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Many people are lamenting the bad consequences of Barack Obama’s foreign policy, and some are questioning his competence.
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This article is adapted from the book “Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt,” by Michael Lewis, published by W. W. Norton & Company. Courtesy of The New York Times Magazine. The full Michael Lewis book can be purchased on Amazon.
The Wolf Hunters of Wall Street
Before the collapse of the U.S. financial system in 2008, Brad Katsuyama could tell himself that he bore no responsibility for that system. He worked for the Royal Bank of Canada, for a start. RBC might have been the fifth-biggest bank in North America, by some measures, but it was on nobody’s mental map of Wall Street. It was stable and relatively virtuous and soon to be known for having resisted the temptation to make bad subprime loans to Americans or peddle them to ignorant investors. But its management didn’t understand just what an afterthought the bank was — on the rare occasions American financiers thought about it at all. Katsuyama’s bosses sent him to New York from Toronto in 2002, when he was 23, as part of a “big push” for the bank to become a player on Wall Street. The sad truth was that hardly anyone noticed it. “The people in Canada are always saying, ‘We’re paying too much for people in the United States,’ ” Katsuyama says. “What they don’t realize is that the reason you have to pay them too much is that no one wants to work for RBC. RBC is a nobody.”
Before arriving there as part of the big push, Katsuyama had never laid eyes on Wall Street or New York City. It was his first immersive course in the American way of life, and he was instantly struck by how different it was from the Canadian version. “Everything was to excess,” he says. “I met more offensive people in a year than I had in my entire life. People lived beyond their means, and the way they did it was by going into debt. That’s what shocked me the most. Debt was a foreign concept in Canada. Debt was evil.”
For his first few years on Wall Street, Katsuyama traded U.S. energy stocks and then tech stocks. Eventually he was promoted to run one of RBC’s equity-trading groups, consisting of 20 or so traders. The RBC trading floor had a no-jerk rule (though the staff had a more colorful term for it): If someone came in the door looking for a job and sounding like a typical Wall Street jerk, he wouldn’t be hired, no matter how much money he said he could make the firm. There was even an expression used to describe the culture: “RBC nice.” Although Katsuyama found the expression embarrassingly Canadian, he, too, was RBC nice. The best way to manage people, he thought, was to persuade them that you were good for their careers. He further believed that the only way to get people to believe that you were good for their careers was actually to be good for their careers.
His troubles began at the end of 2006, after RBC paid $100 million for a U.S. electronic-trading firm called Carlin Financial. In what appeared to Katsuyama to be undue haste, his bosses back in Canada bought Carlin without knowing much about the company or even electronic trading. Now they would receive a crash course. Katsuyama found himself working side by side with a group of American traders who could not have been less suited to RBC’s culture. The first day after the merger, Katsuyama got a call from a worried female employee, who whispered, “There is a guy in here with suspenders walking around with a baseball bat in his hands.” That turned out to be Carlin’s chief executive, Jeremy Frommer, who was, whatever else he was, not RBC nice. Returning to his alma mater, the University at Albany, years later to speak about the secret of his success, Frommer told a group of business students: “It’s not just enough to fly in first class; I have to know my friends are flying in coach.”
Installed in Carlin’s offices, RBC’s people in New York were soon gathered to hear a state-of-the-financial-markets address given by Frommer. He stood in front of a flat-panel computer monitor that hung on his wall. “He gets up and says the markets are now all about speed,” Katsuyama says. “And then he says, ‘I’m going to show you how fast our system is.’ He had this guy next to him with a computer keyboard. He said to him, ‘Enter an order!’ And the guy hit Enter. And the order appeared on the screen so everyone could see it. And Frommer goes: ‘See! See how fast that was!!!’ ” All the guy did was type the name of a stock on a keyboard, and the name was displayed on the screen, the way a letter, once typed, appears on a computer screen. “Then he goes, ‘Do it again!’ And the guy hits the Enter button on the keyboard again. And everyone nods. It was 5 in the afternoon. The market wasn’t open; nothing was happening. But he was like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s happening in real time!’ ”
Katsuyama couldn’t believe it. He thought: The guy who just sold us our new electronic-trading platform either does not know that his display of technical virtuosity is absurd or, worse, he thinks we don’t know.
As it happened, at almost exactly the moment Carlin Financial entered Brad Katsuyama’s life, the U.S. stock market began to behave oddly. Before RBC acquired this supposed state-of-the-art electronic-trading firm, Katsuyama’s computers worked as he expected them to. Suddenly they didn’t. It used to be that when his trading screens showed 10,000 shares of Intel offered at $22 a share, it meant that he could buy 10,000 shares of Intel for $22 a share. He had only to push a button. By the spring of 2007, however, when he pushed the button to complete a trade, the offers would vanish. In his seven years as a trader, he had always been able to look at the screens on his desk and see the stock market. Now the market as it appeared on his screens was an illusion.
This made it impossible for Katsuyama to do his job properly. His main role as a trader was to play the middleman between investors who wanted to buy and sell big amounts of stock and the public markets, where the volumes were smaller. Say some investor wanted to sell a block of three million Intel shares, but the markets showed demand for only one million shares: Katsuyama would buy the entire block from the investor, sell off a million shares instantly and then work artfully over the next few hours to unload the other two million. If he didn’t know the actual demand in the markets, he couldn’t price the larger block. He had been supplying liquidity to the market; now whatever was happening on his screens was reducing his willingness to do that.
By June 2007 the problem had grown too big to ignore. At that point, he did what most people do when they don’t understand why their computers aren’t working the way they’re supposed to: He called tech support. Like tech-support personnel everywhere, their first assumption was that Katsuyama didn’t know what he was doing. ” ‘User error’ was the thing they’d throw at you,” he says. “They just thought of us traders as a bunch of dumb jocks.”
Finally he complained so loudly that they sent the developers, the guys who came to RBC in the Carlin acquisition. “They told me it was because I was in New York and the markets were in New Jersey and my market data was slow,” Katsuyama says. “Then they said that it was all caused by the fact that there are thousands of people trading in the market. They’d say: ‘You aren’t the only one trying to do what you’re trying to do. There’s other events. There’s news.’ ”
If that was the case, he asked them, why did the market in any given stock dry up only when he was trying to trade in it? To make his point, he asked the developers to stand behind him and watch while he traded. “I’d say: ‘Watch closely. I am about to buy 100,000 shares of AMD. I am willing to pay $15 a share. There are currently 100,000 shares of AMD being offered at $15 a share — 10,000 on BATS, 35,000 on the New York Stock Exchange, 30,000 on Nasdaq and 25,000 on Direct Edge.’ You could see it all on the screens. We’d all sit there and stare at the screen, and I’d have my finger over the Enter button. I’d count out loud to five. . . .
“ ‘One. . . .
“ ‘Two. . . . See, nothing’s happened.
“ ‘Three. . . . Offers are still there at 15. . . .
“ ‘Four. . . . Still no movement. . . .
“ ‘Five.’ Then I’d hit the Enter button, and — boom! — all hell would break loose. The offerings would all disappear, and the stock would pop higher.”
At which point he turned to the developers behind him and said: “You see, I’m the event. I am the news.”
To that, they had no response. Katsuyama suspected the culprit was Carlin’s setup. “As the market problem got worse,” he says, “I started to just assume my real problem was with how bad their technology was.”
But as he talked to Wall Street investors, he came to realize that they were dealing with the same problem. He had a good friend who traded stocks at a big-time hedge fund in Stamford, Conn., called SAC Capital, which was famous (and soon to be infamous) for being one step ahead of the U.S. stock market. If anyone was going to know something about the market that Katsuyama didn’t know, he figured, it would be someone there. One spring morning, he took the train up to Stamford and spent the day watching his friend trade. Right away he saw that, even though his friend was using software supplied to him by Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley and the other big firms, he was experiencing exactly the same problem as RBC: He would hit a button to buy or sell a stock, and the market would move away from him. “When I see this guy trading, and he was getting screwed — I now see that it isn’t just me. My frustration is the market’s frustration. And I was like, ‘Whoa, this is serious.’ ”
People always assumed that because he was Asian, Brad Katsuyama must be a computer wizard. In reality, he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) even program his own DVR. What he had was an ability to distinguish between computer people who actually knew what they were talking about and those who didn’t. So he wasn’t exactly shocked when RBC finally gave up looking for someone to run its mess of an electronic-trading operation and asked him if he would take over and try to fix it. He shocked his friends and colleagues, however, when he agreed to do it, because A) he had a safe and cushy $1.5-million-a-year job running the human traders, and B) RBC had nothing to add to electronic trading. The market was cluttered; big investors had use for only so many trading algorithms sold by brokers; and Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse had long since overrun that space.
So Katsuyama was in charge of a business called electronic trading — with only Carlin’s inferior software to sell. What he had, instead, was a fast-growing pile of unanswered questions. Between the public stock exchanges and the dark pools — private exchanges created by banks and brokers that did not have to report in real time what trading activities took place within them — why were there now nearly 60 different places, most of them in New Jersey, where you could buy any listed stock? Why did one public exchange pay you to do something — sell shares, say — when another exchange charged you to do the same exact thing? Why was the market displayed on Wall Street trading screens an illusion?
