Category: financial innovation

High-Frequency Trading Round-up

Reuters has three interesting articles on high-frequency trading:

High-frequency trading surges across the globe

Geeks trump alpha males as algos dominate Wall St

Who’s afraid of high-frequency trading?

Size Really Does Matter…for ETFs

Via Abnormal Returns:

We are no strangers to the world of ETFs, but the following observation took us by surprise.  A single fund, the iShares MSCI Emerging Markets Index Fund (EEM) generates some $240 million in revenue per annum for its sponsor.  Ian Salisbury at WSJ goes on to note how lower trading costs have kept EEM on top against its much thriftier competitor the Vanguard Emerging Markets Stock ETF (VWO).  In short, size matters in the ETF industry.  And by industry, we mean industry.

There certainly are benefits to size in the ETF world, but there is a downside as well. Funds that were originally thought to be niche products have in some cases have seen explosive growth.  This growth has put pressure on their ability to produce the returns they set out to generate.  Therefore owning an ETF that invests in gold, commodities, or junk bonds is not the same thing as holding the underlying asset(s).

In some of these cases the ETF industry has tried to take something that is complex and make it seem simple.  Unfortunately something can get lost in the translation.  In addition the issuance of an ETF can change the dynamics of a market, something not always contemplated prior to a fund launch.

That is not to say that being too small in world of ETFs is not a problem as well.  We have written about the risks of so-called orphan or “zombie ETFs” that are too small and illiquid.  One need not look far to see that a broad swath of the ETF industry is potentially on the chopping block.

…ETFs can be a wonderful tool for investors, but ETFs are also a business.  A big business.  If you want to continue playing in the ETF sandbox make sure you know the distinction between a good ETF and a bad ETF.  Because the ETF sponsors are not going to tell you which is which.

Read the full post here

The Problem with Securitization

James Kwak from Baseline Scenario:

The boom in securitization was based on investors’ willingness to believe what investment banks and credit rating agencies said about these securities. Buying a mortgage-backed security is making a loan. Ordinarily you don’t loan money to someone without proving to yourself that he is going to pay you back (or that the interest rate you are getting will compensate you for the risk that he won’t pay you back). The securitization bubble happened because investors were willing to outsource that decision to other people — banks and credit rating agencies — who had different incentives from them.

Are investors going to go back to that mindset? Do we want them to? It seems to me the rational investor response is this: “I have no idea what is in those securitization trusts. I don’t trust the banks, since they are taking fees out of each deal. I don’t trust the credit rating agencies, since they are being paid by the banks, and don’t have enough staff and expertise to do the job properly. I don’t trust the models, because they’re wrong. There’s no way I can do the analysis myself. So I’m not buying.”

Read the full post here

How ETFs Are Like Mortgage-Backed Securities

Via FT Alphaville:

Bedlam Asset Management takes a look at exchange traded funds in its latest market commentary. Specifically, at how — largely because of greed — a sound concept has once again potentially been bastardised by the financial industry.

As Bedlam notes, ETFs started off as a simple and good idea. They were convenient for investors, easy to understand, affordable, the natural successor of earlier market structures  like futures.

But then — unhappy with the ETFs’ solid but low returns — the industry turned to financial rocket scientists to try and beef up the ETF game. Or as Bedlam observes:

Like alcoholics, investment bankers can never have enough, but in the ETF markets they had made a mistake. For the annual management charges and the dealing commissions were set at a low, thus fair, price to make them attractive.

Having established these precedents, it proved hard to raise the profitability for their managers and thus skin the investor. Banks really dislike steady, recurrent low fee income from low-risk products as they can never cover their bloated overheads; so they consulted their rocket scientists.

They invented the ‘Almost as Safe ETF’, but with a much higher fee base. Some started using derivatives and other opaque financial instruments to offer an increase in value twice that of the price gain of the underlying gold or other commodity. These attracted more trading and higher fees too.

