Yet another UK trader is being punished by overzealous regulators for an accomplishment that should instead have earned him accolades: Outsmarting the machines.
In a case that echoes some of the circumstances surrounding the scapegoating of former UK-based trader Nav Sarao, former Bank of America Merrill Lynch bond trader Paul Walter has been fined 60,000 pounds by the FCA for a practice that regulators call ‘algo baiting’.
Algorithm baiting is similar to spoofing – a practice that has been banned by stock-market regulators as those markets have embraced high-frequency trading practices that have broken markets and made them more vulnerable to this type of manipulation. But fixed income markets, like the Dutch loan market Walter is accused of manipulating, have been slower to embrace HFT-type trading. Because of this delay, Walter is a pioneer. Using BrokerTec, a popular fixed-income trading platform, Walter would place a bunch of bids for a given bond, triggering trend-following algos to follow suit. Then he would quickly cancel the bids. Here’s a more complete explanation per the Financial Times.
Mr Walter entered bids for Dutch state loans that pushed up their price. Then, when other algorithmic trades followed him in response and raised their bids, Mr Walter sold to them and cancelled his quote. This happened 11 times between July and August 2014 while he was working for the bank, the FCA said, while on one occasion he did the opposite. He netted a total of €22,000 profit from this “algo baiting”.
Mark Steward, the head of FCA enforcement, said the FCA would remain “vigilant” in detecting abusive practices like “algo bating”. Of course, programmers could also build better algorithms, stamping out the practice without any help from the government.
“Market manipulation undermines market integrity and confidence. The FCA will be vigilant in detecting abusive practices and will take robust action to protect issuers and participants from all over the world from the harm caused by such abuse.”
Tellingly, Walter did not know that what he was doing was market abuse. But the FCA still found him negligent even though the regulations surrounding these aggressive trading tactics in fixed income markets are not well-defined.
According to the FCA’s register of regulated individuals, Walter became inactive in August 2014 and previously worked at UBS.
Of course, the government’s motivation in fining Walter sets an important precedent that will help regulators in the future. With the ECB tapering its bond purchases (though that’s not the terminology Mario Draghi would use), the centrally-planned markets regime that’s persisted since the crisis is about to unravel. While many Wall Street strategists and PMs remain bullish, regulators see the writing on the wall. They understand the risks that NIRP, market-distorting asset purchases and an increasing reliance on ETFs and high-frequency trading algorithms have created. And when it all comes crashing down – like it did during the May 2010 flash crash – regulators will already have their scapegoat ready.
Years after the crash, authorities arrested Sarao and blamed him for triggering the largest wipeout in market history by placing large orders for S&P 500 e-mini contracts, then cancelling them, to manipulate prices in a way that would benefit his trading positions. Sarao has insisted he did nothing wrong, but that didn’t stop the UK from extraditing him to the US, where he faces serious jail time, as we noted above.
The irony, of course, is hard to miss: Sarao, a small-time trader, is facing prison, while the architects of today’s broken markets receive accolades and are rewarded with lucrative jobs in private equity once they’re done working in government.
And just so we can relive the flash crash in all its horrifying glory, here is an video courtesy of Nanex showing trading in the e-mini future which Sarao has been accused of spoofing.
The punchline: Sarao's orders are shown in red, and they disappear well before the most acute part of the flash crash.