≡ Menu

Why you don’t need to worry about high frequency traders

Flash Boys is Michael Lewis’ new book about high frequency traders allegedly rigging the market

I am a fan of author Michael Lewis. I loved his book about jumbo-sized bond traders, Liar’s Poker, his book about jumbo-sized sub-prime mortgage bets, The Big Short, and even his now long forgotten book about the jumbo-sized dotcom delusion, The New New Thing.

So I’m sure I’ll enjoy Flash Boys, his new book about the jumbo-sized high frequency traders that today probably makes up at least half of all trading volume.

What I probably won’t be is outraged, aghast, or calling for immediate change.

This might surprise you if you’ve heard Michael Lewis saying the stock market is “rigged”, or heard from others that deep-pocketed high-frequency trading firms are hurting the little guy.

To my mind, if you’re a little guy and you seriously think you’re playing in the same game as the high-frequency trading firms, you’ve got much bigger problems to worry about.

The machines that run the market

I won’t rehash all the arguments about high frequency trading. It’s easy to Google attacks on these operators and others leaping to their defence.

Hugely simplifying, the charge against them – or perhaps the entire system – is that robot traders get to see your Buy order for shares before a traditional intermediary can match you with a seller, and so they can quickly zip about the system buying up shares to sell back to you at a small profit.

And also that this makes buying and selling shares theoretically more expensive for you than if the high frequency trader had never been in the way.

I say “theoretically” because we are a long, long way from the days of a rich old retired Army major phoning up his bank manager to discuss their last golf game and then buying a few Shell shares, and that manager calling a sleepy market maker on the floor of the London Stock Exchange, and the order eventually getting chalked up on a board somewhere.

Rather, the system is utterly dominated by software trading, spread across multiple pools of capital.

To put your order directly through in the old-fashioned way, you wouldn’t need to ban high frequency trading – you’d need to invent a time machine.

Nowadays it’s a digital ecosystem, or better still a jungle. Various kinds of so-called robot traders and other software systems are constantly competing to capture tiny fractions of basis points here and there.

It’s not far-fetched to say that a high frequency trading algorithm that intercepts your order might buy its shares from a software-driven rival who knew you’d place your order before you did!

Not literally, of course. But perhaps it read some headlines that inspired your actions or else saw some correlated price moves or it was triggered by one of the other tens of thousands of things that are constantly crunched and recalculated by these ‘quant’ systems.

And that’s just one trivial example.1

One result of all this digitization and capital chasing tiny returns is that in 2014, as a private investor, if I use my online broker to buy shares in, say, Shell, I pay £6 and the spread is infinitesimal compared to 30 years ago.

If this is being ripped off by a rigged system, let’s have some more rigging.

Don’t hate the players, hate the game

So it’s very hard to see how small investors like you and me are being ripped off when we place share trades.

The whole process is getting cheaper every year.

But that’s not really the complaint.

Instead, the argument is that institutional investors who buy and invest on our behalf – big pension funds, large fund managers, that sort of thing – are being “taxed” by these high frequency traders to the tune of billions, because they have trillions under management.

Now, there may well be some truth to that. However, it’s still not the number one problem for us to worry about.

Firstly, many if not all of these institutional players fill their orders via some form of software too, which potentially takes into account the high frequency traders. They’re not lumbering across green fields like bovine herds.

Secondly, remember the counterfactuals!

Here I think there is a strong argument that the liquidity and competition supplied by these trading firms has in aggregate helped to bring costs down.

Not for some particular trade made on some Tuesday, perhaps, but compared to where we’d be overall under a more restricted market.

But even if it has not done so – and you can read coherent arguments either way – it’s hardly headline news that financial intermediaries skim money off us when we enact transactions.

It has always cost money to buy shares. I don’t think it makes much difference to us if we pay tens of basis points to a market maker the old-fashioned way, or if we pay roughly the same split between two intermediaries along the way.

You’re still paying financial middlemen to get your shares. Heck, in the UK even the government takes a hefty 0.5%.

Save your outrage for fees and underperformance

With regards to the cost of our investing with institutions via active funds, a few basis points of return lost to a high frequency trading firm is neither here nor there.