He hired Rob Park, a gifted technologist, to explain to him what actually happened inside all these new Wall Street black boxes, and together they set out to assemble a team to investigate the U.S. stock market. Once he had a team in place, Katsuyama persuaded his superiors at RBC to conduct what amounted to a series of experiments. For the next several months, he and his people would trade stocks not to make money but to test theories. RBC agreed to let his team lose up to $10,000 a day to figure out why the market in any given stock vanished the moment RBC tried to trade in it. Katsuyama asked Park to come up with some theories.
They started with the public markets — 13 stock exchanges scattered over four different sites run by the New York Stock Exchange, Nasdaq, BATS and Direct Edge. Park’s first theory was that the exchanges weren’t simply bundling all the orders at a given price but arranging them in some kind of sequence. You and I might each submit an order to buy 1,000 shares of Intel at $30 a share, but you might somehow obtain the right to cancel your order if my order was filled. “We started getting the idea that people were canceling orders,” Park says. “That they were just phantom orders.”
Katsuyama tried sending orders to a single exchange, fairly certain that this would prove that some, or maybe even all, of the exchanges were allowing these phantom orders. But no: To his surprise, an order sent to a single exchange enabled him to buy everything on offer. The market as it appeared on his screens was, once again, the market. “I thought, [expletive], there goes that theory,” Katsuyama says. “And that’s our only theory.”
It made no sense: Why would the market on the screens be real if you sent your order to only one exchange but prove illusory when you sent your order to all the exchanges at once? The team began to send orders into various combinations of exchanges. First the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq. Then N.Y.S.E. and Nasdaq and BATS. Then N.Y.S.E., Nasdaq BX, Nasdaq and BATS. And so on. What came back was a further mystery. As they increased the number of exchanges, the percentage of the order that was filled decreased; the more places they tried to buy stock from, the less stock they were actually able to buy. “There was one exception,” Katsuyama says. “No matter how many exchanges we sent an order to, we always got 100 percent of what was offered on BATS.” Park had no explanation, he says. “I just thought, BATS is a great exchange!”
One morning, while taking a shower, Rob Park came up with another theory. He was picturing a bar chart he had seen that showed the time it took orders to travel from Brad Katsuyama’s trading desk in the World Financial Center to the various exchanges.
The increments of time involved were absurdly small: In theory, the fastest travel time, from Katsuyama’s desk in Manhattan to the BATS exchange in Weehawken, N.J., was about two milliseconds, and the slowest, from Katsuyama’s desk to the Nasdaq exchange in Carteret, N.J., was around four milliseconds. In practice, the times could vary much more than that, depending on network traffic, static and glitches in the equipment between any two points. It takes 100 milliseconds to blink quickly — it was hard to believe that a fraction of a blink of an eye could have any real market consequences. Allen Zhang, whom Katsuyama and Park viewed as their most talented programmer, wrote a program that built delays into the orders Katsuyama sent to exchanges that were faster to get to, so that they arrived at exactly the same time as they did at the exchanges that were slower to get to. “It was counterintuitive,” Park says, “because everyone was telling us it was all about faster. We had to go faster, and we were slowing it down.” One morning they sat down to test the program. Ordinarily when you hit the button to buy but failed to get the stock, the screens lit up red; when you got only some of the stock you were after, the screens lit up brown; and when you got everything you asked for, the screens lit up green.
The screens lit up green.
“It’s 2009,” Katsuyama says. “This had been happening to me for almost two years. There’s no way I’m the first guy to have figured this out. So what happened to everyone else?” The question seemed to answer itself: Anyone who understood the problem was making money off it.
Now he and RBC had a tool to sell to investors: The program Zhang wrote to build delays into the stock-exchange orders. The tool enabled traders like Katsuyama to do the job they were meant to do — take risk on behalf of the big investors who wanted to trade big chunks of stock. They could once again trust the market on their screens. The tool needed a name. The team stewed over this, until one day a trader stood up at his desk and hollered: “Dude, you should just call it Thor! The hammer!” Someone was assigned to figure out what Thor might be an acronym for, and some words were assembled, but no one remembered them. The tool was always just Thor. “I knew we were onto something when Thor became a verb,” Katsuyama says. “When I heard guys shouting, ‘Thor it!’ ”
The other way he knew they were on to something was from conversations he had with a few of the world’s biggest money managers. The first visit Katsuyama and Park made was to Mike Gitlin, who oversaw global trading for billions of dollars in assets for the money-management firm T. Rowe Price. The story they told didn’t come to Gitlin as a complete shock. “You could see that something had just changed,” Gitlin says. “You could see that when you were trading a stock, the market knew what you were going to do, and it was going to move against you.” But what Katsuyama described was a far more detailed picture of the market than Gitlin had ever considered — and in that market, all the incentives were screwy. The Wall Street brokerage firm that was deciding where to send T. Rowe Price’s buy and sell orders had a great deal of power over how and where those orders were submitted. Some exchanges paid brokerages for their orders; others charged for those orders. Did that influence where the broker decided to send an order, even when it didn’t sync with the interests of the investors the broker was supposed to represent? No one could say. Another wacky incentive was “payment for order flow.” As of 2010, every American brokerage and all the online brokers effectively auctioned their customers’ stock-market orders. The online broker TD Ameritrade, for example, was paid hundreds of millions of dollars each year to send its orders to a hedge fund called Citadel, which executed the orders on behalf of TD Ameritrade. Why was Citadel willing to pay so much to see the flow? No one could say with certainty what Citadel’s advantage was.
Katsuyama and his team did measure how much more cheaply they bought stock when they removed the ability of some other unknown trader to front-run them. For instance, they bought 10 million shares of Citigroup, then trading at roughly $4 per share, and saved $29,000 — or less than 0.1 percent of the total price. “That was the invisible tax,” Park says. It sounded small until you realized that the average daily volume in the U.S. stock market was $225 billion. The same tax rate applied to that sum came to nearly $160 million a day. “It was so insidious because you couldn’t see it,” Katsuyama says. “It happens on such a granular level that even if you tried to line it up and figure it out, you wouldn’t be able to do it. People are getting screwed because they can’t imagine a microsecond.”
Ronan Ryan didn’t look like a Wall Street trader. He had pale skin and narrow, stooped shoulders and the uneasy caution of a man who has survived one potato famine and is expecting another. He also lacked the Wall Street trader’s ability to seem more important and knowledgeable than he actually was. Yet from the time he first glimpsed a Wall Street trading floor, in his early 20s, Ryan badly wanted to work there. “It’s hard not to get enamored of being one of these Wall Street guys who people are scared of and make all this money,” he says.
Born and raised in Dublin, he moved to America in 1990, when he was 16. Six years later, his father was recalled to Ireland; Ronan stayed behind. He didn’t think of Ireland as a place anyone would ever go back to if given the choice, and he embraced his version of the American dream. After graduating from Fairfield University in 1996, he sent letters to all the Wall Street banks, but he received just one flicker of interest from what, even to his untrained eyes, was a vaguely criminal, pump-and-dump penny-stock brokerage firm.
Eventually he met another Irish guy who worked in the New York office of MCI Communications, the big telecom company. “He gave me a job strictly because I was Irish,” Ryan says.
He had always been handy, but he never actually studied anything practical. He knew next to nothing about technology. Now he started to learn all about it. “It’s pretty captivating, when you take the nerdiness out of it” and figure out how stuff works, he says. How a copper circuit conveyed information, compared with a glass fiber. How a switch made by Cisco compared with a switch made by Juniper. Which hardware companies made the fastest computer equipment and which buildings in which cities contained floors that could withstand the weight of that equipment (old manufacturing buildings were best). He also learned how information actually traveled from one place to another — not in a straight line run by a single telecom carrier, usually, but in a convoluted path run by several. “When you make a call to New York from Florida, you have no idea how many pieces of equipment you have to go through for that call to happen. You probably just think it’s like two cans and a piece of string. But it’s not.” A circuit that connected New York City to Florida would have Verizon on the New York end, AT&T on the Florida end and MCI in the middle; it would zigzag from population center to population center.
Ryan hadn’t been able to find a job on Wall Street, but by 2005 his clients were more likely than ever to be big Wall Street banks. He spent entire weeks inside Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers and Deutsche Bank, finding the best routes for their fiber and the best machines to execute their stock-market trades.
In 2005, he went to work for BT Radianz, a company that was born of 9/11, after the attacks on the World Trade Center knocked out big pieces of Wall Street’s communication system. The company promised to build a system less vulnerable to outside attack. Ryan’s job was to sell the financial world on the idea of subcontracting its information networks to Radianz. In particular, he was meant to sell the banks on “co-locating” their computers in Radianz’s data center in Nutley, N.J., to be closer, physically, to where the stock exchanges were located.
