Most people who are just "in the market" don't understand high-frequency trading and dark pools. And that's okay.
However, as I've been writing about over the past couple of years, apparently that unknowledgeable group also includes people whose job it is to understand these things, including institutional money managers, brokers, investors, and, evidently, most regulators... though I don't buy their ignorance one bit.
My knowledge of high-frequency trading (HFT) and dark pools dates back to the late 1990s, when I was trying to figure out how to get better executions on the large trades my hedge fund was generating. I consider myself a bit of an expert, and I got to show that off a little last week on the radio.
So, for all of you who want to know a bit more about what's going on in the shadows, I'm going to get a little technical on you and share some of that expertise.
This won't be boring - I can promise you that.
A lightbulb will go on inside your brains, and you'll understand what's really going on and how dark pools and HFT - which the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and other regulators allow to happen - undermine markets.
Now, I'm going to flip the switch and turn that lightbulb on...
The New Math and the Rise of Dark Pools
My hedge fund was generating large amounts of mathematically-driven (algorithmic) trades. These kinds of trades are very precise. They aren't "fundamentally" driven, where there's some allowable swing in terms of getting in at this price or that price and not caring about pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters on a per-share basis.
This is the argument high-frequency traders make: So what if your execution costs you a penny or two more per share and you're holding the position for months or years?
That's rubbish, and now I'm going to explain to you why.
For us, every penny counted.
The problem was that competition had created multiple trading venues. In the old days, if you wanted to trade IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM), for example, you sent all buy and sell orders to the New York Stock Exchange - the only place where IBM traded.
Today you have a choice between 11 exchanges and some 50 dark pools - including ones run by Barclays and Credit Suisse.
Not that you, the average investor, can get into a dark pool or that you get to pick where your order goes if you're executing through a broker or a discount brokerage trading platform. Suffice it to say, there are many paces that match up buyers' and sellers' orders, which is how trades are consummated.
We had direct access to the NYSE, the American Stock Exchange (Amex), to virtually every market maker on the Street - and to all the electronic communications networks (ECNs). We could see all the bids and offers that each venue was posting for every stock we traded. Needless to say, not all the quotes were the same at all the venues.
The problem with all that competition is that markets get "fragmented." There's no central place where a stock is traded. And because competition spreads the "order flow" around, there aren't as many shares being traded at any one location as there would be if there was only one trading location. Instead, "liquidity" at each venue is less, sometimes considerably less, than what it would be if there was only one exchange.
We had to go looking for the best prices. Which venue had the highest bid price? Which had the lowest offer price?
More importantly: How many shares could we execute at those best prices before we'd taken or hit all those shares and had to go to the next venue, then the next venue, to try and execute the rest of our usually large orders?
The SEC recognized that all this competition, which it allowed, was causing problems. To fix the problem of having to look all over the place (which not a lot of average traders had the ability to do) to see where the best bids and offers were, the SEC came up with the NBBO - that's national best bid and offer.
The NBBO is posted every second of every day stocks are trading as a consolidated quote. That means every market maker and exchange posting bids and offers (for the same stock) has to send them all to a central location, where the best bid and best offer are shown for all the world to see. Theoretically, if you're fast enough and see that 1,000 shares of IBM are offered at $181.50, you can buy them if you're first to get there.
From here, it's easy to see how dark pools came about. Big institutions were having problems chasing all the stock they wanted to trade.
So, big banks and big trading outfits said, "Send us your big orders. You're not alone: Other big traders like you will come to us, too, and we'll match up your big orders in a blind pool. We'll call it a dark pool, because no one on the outside or on the inside will know who is selling or buying big blocks. We'll do it all at a great price, and we'll do it anonymously."
That made sense. But the net result was a lot more trading venues.
And in April 2001, onto this highway where unintended consequences eventually all collided, the SEC unleashed "decimalization." From then on, stocks could be traded in increments of one penny, not the eighths of a dollar, or even sixteenths of a dollar in some places, that had been the minimum increment stocks could trade under.
Now, imagine the "unintended consequences" of that market change.
Instead of market makers or NYSE specialists making quotes in eighths, quarters, etc., the spreads between bids and offers got narrower. And everyone could bid a penny higher than the person in front of them, or offer to sell their shares at a penny lower than everyone in line ahead of them trying to sell their shares.
And the pundits all said: It is good. Spreads will be narrower and transaction costs cheaper. It's time to rest and let the world turn.
But there were devils in the details.
Enter the Dragons
I'm not a dragon - what I like to call high-frequency traders - I thought about becoming one. Back in the day, I had to execute at the prices my trading models dictated. I looked at the fragmented world and quickly figured out that if I could create a computerized system to look at every quote on every venue and how many shares were being bid and offered everywhere at the same time, I could figure out what prices I could buy and sell at and at what volume of shares.
