Whoa, A Glitch In The HFT

Over the past week everyone seems to have jumped on the HFT bandwagon: people who know nothing about the issue, as well as tested industry veterans, all of a sudden are chiming in, with some, like quant legend Paul Wilmott debating the potential dangers of HFT, while others such as respected bloggers including Eric Falkenstein and John Hempton saying it is too much noise over nothing. Both sides of the debate are respected, as, if nothing else it forces further clarity on this most secretive topic.

While long-time Zero Hedge readers have known our position on the issue since early April, the basis of our perspective has always been a (very relevant) question. Which is why it is useful to hear those who are directly involved in not only the HFT market, and not only were instrumental in developing the HFT architecture, but have worked for the largest HFT option trading desk in the US, that of Citadel (and likely were sitting one desk away from the likes of Misha Malyshev, made infamous by his involvement in the Aleynikov-GS scandal). We present to you Michael Durbin, who tips his cards in a piece by Reuters' Matt Goldstein who broke the Aleynikov scandal.

Durbin says it’s reasonable to wonder whether Wall Street’s unfettered embrace of algorithmic automated trading could be setting the stage for a future meltdown.

“You have multiple HFT trading firms and sometimes their agendas are complementary and sometimes they’re not,” explains Durbin, director of HFT research with Blue Capital Group, a small Chicago-based options trading firm.

“There could be a time where these HFT programs unintentionally collaborate and you have a two- or three-minute period where the markets are going crazy. Then other traders respond to it and it simply gets out of control.”

What Durbin’s talking about is the dreaded contagion effect, in which a bad trade or a rogue algorithm misfires — sparking copycat sell orders at other high frequency desks.

A little on Durbin's background:

Durbin certainly has the bona fides to speak to the potential risk. Before joining Blue Capital, he worked for two years at Citadel Investment Group, constructing the hedge fund’s high frequency trading desk for stock options — the largest in the business.

Of course, if Durbin is right and the regulators finally do something about the inherent risk, the revenue streams that would be cut would reach into the tens of billions of dollars. It is not surprising that so many lay and otherwise voices have sprung up in defense of HFT, some of which have an agenda, others which speak purely out of naivete.

Big players in the field like Goldman Sachs, Citadel Investment Group, Getco and Interactive Brokers claim they’re mainly providing liquidity — making it easier for other traders, institutions and investors to get in and out of positions. The vast majority of high frequency traders would have you believe they are nothing more than service providers.

Yet it’s fair to question the necessity of the service that high frequency traders say they are providing. Much of the liquidity high frequency traders are adding to the mix is simply to match trades created by other high frequency traders.

Reread the last sentence carefully - it basically encapsulates the whole argument against HFT, and against B/Ds who use it and generate massive returns year over year: does anyone wonder why Medallion (which aside from being investigated by the SEC will likely be annihilated if Flash trading is banned) generates 50-80% returns year over year, while RIEF has gone from managing $27.8 billion to $5.4 billion in under 2 years. In principle this is like Goldman seeing the order flow on Sigma X, matching it in dark liquidity and offsetting the other side of the just executed trade on the NYSE without anyone else having a clue as to what drove the stock price materially up or down as there was nothing at all on Level 2 to suggest a supply/demand disbalance.

As this topic picks up much more steam, Zero Hedge would like to reinforce Goldstein's conclusion from his article.

That’s enough for me. It’s high time for the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and overseas securities regulators to start working together now to assess the potential systemic risks posed by high frequency trading before a problem occurs.

Again, it’s premature for anyone to suggest that regulators either prohibit or severely restrict high frequency trading. But let’s be clear what we’re talking about here — this is mainly trading for trading’s sake. High frequency trading is simply another way for Wall Street firms and hedge fund to make money.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with profit-driven trading. But if high frequency trading isn’t critical to keeping the markets humming, there should be nothing stopping regulators from putting a review of this strategy at the top of their agendas.

We hope that this time, unlike the Flash case, the SEC won't wait until a senator actually reminds it to do its bloody job.


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