Not long after he started his job at Radianz, Ryan received an inquiry from a hedge fund based in Kansas City, Kan. The caller said he worked at a stock-market trading firm called Bountiful Trust and that he heard Ryan was an expert at moving financial data from one place to another. Bountiful Trust had a problem: In making trades between Kansas City and New York, it took too long to determine what happened to the firm’s orders — that is, what stocks had been bought and sold. They also noticed that, increasingly, when they placed their orders, the market was vanishing on them. “He says, ‘My latency time is 43 milliseconds,’ ” Ryan recalls. “And I said, ‘What the hell is a millisecond?’ ”
“Latency” was simply the time between the moment a signal was sent and when it was received. Several factors determined the latency of a trading system: the boxes, the logic and the lines. The boxes were the machinery the signals passed through on their way from Point A to Point B: the computer servers and signal amplifiers and switches. The logic was the software, the code instructions that operated the boxes. Ryan didn’t know much about software, except that more and more it seemed to be written by guys with thick Russian accents. The lines were the glass fiber-optic cables that carried the information from one box to another. The single-biggest determinant of speed was the length of the fiber, or the distance the signal needed to travel. Ryan didn’t know what a millisecond was, but he understood the problem with this Kansas City hedge fund: It was in Kansas City. Light in a vacuum travels at 186,000 miles per second or, put another way, 186 miles a millisecond. Light inside fiber bounces off the walls and travels at only about two-thirds of its theoretical speed. “Physics is physics — this is what the traders didn’t understand,” Ryan says.
By the end of 2007, Ryan was making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year building systems to make stock-market trades faster. He was struck, over and over again, by how little those he helped understood the technology they were using. Beyond that, he didn’t even really know much about his clients. The big banks — Goldman Sachs, Citigroup — everyone had heard of. Others — Citadel, Getco — were famous on a small scale. He learned that some of these firms were hedge funds, which meant they took money from outside investors. But most of them were proprietary firms, or prop shops, trading only their own founders’ money. A huge number of the outfits he dealt with — Hudson River Trading, Eagle Seven, Simplex Investments, Evolution Financial Technologies, Cooperfund, DRW — no one had ever heard of, and the firms obviously intended to keep it that way. The prop shops were especially strange, because they were both transient and prosperous. “They’d be just five guys in a room. All of them geeks. The leader of each five-man pack is just an arrogant version of that geek.” One day a prop shop was trading; the next, it closed, and all the people in it moved on to work for some big Wall Street bank. One group of guys Ryan saw over and over: four Russian, one Chinese. The arrogant Russian guy, clearly the leader, was named Vladimir, and he and his boys bounced from prop shop to big bank and back to prop shop, writing the computer code that made the actual stock-market trading decisions, which made high-frequency trading possible. Ryan watched them meet with one of the most senior guys at a big Wall Street bank that hoped to employ them — and the Wall Street big shot sucked up to them. “He walks into the meeting and says, ‘I’m always the most important man in the room, but in this case, Vladimir is.’ ”
“I needed someone from the industry to verify that what I was saying was real,” Katsuyama says. He needed, specifically, someone from deep inside the world of high-frequency trading. He spent the better part of a year cold-calling strangers in search of a high-frequency-trading strategist willing to defect. He now suspected that every human being who knew how high-frequency traders made money was making too much money doing it to stop and explain what they were doing. He needed to find another way in.
In the fall of 2009, Katsuyama’s friend at Deutsche Bank mentioned this Irish guy who seemed to be the world’s expert at helping the world’s fastest stock-market traders be faster. Katsuyama called Ronan Ryan and invited him to interview for a job on the RBC trading floor. In his interview, Ryan described what he witnessed inside the exchanges: The frantic competition for nanoseconds, clients’ trying to get their machines closer to the servers within the exchanges, the tens of millions being spent by high-frequency traders for tiny increments of speed. The U.S. stock market was now a class system of haves and have-nots, only what was had was not money but speed (which led to money). The haves paid for nanoseconds; the have-nots had no idea that a nanosecond had value. The haves enjoyed a perfect view of the market; the have-nots never saw the market at all. “I learned more from talking to him in an hour than I learned from six months of reading about [high-frequency trading],” Katsuyama says. “The second I met him, I wanted to hire him.”
He wanted to hire him without being able to fully explain, to his bosses or even to Ryan, what he wanted to hire him for. He couldn’t very well call him vice president in charge of explaining to my clueless superiors why high-frequency trading is a travesty. So he called him a high-frequency-trading strategist. And Ryan finally landed his job on a Wall Street trading floor.
Katsuyama and his team were having trouble turning Thor into a product RBC could sell to investors. They had no control over the path the signals took to get to the exchanges or how much traffic was on the network. Sometimes it took four milliseconds for their orders to arrive at the New York Stock Exchange; other times, it took seven milliseconds. In short, Thor was inconsistent — because, Ryan explained, the paths the electronic signals took from Katsuyama’s desk to the various exchanges were inconsistent. The signal sent from Katsuyama’s desk arrived at the New Jersey exchanges at different times because some exchanges were farther from Katsuyama’s desk than others. The fastest any high-speed trader’s signal could travel from the first exchange it reached to the last one was 465 microseconds, or one two-hundredth of the time it takes to blink. (A microsecond is a millionth of a second.) That is, for Katsuyama’s trading orders to interact with the market as displayed on his trading screens, they needed to arrive at all the exchanges within a 465-microsecond window.
To make his point, Ryan brought in oversize maps of New Jersey showing the fiber-optic networks built by telecom companies. The maps told a story: Any trading signal that originated in Lower Manhattan traveled up the West Side Highway and out the Lincoln Tunnel. Perched immediately outside the tunnel, in Weehawken, N.J., was the BATS exchange. From BATS the routes became more complicated, as they had to find their way through the clutter of the Jersey suburbs. “New Jersey is now carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey,” Ryan says. One way or another, they traveled west to Secaucus, the location of the Direct Edge family of exchanges owned in part by Goldman Sachs and Citadel, and south to the Nasdaq family of exchanges in Carteret. The New York Stock Exchange, less than a mile from Katsuyama’s desk, appeared to be the stock market closest to him — but Ryan’s maps showed the incredible indirection of fiber-optic cable in Manhattan. “To get from Liberty Plaza to 55 Water Street, you might go through Brooklyn,” he explained. “You can go 50 miles to get from Midtown to Downtown. To get from a building to a building across the street, you could travel 15 miles.”
To Katsuyama the maps explained, among other things, why the market on BATS had proved so accurate. The reason they were always able to buy or sell 100 percent of the shares listed on BATS was that BATS was always the first stock market to receive their orders. News of their buying and selling hadn’t had time to spread throughout the marketplace. Inside BATS, high-frequency-trading firms were waiting for news that they could use to trade on the other exchanges. BATS, unsurprisingly, had been created by high-frequency traders.
Eventually Brad Katsuyama came to realize that the most sophisticated investors didn’t know what was going on in their own market. Not the big mutual funds, Fidelity and Vanguard. Not the big money-management firms like T. Rowe Price and Capital Group. Not even the most sophisticated hedge funds. The legendary investor David Einhorn, for instance, was shocked; so was Dan Loeb, another prominent hedge-fund manager. Bill Ackman runs a famous hedge fund, Pershing Square, that often buys large chunks of companies. In the two years before Katsuyama turned up in his office to explain what was happening, Ackman had started to suspect that people might be using the information about his trades to trade ahead of him. “I felt that there was a leak every time,” Ackman says. “I thought maybe it was the prime broker. It wasn’t the kind of leak that I thought.” A salesman at RBC who marketed Thor recalls one big investor calling to say, “You know, I thought I knew what I did for a living, but apparently not, because I had no idea this was going on.”
Katsuyama and Ryan between them met with roughly 500 professional stock-market investors who controlled many trillions of dollars in assets. Most of them had the same reaction: They knew something was very wrong, but they didn’t know what, and now that they knew, they were outraged. Vincent Daniel, a partner at Seawolf, took a long look at this unlikely pair — an Asian-Canadian guy from a bank no one cared about and an Irish guy who was doing a fair impression of a Dublin handyman — who just told him the most incredible true story he had ever heard and said, “Your biggest competitive advantage is that you don’t want to [expletive] me.”
Trust on Wall Street was still — just — possible. The big investors who trusted Katsuyama began to share whatever information they could get their hands on from their other brokers. For instance, several demanded to know from their other Wall Street brokers what percentage of the trades executed on their behalf were executed inside the brokers’ dark pools. Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse ran the most prominent dark pools, but every brokerage firm strongly encouraged investors who wanted to buy or sell big chunks of stock to do so in that firm’s dark pool. In theory, the brokers were meant to find the best price for their customers. If the customer wanted to buy shares in Chevron, and the best price happened to be on the New York Stock Exchange, the broker was not supposed to stick the customer with a worse price inside its own dark pool. But the dark pools were opaque. Their rules were not published. No outsider could see what went on inside them. It was entirely possible that a broker’s own traders were trading against the customers in its dark pool: There were no rules against doing that. And while the brokers often protested that there were no conflicts of interest inside their dark pools, all the dark pools exhibited the same strange property: A huge percentage of the customer orders sent into a dark pool were executed inside the pool. Even giant investors simply had to take it on faith that Goldman Sachs or Merrill Lynch acted in their interests, despite the obvious financial incentives not to do so. As Mike Gitlin of T. Rowe Price says: “It’s just very hard to prove that any broker dealer is routing the trades to someplace other than the place that is best for you. You couldn’t see what any given broker was doing.” If an investor as large as T. Rowe Price, which acted on behalf of millions of investors, had trouble obtaining the information it needed to determine if its brokers had acted in their interest, what chance did the little guy have?
