Wall Street Cheaters

July 24, 2009 at 2:25 am | Posted in American politics | Leave a comment

That’s what they are, that’s the only way they have made billions of dollars. They cheat. Read this most fascinating account of how they do it.

The rise of high-frequency trading helps explain why activity on the nation’s stock exchanges has exploded. Average daily volume has soared by 164 percent since 2005, according to data from NYSE. Although precise figures are elusive, stock exchanges say that a handful of high-frequency traders now account for a more than half of all trades. To understand this high-speed world, consider what happened when slow-moving traders went up against high-frequency robots earlier this month, and ended up handing spoils to lightning-fast computers.

It was July 15, and Intel, the computer chip giant, had reporting robust earnings the night before. Some investors, smelling opportunity, set out to buy shares in the semiconductor company Broadcom. (Their activities were described by an investor at a major Wall Street firm who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his job.) The slower traders faced a quandary: If they sought to buy a large number of shares at once, they would tip their hand and risk driving up Broadcom’s price. So, as is often the case on Wall Street, they divided their orders into dozens of small batches, hoping to cover their tracks. One second after the market opened, shares of Broadcom started changing hands at $26.20.

The slower traders began issuing buy orders. But rather than being shown to all potential sellers at the same time, some of those orders were most likely routed to a collection of high-frequency traders for just 30 milliseconds — 0.03 seconds — in what are known as flash orders. While markets are supposed to ensure transparency by showing orders to everyone simultaneously, a loophole in regulations allows marketplaces like Nasdaq to show traders some orders ahead of everyone else in exchange for a fee.

In less than half a second, high-frequency traders gained a valuable insight: the hunger for Broadcom was growing. Their computers began buying up Broadcom shares and then reselling them to the slower investors at higher prices. The overall price of Broadcom began to rise.

Soon, thousands of orders began flooding the markets as high-frequency software went into high gear. Automatic programs began issuing and canceling tiny orders within milliseconds to determine how much the slower traders were willing to pay. The high-frequency computers quickly determined that some investors’ upper limit was $26.40. The price shot to $26.39, and high-frequency programs began offering to sell hundreds of thousands of shares.

The result is that the slower-moving investors paid $1.4 million for about 56,000 shares, or $7,800 more than if they had been able to move as quickly as the high-frequency traders.

Multiply such trades across thousands of stocks a day, and the profits are substantial. High-frequency traders generated about $21 billion in profits last year, the Tabb Group, a research firm, estimates.

“You want to encourage innovation, and you want to reward companies that have invested in technology and ideas that make the markets more efficient,” said Andrew M. Brooks, head of United States equity trading at T. Rowe Price, a mutual fund and investment company that often competes with and uses high-frequency techniques. “But we’re moving toward a two-tiered marketplace of the high-frequency arbitrage guys, and everyone else. People want to know they have a legitimate shot at getting a fair deal. Otherwise, the markets lose their integrity.”

Yeah, cheating usually does harm the integrity of the market, just as badly as steroids harms the integrity of baseball. So the only reason why Goldman Sachs has made so many billions in the last quarter is because they have a super-fast computer housed in their building that trades for them before anyone else really has any chance to get in. And see, it doesn’t really matter if you’ve got the natural ability and skills to smell a profit, because you, as a human being, are simply not fast enough to keep up with a super computer. You’re out of the game. The price is manipulated against you, so that Goldman Sachs makes the profit you would have made.

And here I was thinking I was finally getting to understand how the stock market really worked, and I learned the game was up anyways because the ruler of Wall Street, Goldman Sachs cheats anyways. Who wants to play with them?

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