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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Efficiency and Ethics: On the Fairness of High-Speed Trading

Two months into 2012, the SEC announced that it had been examining the trading activities of high-frequency trading firms.  According to the Wall Street Journal, the SEC was “examining, among other things, whether high-frequency firms benefit from delays in the dissemination of prices from various corners of the markets. . . . High-speed firms use direct feeds from exchanges that can give them a leg up on slower traders.” High-frequency traders “can access prices a split second faster through their access to direct feeds.” This is accomplished by placing the trading computers in the same data center that houses the exchange’s computer servers. Just over a year later, the Wall Street Journal reported that high-speed traders were using “a hidden facet” of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange’s computer system “to trade on the direction of the futures market before other investors get the same information.” Even getting the confirmation of a high-speed trade just one to ten milliseconds faster can enable a computer to know the direction a commodity is going and trade on it. According to the Wall Street Journal, the “ability to exploit such small time gaps raises questions about transparency and fairness amid the computer-driven, rapid-fire trading that increasingly grips Wall Street and confounds regulators.” Both the increasing use of high-speed trading and the problem of accountability from a regulatory point of view raise the stakes in determining the ethics of the practice.  

The full essay is in Cases of Unethical Business, available in print and as an ebook at Amazon.com.  

                              Has the increasing role of high-speed trading rendered the individual investor a "second-class citizen" in the stock market?