The deep problem with the system was a kind of moral inertia. So long as it served the narrow self-interests of everyone inside it, no one on the inside would ever seek to change it, no matter how corrupt or sinister it became — though even to use words like “corrupt” and “sinister” made serious people uncomfortable, so Katsuyama avoided them. Maybe his biggest concern, when he spoke to investors, was that he’d be seen as just another nut with a conspiracy theory. One compliment that made him happiest was when a big investor said, “Thank God, finally there’s someone who knows something about high-frequency trading who isn’t an Area 51 guy.” It took him a while to figure out that fate and circumstance had created for him a dramatic role, which he was obliged to play. One night he turned to his wife, Ashley, and said: “It feels like I’m an expert in something that badly needs to be changed. I think there’s only a few people in the world who can do anything about this. If I don’t do something right now — me, Brad Katsuyama — there’s no one to call.”
In May 2011, the small team Katsuyama created — Ronan Ryan, Rob Park and a couple of others — sat around a table in his office, surrounded by the applications of past winners of The Wall Street Journal’s Technology Innovation Awards. RBC’s marketing department had informed them of the awards the day before submissions were due and suggested they put themselves forward — so they were scrambling to figure out which of several categories they belonged in and how to make Thor sound life-changing. “There were papers everywhere,” Park says. “No one sounded like us. There were people who had, like, cured cancer.”
“It was stupid,” Katsuyama says, “there wasn’t even a category to put us into. I think we ended up applying under Other.”
With the purposelessness of the exercise hanging in the air, Park said, “I just had a sick idea.” His idea was to license the technology to one of the exchanges. The line between Wall Street brokers and exchanges had blurred. For a few years, the big Wall Street banks had been running their own private exchanges. The stock exchanges, for their part, were making a bid (that ultimately failed) to become brokers. The bigger ones now offered a service that enabled brokers to simply hand them their stock-market orders, which they would then route — to their own exchange, of course, but also to other exchanges. The service was used mainly by small regional brokerage firms that didn’t have their own routers, but this brokeragelike service opened up, at least in Park’s mind, a new possibility. If just one exchange was handed the tool for protecting investors from market predators, the small brokers from around the country might flock to it, and it might become the mother of all exchanges.
Forget that, Katsuyama said. “Let’s just create our own stock exchange.”
“We just sat there for a while,” Park says, “kind of staring at each other. Create your own stock exchange. What does that even mean?”
A few weeks later Katsuyama flew to Canada and tried to sell his bosses on the idea of an RBC-led stock exchange. Then in the fall of 2011, he canvassed a handful of the world’s biggest money managers (Capital Group, T. Rowe Price, BlackRock, Wellington, Southeastern Asset Management) and some of the most influential hedge funds (run by David Einhorn, Bill Ackman, Daniel Loeb). They all had the same reaction. They loved the idea of a stock exchange that protected investors from Wall Street’s predators. They also thought that for a new stock exchange to be credibly independent of Wall Street, it could not be created by a Wall Street bank. Not even a bank as nice as RBC. If Katsuyama wanted to create the mother of all stock exchanges, he would need to quit his job and do it on his own.
The challenges were obvious. He would need to find money. He would need to persuade a lot of highly paid people to quit their Wall Street jobs to work for tiny fractions of their current salaries — and possibly even supply the capital to pay themselves to work. “I was asking: Can I get the people I need? How long can we survive without getting paid? Will our significant others let us do this?” They did, and Katsuyama’s team followed him to his new venture.
But he also needed to find out if the nine big Wall Street banks that controlled nearly 70 percent of all investor orders would be willing to send those orders to a truly safe exchange. It would be far more difficult to start an exchange premised on fairness if the banks that controlled a vast majority of the customers’ orders were not committed to fairness themselves.
Back in 2008, when it first occurred to Brad Katsuyama that the stock market had become a black box whose inner workings eluded ordinary human understanding, he went looking for technologically gifted people who might help him open the box and understand its contents. He’d started with Rob Park and Ronan Ryan, then others. One was a 20-year-old Stanford junior named Dan Aisen, whose résumé Katsuyama discovered in a pile at RBC. The line that leapt out at him was “Winner of Microsoft’s College Puzzle Challenge.” Every year, Microsoft sponsored this one-day, 10-hour national brain-twisting marathon. It attracted more than a thousand young math and computer-science types. Aisen and three friends competed in 2007 and won the whole thing. “It’s kind of a mix of cryptography, ciphers and Sudoku,” Aisen says. To be really good at it, a person needed not only technical skill but also exceptional pattern recognition. “There’s some element of mechanical work and some element of ‘Aha!’ ” Aisen says. Katsuyama gave Aisen both a job and a nickname, the Puzzle Master, soon shortened, by RBC’s traders, to Puz. Puz was one of the people who had helped create Thor.
Puz’s peculiar ability to solve puzzles was suddenly even more relevant. Creating a new stock exchange is a bit like creating a casino: Its creator needs to ensure that the casino cannot in some way be exploited by the patrons. Or at worst, he needs to know exactly how his system might be gamed, so that he might monitor the exploitation — as a casino follows card counters at the blackjack tables. “You are designing a system,” Puz says, “and you don’t want the system to be gameable.” The trouble with the stock market — with all of the public and private exchanges — was that they were fantastically gameable, and had been gamed: first by clever guys in small shops, and then by prop traders who moved inside the big Wall Street banks. That was the problem, Puz thought. From the point of view of the most sophisticated traders, the stock market wasn’t a mechanism for channeling capital to productive enterprise but a puzzle to be solved. “Investing shouldn’t be about gaming a system,” he says. “It should be about something else.”
The simplest way to design a stock exchange that could not be gamed was to hire the very people best able to game it and encourage them to take their best shots. Katsuyama didn’t know any other national puzzle champions, but Puz did. The only problem was that none of them had ever worked inside a stock exchange. “The Puzzle Masters needed a guide,” Katsuyama says.
Enter Constantine Sokoloff, who had helped build Nasdaq’s matching engine — the computer that matched buyers and sellers. Sokoloff was Russian, born and raised in a city on the Volga River. He had an explanation for why so many of his countrymen wound up in high-frequency trading. The old Soviet educational system channeled people into math and science. And the Soviet-controlled economy was horrible and complicated but riddled with loopholes, an environment that left those who mastered it well prepared for Wall Street in the early 21st century. “We had this system for 70 years,” Sokoloff says. “The more you cultivate a class of people who know how to work around the system, the more people you will have who know how to do it well.”
The Puzzle Masters might not have thought of it this way at first, but in trying to design their exchange so that investors who came to it would remain safe from predatory traders, they were also divining the ways in which high-frequency traders stalked their prey. For example, these traders had helped the public stock exchanges create all sorts of complicated “order types,” The New York Stock Exchange, for one, had created an order type that traded only if the order on the other side of it was smaller than itself — the purpose of which seemed to be to protect high-frequency traders from buying a small number of shares from an investor who was about to depress the market in these shares with a huge sale.
As they worked through the order types, the Puzzle Masters created a taxonomy of predatory behavior in the stock market. Broadly speaking, it appeared as if there were three activities that led to a vast amount of grotesquely unfair trading. The first they called electronic front-running — seeing an investor trying to do something in one place and racing ahead of him to the next (what had happened to Katsuyama when he traded at RBC). The second they called rebate arbitrage — using the new complexity to game the seizing of whatever legal kickbacks, called rebates within the industry, the exchange offered without actually providing the liquidity that the rebate was presumably meant to entice. The third, and probably by far the most widespread, they called slow-market arbitrage. This occurred when a high-frequency trader was able to see the price of a stock change on one exchange and pick off orders sitting on other exchanges before those exchanges were able to react. This happened all day, every day, and very likely generated more billions of dollars a year than the other strategies combined.
All three predatory strategies depended on speed. It was Katsuyama who had the crude first idea to counter them: Everyone was fighting to get in as close to the exchange as possible — why not push them as far away as possible? Put ourselves at a distance, but don’t let anyone else be there. The idea was to locate their exchange’s matching engine at some meaningful distance from the place traders connected to the exchange (called the point of presence) and to require anyone who wanted to trade to connect to the exchange at that point of presence. If you placed every participant in the market far enough away from the exchange, you could eliminate most, and maybe all, of the advantages created by speed. Their matching engine, they already knew, would be located in Weehawken (where they’d been offered cheap space in a data center). The only question was: Where to put the point of presence? “Let’s put it in Nebraska,” someone said, but they all knew it would be harder to get the already reluctant Wall Street banks to connect to their market if the banks had to send people to Omaha to do it. Actually, though, it wasn’t necessary for anyone to move to Nebraska. The delay needed only to be long enough for their new exchange, once it executed some part of a customer’s buy order, to beat high-frequency traders in a race to the shares at any other exchange — that is, to prevent electronic front-running. The necessary delay turned out to be 320 microseconds; that was the time it took them, in the worst case, to send a signal to the exchange farthest from them, the New York Stock Exchange in Mahwah. Just to be sure, they rounded it up to 350 microseconds.