Active fund investors could easily be paying 1% to 2% or more in total costs. If they’re really rich and gullible and they’ve invested via a hedge fund, they could be paying an extra 20% on top of that.

That is the sort of frictional cost that really adds up. It’s not so much skimming as lobotomizing your returns.

The frenetic trading activity of fund managers only adds to the problem. As they churn their portfolios to try to keep up with their benchmarks, they wrack up all sorts of costs, of which the tithe allegedly extracted by high frequency traders is just a small portion.

All this, plus the odds are high that you’ll get lower returns from an active fund than an equivalent index fund!

So if you want to save money when investing, stop tutting as you read Michael Lewis’ allegations and instead go swap your actively managed funds for tracker funds.

Of course it’s true that passive investors in cheap tracker funds would in aggregate be paying some money to high frequency trading intermediaries, too.

But index funds generally turnover their portfolios a lot less than the typical active fund. So overall, index fund investors will pay a much lower amount to the fallen rocket scientists turned trading software whiz kids.

Yet another reason to be smug if you’re a passive investor.

As for those outraged institutional investors, they’re probably mostly annoyed that someone else is skimming money off us that they could be pocketing for themselves.

Pick your fights

What if like me you’ve strayed down the dark path, and you’re an active stock picker – a buyer and seller of individual shares – yourself?

Well, as stated, I think you’ve no reason to complain about the cost of buying and selling shares. It’s generally got far cheaper over the years. If high frequency traders get rich, I don’t think it’s on our dime.

It’s true that small cap trading feels like it’s become a bit more costly due to wider bid/offer spreads, but I don’t recall seeing hard statistics on this. Either way, software programs designed to hold securities for fractions of a second have nothing to do with illiquid shares like these.

If anything, the wide bid/offer spreads on smaller shares is a reminder of what life could be like for all share trades if we did legislate away the competition to supply liquidity to the markets.

Regardless, if you’re one of Monevator’s surprisingly numerous fund manager readers, then by all means fight for your right to more basis points.

But if you’re an individual trying to pick shares, you’ve got much bigger fish to fry than worrying about high frequency traders:

You’ll probably lose versus the markets

This is the big thing to think about. I’m an active investor myself and I get the appeal, but in aggregate at least three-quarters and probably many more individual investors will be down versus an index fund after a few years.

If you’re day trading large cap shares, you’re a muppet

Anyone who thinks their edge over the City and Wall Street is that they can get in and out of big companies faster than the professionals is a clueless numpty.

If you’re trading based on short-term charts, you’re also a numpty

I’m prepared to believe some technical trading strategies work. It’s a big world, and maybe there are unicorns yet to be discovered, too. But what I am sure of is that any short-term technical signals affecting mid to large companies are going to be spotted, bought, and dumped by some quant’s $10 million algorithm before you’ve dusted down your copy of Murphy to double check whether you’re looking at a reverse bottom or a couple of elongated tits.

One possible edge we have is holding periods

There are superb larger companies to own, but you’re not going to churn/trade them better than a professional. But you can though commit to hold them through thick and thin when a fund manager who is scared of temporarily underperforming might dump them. Over time, this might be your edge if you’re good at picking the best companies. It also implies you should be trading very rarely, and thus you’ll be providing scant pennies to the robot traders’ benevolence fund.

You may have an edge trading small companies

I believe it’s possible for some individuals to trade a bit more frequently in the shares of smaller companies. (By frequently, I mean holding for at least weeks or months, not for hours.) These shares are much more illiquid, and they’re not followed by professionals because they can’t front run invest in them in size. This is one way I try to beat the market myself. Again, whether you win or lose will be unperturbed by digital highwaymen demanding a few extra basis points on a trade.

You should be thinking, not trading

Another way in which it might be possible to beat the consensus is if you’re very adept at predicting the fortunes of companies. Some academics say the market will predict better than everyone out there, others say Buffett is a business genius. I think Buffett is a business genius, but I don’t know about you or me. So this has potential as a strategy – and it’s another one that has nothing to do with trying to beat teams of Phds with millions of dollars of hardware set up next the New York Stock Exchange.

