New York senator urges ban on 'high-frequency' trades

Section:

By Edgar Ortega and Eric Martin
Bloomberg News
Saturday, July 25, 2009

http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601087&sid=aO8DoToaITO8

NEW YORK -- Charles Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. Senate, asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to ban so-called flash orders for stocks, saying they give high-speed traders an unfair advantage.

Schumer's letter to SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro yesterday raised the stakes in a debate over the practice offered by Nasdaq OMX Group Inc., Bats Global Markets, and Direct Edge Holdings LLC, which handle more than two-thirds of the shares traded in the U.S. With flash orders, exchanges wait up to half a second before they publish bids and offers on competing platforms, giving their own customers an opportunity to gauge demand before other traders.

"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," Schumer wrote in the letter.

Flash orders make up less than 4 percent of U.S. stock trading, according to Direct Edge and Bats. They have drawn criticism from the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, which is Wall Street's main lobbying group, and Getco LLC, one of the biggest firms that uses high-frequency trading strategies to make markets in stocks and options. NYSE Euronext, owner of the world's largest exchange by the value of companies it lists, told the SEC in May that the technique results in investors getting worse prices.

Schumer, a member of the Senate Banking Committee, said he will introduce legislation to ban flash orders if the SEC doesn't act on his request.

"This practice has been going on for three years and didn't get much attention until the New York Stock Exchange" started complaining, said Sang Lee, managing partner at financial-services consultant Aite Group LLC in Boston. "Someone like Chuck Schumer getting involved in the process will create a deeper conversation about where the whole market is headed."

Brian Fallon, a spokesman at Schumer's office in Washington, confirmed Schumer sent the letter. Erik Hotmire, an SEC spokesman, declined to comment. Nasdaq's Robert Madden, Randy Williams of Bats, and Ray Pellecchia of NYSE Euronext also didn't respond. Nasdaq and NYSE are based in New York. Bats has its headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri.

Direct Edge, based in Jersey City, New Jersey, handles the most flash trades through its 3-year-old Enhanced Liquidity Provider program. Chief Executive Officer William O'Brien said in an interview yesterday that it's available to any brokerage and that investors choose to have their orders held to make it more likely they will be executed.

"Anybody can be part of it," he said. "This is something that warrants a debate, and when you have so many competing interests, we think the SEC is in a better position to fulfill that."

The Schumer letter follows concerns expressed by investors and traders that computer-driven strategies executing hundreds of trades a minute make stock prices more volatile and boost costs. NYSE Euronext, operator of the New York Stock Exchange, estimates that about 46 percent of daily volume is executed through high-frequency strategies.

For the past decade, U.S. equity markets have sought to draw more business from high-frequency traders by offering rebates on transaction fees. Exchanges rent space in their data centers to brokerages so they can cut the distance information must travel and reduce transaction times to eke out an edge over the competition.

"You have all this activity going on that in one way or another is preferencing one part of the investing group over another," said Michael Panzner, author of "The New Laws of the Stock Market Jungle" and a Wall Street trader for a quarter century. "That's not good."

More than 75 percent of money managers use computer-driven strategies because they reduce costs, according to a survey this month conducted by Greenwich Associates, a consulting firm in Stamford, Connecticut. For those transactions, they rely on some of Wall Street's largest brokerages, which account for two- fifths of high-frequency trading, NYSE estimates.

Traders including David Lutz say automated brokerages are helpful because they boost liquidity, increasing the likelihood that buyers and sellers will agree on a price. Competition has driven bids and offers for stocks including Microsoft Corp., Citigroup Inc. and General Electric Co. to 1 cent in the U.S., according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

"When high-frequency traders are in the stocks I'm trying to execute, it helps me find the best execution," said Lutz, a managing director of equity trading at Stifel Nicolaus & Co. in Baltimore. "It's completely benign to me."

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