it all to an end is right here.

Every well turned phrase, every cutting witticism, every little nugget of truth revealed is a nudge in the right direction.  Most people are too busy and too frenetic to really investigate for themselves what is happening here.  These articles are being read by more and more people every day. The bankers can not handle the real truth being reported, they'll head for the hills if critical mass is ever reached.

So thanks to the Tylers and all of you for your time and effort.

I'm amazed at the shear quantity of analysis and insider info passed out here every day. I scan everything I can here, time permitting, and it's never a waste of time.

Slightly Insane's picture

The "trust" in the system is rapidly being eroded.  Smart players who don't have the proper "political connections" will be exiting the game or they will be "burned".  It is essentially Tyler's ..... Zero Hedge .... where on a longe enough timeline we will have Zero.

LMAOLORI's picture



Well in that case not inside information but worth watching



The 2012 Survey of Affluence and Wealth in America, from American Express Publishing and Harrison Group, finds that One Percenters are hoarding three times as much cash as they were two years ago. Their savings rate soared to 34 percent in the second quarter of 2012, up from 12 percent in 2007.


 Higher savings would normally be good for the economy. But not now, when capital is needed to invest in growth and jobs. The One Percenters put 56 percent of their available cash into savings accounts and money markets in 2012 – that’s up from 24 percent in 2007.

They’re investing just 44 percent in financial markets – down from 76 percent in 2007. More One Percenters say the stock market is “a real risk” rather than a “real opportunity.” That’s a big switch from just last year, when 62 percent said the market was an opportunity.

in full




Is the Market Rally Just a Set-Up for a Bigger 'Collapse'?


Slightly Insane's picture

LMAOLORI - you have hit the mark.  When the risks far outweigh the rewards .... what is one to do?  Those 1% as a group posess a different level of experience and intelligence that the mean does not, and when they move in one direction as a collective, it signifies that they know.  The question becomes what happens when the top 5%, or 10% gets the same message.  It signifies to me a lack of trust, and if the economy continues the deterioration ... which it inevitably has to do .... then flight.  I expect that when the 44% drops to 30%, and then 25% .... well you know.

silverserfer's picture

All this is quite hilarious now that I am unplugged from the system and have had my peace with my family members and friends about getting out before they get taken. Now, I can sit back a watch the takedown safely from a distance. Its like watching shark week showing  the seal playing around knowing at any second a great whites going to slam them from out of nowhere. Bam! See ya.   Got phyzz btichez? 

uniman's picture

WTF!?  I was watching The Road and the fucking lights went out!

astoriajoe's picture

Just curious how you know what a safe distance is?

kliguy38's picture

Slurrrrrp....Burp.......Faaaaaaaart. Another morsel for the algo biatches. "Honey, call the car for the Hamptons."

bankruptcylawyer's picture

I AM SO SICK and tired of the knight capital story as a 'mistake' or rogue algorithm. why isn't anyone here exploring the possibility that the 'mistake' was on purpose and that knight actually made someone else ALOT  of money (BILLIONS) in a calculated fashion at the expense of the people it was trying to trade for. The 'loans' could well have been planned in advance as part of the ruse that this was all an accident and that knight almost went bankrupt as a result.  

Everybodys All American's picture

Collusion is certainly possible as it was with Libor. It is also very hard to prove. From the information I have seen on the Knight debacle it was simply that a piece of code that was used to test the system trading capacity was inadvertantly brought into production. That seems more plausible but I can't say your scenario can be completely disregarded.

The kind of market have we created at this stage is nothing short of a rigged casino. So nothing can be discounted.


