FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Wall Street’s Speed Freaks

by SARAH ANDERSON

The power suits making billions off the stock market are always trying to assure us that their trading serves a socially redeeming purpose. They steer money to companies and industries that make our economy more productive, they claim.

In reality, the majority of stock trading today has absolutely nothing to do with helping companies raise capital to innovate and create jobs. Thoughtful investors don’t drive today’s Wall Street. Computers do.

About 55 percent of all U.S. stock trading last year was performed by computers programmed to make trades at speeds measured in the millionths of seconds. The goal of these “high-frequency traders”? To move faster than the next guy to exploit microscopic differences in stock prices on different exchanges.

If you can buy a stock in New York and sell it in London a split second later for a fraction of a penny more, and do that millions of times per day, those pennies can add up. One hedge fund alone, Citadel, made $1 billion in profits off such games in 2009.

As such high-volume, high-frequency trades have come to dominate the market, investment in small businesses has declined. For the computers, it’s a lot easier to flip stocks all day than to identify promising enterprises and stick with them.

Oh, and sometimes the computers go haywire. Two years ago, high-frequency traders fuelled a dramatic freefall in the stock market. A trillion dollars disappeared in a matter of minutes.

That time the market recovered by the end of the day. But next time we may not get so lucky. Bart Chilton of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission has warned that if the Flash Crash had taken place in the morning instead of the afternoon, it could have spread like wildfire to global markets.

The high-frequency traders claim they do serve a social good by providing the liquidity that oils the whole financial machine. But as Elara Capital Chairman Avinash Persaud and others have pointed out, during times of crisis, the speed freaks try to “run ahead of the trend, draining liquidity just when it is needed the most.”

So what’s the government doing to prevent these speed demons from driving us all into another global financial crisis? Not very much. Securities and Exchange Commission chief Mary Schapiro admits that she’s worried and is exploring various ways to address the problem.

But so far the agency’s main action has been to introduce circuit breakers to stop the trading of a particular stock if the price rises or falls drastically in a short time. These are merely Band-Aids that fail to address the root cause of the problem.

There are still no limits on the number of orders firms can make or cancel each second. The government doesn’t even have the ability to monitor such trading as it’s happening. It took regulators nearly five months to piece together what happened during the Flash Crash of May 2010.

The Obama administration has also opposed proposals for a small tax (less than 0.5 percent) on each trade of stock. Such taxes would make high-frequency trading less profitable while encouraging longer-term productive investment.

So buckle up. The speed freaks are driving our financial system.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project of the Institute for Policy Studies.

This column is distributed by OtherWords.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

More articles by:
June 29, 2016
Diana Johnstone
European Unification Divides Europeans: How Forcing People Together Tears Them Apart
Andrew Smolski
To My Less-Evilism Haters: A Rejoinder to Halle and Chomsky
David Rosen
Birth-Control Wars: Two Centuries of Struggle
Sheldon Richman
Brexit: What Kind of Dependence Now?
Yves Engler
“Canadian” Corporate Capitalism
Lawrence Davidson
Return to the Gilded Age: Paul Ryan’s Deregulated Dystopia
Priti Gulati Cox
All That Glitters is Fearsome: Whatever Happens, Don’t Blame Jill Stein
Franklin Lamb
About the Accusation that Syrian and Russian Troops are Looting Palmyra
Binoy Kampmark
Texas, Abortion and the US Supreme Court
Anhvinh Doanvo
Justice Thomas’s Abortion Dissent Tolerates Discrimination
Victor Grossman
Brexit Pro and Con: the View From Germany
Manuel E. Yepe
Brazil: the Southern Giant Will Have to Fight
Rivera Sun
The Nonviolent History of American Independence
Adjoa Agyeiwaa
Is Western Aid Destroying Nigeria’s Future?
Jesse Jackson
What Clinton Should Learn From Brexit
Mel Gurtov
Is Brexit the End of the World?
June 28, 2016
Jonathan Cook
The Neoliberal Prison: Brexit Hysteria and the Liberal Mind
Paul Street
Bernie, Bakken, and Electoral Delusion: Letting Rich Guys Ruin Iowa and the World
Anthony DiMaggio
Fatally Flawed: the Bi-Partisan Travesty of American Health Care Reform
Mike King
The “Free State of Jones” in Trump’s America: Freedom Beyond White Imagination
Antonis Vradis
Stop Shedding Tears for the EU Monster: Brexit, the View From the Peloponnese
Omar Kassem
The End of the Atlantic Project: Slamming the Brakes on the Neoliberal Order
Binoy Kampmark
Brexit and the Neoliberal Revolt Against Jeremy Corbyn
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Alabama Democratic Primary Proves New York Times’ Nate Cohn Wrong about Exit Polling
Ruth Hopkins
Save Bear Butte: Mecca of the Lakota
Celestino Gusmao
Time to End Impunity for Suharto’’s Crimes in Indonesia and Timor-Leste
Thomas Knapp
SCOTUS: Amply Serving Law Enforcement’s Interests versus Society’s
Manuel E. Yepe
Capitalism is the Opposite of Democracy
Winslow Myers
Up Against the Wall
Chris Ernesto
Bernie’s “Political Revolution” = Vote for Clinton and the Neocons
Stephanie Van Hook
The Time for Silence is Over
Ajamu Nangwaya
Toronto’s Bathhouse Raids: Racialized, Queer Solidarity and Police Violence
June 27, 2016
Robin Hahnel
Brexit: Establishment Freak Out
James Bradley
Omar’s Motive
Gregory Wilpert – Michael Hudson
How Western Military Interventions Shaped the Brexit Vote
Leonard Peltier
41 Years Since Jumping Bull (But 500 Years of Trauma)
Rev. William Alberts
Orlando: the Latest Victim of Radicalizing American Imperialism
Patrick Cockburn
Brexiteers Have Much in Common With Arab Spring Protesters
Franklin Lamb
How 100 Syrians, 200 Russians and 11 Dogs Out-Witted ISIS and Saved Palmyra
John Grant
Omar Mateen: The Answers are All Around Us
Dean Baker
In the Wake of Brexit Will the EU Finally Turn Away From Austerity?
Ralph Nader
The IRS and the Self-Minimization of Congressman Jason Chaffetz
Johan Galtung
Goodbye UK, Goodbye Great Britain: What Next?
Martha Pskowski
Detained in Dilley: Deportation and Asylum in Texas
Binoy Kampmark
Headaches of Empire: Brexit’s Effect on the United States
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail