Flash Geeks and Other Vagaries of Life …..

By Edward A. Studzinski

“The genius of you Americans is that you never make clear-cut stupid moves, only complicated stupid moves which make us wonder at the possibility that there may be something to them which we are missing.”

                Gamal Abdel Nasser

Some fifteen to twenty-odd years ago, before Paine Webber was acquired by UBS Financial Services, it had a superb annual conference. It was their quantitative investment conference usually held in Boston in early December. What was notable about it was that the attendees were the practitioners of what fundamental investors back then considered the black arts, namely the quants (quantitative investors) from shops like Acadian, Batterymarch, Fidelity, Numeric, and many of the other quant or quasi-quant shops. I made a point of attending, not because I thought of myself as a quant, but rather because I saw that an increasing amount of money was being managed in this fashion. WHAT I DID NOT KNOW COULD HURT BOTH ME AND MY INVESTORS.

Understanding the black arts and the geeks helped you know when you might want to step out of the way

One of the things you quickly learned about quantitative methods was that their factor-based models for screening stocks and industries, and then constructing portfolios, worked until they did not work. That is, inefficiencies that were discovered could be exploited until others noticed the same inefficiencies and adjusted their models accordingly. The beauty of this conference was that you had papers and presentations from the California Technology, MIT, and other computer geeks who had gone into the investment world. They would discuss what they had been working on and back-testing (seeing how things would have turned out). This usually gave you a pretty good snapshot of how they would be investing going forward. If nothing else, it helped you to know when you might want to step out of the way to keep from being run-over. It was certainly helpful to me in 1994. 

In late 2006, I was in New York at a financial markets presentation hosted by the Santa Fe Institute and Bill Miller of Legg Mason. It was my follow-on substitute for the Paine Webber conference. The speakers included people like Andrew Lo, who is both a brilliant scientist at MIT and the chief scientific officer of the Alpha Simplex Group. One of the other people I chanced to hear that day was Dan Mathisson of Credit Suisse, who was one of the early pioneers and fathers of algorithmic trading. In New York then on the stock exchanges people were seeing change not incrementally, but on a daily basis. The floor trading and market maker jobs which had been handed down in families from generation to generation (go to Fordham or NYU, get your degree, and come into the family business) were under siege, as things went electronic (anyone who has studied innovation in technology and the markets knows that the Canadians, as with air traffic control systems, beat us by many years in this regard). And then I returned to Illinois, where allegedly the Flat Earth Society was founded and still held sway. One of the more memorable quotes which I will take with me forever is this. “Trying to understand algorithmic trading is a waste of time as it will never amount to more than ten per cent of volume on the exchanges. One will get better execution by having” fill-in-the blank “execute your trade on the floor.” Exit, stage right.

Flash forward to 2014. Michael Lewis has written and published his book, Flash Boys. I have to confess that I purchased this book and then let it sit on my reading pile for a few months, thinking that I already understood what it was about. I got to it sitting in a hotel room in Switzerland in June, thinking it would put me to sleep in a different time zone. I learned very quickly that I did not know what it was about. Hours later, I was two-thirds finished with it and fascinated. And beyond the fascination, I had seen what Lewis talked about happen many times in the process of reviewing trade executions.

If you think that knowing something about algorithmic trading, black pools, and the elimination of floor traders by banks of servers and trading stations prepares you for what you learn in Lewis’ book, you are wrong. Think about your home internet service. Think about the difference in speeds that you see in going from copper to fiber optic cable (if you can actually get it run into your home). While much of the discussion in the book is about front-running of customer trades, more is about having access to the right equipment as well as the proximity of that equipment to a stock exchange’s computer servers. And it is also about how customer trades are often routed to exchanges that are not advantageous to the customer in terms of ultimate execution cost. 

Now, a discussion of front running will probably cause most eyes to glaze over. Perhaps a better way to think about what is going on is to use the term “skimming” as it might apply for instance, to someone being able to program a bank’s computers to take a few fractions of a cent from every transaction of a particular nature. And this skimming goes on, day in and day out, so that over a year’s time, we are talking about those fractions of cents adding up to millions of dollars.

