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"How the Robots Lost: High-Frequency Trading's Rise and Fall"




One of HFT’s objectives has always been to make the market more efficient. Speed traders have done such an excellent job of wringing waste out of buying and selling stocks that they’re having a hard time making money themselves. HFT also lacks the two things it needs the most: trading volume and price volatility. Compared with the deep, choppy waters of 2009 and 2010, the stock market is now a shallow, placid pool. Trading volumes in U.S. equities are around 6 billion shares a day, roughly where they were in 2006. Volatility, a measure of the extent to which a share’s price jumps around, is about half what it was a few years ago. By seeking out price disparities across assets and exchanges, speed traders ensure that when things do get out of whack, they’re quickly brought back into harmony. As a result, they tamp down volatility, suffocating their two most common strategies: market making and statistical arbitrage.


As profits have shrunk, more HFT firms are resorting to something called momentum trading. Using methods similar to what Swanson helped pioneer 25 years ago, momentum traders sense the way the market is going and bet big. It can be lucrative, and it comes with enormous risks. Other HFTs are using sophisticated programs to analyze news wires and headlines to get their returns. A few are even scanning Twitter feeds, as evidenced by the sudden selloff that followed the Associated Press’s hacked Twitter account reporting explosions at the White House on April 23. In many ways, it was the best they could do.

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