Slightly Insane's picture

Don't forget the possibility that the "coder" intentionally installed some lines of code to "hit back" at his superiors whom he may have had a "beef" with.  Call it "Kharma" delivered by code.  It would be interesting to see if an algorithm could be initiated "one time" which upon execution for a specified time .... erases itself entirely .... like a cloaked thief into the night.  (Stuxnet anyone?)

moneyline's picture

This. I thought the same thing about MF Global and Morgan Stanley's debacle. Some people made bank on those "events" and/or some bad debt just magically dissapeared into thin air~~~*

LongSilverJohn's picture

I think the HFT software programmer's name was Oscar Wildebeast. In the morning, he inserted a comma into the program and in the afternoon (after being laid off) he took the comma out. Funny how little changes like that are taken so literally...

SmittyinLA's picture

 “austerity” enough to push Europe to the brink of Depression.

This guy must live on a different planet, I don't see any austerity anywhere, I don't even see a dip in the volume of fraudulent loans our govt guarantees, in fact The Free Money Fire Hose was turned up higher, people elected Socialists, not not budget cutters.

The American presidential race is between 2 Socialists, there is no contest, Socialism wins. 

Fuck Solyndra, we gonna give 2 billion to South Africa for solar supplied by Chinese plants for operating Chinese South African mines.

There ain't Austerity, TPTB have tied up America and the EU and are being served up for 3rd world rape, permanent 3rd world rape, there is literally nothing to stop all of Eurasia and Africa from moving into Europe and enslaving everybody.  

Global mob rule can run indefinitely. 

Paul451's picture

Bawahahahaha. Oh, yeah. Blame it on the computers!

Computers are programmed by PEOPLE. Computers only do what PEOPLE tell them to do. If a computer fuzks up, its because PEOPLE fuzked up.

Only PEOPLE are morally culpable.


 "Open the pod bay doors please HAL"

rsnoble's picture

Ever see that sci-fi show where there was some planet with a world war except the world war was just a big pc screen that had 2 computers pitted against each other? Who's ever city got hit on the screen......those people would go to the extermination center. There weren't actually bombs. I can see how those idiots got to that point we're well on the way.

Midas's picture

Save me some time Silver-

Is Andrea Android in that one?

Gringo Viejo's picture

Got them spock ears oiled up for the next convention, silver?

Silver Alert's picture

Vulcans do not oil their ears.  That would be illogical.

MarcusLCrassus's picture

That was an episode of the original Captain Kirk version Star Trek. 

Nadaclue's picture

Charlie Gaspareno (FBN) just reported that one of KCG's trading groups lost $800k the Tuesday before the Wed meltdown on a S&P re-balancing trade they weren't aware they were in. KCG only makes about 1MM in annual profits. Lol

Also reported that KCG's report to the SEC said that the Wed debacle was a result of "Human & Machine error". Like we didn't know that already...

Slightly Insane's picture

How do you know it was "error"?   Just think if it was Kevin Metnickesque .... there are extrapolations which would go on and on ....

Just think ... executing a HFT program to transfer wealth to another entity, claiming it was a coding error, and being enriched by it through a handshake with members of the winning entity .... with a payoff sometime in the future ... say a year?  What is the punishment?  "You're Fired"!  (Unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, while you wait for your new money stream to arrive).  How much needs to be "transfered" before a person could be "bought"?

Is every single line of code checked, again and again ..... by multiple experts able to extrapolate all the possibilities, in otherwords a full system simulation with the full range of possibilities ....

Kiwi Pete's picture

Yes it would be interesting to know who it was that made the $440mil that Knightmare lost. Was it evenly spread around the market or rather more concentrated?

And if any ex-employees of Knightmare ended up working for the winners?

Or even if any of their ex-employees had a job with Knightmare?

Or if any Knightmare directors have cross-directorships with them?

So many questions.


Remington IV's picture

Pass the beer and popcorn please

moneyline's picture

I don't think a computer program driven "crash" or "flashcrash" can ever happen again given all the e-brake security measures in place. Sure, isolated market makers can have these "Hal-like" moments, but if anything widespread starts happening, TPTB just halt trading, for 30 mins/however long they effing want to, fix the problem and resume trading. This is just more fear mongering. It's like expecting all the casinos in Vegas to suffer massive losses all in the same day. Just doesn't happen. The markets are totally "fixed " right now. The only way the market "crashes" now is if TPTB decide it will, then it is just an orderly walk down of the markets over 2-3 weeks. Somebody please prove me wrong because I would love to believe that there is still an ounce of randomness left in the "equities" markets.