To create the 350-microsecond delay, they needed to keep the new exchange roughly 38 miles from the place the brokers were allowed to connect to the exchange. That was a problem. Having cut one very good deal to put the exchange in Weehawken, they were offered another: to establish the point of presence in a data center in Secaucus. The two data centers were less than 10 miles apart and already populated by other stock exchanges and all the high-frequency stock-market traders. (“We’re going into the lion’s den,” Ryan said.) A bright idea came from a new employee, James Cape, who had just joined them from a high-frequency-trading firm: Coil the fiber. Instead of running straight fiber between the two places, why not coil 38 miles of fiber and stick it in a compartment the size of a shoe box to simulate the effects of the distance. And that’s what they did.
Creating fairness was remarkably simple. They would not sell to any one trader or investor the right to put his computers next to the exchange or special access to data from the exchange. They would pay no rebates to brokers or banks that sent orders; instead, they would charge both sides of any trade the same amount: nine one-hundredths of a cent per share (known as nine mils). They’d allow just three order types: market, limit and Mid-Point Peg, which meant that the investor’s order rested in between the current bid and offer of any stock. If the shares of Procter & Gamble were quoted in the wider market at 80–80.02 (you can buy at $80.02 or sell at $80), a Mid-Point Peg order would trade only at $80.01. “It’s kind of like the fair price,” Katsuyama says.
Finally, to ensure that their own incentives remained as closely aligned as they could be with those of investors, the new exchange did not allow anyone who could trade directly on it to own any piece of it: Its owners were all ordinary investors who needed first to hand their orders to brokers.
But the big Wall Street banks that controlled a majority of all stock-market investor orders played a more complicated role than an online broker like TD Ameritrade. The Wall Street banks controlled not only the orders, and the informational value of those orders, but also dark pools in which those orders might be executed. The banks took different approaches to milking the value of their customers’ orders. All of them tended to send the orders first to their own dark pools before routing them out to the wider market. Inside the dark pool, the bank could trade against the orders itself; or it could sell special access to the dark pool to high-frequency traders. Either way, the value of the customers’ orders was monetized — by the big Wall Street bank for the big Wall Street bank. If the bank was unable to execute an order in its own dark pool, the bank could direct that order first to the exchange that paid the biggest rebate for it.
If the Puzzle Masters were right, and the design of their new exchange eliminated the advantage of speed, it would reduce the informational value of investors’ stock-market orders to zero. If those orders couldn’t be exploited on this new exchange — if the information they contained about investors’ trading intentions was worthless — who would pay for the right to execute them? The big Wall Street banks and online brokers that routed investors’ stock market orders to the new exchange would surrender billions of dollars in revenues in the process. And that, as everyone involved understood, wouldn’t happen without a fight.
Their new exchange needed a name. They called it the Investors Exchange, which wound up being shortened to IEX. Before it opened, on Oct. 25, 2013, the 32 employees of IEX made private guesses as to how many shares they would trade the first day and the first week. The median of the estimates came in at 159,500 shares the first day and 2.75 million shares the first week. The lowest estimate came from the only one among them who had ever built a new stock market from scratch: 2,500 shares the first day and 100,000 the first week. Of the nearly 100 banks and stockbrokerage firms in various stages of agreeing to connect to IEX, most of them small outfits, only about 15 were ready on the first day. Katsuyama guessed, or perhaps hoped, that the exchange would trade between 40 and 50 million shares a day by the end of the first year — that’s about what IEX needed to trade to cover its running costs. If it failed to do that, there was a question of how long it could last. Katsuyama thought that their bid to create an example of a fair financial market — and maybe change Wall Street’s culture — could take more than a year. And, he said, “It’s over when we run out of money.”
On the first day, IEX traded 568,524 shares. Most of the volume came from regional brokerage firms and Wall Street brokers that had no dark pools — RBC and Sanford C. Bernstein. The first week, IEX traded a bit over 12 million shares. Each week after that, the volume grew slightly, until, in the third week of December, IEX was trading roughly 50 million shares each week. On Wednesday, Dec. 18, it traded 11,827,232 shares. But IEX still wasn’t attracting many orders from the big banks. Goldman Sachs, for example, had connected to the exchange, but its orders were arriving in tiny lot sizes, resting for just a few seconds, then leaving.
The first different-looking stock-market order sent by Goldman to IEX landed on Dec. 19, 2013, at 3:09.42 p.m. 662 milliseconds 361 microseconds 406 nanoseconds. Anyone who was in IEX’s one-room office when it arrived would have known that something unusual was happening. The computer screens jitterbugged as the information flowed into the market in an entirely new way — lingering there long enough to trade. One by one, the employees arose from their chairs. Then they began to shout.
“We’re at 15 million!” someone yelled, 10 minutes into the surge. In the previous 331 minutes they had traded roughly 14 million shares.
“We just passed AMEX,” shouted John Schwall, their chief financial officer, referring to the American Stock Exchange. “We’re ahead of AMEX in market share.”
“And we gave them a 120-year head start,” Ryan said, playing a little loose with history. Someone had given him a $300 bottle of Champagne. He’d told Schwall that it was worth only $100, because Schwall didn’t want anyone inside IEX accepting gifts worth more than that from outsiders. Now Ryan fished the contraband from under his desk and found some paper cups.
Someone put down a phone and said, “That was J. P. Morgan, asking, ‘What just happened?’ They say they may have to do something.”
Someone else put down a phone. “That was Goldman. They say they aren’t even big. They’re coming big tomorrow.”
J. P. Morgan, in other words, might actually route investors’ trades to IEX, and Goldman might route more of them than they had done so far.
Fifty-one minutes after Goldman Sachs gave them their first honest shot at Wall Street customers’ stock-market orders, the U.S. stock market closed. Katsuyama walked off the floor and into a small office, enclosed by glass. He thought through what had just happened. “We needed one person to buy in and say, ‘You’re right,’ ” he said. “It means that Goldman Sachs agrees with us. Now the others can’t ignore this. They can’t marginalize it.” Then he blinked and said, “I could [expletive] cry now.”
He’d just been given a glimpse of the future — he felt certain of it. If Goldman Sachs was willing to acknowledge to investors that this new market was the best chance for fairness and stability, the other banks would be pressured to follow. The more orders that flowed onto IEX, the better the experience for investors and the harder it would be for the banks to evade this new, fairer market.
IEX had made its point: That to function properly, a financial market didn’t need to be rigged in someone’s favor. It didn’t need payment for order flow and co-location and all sorts of unfair advantages possessed by a small handful of traders. All it needed was for investors to take responsibility for understanding it, and then to seize its controls. “The backbone of the market,” Katsuyama says, “is investors coming together to trade.”
Three weeks later, two months after IEX opened for business, 14 men — the chief executives or the head traders of some of the world’s biggest money managers — gathered in a conference room on top of a Manhattan skyscraper. Together they controlled roughly $2.6 trillion in stock market investments, or about 20 percent of the U.S. market. They had flown in from around the country to hear Katsuyama describe what he learned about the U.S. stock market since IEX opened for trading. “This is the perfect seat to figure all this out,” Katsuyama said. “It’s not like you can stand outside and watch. We had to be in the game to see it.”
What he had discovered was just how badly the market wanted to remain in the shadows. Despite Goldman’s activity, many of the big banks were not following the instructions from investors, their customers, to send orders to IEX. A few of the investors in the room knew this; the rest now learned as much. One of them said: “When we told them we wanted to route to IEX, they said: ‘Why would you want that? We can’t do that!’ ” After the first six weeks of IEX’s life, a big Wall Street bank inadvertently disclosed to one big investor that it hadn’t routed a single order to IEX — despite explicit directions from the investor to do so. Another big mutual fund manager estimated that when he told the big banks to route to IEX, they had done so “at most 10 percent of the time.” A fourth investor was told by three different banks that they didn’t want to connect to IEX because they didn’t want to pay their vendors the $300-a-month connection fee.
Other banks were mostly passive-aggressive, but there were occasions when they became simply aggressive. Katsuyama heard that Credit Suisse employees had spread rumors that IEX wasn’t actually independent but owned by RBC — and thus just a tool of a big bank. He also heard what the big Wall Street banks were already saying to investors to dissuade them from sending orders to IEX: The 350-microsecond delay IEX had introduced to foil the stock-market predator made IEX too slow.