You should be buying value shares

I’ve sung the praises of value investing before. You get into a share that nobody wants, perhaps because the business is iffy, and then after a good few months if not several years, you sell it for more than you paid for it when feelings change. This process is almost by definition immune to algorithmic pickpockets.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Leave them scrap it out

It’d be a real shame if the average person becomes even more scared of the stock market after stumbling upon this controversy.

Because unless you’re a multi-millionaire looking to actually invest in a high frequency hedge fund (in which case good luck picking a winner) I don’t believe this alleged rigging matters very much to your investing.

You should really be in cheap low turnover index funds. If you must picks shares, you should probably be concentrating on those that are small, illiquid and potentially overlooked, or else looking for companies where you believe you understand the business and its value better than the professionals and you’re prepared to hold for a long time to see if you’re right. Nada trading.

As for the big institutions, who cares if one bunch of socially useless bloated financial firms is ripping off another bunch of socially useless bloated financial firms?

It makes a change from them ripping us off.

  1. It’s also why I laugh uncontrollably at bulletin board posters who claim to have spotted some telling micro-movement in a share price chart 10.30am and 11.45pm. Go back to sleep granddad! []
{ 7 comments… add one }
  • 1 Richard April 4, 2014, 1:50 pm

    I use limit orders exclusively these days. So this is a zero issue for me. Often my limit price is even bettered.

  • 2 bob April 4, 2014, 10:59 pm

    “….double check whether you’re looking at a reverse bottom or a couple of elongated tits.”

    That one tickled me good and proper.

  • 3 Kean April 5, 2014, 10:11 am

    This is brilliant article; very amusing in the way that you present your arguments. Love it!

  • 4 Westerly Falcon April 7, 2014, 11:18 am

    I often hear friends telling me about how they buy individual shares for yield purposes as they are interested in getting a good income from the shares through dividends, rather than predicting the future price of the shares.

    TI, in the post you don’t mention why this strategy is flawed too, could you shed some light on it for me please? Thanks, as always.

  • 5 The Investor April 7, 2014, 12:02 pm

    @Westerly Falcon — I don’t think it is flawed as such, and in fact I’ve written quite a few articles over the years about it. Here’s a decent overview. For many people I think focusing on income will be better than obsessing about capital, as income is less volatile so they’re less likely to panic and trade.

    However I still suspect most of them would do better buying passive collective vehicles for the income (e.g. the dividends aristocrats ETF) or income investment trusts, rather than direct shares. Many people will buy high yielding shares that see their dividend cut, or they’ll not concentrate enough on growth, etc. Here’s an interesting series of articles.

    Another “flaw” is that they will get their income, think they’re doing well, but fail to compare their performance with a total market approach through a tracker fund. i.e. They may think they’ve done well, whereas in reality they’ve done slightly worse on a total return basis. However, if income floats their boat maybe this doesn’t matter.

    Finally, to actually live off income you need a lot of money. Ideally, an income investor lives off his income and is somewhat disdainful of even thinking about touching capital. But most ordinary people need to spend their capital, too, in retirement, so won’t be able to get away from market levels and sequence of returns risk in the end.

  • 6 Simon April 8, 2014, 10:53 am

    You might find this interesting http://www.chrisstucchio.com/blog/2012/hft_whats_broken.html Chris Stucchio is scarily smart. The section you want is “The Subpenny rule – A minimum wage for HFT’s”.

    Essentially if you get rid of the sub penny rule all of the talent that is going to into shaving microseconds of trades could be used for something more interesting.

  • 7 theFIREstarter April 8, 2014, 3:42 pm

    Great article!

    “If you’re day trading large cap shares, you’re a muppet” – that cracked me up.

    I’m from a gambling background and this reminds me very much of how online betting exchanges have evolved over the last 10 or so years. There are trading “robots” that provide greater liquidity in the sports betting markets, and eventually have people worked out algorithms to skim bets and make short trades on both sides of the spread to make “instant” money.

    There was (and probably still is) a lot of whining on the betting forums about how these ‘bots are killing everyone’s profits, yet the parallels can be drawn almost exactly to the financial world in that realistically, the bots are actually creating more efficient markets, greater liquidity, tighter spreads, and therefore actually better value for most punters, i.e. the average Joes. If you were manually trading those markets however, I guess the ‘bots were killing your system (and were most probably a muppet as well!)

Leave a Comment