As Michael Lewis shows in his new book Flash Boys, the high-frequency trading cancer is deep. It has become systematic and institutionalized, with the exchanges supporting it through practices such as preferential data feeds and developing multiple order types designed to benefit high-frequency traders. These traders have become the exchanges favored clients; today they generate the majority of transactions, which create market data revenue and other fees. Data last year from the Financial Information Forum showed this is no minor blip. High-frequency trading pumped out over 300,000 trade inquiries each second last year, up from just 50,000 only seven years early. Yet actual trade volume on the exchanges has remained relatively flat over that period. It’s an explosion of head-fake ephemeral orders – not to lock in real trades, but to skim pennies off the public markets by the billions. Trade orders from individual investors are now pawns in a bigger chess game.The United States capital markets have been the envy of the world in creating a vibrant, stable and fair system supported by broad public participation for decades. Technology has been a central part of that positive story, especially in the last 30 years, with considerable benefit to the individual investor. But today, manipulative high-frequency trading takes advantage of these technological advances with a growing number of complex institutional order types, enabling practitioners to gain millisecond time advantages and cut ahead in line in front of traditional orders and with access to market data not available to other market participants. High-frequency trading isn’t providing more efficient, liquid markets; it is a technological arms race designed to pick the pockets of legitimate market participants. That flies in the face of our markets’ founding principles. Historically, regulation has sought to protect investors by giving their orders priority over professional orders. In racing to accommodate and attract high-frequency trading business to their markets, the exchanges have turned this principle on its head. Through special order types, enhanced data feeds and co-location, professionals are given special access and entitlements to jump ahead of investor orders. Last year, more than 95 percent of high-frequency trader orders were cancelled, suggesting something else besides trading is at the heart of the strategy. Some high-frequency traders have claimed to be profitable on over 99 percent of their trading days. Our understanding of statistics tells us this isn’t possible without some built in advantage. Instead of leveling the playing field, the exchanges have tilted it against investors.
Here are examples of the practices that should concern us all:
- Advantaged treatment: Growing numbers of complex order types afford preferential treatment to professional traders’ orders, most notably to jump ahead of retail limit orders.
- Unequal access to information: Exchanges allow high-frequency traders to purchase faster data feeds with detailed information about market trading activity and the specific trading of various types of market participants. This further tilts the playing field against the individual investor, who is already at an informational disadvantage by virtue of the slower Consolidated Data Stream that brokers are required by rule to purchase or, even worse, the 15- to 20-minute-delayed quote feed they have public access to.
- Inappropriate use of information: Professionals are mining the detailed data feeds made available to them by the exchanges to sniff out and front-run large institutions (mutual funds and pension funds), which more often than not are investing and trading on behalf of individual investors.
- Added systems burdens, costs and distortions of rapid-fire quote activity: Ephemeral quotes, also called “quote stuffing,” that are cancelled and reposted in milliseconds distort the tape and present risk to the resiliency and integrity of critical market data and trading infrastructure. The tremendous added costs associated with the expanded capacity and bandwidth necessary to support this added data traffic is ultimately borne in part by individual investors.
The integrity of the markets is at the heart of our economy. High-frequency trading undermines that integrity and causes the market to lose credibility and investors to lose trust. This hurts our economy and country. It is time to treat the cancer aggressively.Charles Schwab, Founder and ChairmanWalt Bettinger, President and CEO About Charles Schwab The Charles Schwab Corporation (NYSE:SCHW) is a leading provider of financial services, with more than 325 offices and 9.1 million active brokerage accounts, 1.3 million corporate retirement plan participants, 928,000 banking accounts, and $2.29 trillion in client assets as of February 28, 2014. Through its operating subsidiaries, the company provides a full range of securities brokerage, banking, money management and financial advisory services to individual investors and independent investment advisors. Its broker-dealer subsidiary, Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. (member SIPC, www.sipc.org), and affiliates offer a complete range of investment services and products including an extensive selection of mutual funds; financial planning and investment advice; retirement plan and equity compensation plan services; referrals to independent fee-based investment advisors; and custodial, operational and trading support for independent, fee-based investment advisors through Schwab Advisor Services. Its banking subsidiary, Charles Schwab Bank (member FDIC and an Equal Housing Lender), provides banking and lending services and products. More information is available at www.schwab.com and www.aboutschwab.com.