The High-Frequency Conspiracy

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- This starts as a review of the stunning book by Sal Arnuk and Joe Saluzzi, Broken Markets, available on Amazon. This book is a super study of the rise of high-frequency trading, those "black boxes" you hear so much about that helped to cause the flash crash in 2010 and continue to dominate much of the volume that you see trading in the open exchanges.

The book does a tremendous job parsing the events that occurred in the last five years that allowed our equity markets to be overrun by computer programs, and why that "franken monster" is robbing you every time you decide to put in an order for any stock, particularly the largest cap, highest volume stocks traded on the major exchanges.

The few firms that control the vast majority of high-speed, high-volume trading programs all pay a premium to gain the edge that they use to siphon off milli-cents from every trade that every retail and institutional customer,

Broken Markets outlines the conspiracy that has emerged between those firms looking for the quickest access to the electronic nexus of trade and the rebates and incentives that exchanges have delivered to entice these black boxes in.

I don't use the word conspiracy lightly, but conspiracy is what it is. In the for-profit model that emerged for exchanges in the last half of the last decade, volume and the fight for volume growth has been the lone priority for those equity exchanges.

In that battle, they have delivered to a small but powerful group of HFT traders an undeniable number of advantages in trading including rebates and "first looks," as well as accommodations in dark pools and large block orders.

To get a full understanding of all of these practices and how they work, please read the book -- but the bottom line is that every investor who decides to engage in the stock markets today is doing it and in effect "paying for the privilege" to these HFT firms -- they literally haven't had a losing day in years.

The destruction of investor confidence in this flim-flamming is obvious, what has been less obvious has been the destruction of a fantastic financial services industry in the process: For years, being a stock broker or asset manager or trader in institutional sales was a career worth aspiring to, and a proud one. The rush to HFT by the exchanges has destroyed this industry and destroyed the reputations of those left remaining.

It has been difficult for me personally to see this industry that I was once a proud part of become one of the most hated and least respected in the country now -- "bank" has become a four-letter word.

And I don't believe that I overstate the myriad ways the electronicization, computerized modeling and open pipelines which replaced the human brokers, traders and face-to-face trading have played a role in that destruction. While there have obviously been cases of bad faith and fraud on Wall Street before HFT, we never saw such endemic and closeted advantage of the little guy taken behind the high walls of off-exchange, unregulated dark pools.

Ultimately, no one is winning this race. Volatility continues to spike, as we are seeing with this $10 move upward in crude in little more than three trading sessions, money continues to be withdrawn from the equity markets and correlations continue to move toward parity -- when black boxes make everything a trade, fundamentals continue to lose all value and there isn't a safe and logical way to invest anymore.

That's where we've been heading: a place where bonds, commodities, stocks -- it's all the same -- move by split-second trade hedges carried out by computers.

That's the scary world that Sal and Joe lay out in their book -- highly recommended.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.