The Ludicrous Hysteria Over Flash Trading


First, let’s step back and remind ourselves what flash trading is: when you enter an order on certain exchanges, you have the option to elect to have that order “flashed” to members of that market centre to give them the opportunity to match prices that may be available on other exchanges. You, as the order executor, elect to have your order flashed because if the order is executed internally, you don’t have to pay an additional charge to route your order out to another exchange. It’s that simple. Let’s make it a little more concrete: GE is trading $16.50 – $16.51, but you execute your orders on DirectEdge, and the best offer is currently on ISLD. When you enter a flash order in DirectEdge to buy 100 GE @ 16.51, all it does is give potential sellers in DirectEdge the opportunity to sell it to you at $16.51 before DirectEdge routes your order out to the other exchange. There is no theft, there is no front running, there is nothing to rant and rave about.

Now, I have all the respect in the world for Barry Ritholtz. I think he’s a tremendous blogger who gets to the truth behind the data, and behind many biased mainstream media reports. Generally, he knows what he’s talking about. So it was with dismay that I returned from a weekend out of town, sat down to catch up on some of his recent posts, and found this diatribe against flash trading. Ritholtz’s piece arose because the SEC has proposed a ban on flash trading. Next they’ll debate it, discuss it, hear comments on it, and vote on it.

A few months ago I wrote my most-read post ever, titled “We Fear What We Don’t Understand.” Let’s revisit the flash trading component of that piece:

“Now, the intent of flash orders is to allow participants in a given market centre the opportunity to improve the current bid or offer so that an order doesn’t need to be routed away to another market centre.

An example: let’s say GE is trading $11.45-$11.50 at DirectEdge, but that there is an $11.46 bid on ISLD (an ECN). If you submit an order to sell stock at $11.46 on DirectEdge, they flash this order to select market participants to offer them the opportunity to fill your order – otherwise the order gets routed out to ISLD and you (the seller) have to pay an extra fraction of a penny for the routing. As I tried to explain on some other posts regarding flash trading, this is basically a hyper-speed modernized version of how the NYSE specialists used to verbally quote orders to offer people in the crowd the opportunity for price improvement: “if GE was 11.25-11.27 50k up, and you walked in to sell 50,000 shares, the specialist would say out loud “25c bid 50,000, 50,000 at 26c, SOLD.” Anyone could say “TAKE or BUY’EM” before the specialist said “SOLD” which would result in the seller getting price improvement to $11.26 and if no one interrupted him, the trade was done at $11.25. Markets have NEVER been setup such that every participant has the same opportunity to trade on every quote.”

There was also an op-ed in the WSJ a few weeks ago defending and explaining flash trading. The op-ed is accurate, well written, and clear, yet Ritholtz still managed to take offence to it:

“The WSJ had an Op-Ed last month, In defence of ‘Flash’ Trading, that suggested that “Flash trading is like offering to sell your house to your neighbour before you officially put it into the real estate listings.”

That description is, of course, utterly false. We have alternative exchanges where you can offer stocks privately to other willing buyers (i.e., Instinet). Flash trading is more like having access to private info from the sellers, knowing what they will accept, stepping in front of legitimate buyers, and then flipping the house to those buyers while capturing 0.001% of the transaction. No benefit to the seller, to the neighbourhood or to anyone else — all at a small cost to the buyer.”

I can’t fathom how someone as intelligent as Ritholtz could screw this concept up: when you “step in front of legitimate buyers” it means you are paying more than anyone else. Thus, it’s not possible to pay the highest price and then flip it back to the buyers who are willing to pay LESS and make a profit. If you buy stock against a flash order, and offer it out again, you’re taking risk – you’re not stealing fractions of a penny from anyone or arbitraging anything – what you ARE doing is helping the person who flashed the order in the first place by offering them price improvement and eliminating routing costs.

Now, there is certainly the POSSIBILITY that instead of John Q FlashMan seeing the flash order – let’s say it’s an order to buy GE – and instead of offering to sell stock to the flash order, he decides to act illicitly and buy stock in GE as fast as he can, before the original GE order gets completed. This is called front running – it’s blatantly illegal, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would argue that it’s defensible. However, if the traders entering flash orders constantly find themselves being frontrun, well, guess what – they’ll stop entering flash orders. They are not idiots. Guys using flash orders are highly cost sensitive, (that’s the very reason they use flash orders in the first place!) and notice when their execution costs (both explicit: commission/fees, and implicit: impact costs, or negative costs associated from other trading ahead of their orders) increase – if flash orders are hurting them, they won’t flash them.

Flash trading is a non-issue that people like Chuck Schumer and Ted Kaufman have jumped on in an effort to make it look like they are fighting for the little guy’s rights on Wall Street. The reality is that a ban on flash trading will have little to no effect on any sort of market dynamic, and will not help the little guy at all, but will increase trading costs for some traders.

This post originally appeared on the author’s blog.

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