Sunday, August 22, 2010

Phantom quotes

Have you ever got the feeling that your market orders are often filled at prices worse than the NBBO displayed on your trading screen? Apparently, this may be the result of deliberate manipulation of the market by high frequency traders. These HF traders submit thousands of quotes per second to the NYSE ("quote stuffing") and then cancel them within 50 ms. This slows down the exchange data queue so much that by the time a quote is transmitted to you, it is stale already, even if your trading server is collocated at the exchange. (Checking the time stamp of the quote is of no help: the time stamp is based on the time the quote enters the queue, not when it exits the queue.)

If you can no longer believe in the quotes, is there any integrity left in the market? Much as I think that HFT may be useful liquidity providers, I can't see how this specific practice could be good for anyone over the long term.

(Hat tip: Jim Liew of Alpha Quant Club.)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

What are we to do with Sharpe ratio?

I wrote several times before how useless Sharpe ratio is for certain types of strategies: see here and here. Not only is a high Sharpe ratio quite useless in telling you what damage extreme events can do to your equity, a low Sharpe ratio is also quite useless in telling you what spectacular gain your strategy might enjoy in the event of a catastrophe. I came across another brilliant example of the latter category in the best-selling book "The Big Short", where the author tells of the story of the fund manager Mike Burry.

Mike Burry started buying credit default swaps in 2005, essentially an insurance policy on mortgage-backed securities, betting that there will be widespread defaults on mortgages. Of course, we now know how this story would turn out: Mike Burry made $750 million in 2007 alone.  But there was nothing but pain for the fund manager and his investors in 2005-2006, since they had to pay an annual premium of 8% of the portfolio.  Investors who measured the performance of this strategy using Sharpe ratio, without knowing the details of the strategy itself, would be quite justified to think that it was an utter disaster prior to 2007. And indeed, many of them lost no time in trying to pull out their investments.

So what are we to do with Sharpe ratio, with its inherent reliance on Gaussian distributions? Clearly, it is useful for measuring high frequency strategies which you can count on to generate consistent returns every day, but which has limited catastrophic risks. But it is less useful for measuring statistical arbitrage strategies that hold positions over multiple days, since there may well be substantial hidden catastrophic risks in these strategies that would not be revealed by their track record and standard deviation of returns alone. As for strategies that are designed to benefit from catastrophes, such as Mike Burry's CDS purchases or Nassim Taleb's options purchases, it is completely useless. If I were to allocate my assets over different hedge funds, I would be sure to include some funds in the first category to generate cash flows for my daily needs, as well as funds in the last category to benefit from the infrequent black-swan events. As for the funds in the middle category, I am increasingly losing my enthusiasm.