Let’s talk about a company, Bitzko Kielbasa Company, which is a company that trades on average 500,000 shares a day. You want to sell 20,000 shares of Bitzko. The trading screen shows that the current market is $99.50 bid for 20,000 shares. You tell the trader to hit the bid and execute the sale at $99.50. He types in the order on his machine, hits sell, and you sell 100 shares of Bitzko at $99.50. The bid now drops to $99.40 for 1,000 shares. When you ask what happened, the answer is, “the bid wasn’t real and it went away.” What you learn from Lewis’ book is that as the trade was being entered, before the send/execute button was pressed, other firms could read your transaction and thus manipulate the market in that security. You end up selling your Bitzko at an average price well under the original price at which you thought you could execute.

How is it that no one has been held accountable for this yet?

So, how is it that no one has been held accountable for this yet? I don’t know, although there seem to be a lot of investigations ongoing. You also learn that a lot here has to do with order flow, or to what exchange a sell-side firm gets to direct your order for execution. The tragi-comic aspect of this is that mutual fund trustees spend a lot of time looking at trading evaluations as to whether best execution took place. The reality is that they have absolutely no idea on whether they got best execution because the whole thing was based on a false premise from the get-go. And the consultant’s trading execution reports reflect none of that.

Who has the fiduciary obligation? Many different parties, all of whom seem to hope that if they say nothing, the finger will not get pointed at them. The other side of the question is, you are executing trades on behalf of your client, individual or institutional, and you know which firms are doing this. Do you still keep doing business with them? The answer appears to be yes, because it is more important to YOUR business than to act in the best interests of your clients. Is there not a fiduciary obligation here as well? Yes.

I would like to think that there will be a day of reckoning coming. That said, it is not an easy area to understand or explain. In most sell-side firms, the only ones who really understood what was going on were the computer geeks. All that management and the marketers understood was that they were making a lot of money, but could not explain how. All that the buy-side firms understood was that they and their customers were being disadvantaged, but by how much was another question.

As an investor, how do you keep from being exploited? The best indicators as usual are fees, expenses, and investment turnover. Some firms have trading strategies tied to executing trades only when a set buy or sell price is triggered. Batterymarch was one of the forerunners here. Dimensional Fund Advisors follows a similar strategy today. Given low turnover in most indexing strategies, that is another way to limit the degree of hurt. Failing that, you probably need to resign yourself to paying hidden tolls, especially as a purchaser or seller of individual securities. Given that, being a long-term investor makes a good bit of sense. I will close by saying that I strongly suggest Michael Lewis’ book as must-reading. It makes you wonder how an industry got to the point where it has become so hard for so many to not see the difference between right and wrong.

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About Edward A. Studzinski

Ed Studzinski has more than 30 years of institutional investment experience. Until January of 2012, he was a partner at Harris Associates in Chicago, Illinois. Harris is known for its value-oriented, bottom-up investment approach that frames the investment process as owning a piece of the business relative to the business value of the whole, ideally forever. At Harris, Ed was co-manager of the Oakmark Equity & Income Fund (OAKBX). During the eleven plus years that he was in that role, the fund increased more than 35 times in size. Concurrently Ed was also an equity research analyst, providing many of the ideas that contributed to the fund’s success. He has specialist knowledge in the aerospace & defense, financial services, and spirits & tobacco industries, having followed and owned companies as diverse as Alliant Techsystems, Catellus Development, GATX, General Dynamics, InBev, Kirby, Legacy Hotels, L-3, Nestle, Partner Re, Philip Morris International, Progressive Insurance, Rockwell Collins, Safeco Insurance, Teledyne, Textron, and UST. Before joining Harris Associates, over a period of more than 10 years, Ed was the Chief Investment Officer at the Mercantile National Bank of Indiana, and also served on their Executive and Asset-Liability Committees. Prior to Mercantile, Ed practiced law. A native of Peabody, Massachusetts, he received his A.B. in history (magna cum laude) from Boston College, where he was a Scholar of the College. He has a J.D. from Duke University and an M.B.A. in marketing from Northwestern University. A Chartered Financial Analyst, Ed belongs to the Investment Analyst Societies of both Boston and Chicago. He is admitted to the Bar in Illinois, the District of Columbia, and North Carolina.