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Benjamin Blander, who joined the firm in 2004 from Banc One Corp., now leads the high frequency group, which manages a portion of Citadel’s $1.8 billion Tactical Trading fund. Citadel, however, was the only large hedge fund firm I could find that was willing to admit that it does high frequency trading. Most say they use many of the same tools as high frequency traders — employing high-speed computer programs and co-location services to generate, route and execute orders — but that their strategies have a longer time horizon.

“Even the slowest high frequency traders are turning over their portfolios at least a half dozen times a day,” AQR principal Michael Mendelson told me when I met with him in January at the firm’s Greenwich headquarters. “We tend to hold things for at least a day or two, and usually longer.”

Mendelson was head of quantitative equity trading at Goldman Sachs before joining AQR in 2005; he oversees the firm’s statistical arbitrage strategies. He explained to me that high frequency trading doesn’t require much in the way of capital — in fact, it would be hard-pressed to put hundreds of millions of dollars to work. The typical high frequency firm, he added, is likely to have about $5 million in proprietary capital and trade a few million shares a day through a specialized brokerage firm like Lime or Wedbush Securities.

High frequency trading, I learned, is a very low-margin, low-risk strategy. Traders earn less than a penny a share and rarely hold overnight positions. Profits are measured in hundredths of a cent, or “mils,” to use the industry parlance. According to Narang, high frequency traders typically earn about 10 mils, or 0.1 cent, a share trading U.S. equities. One of the attractions of the strategy is its consistency. High frequency traders rarely have losing days. They also tend to do very well during periods of high volatility. May was likely a great month for them.

Narang and other high frequency traders I spoke with gripe about the press, saying that it has often misrepresented what they do and grossly inflated the profitability of their business. They’ve got a legitimate beef. Last summer, a few weeks after the Goldman software-theft news broke, the New York Times ran a front-page story by Charles Duhigg describing how a handful of traders use powerful computers to “reap billions at everyone else’s expense.” The article went on to say that “these systems are so fast they can outsmart or outrun other investors, humans and computers alike,” using flash orders to step in front of those investors. (Under Reg NMS, exchanges were given the ability to “flash” marketable orders electronically for a split second to some professional traders before they are displayed to the broad public.) The article included the bold assertion that high frequency traders generated some $21 billion in profits in 2008.

The source of the data was TABB Group, a New York– and London-based research firm. The problem with the Times story, as I discovered when I met with Larry Tabb at his Wall Street office in early March, was that the $21 billion included a lot more than just high-frequency market making. “That number included anybody following an equities-related time-sensitive strategy that doesn’t take a significant end-of-day position,” the TABB founder and CEO explained. “It is pairs trading, options market making, futures and cash arbitrage, exchange-traded funds.” The profits for the virtual market makers in U.S. equities, he said, were roughly $8 billion in 2008 and $7.2 billion in 2009 and likely to be lower this year because of the drop in volatility and trading volume. (Tradeworx’s Narang says that high frequency trading in U.S. equities generates no more than $2 billion to $4 billion a year in profits overall.)

New York Senator Charles Schumer probably didn’t ask Larry Tabb for clarification after he read the Times article. The very same day it appeared, the longtime lawmaker fired off a letter to Mary ­Schapiro demanding that the SEC do something about high frequency traders and their ability to view order-flow information before the general public by using flash orders. “This kind of unfair access seriously compromises the integrity of our markets and creates a two-tiered system where a privileged group of insiders receives preferential treatment,” he wrote. If the SEC failed to curb flash trades, Schumer threatened to introduce legislation that would.

THE SEC'S NEW HEADQUARTERS IS a marvel of modern architecture. Conveniently located next to Washington’s historic Union Station, the building has a spectacular glass-and-steel atrium where visitors can watch the news on a giant flat-screen television while waiting to make their way into the agency’s inner sanctum. That’s exactly what I was doing one cloudy Tuesday afternoon in late March when John Nester, the SEC’s director of public affairs, came to get me. I’d taken the train down from New York that day to meet with James Brigagliano, deputy director of the agency’s Division of Trading and Markets, and several other members of his team to discuss high frequency trading. The problem was, I didn’t know in advance who was going to be in the meeting, and as Brigagliano and three other staffers from the SEC division filed into the room and quickly introduced themselves, I didn’t catch all of their names. I handed out business cards to each of them in hopes of getting them in return, but only one person (assistant director John Roeser) had brought a card.

It took me about 20 minutes into the interview to piece together the two missing names — “Dan” (who I later found out was market structure counsel Daniel Gray) and “Dave” (associate director David Shillman). Despite my initial confusion, I was impressed with the SEC staff’s knowledge of high frequency trading. We had a wide-ranging discussion, spanning everything from market structure and regulation to Washington politics and financial reform. The SEC’s interest in high frequency trading, I learned, long preceded Schumer’s famous letter to Schapiro last summer (and a similar call from Senator Kaufman for the SEC to do a comprehensive review of market structure). Brigagliano told me that the SEC began hearing about high frequency trading not long after it passed Reg NMS and that his group started working on the equity market structure concept release early last year.

The SEC has a tripartite mission: to protect investors, maintain fair and orderly markets and facilitate capital formation. Although the mandates can sometimes be at odds with one another, getting the first two right can go a long way toward ensuring the third. “We see confidence in the markets as essential for capital formation,” ­Brigagliano told me. “Investors are not going to commit capital if they think that the system is rigged.”

By the time I met with Brigagliano and his team, the SEC had proposed several new rules to help safeguard the market, including the elimination of flash orders and a prohibition against broker-dealers providing clients with unfiltered, or “naked,” access to exchanges and other alternative trading systems. Naked access has been popular among some speed-conscious high frequency traders because it enables them to place buy and sell orders directly with an exchange or trading venue without being slowed down by pretrade credit and risk checks. The SEC’s rule proposal, if approved, would require brokerage firms to create and maintain strict risk management controls for clients that are given direct sponsored access to electronic trading venues.

Of course, one of the biggest problems the SEC and other regulators have faced is that they simply haven’t had the tools or the data to track the billions and billions of trades that fire across the electronic exchanges and trading platforms each day. Although several of the largest high frequency players, like Getco, are registered broker-dealers and have the reporting requirements that go along with that, the vast majority of firms operate in anonymity. In April the SEC looked to change that when it voted to propose the creation of a large-trader reporting system. If the proposal is approved, any firm or individual that trades 2 million shares or $20 million in exchange-listed securities in a day, or 20 million shares or $200 million in securities in a month, will be required to identify itself to the SEC. The agency will then assign that trader a number, which its broker-dealer will use to tag all its transactions, reporting them, upon request, to the SEC.

“The large-trader reporting system will be simple to put in place,” the SEC’s Shillman told me during my March meeting at the agency. “Creating a consolidated audit trail is more complicated, and could take several years, because it requires systems changes at exchanges and broker-dealers.”

The SEC began working on a consolidated audit-trail proposal last summer, consulting with exchanges and broker-dealers on what would need to be done and how much it would cost. On May 26 the agency unveiled its new rule, which would create a consolidated order-tracking system that would enable the agency to access in real time most of the data needed to reconstruct a market dislocation like the flash crash. But progress doesn’t come cheap: The SEC estimates that it will initially cost about $4 billion to build the system and an additional $2.1 billion a year to maintain it. Taxpayers, however, won’t have to worry about footing the bill; the costs would be borne by broker-dealers, exchanges and other trading venues.

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