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Step Right Up: It's HFT Whack-A-Mole Time

Tyler Durden's picture


For those who thought the crocodile algo or the fractal HFT patterns were crazy, you ain't seen nothing yet. Earlier today, Nanex caught arguably the most berserk HFT algorithm yet captured on film, or jpeg as the case may be, in the trading of Earthlink stock shortly after hours. What happened next is one for the ages... Because it certainly will not make it to the regulators. In essence, we had our first spotted appearance of the Whack-A-Mole algorithm, which allowed one, if one is fast enough, and incidentally one isn't, as all the bids would be cancelled at the same time as they were sent out, to make free money on a 10% trading spread between the bid and ask. Gone is any pretense of an NBBO, gone is any pretense of an orderly market: it is the wild, electronic, and nanosecond west out there.

Per Nanex:

It's wack-a-mole, if you can hit the bid and offer fast enough, it's instant money!

On August 2nd, right after regular trading closed at 16:00, ELNK perfectly illustrates the illusion of modern trading. Gone are luddite meanings of bids and offers, where a bid really meant someone wanted to buy and an offer was a legitimate offer of stock. Today's bids and offers are beautiful to behold. And boy they are fast! How fast? Faster than you could ever hope to hit them. So shut up, sit back, and leave it to the professionals.


Price Only:

Price and Size:

Scatter plot of trades only (Price and Size):

Zoom in of price activity:

Zoom in of early price activity:

The charts below are spaced evenly with time. The first is in 100ms intervals, the second in 200ms intervals.

shading: red=NBBO crossed, yellow=crossed, gray=normal


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Tue, 08/02/2011 - 20:59 | 1519173 slow_roast
slow_roast's picture

Those charts look like something straight out of an Atari video game.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:55 | 1519272 Zero Govt
Zero Govt's picture

no what's happened is a moron at Goldman Sucks hooked up their Cubest Modern Art algo instead of their Frontrunning Illegal Inside Trader algo program today

of course mans most advanced computers and robotics couldn't carry out the daily chores of an Ant, but i suppose simply being INSIDER TRADING programs frontrunning investor buy and sell orders, though absolutely illegal for everyone else, the Big Dumb Bankrupt Banks think it's perfectly ok for a computer to do... much better bet than their over-bonused money destroying humans anyway

Expect another bigger market flash crash (soon) caused by these moronic brain-dead computers because they don't know their arse from their elbow (ie. have no consciousness) ...SEC Regulators stand-by for your usual pile of extrement excuses 

Wed, 08/03/2011 - 17:15 | 1522047 PaperBugsBurn
PaperBugsBurn's picture

Gerald Celente? new site:

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 22:51 | 1519415 Id fight Gandhi
Id fight Gandhi's picture

Seriously, is there a "beautiful mind" out there that can comment on this?

Were all told that this HFT is good for the markets and liquidity. Can't see how.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 23:14 | 1519444 WebWeasel
WebWeasel's picture

HFT is good for liquidity and making the markets all Black Swany.

Wed, 08/03/2011 - 00:52 | 1519579 zorba THE GREEK
zorba THE GREEK's picture

Space Invaders no doubt.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:00 | 1519174 FunkyMonkeyBoy
FunkyMonkeyBoy's picture

Let's pray to god these algorithms aren't run on a Windows OS, otherwise, things could turn really nasty.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:40 | 1519267 El Viejo
El Viejo's picture

Ha!  Can you imagine a 747 pilot coming over the intercom saying, "Ladies and gentlemen we have to reboot our computer now. Don't pay any attention to the lights going off and on etc. It should be landing us into Tegucigalpa Honduras shortly" There is one documented case of an on board computer vectoring way off course to Aus or NZ and flying into the side of a mountain in Antartica. They never knew what hit them.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 22:06 | 1519324 Sledge
Sledge's picture



I remember that.  No GPS then. Just primitive inertial navigation and the navigator punched in the wrong waypoint numbers. I believe It was a sight-seeing tour of antartica and weather shrouded the mountain so no one saw it coming.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 22:47 | 1519406 aldousd
aldousd's picture

I was on a plane where that happened. But it was a linux host. I guess people trained to 'fix' things the windows way never learned any other measures.  Luckily it wasn't the actual control systems or anything important. it was the interactive passenger babysitter LCD screens in front of everyone's face. You could see them boot up, changing runlevel mounting terrorist hard drives, and all that.