Soon after it opened for trading, IEX published statistics to describe, in a general way, what was happening in its market. Despite the best efforts of Wall Street banks, the average size of IEX’s trades was by far the biggest of any stock exchange, public or private. Trades on IEX were also four times as likely as those elsewhere to trade at the midpoint between the current market bid and offer — which is to say, the price that most would agree was fair. Despite the reluctance of the big Wall Street banks to send orders to IEX, the new exchange was already making the dark pools and public exchanges look bad, even by their own screwed-up standards.
Katsuyama opened the floor for questions.
“Do you think of [high-frequency traders] differently than you did before you opened?” someone asked.
“I hate them a lot less than before we started,” Katsuyama said. “This is not their fault. I think most of them have just rationalized that the market is creating the inefficiencies, and they are just capitalizing on them. Really it’s brilliant what they have done within the bounds of the regulation. They are much less of a villain than I thought. The system has let down the investor.”
“How many good brokers are there?” asked an investor.
“Ten,” Katsuyama said. (IEX had dealings with 94.) The 10 included RBC, Bernstein and a bunch of even smaller outfits that seemed to be acting in the best interests of their investors. “Three are meaningful,” he added: Morgan Stanley, J. P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs.
One investor asked, “Why would any broker behave well?”
“The long-term benefit is that when the [expletive] hits the fan, it will quickly become clear who made good decisions and who made bad decisions,” Katsuyama said. In other words, when some future stock-market crash happened, perhaps a result of the market’s technological complexity, the big Wall Street banks would get the blame.
The stock market really was rigged. Katsuyama often wondered how enterprising politicians and plaintiffs’ lawyers and state attorneys general would respond to that realization. (This March, the New York attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, announced a new investigation of the stock exchanges and the dark pools, and their relationships with high-frequency traders. Not long after, the president of Goldman Sachs, Gary Cohn, published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, saying that Goldman wanted nothing to do with the bad things happening in the stock market.) The thought of going after those who profited didn’t give Katsuyama all that much pleasure. He just wanted to fix the problem. At some level, he still didn’t understand why some Wall Street banks needed to make his task so difficult.
Technology had collided with Wall Street in a peculiar way. It had been used to increase efficiency. But it had also been used to introduce a peculiar sort of market inefficiency. Taking advantage of loopholes in some well-meaning regulation introduced in the mid-2000s, some large amount of what Wall Street had been doing with technology was simply so someone inside the financial markets would know something that the outside world did not. The same system that once gave us subprime-mortgage collateralized debt obligations no investor could possibly truly understand now gave us stock-market trades involving fractions of a penny that occurred at unsafe speeds using order types that no investor could possibly truly understand. That is why Brad Katsuyama’s desire to explain things so that others would understand was so seditious. He attacked the newly automated financial system at its core, where the money was made from its incomprehensibility.
via Zero Hedge http://ift.tt/1gW7bEb Tyler Durden
Submitted by Zachary Zeck of The Diplomat,
There’s been no shortage of reports and commentaries on the crisis in Ukraine and Crimea, and Russia’s role in it. Yet one of the more notable recent developments in the crisis has received surprisingly little attention.
Namely, the BRICS grouping (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) has unanimously and, in many ways, forcefully backed Russia’s position on Crimea. The Diplomat has reported on China’s cautious and India’s more enthusiastic backing of Russia before. However, the BRICS grouping as a whole has also stood by the Kremlin.
Indeed, they made this quite clear during a BRICS foreign minister meeting that took place on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague last week. Just prior to the meeting, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop suggested that Australia might ban Russia’s participation in the G20 summit it will be hosting later this year as a means of pressuring Vladimir Putin on Ukraine.
The BRICS foreign ministers warned Australia against this course of action in the statement they released following their meeting last week. “The Ministers noted with concern the recent media statement on the forthcoming G20 Summit to be held in Brisbane in November 2014,” the statement said. “The custodianship of the G20 belongs to all Member States equally and no one Member State can unilaterally determine its nature and character.”
The statement went on to say, “The escalation of hostile language, sanctions and counter-sanctions, and force does not contribute to a sustainable and peaceful solution, according to international law, including the principles and purposes of the United Nations Charter.” As Oliver Stuenkel at Post Western World noted, the statement as a whole, and in particular the G20 aspect of it, was a “clear sign that [the] West will not succeed in bringing the entire international community into line in its attempt to isolate Russia.”
This was further reinforced later in the week when China, Brazil, India and South Africa (along with 54 other nations) all abstained from the UN General Assembly resolution criticizing the Crimea referendum. Another ten states joined Russia in voting against the non-binding resolution.
In some ways, the other BRICS countries’ support for Russia is entirely predictable. The group has always been somewhat constrained by the animosities that exist between certain members, as well as the general lack of shared purpose among such different and geographically dispersed nations. BRICS has often tried to overcome these internal challenges by unifying behind an anti-Western or at least post-Western position. In that sense, it’s no surprise that the group opposed Western attempts to isolate one of its own members.
At the same time, this anti-Western stance has usually taken the form of BRICS opposition to Western attempts to place new limits on sovereignty. Since many of its members are former Western colonies or quasi-colonies, the BRICS are highly suspicious of Western claims that sovereignty can be trumped by so-called universal principles of the humanitarian and anti-proliferation variety. Thus, they have been highly critical of NATO’s decision to serve as the air wing of the anti-Qaddafi opposition that overthrew the Libyan government in 2011, as well as what they perceive as attempts by the West to now overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
However, in the case of Ukraine, it was Russia that was violating the sanctity of another state’s sovereignty. Still, the BRICS grouping has backed Russia. It’s worth noting that the BRICS countries are supporting Russia at potentially great cost to themselves, given that they all face at least one potential secessionist movement within their own territories.
India, for example, has a long history of fluid borders and today struggles with potential secessionist movements from Muslim populations as well as a potent security threat from the Maoist insurgency. China suffers most notably from Tibetans and Uyghurs aspiring to break away from the Han-dominated Chinese state. Even among Han China, however, regional divisions have long challenged central control in the vast country. Calls for secession from the Cape region in South Africa have grown in recent years, and Brazil has long faced a secessionist movement in its southern sub-region, which is dominated demographically by European immigrants. Russia, of course, faces a host of internal secessionist groups that may someday lead Moscow to regret its annexation of Crimea.
The fact that BRICS supported Russia despite these concerns suggests that its anti-Western leanings may be more strongly held than most previously believed. Indeed, besides backing Russia in the foreign ministers’ statement, the rising powers also took time to harshly criticize the U.S. (not by name) for the cyber surveillance programs that were revealed by Edward Snowden.
The BRICS and other non-Western powers’ support for Russia also suggests that forging anything like an international order will be extremely difficult, given the lack of shared principles to act as a foundation. Although the West generally celebrated the fact that the UN General Assembly approved the resolution condemning the Crimea referendum, the fact that 69 countries either abstained or voted against it should be a wake-up call. It increasingly appears that the Western dominated post-Cold War era is over. But as of yet, no new order exists to replace it.
via Zero Hedge http://ift.tt/1ok3hss Tyler Durden
First HFTs took over capital markets courtesy of “legal” orderflow frontrunning which is, for the sixth years in a row, confused for “providing liquidity”, and which has allowed such pending IPOs as Virtu to boast 1237 profitable trading days out of 1238 while making their owners multi-billionaires. And now, courtesy of Michael Lewis, the high freaks have also taken over the Amazon bestselling books list.
That’s right – Americans are now fascinated by issues involving market structure, exchange topology, momentum ignition and quote stuffing.
And just like that, virtually everyone now i) knows the markets are rigged and ii) has an adverse opinion of the collocated “New Normal” vacuum tubes known affectionately as the High Freaks. (Incidentally, just the way the Goldman-supported IEX dark pool and apparently the FBI wanted it).
Perhaps now may be a good time for Virtu to shelve its IPO. Due to “market waking up to HFT criminality conditions.”
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Another night, another disaster for Abe. Japan’s all-important Tankan Business conditions forecast dropped to a one-year low and missed by the most since Lehman (but apart from that Abenomics is “nailing it”). China’s “official” Manufacturing PMI beat expectations modestly and printed at a stimulus-busting 50.3 (expanding) as imports and new export orders jumped rather cough-notably-cough given external conditions and all other economic data. Rather remarkably, the New Order sub index of the Steel Industry PMI report showed a huge surge from 32.4 to 46.1 as New Export orders tumbled – this is the biggest jump in new Steel orders in.. well as far back as we have data…Then HSBC’s PMI hit. Printing at 48.0 – worse than the flash print at 48.1 and still firmly in contraction territory leaving China once again in Schrodinger baffle ’em with bullshit economic growth mode.
Japan’s Tankan Large Enterprise Busines Outlook Survey is losing its hope…
Then China followed up with the ubiquitous Schrodinger economy with the official PMI data beating expectations and showing an improved expansion while HSBC’s manufacturing PMI (broader-based survey of less SOEs) remained firmly in contraction territory… and worse than the Flash data!!
So HSBC lowest in 8 months and missed and Official highest in 3 months and beat – Stimulus or no?
