Sunday, September 20, 2009

Are flash orders really so bad?

I confess I don't know much about flash orders, not being one of the Big Boys on the Street, until I read that the SEC is banning them. (For a clear diagrammatic explanation of flash orders, see here. For a refutation of some of the myths and misunderstanding surrounding flash orders, see here.)

It seems to me that flash orders can be understood as "request for liquidity" issued to various potential market makers/liquidity providers, not unlike the usual "request for quotes" (RFQ) common in other industries. They are issued when there is not enough liquidity on a specific exchange to satisfy an investor's need, and they ultimately benefit investors by lowering their transaction costs. The fact that high frequency traders are able to make lots of money by providing this liquidity is besides the point. Liquidity providers are supposed to make money by providing liquidity!

Some people, including Senator Charles Schumer and this New York Times op-ed, believe that flash orders are akin to front-running, a clearly illegal trading activity. But they are wrong. Front-running means that if you know someone is going buy a stock, you step in front of them
and buy it cheaply first, hoping to sell it to this slower buyer at a higher price. In the case of flash orders, the high frequency traders are instead selling this stock to the original investor, often at a lower price than available elsewhere and thus benefiting this investor, hoping that the prices will come down in the future after this liquidity need subsides. This is manifestly not illegal. This is what a market is built for!

Another way to understand that flash orders are not at all front running is that anybody, including you and me, are free to put in limit orders at the same price as those of the high frequency traders, way ahead of time, in a specific exchange, and become liquidity providers ourselves. You don't have to wait for a "request for liquidity" before doing so. And presumably you will reap the same benefits as the high frequency traders. You are not taking any additional risks over the HF traders either, since if no requests for liquidity ultimately arrive, you are not any worse off for wear. You cannot begrudge the profits of the HF traders just because you didn't put the limit orders in place beforehand!

Maybe there are some other angles which I miss which can convince me that flash orders are evil. But until my kind readers convince me otherwise in the comments section, I will regard this piece of legislation as another SEC attempt at demagoguery.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Can a trader be a do-gooder?

It occurs to me that the only way in which a trader can become more than a completely selfish, self-enriching, narcissistic person is to trade well enough so that you can manage other people's money and thus saving these investors from crooks and charlatans (provided you are convinced you are not a crook and charlatan yourself).

Other traders have advanced other arguments in favor of trading. But I am not convinced by them.

They say that we provide liquidity to other long-term investors who may need to liquidate their investments. But then, this applies only to mean-reversal strategies. Momentum strategies take away liquidity from the market, and in some cases exacerbating price bubbles. Certainly not something your grandma would approve.

Others argue that momentum strategies help disseminate information about companies through quick price movements. But can't we just watch Bloomberg or CNBC? Do we really need some devious insiders to convey that information to the rest of us through price movements?

No, I think that independent trading should serve only one purpose (besides short-term self-sustenance): as training and preparation to become a fund manager. Once you graduated from independent trading, you then enter into the grand contest among all fund managers to see who can best serve and protect investors' assets, (and be rewarded according to your standing in this contest.)

I know, this is the idealistic way to look at things. Serving and protecting seem to be what policemen should be doing, not traders. But as in quantitative trading, I think it helps one becomes more successful in one's activities by having a simple guiding principle or model. And it doesn't hurt that in this case, the principle would also be conscience-nourishing!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Have you traded 10,000 hours yet?

Author Malcolm Gladwell, in his fascinating bestseller "Outliers: The Story of Success", cites neurological research showing that "10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert." This seems to apply across many different types of experts, whether they are "writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players ... Even Mozart ... couldn't hit his stride until he had his ten thousand hours in".

Reflecting on my own experience, I have become consistently profitable only after 4 years of actual trading (research alone doesn't count -- real money need to be at risk.) So while the number of hours may not be exactly 10,000, the order of magnitude is about right.

So if your trading has not been profitable, ask yourself this: "Have I traded 10,000 hours yet?"