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Kaufman likes to draw an analogy between high frequency trading and the swaps market. “With synthetic derivatives, you had a lot of money at stake, no transparency and then a major meltdown,” he explained to me. “If you look at high frequency trading, I think the same Kaufman formula works.”

A graduate of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, the 71-year-old Kaufman is a quick study and understands markets. If I were a high frequency trader, I’d take him seriously.

Kaufman has been high frequency trading’s loudest critic. But he’s far from alone. Seth Merrin, founder and CEO of Liquidnet Holdings, which operates an electronic marketplace that provides block trading for institutional investors, likes to compare high frequency traders to the American army during the Revolutionary War. “The institutions are the equivalent of the British army, walking down the battlefield wearing bright red,” he told me back in March in his glass-enclosed office at Liquidnet’s sleek midtown Manhattan headquarters. “The high frequency traders are the Americans hiding in the woods in camouflage, picking them off. If the British army hadn’t changed its tactics, they would have lost every subsequent war.”

Even Duncan Niederauer, who as the pragmatic CEO of NYSE Euronext has been retooling his exchange to attract more business from high frequency traders, took a swipe at them. “We as an industry have to say how much is too much of this technology,” he said during an interview on CNBC after the flash crash, undoubtedly causing some consternation among the folks at NYSE Euronext who are selling space in the company’s new, 400,000-square-foot data center and co-location facility in Mahwah, New Jersey.

High frequency traders say that any efforts to rein in technology would be misplaced. Although speed is important to what they do, the quality of a firm’s computer models for analyzing markets and identifying where and at what price to buy and sell securities is what really determines success or failure, they argue. In their defense, high frequency traders say that they increase liquidity, lower trading costs, improve price discovery and reduce risk by dampening short-term volatility.

“High frequency trading is the liquidity backbone of the equity markets,” Manoj Narang, the founder, CEO and chief investment strategist of Tradeworx, told me when I first met him, in early March. “Long-term investors are the ones who cause bubbles, as well as liquidity crises when these bubbles burst.”

Narang, 40, is one of only a handful of proprietary traders I found willing to talk openly with a journalist about what they do. Most prefer to operate in the shadows, both to protect their valuable algorithms and to avoid regulatory scrutiny. But Narang, who left Wall Street in 1999 to start Tradeworx, sought me out when he heard through a public relations contact this winter that I was working on a story on high frequency trading. His 25-person firm, which operates out of an office above a Restoration Hardware store in Red Bank, New Jersey, trades about 40 million shares a day on about $6 million in proprietary capital. Tradeworx also runs a $500 million statistical arbitrage hedge fund (which trades another 40 million shares a day) and owns a subsidiary, Thesys Technologies, which licenses its high-performance trading platform to other investors.

Narang lifted his profile on May 6 when he revealed to the Wall Street Journal that his firm turned off its high frequency trading computers during the flash crash. Tradeworx wasn’t the only one to do so. Kansas City–based Tradebot, started by BATS founder David Cummings, also stopped trading. Tradebot is one of the world’s two largest high frequency firms, reportedly trading as many as 1 billion shares a day in U.S. equities. Only Chicago-based Getco is thought to be bigger. Although Getco won’t comment on its daily trading volume, a spokeswoman for the firm did tell me that it continued to provide a two-sided market on all the electronic exchanges during the flash crash.

Most high frequency traders, in fact, kept their computers running, according to Jeffrey Wecker, president and CEO of Lime Brokerage. Wecker should know. His firm, which accounts for as much as 5 percent of the daily equity trading volume in the U.S., is the oldest and largest provider of high-speed trading solutions and access to all major U.S. exchanges for high frequency traders.

The high frequency firms that did stop trading on May 6 have been criticized for contributing to the decline by pulling liquidity from the market when it was needed most. But Narang told me that his firm had no choice because the exchanges were likely to cancel, or break, trades that were clearly erroneous (like selling Accenture at a penny a share). “If the exchanges broke all our buys and not our sells, we could have exceeded our capital requirements,” he explained. “We didn’t want to take the risk. The high frequency traders who continued to trade that afternoon made a fortune.”

IN JANUARY THE SEC PUBLISHED A CONCEPT RELEASE on equity market structure, seeking public comment on everything from high frequency trading strategies and systemic risks to co-location and dark pools. At 74 pages, the report might seem like a real snoozer, but it’s actually a great primer on how the U.S. equity markets have responded to regulatory changes, starting in 1996 with the adoption of “order-handling” rules. These new rules, which were designed to make the markets fairer following the Nasdaq price-fixing scandal in the mid-’90s, created ECNs and gave them the power to publish their stock quotes publicly alongside those of the listed markets. In 1999, Regulation Alternative Trading System (ATS) went into effect, enabling ECNs to operate as market centers without having to register as exchanges. By the following year ECNs like Island and Archipelago had taken about one third of market makers’ volume in Nasdaq-listed stocks. But it wasn’t until after April 2001 — the deadline the SEC mandated for all U.S. exchanges to switch from fractions to decimals — that electronic trading really started to take off.

As bid-offer spreads shrunk and competition increased, ECNs and exchanges adopted a “maker-taker” pricing scheme to attract liquidity. Under the maker-taker model, market participants that offer to provide, or make, liquidity by posting an order to buy or sell a certain number of shares at a particular price receive a rebate. Those that execute against that order — that is, take the liquidity — have to pay a fee. Exchanges earn the difference between the rebate they pay and the fee they charge. The SEC limits taker fees to 0.30 cents a share; rebates tend to be lower for economic reasons, but for high frequency firms trading millions of shares a day, they can make for a pretty good living.

“The maker-taker model created an arbitrage that provided incentive for those firms that could properly blend together knowledge of trading, financial economics and computers all into a single, scalable system that could handle high volumes of transactions,” Lime Brokerage CEO Wecker told me back in April when we met at his firm’s Greenwich Village offices.

The final major regulatory change was Regulation NMS (for “National Market System”), which was passed by the SEC in 2005 and went into effect in 2007. One of the key pieces of Reg NMS is the “trade-through” rule prohibiting any exchange from executing a trade at an inferior price to one quoted at another trading venue. Trade-through protection is critical for high frequency traders; it ensures that if they are the first to post the best price for a stock, they’ll get the trade.

“High frequency trading is a product of Reg NMS, decimalization and technology improvements,” says John Knuff, general manager of global financial markets for Equinix, a Foster City, California–based company that runs 87 data centers in 35 key metropolitan areas around the world. “High frequency traders are the democratic enforcers of Reg NMS’s trade-through rules.”

Under Reg NMS, exchanges are required to handle electronic orders immediately or risk having them redirected to other venues. Once the rule was adopted, the NYSE — which even after decimalization had been clinging desperately to its manual specialist system — had no choice but to embrace automation. In 2007 the NYSE switched to a system it called the Hybrid Market, expanding its automatic execution facility, Direct+, and giving specialists the power to create their own algorithms to quote and trade electronically. The hybrid system included circuit breakers, called liquidity replenishment points, that would be triggered if a stock experienced a large price swing, at which time automated trading would stop and human specialists would step in.

That’s exactly what happened on the afternoon of May 6, when the NYSE imposed a trading slowdown in Big Board stocks like P&G and Accenture. Investors who wanted to sell or buy were forced to go to other electronic exchanges or ECNs. Although Nasdaq OMX Group CEO Robert Greifeld and other competitors criticized the NYSE on May 6 for making the meltdown worse, NYSE Euronext CEO Niederauer staunchly defended its actions, pointing out that the exchange did exactly what it should have under Reg NMS. He was vindicated two weeks later when the SEC proposed instituting similar circuit breakers for all exchanges that would pause trading in any stock in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index if its price moved 10 percent or more in a five-minute period. The new circuit breaker rule, which is likely to be approved by the SEC this month, would go into effect on a pilot basis through December 10, at which point the regulator could expand it to other stocks and exchange-traded funds.

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