A New Option for Investors Warry of High Frequency Trading

Spencer Caldwell-McMillan, MJLST Staffer

In his recent paper, The Law and Ethics of High Frequency Trading, which was published in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science, and Technology Issue 17, Volume 1, Steven McNamara examined the cost and benefits of a high frequency trading (HFT) on stock exchanges. He observed that problematic practices such as flash orders and colocation can provide HFT firms with asymmetrical information compared to retail or even sophisticated institutional investors.

In June, a new type of exchange was approved by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). IEX Group Inc. was granted exchange status from the SEC. Before this designation the firm was handling less than 2% of all equity trades, with this new designation the exchange is likely to see volume increase as orders are routed to the exchange. IEX uses 38 miles of looped fiber optic cable to combat some of the information asymmetry that HFT firms exploit. IEX uses this coil to slow incoming orders down by about 350 microseconds. This is roughly half the time a baseball makes contact with a baseball bat. While this may seem like an insignificant amount of time, the proposal proved extremely controversial. The SEC asked for five revisions to IEX application and released the decision at 8 PM on a Friday.

This speed bump serves two purposes: to stop HFT firms from taking advantage of stale prices found on IEX orders and to prevent them from removing liquidity on other exchanges so that IEX’s customer are unable to fill their orders. Critics of this system claim that the speed bump violates rules that requires exchanges to fulfill orders at the best price. However, IEX pushes back on these points to arrangements like colocation that allows firms to pay for faster access to markets by buying space on the servers of the stock exchanges. These policies allow HFT firms to get information faster than even the most sophisticated investors because of their proximity to the data. IEX began operations as an exchange in August and time will tell whether it can generate profits without compromising their pro-investor stance.

This debate is likely to continue long after public attention has faded from HFT. Institutional investors are the most likely beneficiaries of these changes, in fact, in a letter to the SEC the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, claimed that using IEX to process trades could save the fund millions of dollars a year. More recently, Chicago Stock Exchange has submitted a proposal to include a similar speed bump on its exchange. Taken together these two exchanges would represent a small fraction of the order volume being processed by U.S. exchanges but these changes could have a lasting impact if they drive institutional investors to change their trading behavior.

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