Friday, September 10, 2010

It's a High Frequency World

Gillian Tett raises some interesting questions in her Financial Times article today: “What can be done to slow high-frequency trading?” (

She closes her piece with the most important economic question that can be asked: “To my mind, the real question which needs to be discussed—but which regulators are still ducking—is why ultra-fast trading is needed at all?”

The answer: people believe that they can make money if they have a slight edge in the speed at which they can make trades.

I don’t think that this answer is changed by going into the debate relating to the neurological research which argues that “the brain has two contradictory instincts: part of it is hard-wired to chase instant gratification; however, another part of our brain also has the ability to be ‘patient’, and delay immediate gratification for future gains.”

This is just the argument raised by the behavioral finance and economics researchers. (See my review of the book “Snap Judgment” for a discussion of this issue: The general assumption that accompanies this train of thought is that “instinctional” behavior is irrational and therefore not productive.

To quote from Tett’s article, “in practice innovation…has a darker, impatient side too: as markets have become deeper, and more liquid, that has enabled trading to become more frenetic; similarly, as information has become more frequently available this has encouraged skittish, herd behavior.”

But, life is full of situations in which “instinct” or the ability to make quick decisions is of crucial importance. For example, we need military leaders that can make decisions “on-the-spot” as well as those that can plan out strategies for long, drawn-out battles. The military trains people over-and-over again to develop the perception and experience to make decisions in the “real time” that is necessary for winning battles and winning wars.

We can find examples in many fields where “immediate” action is needed. The education and training in these areas is intense and efforts are made to find the people that are the very best in their ability to diagnose a situation and come up with the “right decision” as often as possible.

The real difference is the capability of the person or persons making the decisions. In the military, in medicine, and in many other professions, there is a hierarchy in terms of who makes the decision. Hopefully, the people that rise to the top are those individuals that can perform well and are able to make good “snap” decisions if they are needed.

Sometimes there is licensing or other forms of identification that require test taking and hurdles to overcome in order to get the certification or advancement that will put the “right people” in the “right spot” for a specific type of “real time” decision.

In economics, these tests or hurdles are called “barriers to entry”.

In the trading of stocks and other investment vehicles, there are low barriers to entry into the industry and this includes the costs one must pay to enter an industry. As a consequence, there are many traders and not all of these have the “jet pilot” capabilities to execute trades at the speeds that are now available.

The crucial thing is that in areas where quick decisions need to be made, a premium is paid to those with the education and training, the experience, and the mental capacity to make such decisions. As I stated in the post cited above, successful decision making, over any time period, depends upon “cold analytical methodology and steely discipline, characteristics that most people, who rely too much on their instincts, don’t possess.” That is, some people are better decision makers than others, even in the very short run.

People are going to engage in an activity where they believe that they can make money. So high-frequency trading is going to take place. Individuals that cannot perform within such an environment are going to lose, and could lose a lot.

The concern of the other market participants is “what damage can these not-so-good traders do to the overall market?” As Ms. Tett states, one result of the move to high-frequency trading seems to be “more market volatility.”

The fear in this: “rising levels of speed, impatience—and short-terminism—might have actually made the (financial) system less efficient, and rational, than before” this increase in speed.

My feeling with this is that speed is something we are going to have to live with. I have argued this point before in my post “Banking at the Speed of Light”. ( The point is that this “speed up” is happening all over the world in different kinds of decision making. It is just that high-frequency trading is getting a lot of publicity now and thus attracting a lot of debate.

In the post just mentioned, I cite the example of events happening in South Africa relating to the use of mobile phones by commercial banks to develop their customer base. In this example the discussion was around the 15 million adult South Africans that had previously been excluded from the financial system. And, the players in this effort are not small.

But, this points to another issue, the growing strength of the “new rising powers” in the world as discussed in an opinion piece in the Financial Times titled “The new disintegration of finance.” (See The authors, Stéphane Rottier and Nicolas Véron, are concerned about how the effort to organize and co-ordinate global financial regulation and supervision is facing issues that might reverse the trend to great co-operation. One of their concerns is that “Financial institutions from emerging countries are beginning to overtake their western peers. New financial centers are gaining market share, while emerging countries are asserting themselves in global financial rulemaking, and increasingly resist standards proposed by the member of the old north Atlantic consensus.”

This is the world of the future. This is how competition is going to progress. See “The New World Order: Smaller and Faster”, my post of August 31, 2010 ( I think most of you know how I feel about the ability of regulations to control this world. I think most of you know that I believe that many, if not most, of the big players have already moved beyond what American…and world…regulators are trying to do with respect to financial institutions and markets. Laws, regulations, and regulators must deal with processes and not “outcomes.” I have written about this many times in my posts.

Hold on, it is going to be an interesting and exciting ride!

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