And I could do all that and still trade pretty accurately, as long as I could transact instantaneously. It was going to be an HFT program. Not to pick off anybody, but to get the best execution on my trades for my hedge-fund clients.
I spent millions of dollars setting the systems up, only to realize it would be a forever game, always spending millions every few months, year after year, to have the best, fastest access to everywhere. That wasn't my business model. I was just trying to create an execution engine.
So, I abandoned the game.
Because I'm honest, I'll tell you, I wish I hadn't. Because that's how HFT came into being.
It started out for a lot of traders as a way to get better executions. And as they spent and spent, they realized they could beat everyone at the game.
So, the unintended consequences of competition and fragmentation, when they merged with decimalization, spawned HFT.
Here's how far it's gone.
Remember that NBBO consolidated quote requirement? That's where everybody has to send in their quotes to a central location. Well, the HFT boys get into the wires and see those quotes heading to the consolidated quote room before everyone's quotes get there, before they end up creating the NBBO that the world sees. By intercepting everybody's quotes, HFT shops can construct the NBBO before the consolidated quote machinery gets all the quotes and establishes the NBBO.
They know what it will be... and they act on it.
By the time the NBBO is posted, usually a nanosecond before (because of a thing called "lag"), high-frequency traders take the offer that's posted or hit the bid that's posted, long before anyone else can get there to grab those shares.
What happens then? The NBBO might change, and guess who knows what it's going to change to next? This happens all day, every day. HFT shops are in picking off trades and causing other traders to change their quotes or chase shares up or down.
And those HFT boys? They're in the dark pools too. They're reading what's supposed to be blind as if they had X-ray vision. They pay dark-pool operators to let them peer in and construct internal engine quotes (internal NBBOs) and then trade ahead of other blind participants.
Who are some of those HFT guys in those dark pools? They are the trading desks of the dark-pool operators themselves.
Nice game, isn't it?
None of this was planned. Opportunities arose. Unintended consequences have had monumental consequences.
Believe it or not, the exchanges are all in on it. So is the SEC. It's now in the rigging of the market's sails. It's how it all floats today.
What's the problem?
The Rise of Rodents
The ship is full of rats. And they're eating away at the hull of our capital markets.
Intermediaries are exacting excessive tolls that most people can't even feel, let alone see. Intermediaries are doing nothing for the market, nothing, except gnawing away at its foundation.
Yes, they trade a lot. About half of all the volume every day is the result of HFT trading. Imagine what volume numbers would be if there was no HFT in and out trading.
Volume does not equal liquidity. Just because there is more volume because HFT boys are active 24-7 doesn't mean markets are more liquid. The truth is that they are less liquid.
Liquidity refers to the ability to get in and out of stocks with minimal impact on prices.
The incorrect assumption is that if there's a lot of volume, there's good liquidity. But the volume we're seeing is nothing but toll takers inserting themselves in between real buyers and sellers. It's fluff volume that adds zero liquidity.
It masks the lack of liquidity... which we will come to suffer from in the not too distant future.
You've been warned.
Are HFT players investors? No.
Are they adding anything?
Yes, according to some duped "professionals."
Some proponents say because they're there, because they're paying for data feeds and access to quote information so they can pick everybody off, their payments offset the cost of executions for discount brokers, allowing them to charge mom-and-pop investors next to nothing to do a trade.
Isn't life great! The public gets cheap executions, spreads are narrower, we can trade in increments of a penny, all to aid and abet HFT shops making billions as institutionalized toll takers that add nothing to the safety, transparency, or legitimacy of America's (and the world's) capital markets.
Now do you get it?
Now do you understand dark pools and HFT?
About the Author
Shah Gilani boasts a financial pedigree unlike any other. He ran his first hedge fund in 1982 from his seat on the floor of the Chicago Board of Options Exchange. When options on the Standard & Poor's 100 began trading on March 11, 1983, Shah worked in "the pit" as a market maker.
The work he did laid the foundation for what would later become the VIX - to this day one of the most widely used indicators worldwide. After leaving Chicago to run the futures and options division of the British banking giant Lloyd's TSB, Shah moved up to Roosevelt & Cross Inc., an old-line New York boutique firm. There he originated and ran a packaged fixed-income trading desk, and established that company's "listed" and OTC trading desks.
Shah founded a second hedge fund in 1999, which he ran until 2003.
Shah's vast network of contacts includes the biggest players on Wall Street and in international finance. These contacts give him the real story - when others only get what the investment banks want them to see.
Today, as editor of Hyperdrive Portfolio, Shah presents his legion of subscribers with massive profit opportunities that result from paradigm shifts in the way we work, play, and live.
Shah is a frequent guest on CNBC, Forbes, and MarketWatch, and you can catch him every week on Fox Business's Varney & Co.