Free Markets, Not So Free –Again

Every few weeks we get another example of how the deified Free Markets of the Western World are not so free at all.  Free markets suppose that information about the goods being bought and sold is full, and that all interested parties have access to it, so that a ‘fair’ agreement can be reached between seller and buyer as to its value.

Full knowledge about the goods being sold is the first thing a budding entrepreneur seeks to hide.  The most recent way to do this is through complexification:  make a financial derivative so complex that no one can understand it, then pitch it hard enough and the buyer goes on hope and greed, never mind the knowing.

Books Flash BoysMichael Lewis, in his newest book, Flash Boys, shows us another cohort of free-market fanatics who sell the line and don’t believe in it at all:  high-speed traders.  Throw enough money and technology to sneak a peak and jump the line in trades, making pennies per share for multi-million share trades and a very nice profit happens — at the expense of those who, not knowing, pay a little “value-stolen” tax.

Lewis appeared on 60 Minutes Sunday, March 30, 2014 in a piece called “Is the U.S. Stock market rigged?

High-frequency traders, big Wall Street firms and stock exchanges have spent billions to gain an advantage of a millisecond for themselves and their customers, just to get a peek at stock market prices and orders a flash before everyone else, along with the opportunity to act on it.

Michael Lewis: The insiders are able to move faster than you. They’re able to see your order and play it against other orders in ways that you don’t understand. They’re able to front run your order.

Steve Kroft: What do you mean front run?

Michael Lewis: Means they’re able to identify your desire to, to buy shares in Microsoft and buy ’em in front of you and sell ’em back to you at a higher price. It all happens in infinitesimally small periods of time. There’s speed advantage that the faster traders have is milliseconds, some of it is fractions of milliseconds. But it”s enough for them to identify what you’re gonna do and do it before you do it at your expense.

Steve Kroft: So it drives the price up.

Michael Lewis: So it drives the price up, and in turn you pay a higher price.

Lewis also had a compressed version of the book in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, April 6, 2014  with much more of the technical details of how the skimming worked.

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.”

Joe Nocera, at the Times, is impressed with the detective work of the small group who figured out what was happening and came up with a solution, of sorts, to keep the high-speed traders at the same speed as everyone else, though he thinks Lewis tells a story too perfectly at times.

William Alden at the Times’ “Deal Book” has a short precis of the book and alerts us to a live yelling match on CNBC between William O’Brien, the president of the BATS Global Markets exchange, who was clearly enraged and Lewis and Katsuyama.

O’Brien ought to be yelling as investigations of the practice have been begun in multiple places, one of which will certainly make changes to the legality of the peep-hole these traders have enjoyed for years.

It’s all pretty damned interesting.  Probably won’t get people to the barricades but it may be another straw in the growing bale of perception that wealth creation is more and more a rigged game, whose rules are written by the riggers and their hired politicians.

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