Sunday, January 31, 2010

Big Brother is [Not] Watching You

I rarely click on banner ads. But one from these folk aroused a morbid curiosity in yours truly that caused me to override my normal reticence. For those not wanting to click through and read in detail, it was a teaser for market surveillance software to flag less-than-salubrious activities of traders, one's customer's, PMs and one would imagine, those with capital commitment authority unable to withstand the temptation of cheating for wanton egotistical pleasure, or more likely, parochial financial gain.

It describes itself as a highly configurable software compliance module that will detect market manipulation including (but not limited to):
Pre-arranged trades
Wash trades
Naked short sales
Marking the close
Price jump and significant position
Phantom orders
High volume and price jump
Painting the tape
Concealing ownership
Price jump with following reverse price jump
Reference price manipulation
Late trading and deal capture
Wow, and hello Andy DuFresne!

This perhaps raises some interesting questions. For example: What does it say about an organization that feels this is necessary to deploy? Although, one believe it the expression of a zero-tolerance policy, might it also imply that the owners or management - perhaps the management upon which the reputation of the organization was built - is now too-distant from the trenches to know when a PM or strategy manager is marking his book or doing impact trades at investor expense? Or perhaps that management is too thin on the ground (or inexperienced or ill-informed) to oversee or even know malfeasance when they witnesses it. "Good on yer matey - that stock you bought has doubled (no matter you bought 25% of the float at higher and higher prices and now own three months volume..."). Of course the managers could also be knowing and in complicity (or more insidiously, orchestrating) begging the question is there a management compliance module to detect such behaviours?

Indeed, I may mistaken in believing such software may be intended for the humble hedge fund (though one wonders what if any alarms would have been sounded over RajRat's Galleon, or what might be caught in its driftnet were it cast over SAC's trade histories) but rather it has been built for the large IB, or industrial money manager. But even here, one wonders whether a sweep of Fidelity or, say, Cap Research would yield unsavouriness relating to "price-jump and significant position", "marking the close", or "concealing ownership". Or, more interestingly, what their opinion would be of implementing compliance software that claimed the ability to red-flag such unvirtuous behaviours. Methinks they would feign insult and dismiss it as ridiculuous that such things might be associated with their venerable names. " I am shocked...."

There are some obvious holes in their malfeasance suite: old-fashioned insider trading; trading upon material non-public information (e.g. GLG & Sumi CBs and front-running of equity inssuance), predatory trading (e.g. Citadel/JPM vs Amaranth; GLG vs Eifuku, or any number of Red-D private CBs or convertible prefs); stock cornering (e.g. Porsche); regulatory loopholing (opaqueness of OTC reporting), stock parking and collusive trading, to name a few from a list which is certainly not exhaustive.

This begs the most obvious question: If it well and truly "works", why don't the regulatory authorities, exchanges, and self-regulatory organizations license it and blue-sky the results? Name and shame might be a useful addition to the regulatory arsenal. For shame and ultimate reputational risk (next to prison resulting from enforcement and prosecution) is a powerful deterrent, but only it is only a deterrent if transparency and subsequent enforcement prevails.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Channeling Outrage

After smiling silently upon reading the rumble over at Barry Ritholtz' I must admit that, for my amusement, I am all for a good conspiracy theory purporting to explain the inexplicable - one that projects blame away from where it perhaps hurts most, or onto something that makes erstwhile sense out of randomness and/or seeming injustice, particularly on a canvass where The Bad Guys seems to triumph more often than Mom, Pop, Guy Little, or even the virtuous citizen. Yes, blame the Fed, it's leader(s), Goldman Sachs, it's leader(s) - present or former, the Plunge Protection Team, CIC, the NWO, vulgar Russians, fundamentalists, George Soros, Water fluoridation, The Jews (oh yeah - don't forget the Jews), Sunspots, Cronies, Old Boys, Ivy-Leaguers, Etonians, Extra-terrestrials, Economists, Hedge Funds, HFT'ers, rich folk, poor folk, Freemasons, Unions, Vaccinations, the CIA, Jews (oops I've already said that) crack-heads, [insert favorite other pet tag, famous persona, or just Timothy Geithner here], anyone and anything other than what the wise seeker of explanations, William of Ockham and his obvious razor might suggest with appropriate contemplation.

In the world of the Sordid and Nefarious Conspiracy, cabals dominate. Nothing, I repeat NOTHING, is at seems. The truth, you see, would bring tears to the eyes of Macchiavelli and Lao Tzu, not to mention Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. At least if they walked away from watching Glenn Beck or reading certain financial blogs more informed and rage-a-licious than before. Yet the market for intrigue, cynicism and increasingly, financial skepticism is large and expanding seemingly at a faster rate than the market for sober-minded analysis and cogent, thoughtful non-hyperventilated explanations. To be certain, flaws are prevalent in everything and everyone. Systems and rules will gamed frequently and systematically, and competitors will inevitably collude, more or less in inverse proportion to the amount of oversight, regulation, scrutiny and enforcement of said affairs. Politicians will frequently bend the truth for self-serving reasons. Good people universally will make some bad decisions (in hindsight). And bad people will make worse decisions. Heck, just ponder the plight of an altar boy in Ireland. Corruption is almost certain to be prevalent to a greater or lesser extent while honesty will perpetually be in short supply where money, power, and/or privilege is concerned. Conflicted interest is behind every door. Institutions are only as good as the people within, and the support from the polity. Culpability is in short supply in American culture. Even Clinton found it hard (no pun intended) to own up to a few moments of illicit pleasure. Yet, for all that, conspiracy theories - like religion - need to be credibly and plausibly proved to be anything other than a phantasmagoric conjuring at best, or sad excuses NOT to confront the prevailing reality with the prevailing palette of contributory causes and explanatory factors and influences, because it is contrary to one's presently anchored view.

