The iconic image of harried Wall Street traders screaming out their orders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange is now a thing of the past as computers have not only taken over trading, but are doing it in a way that puts many investors at a huge disadvantage.
Instead of yelling out orders on the trading floor, Wall Streeters are now using computers to make trades in milliseconds and to anticipate what their competitors are going to do and beat them to the punch, said author Michael Lewis on 60 Minutes. The ability to control this level of technology is rigging the market in favor of the tech have to the detriment of the have nots.
"The United States stock market, the most iconic market in global capitalism is rigged," Lewis said on the show.
Lewis went on to say that humans have basically been removed from the stock market equation and it is entirely run by computers. The programming is so advanced that when it sees a human-based order come into the system the computer can go out and by that exact stock at a lower price and then turnaround and sell it to you at a higher rate before the first order even goes through the system. When this is done at normal human speeds, it is called front-running and is illegal. However, Lewis said when this happens through a computer, it is okay.
"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," Lewis said.
However, there is a white hat amid all the bad guys. Brad Katsuyama, formerly a head trader with the Royal Bank of Canada and who has recently started the Investors Exchange (IEX), figured out what is taking place and has come up with an oddball, but totally practical solution.
Electronic trades are all routed through one of several public trading computer centers in the country. Basically what the front runners were doing was taking note of the trade as it passed through the first trading computer, usually located close to the source of the trade, then it would go out and buy that stock before the original trade made it to its final destination. At that point the first computer would sell its newly purchased stocks to the trader at a higher price.
What was needed was a way to slow down the computerized ordering system. At first Katsuyama created a program that sent his orders on a roundabout route to their exchange where they would be traded. This avoided passing through the closest computer and thus evened the playing field. Then Katsuyama took his game to a whole new level by opening up his own stock exchange, the IEX. Here his technicians literally created a speed bump in the system by splicing in 60 kilometers of fiber optic cable between the IEX and the high-frequency trade computers.
"But essentially, a high-frequency trader, if he tries to react on the IEX exchange, his trade goes (makes noise) for 60 kilometers until, so he's, he's in east Jesus," Lewis said.
The IEX has gained a large following among investment houses as a trustworthy trading center that enables them to trade without being caught by an intermediary.