Slightly Insane's picture

From my limited understanding, each HFT program is written to take advantage of a given model or theory.  It's a chess game.  The competition is running similar strategies.  The question becomes, "are there programs designed to destroy competion"?  This is essentially a "war game", and the survivors accumulate dollars.  No program is ever perfect, and as contingencies are programmed ... the instruction set gets more complex, and as the complexity of the program grows .... it's execution speed drops.  I could see a situation where coders are developing lines of instruction to take advantage of weaknesses in competitors models, and investing in the fastest computers available, running in tandem executing programs ready to exploit any available trade weakness, and forcing losses on the competitors model to multiply at such a rate that it effectively stalls the competitors model.

That's assuming alot, and it assumes that you don't have programmers talking with others in competitors companies ... essentially subversive activities that exploit the employer.  In the old days they were referred to as "double agents". 

MsCreant's picture

Your blind faith is stunning. I'd say that to a friend I heard talking the way you are talking.

moneyline's picture

You seemed to have misinterpreted what I am saying my friend. I have no faith in the system, but I also don't believe in the premise suggested by Mr. Ackerman. I think that the only thing that could truly cause massive wide-scale panic in the markets where there would be sustained panic selling for several days is a man-made or natural catastrophe that has global repercussions. The Japan "triple whammy" was the last time I saw true panic in the markets post 2008 and even that was short lived, filled-in and wall-papered by TPTB within a couple weeks. Some country would have to use nukes, massive volcanoe/earthquake combo, La Palma tidal wave scenario....something like that. Right now TPTB are using headline fear to draw more shorts into the markets, playing this sick. but somewhat brilliant strategy to short sqeeze the markets to higher levels, either forcing shorts out of the market or causing them to go long against their will and in turn, to back up their newly acquired long positions with more puts creating more price support as they are forced to cover those positions as well. FTW

g speed's picture

I believe you are making a mistake in assuming TPTB are in collusion. It is much more likely (considering their nature) that they are at each others throats. Using algos against retail is most surely over kill, however in a game of "last man standing" that TPTB are playing today it is SOP. Even nukes have limited area of impact. World wide electronic economic collapse would be just that--world wide. 

central planning anyone??

moneyline's picture

What makes you think that they are not? The EU, Cen. Banks, The Fed, all related politicians, IMF, big banks. They are all so intertwined with debt that they HAVE to collude and cooperate too survive, right now anyway. I think TPTB are going to take the market down here sometime soon, barring any false recovery and doctored numbers they might try to push in front of the gen. p for Q3. Sometime here after the Olympics.

MrBoompi's picture

We need to put this Knight Capital thing in perspective.  The problem is not so much a computer glitch caused them to lose hundreds of millions of dollars.  The problem is we think when these HFT programs are working properly, and skim untold billions of dollars from chumps' accounts, things are OK.

Sometimes thieves get robbed too.




LMAOLORI's picture



I will say at least we didn't have to bail them out in that respect Capitalism is working as it should


Knight Capital: The Ideal Way To Screw Up On Wall Street

mind_imminst's picture

I am unsure what world you guys live in. It is a centrally (government) controlled investment world now. If HFT algos cause severe dislocations in a market (securities primarily, but probably any exchange-based market in the near future), the trades will be cancelled and the market will be reset back to a lofty level. Any non-algo drop in the markets will be met with central bank liquidity pumps. Don't over-think the stock market. You can't lose when uncle Ben has your back. Everything is bullish!

BTW, algo-crashing of the market is not a "black swan" (by definition) because it is a known risk. What will take down the market is something that almost no one is aware of. What that is? I don't know. 

CompassionateFascist's picture

I do: IranWar w/in 30 days. Call it a White Swan, because it's so beautiful.