Tag: gambling

Flash Boys Doesn’t Ask the Important Question

Flash Boys cover by Michael Lewis

photo by Patricia Wall/ NYTs

The new book, Flash Boys, by Michael Lewis has reignited the discussion of how our financial markets are rigged by high frequency trading.1 From my 2012 note: 

To turn back to HFTs, why do we need this kind of transaction? How do they contribute to economic growth? These activities are by definition a zero sum game. They are like every other form of gambling a zero sum game. There are winners and losers, but no incremental gain for the economy. Other than enriching the HFTs at cost to others with smaller computers and fewer PhDs on staff what do we get for allowing these activities? Potentially catastrophic destabilization of financial markets? Where is the upside for society as a whole? Isn’t  a primary purpose of any economy to increase the size of the pie, not just to redistribute existing wealth?

We should demand that our financial markets serve their fundamental purposes – connect investors with those who can deploy those resources to create new products and services and enable the flow of these goods and services. To call holding financial instruments whether stocks, bonds, or other assets for mere seconds investments is to beggar the mind. Government needs to step in to penalize economic activity that looks like gambling and certainly does not “grow the pie”. A sliding scale of transaction costs (aka a tax) could bring this to a screeching halt.2 There are sure to be complexities in how to implement such a strategy. But, if at every step we ask how a financial transaction contributes to economic growth at a systemic level, solutions will appear. Right now we have financial markets that are not only rigged but so complex and non-transparent that we are certainly setting ourselves up for future calamities like that which struck us in 2008.

  1. I have written about these issues earlier:  “High Frequency Trading and Deeper Questions about Capitalism” and “Wall St – not about investing but fixing the game” earlier []
  2. We would have to face the international crisis of how to employ all those PhDs currently engaged in the HFT wars []

Wall St – not about investing but fixing the game

playing cards courtesy of Chance Agrella, photographer

photo courtesy of Chance Agrella, photographer

An article in the NY TImes today reports1 that NY Attorney General Schneiderman is pursuing various information providers, Thomson Reuters in the immediate case, for their practices of selling market sensitive information preferntially. Those paying a premium get information several minutes before its release to the general public. This is more evidence that Wall St (standing in here for the financial sector as a whole) is largely a fixed gambling racket. Not much different than a casino.

  1. Regulators Examining Early Sales of Financial Data http://nyti.ms/12hDF3t []

High Frequency Trading and Deeper Questions about Capitalism

A recent PBS Newshour report by Paul Solman on Thursday 3/15/12 in his series “Making Sense of Financial News” gave pause concerning the role of high frequency traders (HFT) on Wall St. (and doubtless on other markets around the world). First, you might ask what are HFTs? These are traders who use computer-based algorithms to select, buy, and sell shares on the markets. The speed of these transactions and the “thinking” that is performed is driving the HFTs to locate in lower Manhattan as close as possible to the main Internet port in the city. The few microseconds saved by not being a half mile away on Wall St. turns out to have great significance to HFTs.

The existence of HFTs first came to public notice when the great “flash crash” took place. On May 6, 2010 at 2:42 pm the Dow Jones industrial average, already down by 300 points that day, suddently lost more than 600 poijts in 5 minutes. 20 minutes later the market had regained the 600 point loss. Investigations pointed to the role of HFTs in these events. Since then there has been a lot of discussion of the stability of financial markets and the potential role of HFTs.

 

The Solman report noted that HFTs represent 2% of all the firms trading on Wall St., but conduct over 75% of the transactions. So, when you here that volume of the Big Board today was 3.56 billion shares (3/26/12) 2.67 billion were traded by HFTS. Solman also noted that the average time a share is held is 22 seconds.

What seems strange is that the question of the function and utility of HFTs is never examined beyond economists trotting out the well worn explanation that they are providing liquidiity to the market. By liquidity they mean the presence of buyers and sellers in the marketplace when someone wants to make a transaction. But is this a serious claim in favor of HFTs? Does this incredible display of computing power really mean anything more than people gambling on a fractional move within a few seconds?

"Capitalism works for me! true/false" by Steve Lambert 2011

Now an aside. In a video presentation1 by Steve Lambert about his work, “Capitalism Works For Me! True/False” he notes that people seem perfectly at ease thinking about global warming and the need to undertake massive changes in the fundamental underpinnings of our world, but when it comes to our economy we engage in endless euphemisms and obfuscations. From his website he says:

“For 50 years it has been unacceptable, politically, in the United States to ask what is basically a straightforward question. We have a particular economic system, it’s called capitalism. We have every right as a society to ask of that system, is it working? Is it working for us? Do the benefits and the costs balance themselves out in a way that says, do we want to keep this system? Or that says, we want to change this system? Or that says, we ought to look at an alternative system. We’ve been afraid to ask that question. We’ve been afraid to have public debates—that’s the legacy of the cold war. We can’t afford anymore to not do that. We have to raise the question.”