And aside from in the inflationary pressure in Japan, data is a disaster and stimulus hopes are renewed as terrible news is great news… And don’t worry about the JGBs dumping on inflation concerns…
And China stimulus hopes appear dashed for now with official stats showing “improvement”…
Day after day Japanese data has been missing expectations (and is dismissed as the storm before the calm), US data has been missing expectations (all the weather, don’t worry), and European data has flatlined for 5 months (amid calls for a great recovery or new QE). But, what is keeping the dream alive for stock investors all over the world is another region that is expressly set on tightening credit and instilling “moral hazard destroying” reforms. One look at the following chart of China’s macro data (at 5 year lows) and the howls of optimism will grow loud as stimulus must come any minute, right?… except, as we noted previously, it won’t (unless things get a lot worse).
Just how bad is China?
We suspect, for Xi and his merry men, this bad news will remain bad news as any retracement on their promised reforms so soon after the Plenum would be a disaster and would risk an even bigger correction down the road (a lesson they are learning from the Americans very well).
BofA believes that there are structural and cyclical factors at play in China’s weakness and that the authorities will be more inclined to deal with the cyclical than the structural for now – the contractionary fiscal drag of the anti-corruption reform.
We believe the major drag is the contractionary fiscal policy as a consequence of Beijing’s anti-corruption and anti-vice campaign which was started at the beginning of last year and was significantly escalated this year. The strong evidence was the abnormally high growth of bank deposits of governments and quasi-government agencies (up 28.3% and 23.6% yoy in February 2014 respectively), a significant slowdown in retail sales growth, and some deceleration in FAI growth.
We believe China should continue its anti-corruption campaign and should even take further long-term institution-building measures to more effectively prevent corruption. But the government, just like all other governments in the world, also holds the responsibility in delivering stable growth and full employment in the short-term. How can Beijing reconcile the innate conflicts between the anti-corruption campaign and stable economic growth? In our view, Beijing could reverse the contractionary fiscal policy to some extent by spending the extra government savings on social welfare projects such as social housing, health care, urban infrastructure and infrastructure projects in Western areas.
To be sure, we don’t expect a big fiscal stimulus
Our discussions above do not mean that we expect a big stimulus. Actually we think the government needs to recognize the major factors behind the economic slowdown and could come up with appropriate offsetting measures to arrest the slowdown (at least the cyclical part). Unlike the case in the US in 2013, it’s hard to measure the exact scale of China’s “fiscal cliff”, but we can at least get a rough estimate (around 60-150bp, in our view), the cyclical slowdown now is quite clear, and Beijing can experiment with some incremental spending from its own coffers to boost both demand and confidence.
Looking beyond the technical drivers, we expect PBOC will keep liquidity relatively ample and stabilize interbank rates to support growth and smooth corporate financing costs. In terms of RRR, we believe the PBoC will eventually cut the too high RRR, but at the moment we think the chance for a cut is still low.
via Zero Hedge http://ift.tt/1pC8mtF Tyler Durden
As the day began with every Joe, Jim, and Harry claiming to be an expert in HFT and having prophesied all of this long ago, we thought it would be intriguing to track just how well the retail investor was edumacated on the ‘rigging of markets’. It didn’t take long before Bob “I’m not trying to be an apologist for HFT, but…” Pisani explained that investors should not be concerned and another talking-head popped up on CNBC to proclaim, “being a little bit front-run is not a problem… remember, it’s legal.” Henry Blodgett made his ‘takes one to know one’ bubble perspective adding confidently that “the concept that the market is rigged is crazy.” Crazy indeed – until the FBI gets involved. But we leave it to Rick Santelli who summed it all delightfully in a death-match with Pisani, “I’m sorry but if a large group of people can take that one cent all day long, day-in and day-out, then there’s a problem.”
Damage Control… begin… Cramer “we railed against them and we exposed them over and over” – hhm…not sure we remember the “railing against them” or the “exposing” of any negative implications of them but go on…. And then Cramer goes on to rewrite history…
“I had maybe 100 shows devoted to it on Mad Money saying it’s wrong, saying basically it is rigged without using the word rigged. It’s interesting it got on 60 Minutes with a powerful author, and people are shocked.”
And The Appetizer… “Rigged? For sure it’s an overstatement! … it’s only a penny…” Sure, it’s only a penny – so just what is the size of arb that is illegal for front-running.. and of course here’s the kicker, “we want more confidence in the US stock markets“
The Palate Cleanser – Pisani and Sully explain how it’s all ok… “not that we’re defending HFT or anything” but stay long and don’t worry about that scary man on TV talking about rigging markets… (the caveats and qualifiers in each and every sentence alone are worth the price of admission)
And the main course of the evening! Beginning at around the 2:00 mark, Santelli has enopugh of listening and pitches in as Pisani and the crowd
Hey Bob, by the way, usually it’s the Fed everyone has said rigged the market. What about the Lewis’ allegations flying around?
Pisani: I have a laundry list of things I’d like to see change but that’s different than claiming the market is rigged.
Santelli: You have been getting a lot of kudos and I thought what you wrote was phenomenal – BUT…
Santelli: When I listened to Michael Lewis, the implications he had was more on the side of the HFT. It is rigged for them to make money and skim that one cent just like you said. I didn’t get the impression he necessarily said the whole system was rigged, but then again you can’t be just a little pregnant…
Pisani/Other: But Rick, you’re a sophisticated trader. That is slicing the onion too thin. That’s not what the public is going to come away thinking. The public will say, honey, it’s not safe to invest in the market. He told us it’s rigged. The implications are somehow the average investor, it’s not safer for them to be in the market. That’s not true.
Santelli: But the average investor thinks the SEC is watching out for the marketplace. I’m sorry but if a large group of people can take that one cent all day long, day-in and day-out, then there’s a problem.
It seems more damage control is coming… but don’t worry retail investor, CNBC has your back…
via Zero Hedge http://ift.tt/1pBYiRo Tyler Durden
Submitted by Ben Hunt of Epsilon Theory
Kurtz: Did they say why, Willard, why they want to terminate my command?
Willard: I was sent on a classified mission, sir.
Kurtz: It’s no longer classified, is it? Did they tell you?
Willard: They told me that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound.
Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?
Willard: I don’t see any method at all, sir.
Kurtz: I expected someone like you. What did you expect? Are you an assassin?
Willard: I’m a soldier.
Kurtz: You’re neither. You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.
It is my belief no man ever understands quite his own artful dodges to escape from the grim shadow of self-knowledge.
The question is not how to get cured, but how to live.
Joseph Conrad (1857 – 1924)
Billions of dollars are flowing into online advertising. But marketers also are confronting an uncomfortable reality: rampant fraud.
About 36% of all Web traffic is considered fake, the product of computers hijacked by viruses and programmed to visit sites, according to estimates cited recently by the Interactive Advertising Bureau trade group.
— Wall Street Journal, “The Secret About Online Ad Traffic: One-Third Is Bogus”, March 23, 2014
Over the last decade, institutional management of equity portfolios has increased from 54% to 81%. …
Institutional buys and sells accounted for 47% of trading volume between 2001 and 2006, but only 29% of trading volume since 2008. …
One of the most significant results of the tension between fewer market participants and larger parent order sizes is that the share of ‘real’ trading volume has declined by around 40% in the last five years.
— Morgan Stanley QDS, “Real Trading Volume”, Charles Crow and Simon Emrich, April 11, 2012
Hollow Men, Hollow Markets, Hollow World
I first saw Apocalypse Now as a college freshman with two roommates, a couple of years after it had been released, and I can still recall the dazed pang of shock and exhaustion I felt when we stumbled out of the theatre. Nobody said anything on the drive back to campus. We were each lost in our thoughts, trying to process what we had just seen. Our focus was on Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz, of course, because we were 18-year old boys and he was a larger than life villain or anti-hero or superman or … something … we weren’t quite sure what he was, only that we couldn’t forget him.
When I reflect on the movie today, though, I find myself thinking less about Kurtz than I do about Martin Sheen’s Capt. Willard. Both Kurtz and Willard were self-aware. They had no illusions about their own actions or motivations, including the betrayals and murders they carried out. Both Kurtz and Willard saw through the veneer of the Vietnam War. They had no illusions regarding the essential hollowness of the entire enterprise, and they saw clearly the heart of darkness and horrific will that was left when you stripped away the surface trappings. So what made Willard stick with the mission? How was Willard able to navigate within a world he knew was playing him falsely, while Kurtz could not? I don’t want to say that I admire Willard, because there’s nothing really admirable there, and this isn’t going to be a web-lite note along the lines of “Three Things that Every Investor Should Learn from Apocalypse Now”. But there is a quality to Willard that I find useful in recalling whenever I am confronted with hard evidence that the world is playing me falsely. Or at least it helps keep me from shaving my head and going rogue.
The WSJ article cited above – where it now seems that more than one-third of all Web traffic is fake, generated by bots and zombies to create ad click-throughs and fake popularity – is a good example of what I’m talking about. One-third of all Web traffic? Fake? How is that possible? I mean … I understand how it’s technologically possible, but how is it possible that this sort of fraud has been going on for so long and to such a gargantuan degree that I don’t know about it or somehow feel it? I’m sure that anyone in e-commerce or network security will chuckle at my naïveté, but I was really rocked by this article. What else have I been told or led to believe about the Web is a lie?
