Saturday, April 5, 2014

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt Michael Lewis has given us another great read, leaving us pondering big issues about the nature of man and the point of society. In today’s world, the information he shares about high-frequency trading (HFT) on Wall Street, feels dated before it arrives on the page…before we read it…before we can act on it. At first I was aghast that information about the, in effect, skimming or taxing of trades on the [any] stock market was old—this stuff was recognized in 2010! Why are we just learning about it?!

But of course now I realize that the folks that knew about it weren’t talking—why would they? And the market was going up, so taxes on increases wasn’t as onerous to investors as it would have been had they been losing their shirts. But also, Brad Katsuyama was setting up his own exchange, IEX, to do something to counter the activity. It would not have made as good a story to discover the problem without a solution being presented.

Katsuyama gathered a collection of folks no one could make up in their wildest dreams and sought ways to hamper the effects of high-frequency trades on investors. Lewis calls Katsuyama "an American hero" in his April 1 interview with Charlie Rose. Katsuyama was Canadian-born and came to Wall Street for the Royal Bank of Canada. He was successful as a trader, making about two million dollars a year in salary and bonuses, but noticed odd things happening to his trades about 2007. Lewis shares what happened to Katsuyama's thinking as he explored the reasons for the artifacts he was noticing on his screen as he traded.

This is an interesting story, but the most interesting part of the story is undoubtedly what comes next. Three days after the publication of Lewis’ book, Attorney General Holder announced the DOJ has an on-going investigation into high-frequency trading on stock exchanges. While the activities of high-frequency traders may or may not be strictly illegal, there is no doubt about its corrosive and costly effects.

Traders knowledgeable about the scandal acknowledge that something much like this skimming has been going on since the market began over a century ago, and will probably go on again in another form if this instance is regulated out of existence. Many of the traders introduced in this book are filled with awe at the perspicacity and persistence of HFT traders and wonder if the incentives were changed if the activities would modulate.

As it happens, this fishtails nicely into Jaron Lanier’s discussion about the internet in general, in Who Owns the Future? In that book Lanier suggests that modifying incentives (he gives possible ways to do that) would make a different landscape for those eager to participate in the economy. Financial remuneration is not the only incentive attractive to human beings. After all, how much can one person spend? On the other hand, the accumulation of vast sums of money in the hands of a few can cause major societal disruption. This is not simply a case of ill-gotten funds as in days of old. Computers have changed a lot of things, and the changes are exponential.

It’s a new world, and Lewis excavates a small corner to reveal talented folks beavering away at the underpinnings of our, and the world’s, financial pillars. This was one heck of a fascinating wake-up call.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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