Conspiracy theory, like demagoguery, begins with a remote kernel of seductive and at a cursory glance seeming explanatory power. A simplistic soundbyte lodging itself within, but for practical purposes, of little use in comprehending the complexity of modernity. It is precisely this complexity and the subsequent loss of individual control that has caused the bull-market in Conspiracy and Demagoguery. Reality just has too many facets and moving parts. Dumb it down. "Six-Minute Abs" applied markets or politics. It sells ad slots on late-night talk radio, and elevates the eyeball-count on websites. But sadly, it provides little more than a placebo in place prescription required.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

In Defense of The Case Against HiFTers

In principal, I am reticent to contradict Burton Malkiel because I respect him, large, but I feel that I must raise a few salient points in regards to his recent FT Op Ed. He says essentially that over the years, trading costs have fallen (which is true); market-makers are useful (also reasonably true with caveats); he then nebulously defines HFT as computers closely proximate to the exchange that buy and sell quickly (OK he's dumbing it down guessing some WSJ readers also peruse the FT); then he debunks HFT as being synonymous with flash order predators (I'll charitably leave this as uncontentious given the numerous flavours of HFT); claims HFT is misunderstood (probably true because I think he, too, misunderstands it); and finally in the unsubstantiated non-sequitir says "they" (HFTers) are The Good Guys; They are The Guys who SAVE you money; They are the de-facto market-makers and if they steal they seem to only steal from other traders and not from individual or long-term investors. To which I say: "...Whooaah there bossy...."

The implied argument is that HiFTers are genuinely providing liquidity and therefore, in the process, bearing substantial risk and therefore deserving of return for the useful function of providing temporal liquidity. That's a fine-and-dandy justification for market-making one I find uncontentious.

But really the question that must be asked is: "Are HiFTers (c) truly market-makers in the classical (and it must be said, useful) sense??" From all my experience, assimilating everything I have seen on by and sell sides, by comparison to market-makers in the past, and even some present market-makers such as Tom Petterfy's Timber Hill, I think the answer is "categorically not", and the esteemed Dr Malkiel is essentially wrong. I believe, HiFTers, in the main, are NOT reversion oriented (in the Princeton-Newport, Thorpian sense), warehousing risk, until the opposite side emerges. They are, in the main, making a market NOT to price the temporal cost of warehousing risk to capture spread, but rather to sniff out the direction of order flow and predate it. They are, in effect, inverting the purposefulness and utility of market-making with respect to liquidity. As a result, one might even wonder whether Dr Malkiel is perhaps on some HiFTers advisory board or consultancy payroll. Granted, I have no figures to support my assertion, only my long experience in the trenches - but then neither does Dr Malkiel cite any numerical support for his assertions. We are left in a substantiation stand-off, my tangible market experience vs. Dr Malkiel's academic reputation.

Idealists would like to see bona fide buyers and sellers match directly, thereby disintermediating parasitical traders, where "bona-fide" is defined as those with a non-feedback-based orientation. Thoughtful apologists accept the virtue in this ideal, but then suggest that, practically, institutional herding makes it unlikley bona-fides are able to find the other side when and where they want it. Here again apologists narrowly define HifTers as liquidity providers rather than disruptive front-runners. And while I accept the possibility that periodic herding effects might swamp the more typical opinion and participant diversity of market order flow, I think the argument is spurious since the contribution of HiFTers as faux-market-makers remains negative sum for both bona-fide buyers and sellers where HiFTers intermediate.

Some justify HiFTing by arguing "so what if they are parasitical front-runners, as the activity help market prices more quickly move towards something resembling a short-term equilibrium". I find this path of argument a tad more useful, yet, all it does is push the argument into the realm of "is informationless feedback trading itself useful or desirable??" If they were convergent upon longer-term equilibria, I would be far more sympathetic, but amplifying divergent trends is certainly detrimental to efficiency sympathies (and justifications), and the front-running HiFTers seem just as likely to push something away from these arguably more important equilibria than towards them, making the argument irrelevant at best.

Still others (particularly from the BD community) justify their HiFTing by "Internalization" of order flow, proudly (though still somewhat disingenuously) suggesting there are no resulting casualties, and customers in any event get the best execution, but this is likely smoke and mirrors, in the same way that restricted access US Govt secs inter-dealer brokers always had inside markets relative to prevailing markets available to non primary dealers. Discretionary and/or limit orders embedded in the books of electronic exchanges visible or known to broker-dealers (as they are/were to monopolistic specialists) are used NOT to execute the customer at the best price, but help the HiFTing firm capture so-called riskless spread at the expense of their customers' best execution. Low body count and conflict of interest, indeed - as they take from the customer pennies at a time.

The descriptive argument with the most apt potential to mirror the actual dynamic is one where a host of HiFTers predate large or several large orders, buy up everything out there in front of them who then flip the appropriate sized parcels to the hapless buyer at an elevated price reflecting the same spread and market impact that a traditional market-maker, block-trader or specialist-of-old would have yielded, the only difference being that instead of Vinnie or Mario licking his finger and making his price, it is now some UNIX programmers who implemented it as a complex algorithmic system that forms an ecosystem to do the same. This may or may not be true, or rather was probably not true in the short-run when profits were fat but probably will in the longer-term where competition eventually shrinks inverting the opportunities back to reversion, where they converge upon the true price of providing liquidity adjusted for some return on capital. But between here and there, there is likely increased cost for bona-fide investors and short-term price volatility. Judging by the scramble for UNIX developer talent, and number of entrants ditching "longer-frame" warehousing for shorter-term order-sniffing and pseudo-front-running, the scrum is intensifying, and the denoument has yet to be reached.