The next phase, as Bedlam notes, was similar to the development of asset-backed mortgage securities. The industry thinking appeared to be:

Why not have gold ETFs not backed by gold at all but say by gold shares, with price differences smoothed out through ever-liquid derivatives and hedges?

And the risk (and fees) just kept getting greater:

The ability to play around globally in multiple types of listed paper generated even more commissions; and because these vehicles were far more complex — but still very safe — management fees charged could be higher for enhancing the rise or fall relative to the underlying commodity. The die was cast. As it worked so well, and profitably, for bullion and then hard commodities why not apply it to others such as sugar, cocoa or coffee? Why not to anything not nailed down? So ETFs spread like a virus; the market went fissile. Having dredged most commodities — yes, there are even lean hog ETFs over which you can buy an OTC put — investment bankers took the final leap of taking it back into actual listed companies.

Read the full post here

The Impact of High-frequency Trading

Via Knowledge@Wharton:

According to some estimates, high-frequency trading by investment banks, hedge funds and other players accounts for 60% to 70% of all trades in U.S. stocks, explaining the enormous increase in trading volume over the past few years. Profits were estimated at between $8 billion and $21 billion in 2008.

Some market observers, members of Congress and regulators are worried. Are those profits coming out of ordinary investors’ pockets? Is Wall Street’s latest qet-rich-quick scheme going to harm innocent bystanders? “I don’t think it would hurt people to become educated as to the intent of these strategies,” says Wharton finance professor Robert F. Stambaugh. “What is their effect on the markets? There is a little sense of 2001: A Space Odyssey [in that it] does kind of create an air of mistrust.”

Its defenders say high-frequency trading improves market liquidity, helping to insure there is always a buyer or seller available when one wants to trade. And so far, high-frequency trading doesn’t look threatening, according to several Wharton faculty members. Indeed, it may well provide benefits to mutual fund investors and other market participants by reducing trading costs. But at the same time, several note that not enough is known about how trading at light-speed works, whether it can be used to manipulate markets or whether benign-looking moves by different players could interact to produce a new financial crisis.

“High-frequency trading involves investors with good computers taking advantage of small discrepancies in prices,” says Wharton finance professor Marshall E. Blume. “Generally, economists think that drives prices back to where they should be…. If they bring liquidity to the market and make prices more accurate, then that’s good. Now a concern, which is hard to document, is that somehow these traders manipulate the market, which would be bad.”

Turning decision-making over to machines has not always benefited humans, notes Wharton finance professor Itay Goldstein. “People believe the crash of ’87 was caused by this kind of computer-based trading.” In that case, a vicious cycle swirled out of control as computerized trading programs dumped stocks in response to falling prices, causing other programs to do the same.

Traveling at Light Speed

High-frequency trading refers to computerized trades seeking to profit from conditions too ephemeral for a human to exploit, like a miniscule increase in the spread between bid and ask prices for a given security, or a slight price difference for a stock traded on various exchanges. Trading is so fast that some firms locate their server farms near the exchange’s computers, to shorten the distance orders must travel through cables at light speed.

Aside from being made possible by the proliferation of high-speed computers, high-frequency trading has evolved out of several regulatory changes. In 1998, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Regulation Alternative Trading Systems opened the door to electronic trading platforms to compete with the major exchanges. A couple of years later, the exchanges started quoting prices to the nearest penny rather than 16th of a dollar, causing spreads between bid and ask prices to narrow and forcing traders who made money on those price differences to look for alternatives. Finally, the SEC’s Regulation National Market System of 2005 required that trade orders be posted nationally instead of only at individual exchanges. This allowed quick-moving traders to profit when a stock traded at a slightly different price at one exchange versus another.

With the effects of the subprime crisis still being felt, regulators and lawmakers are especially alert to any dangers that might lurk in unfamiliar Wall Street products and strategies. Alarm bells started going off with news accounts this summer about “flash orders,” a subset of high-frequency trading that exploits regulatory loopholes to give favored traders notice of orders a fraction of a second before they are transmitted to everyone else. Flash trading has been widely condemned as giving a favored few an unfair advantage.