Speaking of that:

Wed, 08/03/2011 - 00:57 | 1519580 zorba THE GREEK
zorba THE GREEK's picture

I was on a UFO headed for Alfa Ventura when the same thing happened and I ended up on this s**thole planet.

Wed, 08/03/2011 - 04:47 | 1519747 Hobbleknee
Hobbleknee's picture

I was traveling across dimensions when the same thing happened and I ended up with a 12 inch schlong that glows in the dark.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 22:17 | 1519348 indio007
indio007's picture

reminds of the windows EULA



Tue, 08/02/2011 - 22:23 | 1519360 GotElevenToes
GotElevenToes's picture

Wrong - Let's pray they ARE on a Windows OS.  The sooner they crash and burn the better.  Of course their virus software may be out-of-date and they could easily get hacked...

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 23:41 | 1519481 DeadFred
DeadFred's picture

Let's all hit the reset button at once, three, two, one, NOW.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 23:19 | 1519450 WebWeasel
WebWeasel's picture

I turned down a job at one of the HFT companies (not saying which) because there's some hinky stuff going on there.

That being said they usually hook up Linux boxes to the big pipe. You would be amazed at how much Linux and Postgres can handle.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 23:54 | 1519497 tekhneek
tekhneek's picture

Postgres? Try NoSQL w/ solid-state pure RAM disks for storage. That's speed.

Wed, 08/03/2011 - 00:16 | 1519526 Manthong
Manthong's picture

Those HFT algo's are synthetics of analog operations modeled years ago.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:03 | 1519176 caerus
caerus's picture

those are sum purtty nice charts there...+ sumthin for use of the word "luddite"

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:19 | 1519219 Miss Expectations
Miss Expectations's picture

I got some kind of error message when I hit the up arrow for your comment.  Also, it somehow simultaneously gave you a down arrow.  I'm liking the new technology, but I should have just gone back to the key board and typed +1.  Luddite karma I'm guessing.

Wed, 08/03/2011 - 00:48 | 1519574 Frankie Carbone
Frankie Carbone's picture

No worries. It's just the ZH High Frequency Rating Algo trying to revert to the mean.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:04 | 1519183 Xando
Xando's picture

It's like they're not even trying to hide it. They're flaunting it.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:56 | 1519301 jo6pac
jo6pac's picture

Why should they no one goes to jail under the friendly govt.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:04 | 1519184 DormRoom
DormRoom's picture

what winamp skin are they using.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:05 | 1519185 Id fight Gandhi
Id fight Gandhi's picture

They make my brain hurt. What am I looking at?

Wed, 08/03/2011 - 05:38 | 1519763 Byte Me
Byte Me's picture

The futurepresent -- unless action is taken to squish this sort of crap...

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:05 | 1519189 chump666
chump666's picture

thats awesome.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:08 | 1519193 phungus_mungus
phungus_mungus's picture

Sorry guys, I had a sneezing fit when loading my bids earlier!



Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:09 | 1519196 molecool
molecool's picture

Hey - I got feelings too!!

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:11 | 1519199 navy62802
navy62802's picture

Looking at those charts reminds me of a wave-riding circuit which converts AC electricity to DC. The logic circuits in these algorithms attempt to do nothing more than ride the crest of the wave, just like the logic circuits in an AC to DC converter.

Wed, 08/03/2011 - 02:04 | 1519647 Jumbotron
Jumbotron's picture

That's actually frikkin' brilliant !  I don't know jack doodly about these algo's but after staring at these charts for a while, your comment and these charts spurred a memory of when I was learning about my first tube amplifier I bought.  I wanted to know more about these tubes as I had only used transistor amps before.

Got to love Google.  After searching "wave riding circuit ac to dc" I found this gem and it all came back to me......this came from a site explaining how a tube amp is able to take a small ac voltage and ride it along a dc voltage and amping up the ac signal on the other side.

"Example 1: Lets say we are standing at the shore of a completely smooth fresh water lake that is 10 feet deep all the way across. Now lets say a huge 500 pound fat guy jumps off of a dock at the other end of the lake. He creates a wave that is 5 feet higher than the lake surface. The wave also dips down below the lake surface 5 feet. You are on the other side of the lake and you can see the wave coming towards you but you can only see the top 5 feet of the wave. This wave is actually 10 feet high if you consider that the valley of the wave is 5 feet below the lake surface and the wave peak is 5 feet above the lake surface. This wave is 10 feet high peak to peak.
 The lake surface is like a constant DC voltage in an amplifier power supply that measures 10 volts DC above chassis ground and the wave is equivalent to a 10 volt peak to peak AC signal voltage riding on top of a that steady 10 volt DC. The AC signal fluctuates the smooth DC voltage level up and down to a 5volt DC low level and a 15volt DC high level. (Theory).