But then I remember conversations I have with non-investor friends when I describe to them how little of trading volume today is real, i.e., between an actual buyer and an actual seller. I describe to them how as much as 70% of the trading activity in markets today – activity that generates the constantly changing up and down arrows and green and red numbers they see and react to on CNBC – is just machines talking to other machines, shifting shares around for “liquidity provision” or millisecond arbitrage opportunities. Even among real investors, individuals or institutions who own a portfolio of exposures and aren’t simply middlemen of one sort or another, so much of what we do is better described as positioning rather than investing, where we are rebalancing or tweaking a remarkably static portfolio against this generic risk or that generic risk rather than expressing an active opinion on the pros or cons of fractional ownership of a real-world company. Inevitably these non-investor friends are as slack-jawed at my picture of modern market structure as I am when I read this article about modern Web traffic structure. How can this be, they ask? I shrug. There is no answer. It just is.
My sense is that if you talk to a professional in any walk of life today, whether it’s technology or finance or medicine or law or government or whatever, you will hear a similar story of hollowness in their industry. The trappings, the facades, the faux this and faux that, the dislocation between public narrative and private practice … it’s everywhere. I understand that authenticity has always been a rare bird on an institutional or societal level. But there is something about the aftermath of the Great Recession, a something that is augmented by Big Data technology, that has made it okay to embrace public misdirection and miscommunication as an acceptable policy “tool”. It’s telling when Jon Stewart, a comedian, is the most authentic public figure I know. It’s troubling when I have to assume that everything I hear from any politician or any central banker is being said for effect, not for the straightforward expression of an honest opinion.
The question is not “Is it a Hollow World?”. If you’re reading Epsilon Theory I’m pretty sure that I don’t have to spend a lot of words convincing you of that fact. Nor is the question “How do we fix the Hollow World?”. Or at least that’s not my question. Sorry, but being a revolutionary is a young man’s game, and the pay is really bad. More seriously, I don’t think it’s possible to organize mass society in a non-hollow fashion without doing something about the “mass” part. So given that we are stuck in the world as it is, my question is “How do we adapt to a Hollow World?”. As Conrad wrote, the question is not how to get cured, but how to live. How do we make our way through the battlefield of modern economics and politics, a world that we know is hollow and false in so many important ways, without losing our minds and ending up in a metaphorical jungle muttering “the horror, the horror” to ourselves?
Two suggestions for adapting to the Hollow Market piece of a Hollow World, one defensive in nature and one for offense.
On defense, recognize that modern markets are, in fact, quite hollow and everything you hear from a public voice is being said for effect. But that doesn’t mean that the underlying economic activity of actual human beings and actual companies is similarly fake or bogus. The trick, I think, is to recognize the modern market for what it IS – a collection of socially constructed symbols, exactly like the chips in a casino, that we wager within games that combine a little skill with a lot of chance. There is a relationship between the chips and the real-world economic activity, but that relationship is never perfect and often exists as only the slimmest of threads. The games themselves are driven by the stories we are told, and there are rules to this game-playing that you can learn. But it’s a hard game to play, and it’s even harder to find a great game-player who will bet your chips on your behalf. A better strategy for most, I think, is to adopt an attitude of what I call profound agnosticism, where we assume that ALL of the stories we hear (including the narratives of economic science) are equally suspect, and we make no pretense of predicting what stories will pop up tomorrow or how the market will shape itself around them. What we want is to have as much connection to that underlying economic activity of actual human beings and actual companies as possible, and as little connection as possible to the game-playing and story-telling, no matter how strongly we’ve been trained to believe in this story or that. I think what emerges from this attitude can be an extremely robust portfolio supported by more-than-skin-deep diversification … a portfolio that balances historical risks and rewards rather than stories of risk and reward, a portfolio that looks for diversification in the investment DNA of a security or strategy as well as the asset class of a security or strategy.
On offense, look for investment opportunities where you have information that reflects an economic reality at odds with the public voices driving a market phenomenon. This is where you will find alpha. This is where you can generate potential returns when the economic reality is ultimately revealed as just that – reality – and the voices shift into some other story and the market matches what’s real. These opportunities tend to be discrete and occasional trades as opposed to long-standing strategies, because that’s the nature of the information beast – you will rarely capture it in a time and place where you can act on it. Almost by definition, if the information is being generated by a public voice it’s probably not actionable, or at the very least the asymmetric risk/reward will have been terribly muted. But when you find an opportunity like this, when you have a private insight or access to someone who does against a market backdrop of some price extreme … well, that’s a beautiful thing. Rare, but worth waiting for.
I’ll close with a few selected lines from TS Eliot’s The Hollow Men, because I’m always happy to celebrate a time when poets wore white-tie and tails, and because I think he’s got something important to say about information and communication, authenticity and deception.
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
What is the Shadow? I believe it’s the barrier that communication inevitably creates among humans, including the mental barriers that we raise in our own minds in our internal communications – our thoughts and self-awareness. Sometimes the Shadow is slight, as between two earnest and committed people speaking to each other with as much authenticity as each can muster, and sometimes the Shadow is overwhelming, as between a disembodied, mass-mediated crowd and a central banker using communication as “policy”. Wherever you find a Shadow you will find a hollowness, and right now the Shadows are spreading. This, I believe, creates both the greatest challenge and opportunity of our investment lives … not to pierce Eliot’s Shadows or to succumb to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in our hollow markets, but to come to terms with their existence and permanence … to evade their influence as best we can, all the while looking for opportunities to profit from their influence on others.
via Zero Hedge http://ift.tt/1htKqGj Tyler Durden
“We should hang our heads in shame,” UKIP’s Nigel Farage blasted during last week’s debate with Britain’s Deputy PM Nick Clegg, adding that it was the British government that had encouraged the EU to pursue “imperialist, expansionist” ambitions in Ukraine. Clegg’s comments on how the EU had turned “fascist dictatorships” in eastern Europe into democracies were met with derision from Farage who exclaimed, “we’ve given a false series of hopes to a group of people in western Ukraine and so geed up were they that they, actually, toppled their own elected leader.”
When the debate touched upon events in Ukraine, Clegg said that he was proud of the EU for reaching out to ex-Communist states in Eastern Europe and former “fascist dictatorships” on the Mediterranean.
Those states only managed to turn into “democracies because they became part of the family of nations within the EU,” Clegg said.
But Farage responded with a completely opposite stance toward the armed coup that ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich in late February.
“We should hang our heads in shame,” Farage said, adding that it was the British government that had encouraged the EU to pursue “imperialist, expansionist” ambitions in Ukraine.
“We’ve given a false series of hopes to a group of people in western Ukraine and so geed up were they that they, actually, toppled their own elected leader,” he said.
With over 100 people killed during the Maidan standoff in Kiev, the European Union “does have blood on its hands” over Ukraine, Farage said.
“I don’t want a European army, navy, air force or a European foreign policy. It has not been a thing for good in the Ukraine,” he said.
Farage won the debate; but…
The deputy PM accepted defeat as he appeared on LBC’s weekly phone-in Friday morning, but hurried to make up for it by attacking Farage over his remarks on Ukraine.
Clegg said he was “extraordinarily surprised, if not shocked” to hear the claim that the EU was responsible for the bloodshed in Ukraine.
“To suggest that somehow it is the EU’s fault that the Ukrainian people rose up, as many did on the streets of Kiev, against their government seeking to claim greater democracy, greater freedom, is such a perverse way of looking at things,” he said.
Clegg said the UKIP leader’s words showed “quite how extreme people can be… when their loathing of the EU becomes so all-consuming that they even end up siding with Vladimir Putin in order to make their point.”
Clegg promised that he would raise Ukraine again in his second televised debate with Farage, due to take place next week.
We look forward to Nigel Farage’s rebuttal to the status quo vigilantism once again…
via Zero Hedge http://ift.tt/1dLPGFQ Tyler Durden
Monday’s live return of The
Independents on Fox Business Network (9 p.m. ET, 6 p.m.
PT, with repeats three hours later) kicks off with beloved
Reason Senior Editor Peter Suderman
counting us down to the “deadline” to sign up for Obamacare, and
what all the
confusing numbers mean. Party Panelists Santita Jackson (Fox News
contributor) and Basil
Smikle (Democratic political strategist) then join to discuss
#CancelColbert nonsense and Bill Maher’s
surprising racism switcheroo with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and
Michelle Obama. The duo will also discuss Gwyneth Paltrow’s
Then: Did you hear the one about Los Angeles politicians seeking
to investigate whether
fracking caused some recent earthquake activity in Southern
California? UC Davis Physics and Geology Professor (and Openhazards.com Chairman of the
Board) John Rundle joins to break down the science. Rachel Boynton
is the director of an acclaimed new documentary called Big Men, about oil extraction
in Ghana; she’s on next. Then the show finishes with discussion
about what the
long-suppressed Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA
torture tells us about waterboarding for Bin Laden.
from Hit & Run http://ift.tt/QAte8v