“Some people are getting advantages that others aren’t, and that may lead to abuse,” says Wharton finance professor Franklin Allen. “It is a form of front running.” Front running, which is generally illegal, means improperly profiting by using advance information to jump ahead of someone else’s trade. In the textbook example, a broker receives a customer’s order to buy a stock for up to $10 a share. The broker buys the shares at the market price of $9.75 and sells them to his customer at $10, cheating the customer out of 25 cents a share. Flash orders can do the same thing, much faster and more often.

Flash trading now appears to be on the way out. In mid-September, the SEC proposed a ban, and the Nasdaq market quickly moved to prohibit the practice. A number of firms that had offered flash trading to clients have exited the business. The SEC ban requires a second vote by commissioners to become final.

Because many people have been unclear about the distinction, the flash-trading controversy has triggered worries about high-frequency trading, which involves strategies that appear to be perfectly legal. In some cases, high-frequency traders test prices by issuing buy or sell orders that are withdrawn in milliseconds, giving those traders insight into investors’ willingness to trade at specific prices. High-frequency traders can also earn tiny profits, millions of times over, from “rebates” provided by exchanges to players willing to buy and sell when there is a shortage of other traders.

Read the full article here

In Defense of Financial Innovation

Robert Shiller writing in the FT:

The problem is that financial breakdowns come with low frequency. Since flaws in the financial system may appear decades apart, it is hard to figure out how some new financial device will behave. Moreover, because of the low frequency of crises, people who use financial instruments often have little or no personal experience with the crises and so trust is harder to establish.

When people invest for their children’s education or their retirement, they are concerned about risks that will not become visible for years. They may not be able to rebound from mistaken purchases of faulty financial devices and they may suffer if circumstances develop that create risks that could have been protected against.

Thus, to facilitate financial progress, we need regulators who ensure trust in sophisticated products. They must work towards clearing the way to widespread use of better products, concerning themselves with both safety and creative ideas. They must not simply be law enforcers against the shenanigans of cynical promoters, but also be open to making complex ideas work that have the potential to improve public welfare. Unfortunately, the crisis has sharply reduced trust in our financial system.

…Unfortunately, people do not trust some good innovations that could protect them better. The innovations in mortgages in recent years (involving such things as option-adjustable rate mortgages) are not products of sophisticated financial theory. I have proposed the idea of “continuous workout mortgages”, motivated by basic principles of risk management. The privately issued mortgage would protect against exigencies such as recessions or drops in home prices. Had such mortgages been offered before this crisis, we would not have the rash of foreclosures. Yet, even after the crisis, regulators seem to be assuming a plain vanilla mortgage is just what we need for the future.

Another example of a potentially useful innovation is the target-date fund (also called life-cycle fund) that invests money for people’s retirement in a way that is specifically tailored for people their age. Such a fund plans for young people to take greater risks and for older people to invest more conservatively. Target-date funds, first introduced by Wells Fargo and BGI in the 1990s, are growing in importance, but few people commit the bulk of their portfolio to such funds, or make use of target-date funds that might make adjustments for their other investments. It appears that people do not fully trust that these funds are designed correctly, or would protect them from crises.

…It is critical that we take the opportunity of the crisis to promote innovation-enhancing financial regulation and not let this be eclipsed by superficially popular issues. Despite the apparent improvement in the economy, the crisis is not over and so the public continues to support government-led interventions. Doing this means encouraging better dialogue between private-sector innovators and regulators. My experience with regulators suggests that they are intelligent and well-meaning but often bogged down in bureaucracy. Regulatory agencies need to be given a stronger mission of encouraging innovation. They must hire enough qualified staff to understand the complexity of the innovative process and talk to innovators with less of a disapprove-by-the-rules stance and more that of a contributor to a complex creative process.

Read the full article here

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