 In a nutshell: Take a look at the Typical 12AX7 stage in the diagram above. A tube/valve amplifies a voltage by taking a very small AC voltage that is present on the input control grid (pin 2) and makes the current fluctuate through the tube from the cathode (pin 3) to the plate (pin 1). This fluctuating current flows through a 100K plate load resistor and is turned back into a much larger copy of the AC control grid voltage on the other side of the plate load resistor. When a fluctuating DC voltage comes up against a coupling capacitor the fluctuating AC level appears on the other side of the capacitor but the smooth DC voltage component is blocked. Capacitors will block a smooth DC voltage but will appear to pass the fluctuating AC voltage component."

Algos do a similar thing, only the old way of trading is not smooth like a dc signal but it is (was) much smoother than the algos.  The algos take the normal trading schema and amps it up with speed by using very small and speedy trades.  Hence, small inputs of buy and sell orders get magnified by shear speed with the added intelligence of you said....riding the crest....just like a wave-riding the case above a Marshall tube amplifier.

Once again....a frikkin' brilliant observation my friend !

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:13 | 1519204 idea_hamster
idea_hamster's picture

Earthlink? I thought that company choked on its vomit at Woodstock....

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:13 | 1519206 Amish Hacker
Amish Hacker's picture

Ah, the rare and fragile beauty of unfettered price discovery in a free market...

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:14 | 1519207 caerus
caerus's picture

ok have captured in color the beauty of mathematics...does anyone care to speak to me about the substace of the sophistry?  ps you'll probalbly drunk

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:50 | 1519289 Stares straight...
Stares straight ahead's picture

The algo is raking in the spread of bid and ask, as profit.  The bidder and asker do not know the market; probably blinded by quote stuffing. The bidder is bidding too much, the asker is asking too little.  The algo sees this and dips its finger in the sweet, sweet buttercream of the wedding cake and says, "Yum, Yum!" 

I am MOTO (master of the obvious),

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:57 | 1519302 Stares straight...
Stares straight ahead's picture

The lesson to the small investor (of this particular algo) is you should never, EVER, sell or buy "at market."  Use and actively manage your limits.

Any programmer out there want to start a company called, "QuikAlgos"?  I can't wait to start trading again under the crocodile template.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:14 | 1519209 Goatboy
Goatboy's picture

I know this game - Manic Miner

Graphics were modest but it was quite addictive

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:22 | 1519225 gwar5
gwar5's picture



This is a HFT algo arms race.

The TSA stands ready, and willing, to grope any suspicious algo that protests too much.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 23:32 | 1519464 espirit
espirit's picture

Slowest algo is left holding an empty bag.

Flash crash in 3..2..1..

Barracuda algo's are all that is left in the pool, and there can only be one survivor until it starves to death.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:32 | 1519249 moofph
moofph's picture

...looks like a digital wet dream.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:33 | 1519251 papaswamp
papaswamp's picture

Nurse more adenaline for the patient stat!....and a matini and blow job for me.


Clearly the Tanqureray 10 is taking effect.

Wed, 08/03/2011 - 00:50 | 1519577 zorba THE GREEK
zorba THE GREEK's picture

Tanqueray 10, good choice. But I have switched to Mt Gay Rum and diet gingerale. No hang-over.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:36 | 1519260 Rodent Freikorps
Rodent Freikorps's picture

This is why you shouldn't nail the secretary on your own desk.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:43 | 1519275 Stares straight...
Stares straight ahead's picture

Nailing the secretary was just the victory lap!

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:37 | 1519262 DormRoom
DormRoom's picture

I think I see green shoots.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:40 | 1519268 monopoly
monopoly's picture

No day trading for this guy. Gave it up and am richer for it. Gold needs to rest now, up 19 of the last 22 days. Nothing goes straight up, not even real money. Might take a little off the table tomorrow. We shall see.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:47 | 1519280 papaswamp
papaswamp's picture

Definately a rest until friday...unless Challenger and ADP are big ugly

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:47 | 1519282 StormShadow
StormShadow's picture

Hey, you sank my battleship!

