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April 2, 2014

“Flash Boys” Puts a Flashlight on Dark, Predatory HFT Trading

By Dennis Kelleher, President and CEO of Better Markets

It is no surprise that Michael Lewis’ new book “Flash Boys” ignited a firestorm or, as a couple of the most knowledgeable observers called it, “Hurricane Flash Boys.”  He shines a bright light on dark, unregulated, predatory HFT.  Too many manipulative and abusive practices are moving tens of billions of dollars from the pockets of investors and retirees into the pockets of HFT firms, Wall Street banks and their enablers like the exchanges.

None of this is news to Better Markets, which has been pushing regulators and policy makers for years to take action to stop predatory HFT, which is not only ripping off investors and retirees, but is also destroying confidence in our markets.  Over the last three years, Better Markets has filed 15 comment letters with the SEC and CFTC focusing on or discussing HFT and has had numerous meeting urging them to take action.  In addition, Better Markets’ staff has testified often before Senate and House committees on the problems caused by HFT and the need for strong, clear rules to stop abuses and illegal conduct.  (Some of that work is listed below.)

Much of the debate so far has centered on the phrase “the markets are rigged.” It’s a classic debater’s tactic:  pick out a single phrase, exaggerate and distort it, and then talk about nothing else as if it is the entire subject.  An added twist to the HFT industry spin here is to then attack Lewis for “cruelly” causing investors and retirees to “needlessly worry” about the markets and their money and investments.  That’s rich.  The very people who are lining their pockets at the expense of investors and retirees are attacking Lewis ostensibly due to their concern for those very same investors and retirees.

However, it simply cannot be denied that today’s markets are overly complex, ridiculously fragmented and traveling literally at warp speed where few if any humans know what is really going on from minute to minute, day to day.  There are now 13 so called lit exchanges and something like 40 dark pools, internalizers and other trading venues and something like 70% of the trading is computer driven, done in fractions of milliseconds.  That’s just the equity markets, not currency or derivatives markets where HFT is increasingly active.

Truth be told, the markets open every day on a knives’ edge, with many wondering if today will be the day that yet another computer disaster happens that cannot be stopped and makes the euphemistically labeled “Flash Crash” look mild by comparison, i.e., billions if not tens of billions of wealth and value can vanish in minutes and not come back.

Rigged markets?  By insiders for insiders? Of course they are.  Don’t take our word for it.  In addition to “Flash Boys,” read Wall Street Journal reporter Scott Patterson’s terrific book “Dark Pools: The Rise of the Machine Traders and the Rigging of the US Stock Market” and any of his outstanding reporting in the WSJ.  Then read “Broken Markets:  How HFT and Predatory Practices on Wall Street are Destroying Investor Confidence and Your Portfolio” and everything on their blog, including in particular their “take on Flash Boys” and “in advance of Flash Boys.”   And, don’t miss globally respected Andy Haldane from the Bank of England talking about HFT here and here.

Not enough to convince you?  Study the Flash Crash, the stock market bungee jump when it lost close to a trillion dollars in minutes and then regained in back almost as quickly.  Or, the SEC case against the dark pool operator eBX or the other dark pool operator Pipeline Trading.  Better yet, read about the $5 million fine the New York Stock Exchange paid for selling privileged access to secretly selected clients.

The industry counters by denying these facts and boldly claiming that they provide liquidity and lower costs, but it has been demonstrated that HFT is more often a liquidity taker than a liquidity provider and, if anything, raises the costs of trading.  Here’s just one quick killer rebuttal to the HFT industry’s self-serving claims: “4 Bold Faced Lies about HFT.”  (And, remember, the HFT defenders like to call mere trading volume, often illusory trading volume at that, “liquidity,” while knowing that to be false and misleading.)

We know from Themis Trading, Nanex and others that this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  Unfortunately, regulators, policy makers and prosecutors have been mostly AWOL (the few SEC cases cited above are the exception) in fighting or stopping predatory HFT.  While not all HFT is bad, there is a mountain of independent evidence demonstrating that too much of it is and that HFT provides too few benefits to investors, retirees and markets.  It is past time for regulators and policy makers to stop predatory HFT and require registration, reporting and disclosure as well.

What’s at stake is nothing less than the integrity and functioning of the US markets that are essential for American families, businesses, our economy and our standard of living.

Better Markets letters that focus on HFT:

Letter to CFTC on Antidisruptive Practices Authority (1/3/11)

Letter to CFTC on Core Principles for SEFs (3/8/11)

Letter to CFTC on Risk Controls and System Safeguards for Automated Trading Environments (12/11/13)

Letter to CFTC on Core Principles for DCMs (2/22/11)

Letter to SEC on Registration and Regulation of Security-Based SEFs (4/4/11)

Letter to CFTC on Rulemakings Implementing the Dodd-Frank Act (6/3/11)

Letter to SEC on Regulation Systems Compliance and Integrity (7/8/13)

Letter to the Senate Agriculture Committee on the Reauthorization of the CFTC (5/2/13)

Better Markets letters that mention HFT:

Letter to SEC on Conflicts of Interest for SEFs and DCOs (11/26/10)

Letter to CFTC on Antidisruptive Practices Authority (5/17/11)

Letter to CFTC on Clearing Member Risk Management (9/30/11)

Letter to regulators on the Volcker Rule (2/13/12)

Letter to regulators on the Volcker Rule (6/19/12)

Letter to CFTC on Real-Time Data Reporting (2/7/14)

Letter to CFTC on Margin Requirements for Uncleared Swaps for SDs and MSPs (9/18/12)

Better Markets Testimony:

Testimony before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations at a hearing entitled “Excessive Speculation and Compliance with the Dodd-Frank Act” (11/3/11)

Testimony before the House Financial Services Committee at a hearing entitled “Examining The Impact of The Volcker Rule on Markets, Businesses, Investors and Job Creation, Part II” (12/13/12)

Testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee at a hearing entitled “The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act: 2 Years Later” (7/17/12)

Testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee at a hearing entitled “Reauthorization of the Commodities Exchange Act” (7/17/13)

Press Release:

“Better Markets Calls on the CFTC to Act Now to Stop High Frequency Traders from Destabilizing US Markets, Draining the Wealth of Investors, and Destroying Investor Confidence”



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