To turn back to HFTs, why do we need this kind of transaction? How do they contribute to economic growth? These activities are by definition a zero sum game. They are like every other form of gambling a zero sum game. There are winners and losers, but no incremental gain for the economy. Other than enriching the HFTs at cost to others with smaller computers and fewer PhDs on staff what do we get for allowing these activities? Potentially catastrophic destabilization of financial markets? Where is the upside for society as a whole? Isn’t  a primary purpose of any economy to increase the size of the pie, not just to redistribute existing wealth?

 

  1. I saw this at the the de Cordova Sculpture Garden and Museum in Lincoln MA []

Free Markets – free? markets? – lessons not learned

“Free market” has always struck me as a rather strange phrase. Never more so than in this period of financial market disasters. The phrase ‘free market’ continues to be used reflexively. Just as commentators go right on speaking of Wall St. as a source of capital and innovation, few want to ask out loud why we need most of  Wall St.’s “services”; few people are openly using the most obvious words to describe these services as gambling; and, we go right on using this phrase, “free market” to describe an economy that is not free and in many sectors not a market. A recent exception to this are the comments of Ben Friedman, a professor of economics at Harvard, who said, speaking on the PBS Newshour1  of the continuing high percentage of our “best and brightest” going to employment on Wall St., “…it’s all the more troubling when I think that, after they leave us, so many of them go into activities that are not economically productive for the country, for society, even, just narrowly, for the economy.”

  1. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/jan-june10/makingsense_06-04.html []

Do We Need Wall St. and all the other gamblers in the financial services world?

What Is the Function of Wall St.?

The global financial meltdown of 2008 – 2009 with its ongoing sequelae seems not to have definitively demonstrated the dangers of our continuing belief in the religion of “free markets” nor shaken, especially it seems in the Obama administration, our thrall with Wall St. and all things financial. We are seeing the combined effects of Wall St.’s funding of the Democrats and Republicans, the primacy of Wall St-ers in positions in government,1 and the tendency of the rest of us to want to beat the table and make wonderfully large profits (winnings). A deeper question here is what is the function and usefulness of gambling in the financial markets for our overall economy and society?

  1. Obama did not invent this situation; Wall St-ers have held most of the important economic positions in the government for generations of presidencies. []

Controlling Gambling by Wall St. and the Big Banks – Bad for Business?

Anti-Wall St Does Not Mean Anti-Business

President Obama’s proposals to break up the “too large to fail” mega banks and otherwise reapply the Glass Steagall Act to the financial sector has predictably brought loud complaints that this is populist and anti-business. Even the rhetoric of the reporters and expert talking heads reflects a general bias that anything that we might do to prevent a re-occurrence of last year’s global financial meltdown is anti-business.

How Is It Anti-Business To…. or

Is the New Rule of Banking, “Privatize profits, but socialize losses (risk)”?

As a business person and a citizen I have to point out that having a sector of our economy that caused so much damage to the rest of the economy and citizens continue to conduct themselves in a fashion that is likely to cause a repeat breakdown is not a good state of affairs. How is it anti-business to want to control the gambling addictions of the financial services sector? How is it anti-business to prevent banks and other financial firms to become so large that they can place another call on the the nation’s treasury to bail them out because they indulge another round of gambling with other people’s money through dangerous leveraging? How is it anti-business to want the banking system to perform their primary function that is necessary to make the economy run, that is to take in deposits and make loans? Or, to capture this in a current diddy, we have an economy where for the financial services sector they follow this unique rule of crony capitalism, “Privatize profits, but socialize losses (risk)”.

How Is Gambling With Other People’s Money Good For Us?

Book Review: Diamond Street – Hudson, NY: the story of the little town with the big red light district

Diamond Street by Bruce hallDiamond Street: The Story of the Little Town With the Big Red Light District by Bruce Edward Hall (Black Dome Press, Hensonville NY 1994 and 2005)

This is a fairly readable history of Hudson as seen from the other side of the tracks and from the corrupt office holders in city government and local police. Sheds new light on how Hudson has been dependent for a very long time on “weekenders” to support a significant portion of the local economy. the difference is that the current economy is not dependent on men’s interests in gambling, drinking and sex.

Lots of wonderful stories and much local color and geography. Somewhere a wonderful, marvelous in its excess, statistic appears that Hudson once had 76 bars packed into its 2+ square miles.