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:48 | 1519283 karzai_luver
karzai_luver's picture

vtac bitchezzz.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:51 | 1519292 indygo55
indygo55's picture

Ok all joking aside, is this actually legal, and/or, is the SEC aware/in on it?

What gives? I can't see how anyone would want to invest in the market with these theives running around like this in plain site.


Tue, 08/02/2011 - 22:44 | 1519401 Caviar Emptor
Caviar Emptor's picture


Tue, 08/02/2011 - 23:56 | 1519499 MsCreant
MsCreant's picture

Be nice, he's new. If he only just figured that out, imagine what hell is ahead of him.

Answers at the back of the book: They are doing everything you can imagine to game the system and no one is being prosecuted. Every time you are surprised, you will swallow that feeling and learn more.

Get used to being surprised and angry for a while.

Have a drink...

or 20.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:56 | 1519299 Sledge
Sledge's picture



No rest tomorrow. Asia so far:

                          Nikkei         -2.10%

                          Hang Seng   -2.20%

                           S&P ASX      -2.26%

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 22:06 | 1519325 papaswamp
papaswamp's picture

Shanghi just bounced....someone interveined. 

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 21:59 | 1519311 oogs66
oogs66's picture

2 times in a week that whack a mole has been in the title. Market is a mess :)

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 22:46 | 1519403 ThirdCoastSurfer
ThirdCoastSurfer's picture

The option straddles of ELNK are very limited in the near term expiries. This must be a piece of the puzzle as time and again these patterns arise where ever there is a bottleneck.  It is not just the algo's but the indexes they are submitted from as asks and offers bounce from one to the other in search of a fill, each index in turn being required to evaluate the need for market maker intervention. 

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 23:02 | 1519425 Caviar Emptor
Caviar Emptor's picture

First time I fell victim to a whack a mole algo was during summer 2008. GS was the stock and like all financials it was sliding hard....but not without a full on fight. Like bull bustin' at a rodeo, if you wanted to play that game short or long, you had to hang on real tight and ride hard as every sell-stop and buy-stop was taken out with $15 amplitude waves and many intircate subwaves. They were spittin' traders out on either side of every Fibo level, every support and resistance line, every pivot, and even the vwap. At least there were traders back then and you could hope that some of the quotes were real and tradeable.

It's a losing proposition now because the market is so thin and devoid of real traders, let alone investors (75% is algo, less than 10% is held longer than a day), and because of the magic of order flashing, it's a totally stacked deck. They know how many shares you own and where you bought or sold 'em (ID tracking). They know if you're trading from a ToS account, a prop shop or bulge bracket desk. Bids and asks disappear as soon as you hit 'em. And they make the spreads look artificially good when they're really a mile wide. Most of the serious trading (if any) from size players is done through dark pools sight unseen. Everyone else is road kill for the whack a mole machine

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 23:20 | 1519452 4shzl
4shzl's picture

Sad, but the truth is the chumps will play the game anyway.  It's like the slots in a casino, the flicker on the screen is irresistible to the fish . . .

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 23:32 | 1519470 Caviar Emptor
Caviar Emptor's picture

It's now a PT Barnum market, where the guiding philosophy is there's a sucker born every minute. 

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 23:35 | 1519474 Stares straight...
Stares straight ahead's picture

Caviar, this sounds like an excellent intro to a good novel.  I hope you finish the book

And it makes my earlier comment about limits seem very niave, which BTW, I am!

Now excuse me while i finish my dinner of Gyro vwap and turn up the radio to Fibo level 11. 

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 23:51 | 1519489 Caviar Emptor
Caviar Emptor's picture

Sounds cool, bro. I got angry in early 09 and wrote a formal complaint to the SEC right when order flashing was becoming an issue that even the Senate Banking Committee was exposing and complaining about. I submitted actual records including screen captures of quote stuffing with disapearing bids. After 4 months I got a polite response expressing thanks for my letter, support for the concept of fair markets and a promise of a review of details. Then nothing for months. Follow up only politely assured me that, in the opinion of the SEC, markets were being run fairly with full compliance with SEC regulations. Even a securities attorney wouldn't take the case as a future class-action. 

Wed, 08/03/2011 - 00:38 | 1519562 Stares straight...
Stares straight ahead's picture

Its that "regulatory capture" thingy, I'm sure.  Tyler may break 'em with this ol' school, investigative reporting.  Or when something very bad happens.  Or, I am being naive again...

This whole algo thing is morbidly fascinating, like watching a cock-fight.  If it spooks small investors out of the waters, you gotta wonder how that argues for liquidity.

I am a small business owner, and I am always amazed how government, in general, discounts the cumulative, greater effect of the small guys, with favoritism to the lessor effect of the big industry guys.  Ronald Reagan pointed out this grave error, oft repeated.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 23:03 | 1519426 johnnysize
johnnysize's picture

Move the market...just take take your fee's... this isnt ETF spy trading dark pool eco savings. Just take take take untill theres no liquidity and Goldman Sachs is once again called to make a fukin market and customers back up block trading mistakes. HFT are anal warts...nothing more. They arent traders, they are geeks, with nothing but too much money and technology on their side. You FUKS keep vwaping and putting your  orders in so called "smart" INSTINET LLC pushes while slurping the HFT BATS LIME douchefest. Here's some co-location for you.... the area between my sunken ball bag and azz hole. Take a chomp on it. Ill wait and not buy on down days like this...then guess what? Ill pay the street to take take take back all the offers you didnt want to make in the first place ...too easy... look at a tech equipt maker that trades low 5's.... at Aug expiration ill garantee its pinned at 6 no matter how many HFT jerkfests there are...too easy. There used to be size on the market you had to gause, now the SEC has alloweed a phantom market in several securities I could bet 99.9 pct that hit my target if I want them to with as little as a few million bones.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 23:04 | 1519428 johnnysize
johnnysize's picture


Tue, 08/02/2011 - 23:10 | 1519436 putbuyer
putbuyer's picture

I have done well playing the VIX calls. Will sell at open tomorrow making 100% or not. Just gambling in this shit storm. The only thing that keeps me sane is my remote land in NH - deep in the woods.

Tue, 08/02/2011 - 23:37 | 1519475 Caviar Emptor
Caviar Emptor's picture

Whack a mole of a different kind: Regulations are killing small on...


Police in Ga. shut down girls' lemonade stand

They hoped to earn money for a trip to a water park


Police in Georgia have shut down a lemonade stand run by three girls trying to save up for a trip to a water park, saying they didn't have a business license or the required permits.

Midway Police Chief Kelly Morningstar says police also didn't know how the lemonade was made, who made it or what was in it.

The girls had been operating for one day when Morningstar and another officer cruised by.

The girls needed a business license, peddler's permit and food permit to operate, even on residential property. The permits cost $50 a day or $180 per year.

Wed, 08/03/2011 - 02:49 | 1519686 Ahwooga
Ahwooga's picture

Strewth! Sounds like you guys are heading down the same path as our (not-so) neo socialist state that used to be called Australia... Intervention, regulation and litigation are the new freedoms.

Wed, 08/03/2011 - 09:06 | 1520106 -Michelle-
-Michelle-'s picture

police also didn't know how the lemonade was made, who made it or what was in it.

And how is that different than any of the swill on the grocery store shelves?

Wed, 08/03/2011 - 00:02 | 1519505 CelticWarrior72
CelticWarrior72's picture

Can someone give a polainspeak explanation as to how this algo makes money?  It's been 10 years since I traded options at the CBOE (on the floor) when NBBO was relatively new.  Being a market maker back then was straightforward, buy at the bid, sell at the offer and manage your tail risks.  Easy.  I'd appreciate someone filling me in on some of this HFT stuff.



Wed, 08/03/2011 - 00:13 | 1519518 bakken
bakken's picture

If all cops do is eat donuts and bust little girls, we don't even need cops.

To the point: with billions loose sloshing around, couldn't some innovator start up an exchange where cyberHFT is locked out, ie max trades per minute etc?  Hey, the chinese can censor the web, a market can't lock out HFTs?  Or, just raise fees till they bleed.

Right.  Kill the SEC, the Homeland (in)Security etc.   ...totally useless.

Wed, 08/03/2011 - 02:56 | 1519693 Eric Cartman
Eric Cartman's picture

Hey! I am a cop, and you will Respect My Authoritah!

Wed, 08/03/2011 - 02:55 | 1519690 Eric Cartman
Eric Cartman's picture

Oh Wow! That pattern is so kewww guys! I'm a HFT!

Wed, 09/14/2011 - 04:38 | 1667322 chinawholesaler
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