Trying to Blame High-frequency Trading for Facebook’s Nasdaq IPO Eclipse? Look Elsewhere

Posted on May 21, 2012. Filed under: Economy, Exchanges, Regulations, Securities and Exchange Commission, Technology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

The Speed Traders Workshop 2012, How High Frequency Traders Leverage Profitable Strategies to Find Alpha in Equities, Options, Futures and FXBob Greifeld, Nasdaq OMX’s Chief Executive Officer, has said on Sunday that the 20-minute delay in trading of Facebook’s $16bn offering last Friday had been caused by a millisecond systems blip due to the largest IPO auction “in the history of mankind”. The exchange had found itself in the spotlight after Facebook failed to deliver a first-day “pop” to investors, instead almost falling below its issuing price of $38. The shares, having risen briefly, quickly fell away to close the day with a gain of just 0.6%, at $38.23.

The fact that the glitch is just coming just weeks after BATS Global Markets, a firm that catered mainly to speed traders, was forced to withdraw its IPO after technical problems, nicely plays into the hands of critics who blame high-frequency trading for all types of financial and economic malaise.

For instance, Giuseppe Vegas, Chairman of Consob, Commissione Nazionale per le Società e la Borsa, Italy, suggested last week that high-frequency trading may pose systemic threats to markets and warrant bans. “Legislators and authorities need to ask themselves if certain types of innovation are good or bad for savers,” Vegas said in a speech at the Italian securities market regulator’s annual meeting in Milan today. Legislators shouldn’t hold back from “simply banning the spreading of dangerous practices and products,” he said.

“Financial innovation can be positive but legislators and authorities must avoid that it becomes a mechanism that wipes out families’ savings,” he said. That begs the question of the real possibility of high-frequency trading having any impact on families’ savings.

Nasdaq has now laid out the details of the glitch. In spite of testing 1bn in trading volumes under 100 scenarios, the exchange was caught by surprise when cancellations of trades kept interrupting the computer system’s attempt to complete the auction and produce an initial price for Facebook’s opening. Nasdaq says it designed its “IPO cross”, the process of calculating the opening price, in such a way that would allow continuous trading through an auction at the behest of its customers and has used the system in previous IPOs.

But in processing the huge volume of Facebook trades, it added two milliseconds to the time it took to produce an opening price. In those extra two milliseconds, orders to cancel the trades kept interrupting the auction process. That doesn’t seem to touch high-frequency trading at all, as shares were not even changing hands yet. As a result of the glitch the exchange decided to print the opening trade manually but was then forced to delay the process of confirming individual trades.

Systems blips and glitches will always happen as humans cannot possibly test all scenarios technical implementations will face. People can take advantage of financial innovation in a number of ways and it’s the role of regulators to make sure these ways are within the existing legal framework. Financial innovation travels fast and now becomes not a challenge for single regulatory bodies but for all of them to coordinate the best way to approach regulation and keep markets transparent and fair for all participants worldwide.

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