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Flash Boys
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on April 2, 2014
I retired from the hedge fund world and I can tell you that this book is mostly on target. For those who deny that HFT (high-frequency trading) is a rigged game, either they are un-informed or disingenuous.

It wasn't always like this. There was a time, when a bid was a bid, and an ask was an ask. If you liked the ask, you could hit the buy button and have a buy order confirmed instantly. Likewise, if you liked the bid, you could hit it and have a sale order confirmed instantly. That instant used to be measured in seconds or less. Then came along the HFT algo. All of a sudden, a bid is no longer a firm bid, and an ask is no longer a firm ask. You can hit the bid, but instead of selling instantly, you now become the ask price, and the bid just got lowered by a penny or more, and the market is moving away from you. Most of the time, the price move is a head fake - an illusion, trying to get you to trade at a price with "scalping" built-in against you. If you are willing to stick around, the precise price you want will return and you can have your trade. But other times when execution really matters, it was all real, the price you were willing to trade at just got shifted permanently right before your eyes and somebody "front-run" you.

I decided to retire, partly out of disgust, partly out of my lack of financial ambition. I learned a while ago, if the first million can't make you happy, that you have to accumulate more, you will never be content. If you have to play the rigged game to add more riches to your money pile that most human beings will never see in their lifetime, I feel sorry for you. Life is too short for me to play that game.

Addendum: This book was written for the lay person, so was my review. Sorry for not bandying about the jargons as some would expect, my bad. As much as I tried, I seem to have failed to write in plain English and draw the analogy to a functioning market. That's where Michael Lewis' book excelled, hence my recommendation. Granted, true free market doesn't exist in the financial world (no matter where you look, New York/London/Chicago/Tokyo). Only the naive will expect any market to give all participants the same level of positioning to engage in any transaction. My favorite analogy is my local farmers' market. When I show up to buy strawberries, some farmers/dealers have way more information on the supply and demand, and have inventory to reflect their view. They will rightfully make a profit when I buy the basket of strawberries from any of them. What I don't want to see is some jerk get in the way and buy up all the strawberries just before I hand my money to the seller, then turn around and sell the strawberries to me as if he had been the seller all along. The price quoted at my farmer's stand should be the price I can buy strawberries at, not a new price some jerk just jacked up to after seeing my intention to transact. I hope the description above clears any doubt about what this book is really about. It's not about someone having some legitimate edge after doing extensive research, or illegitimate edge resulting from inside information. It is about the financial market must be well functioning and free of unnecessary intermediation. That said, still two thumbs up on the book! For those who deny the unfairness of HFT front-running, either you haven't seen it (which should disqualify you from commenting on this topic) or you are so jaded that you can't see its harm (which begs questions about your integrity). As for myself, still happily retired after a short stint in the world of finance, thank you very much! I never learned much and never enjoyed rattling off the jargons.
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If you have been watching economic news this week, you will have heard that the British pound collapsed in a “flash crash.” Most news stories leave it at that. (I suspect that’s because they don’t know what a flash crash really is.) Put simply (and in Flash Boys Michael Lewis explains this recurring phenomenon quite simply) a flash crash is how high frequency traders use computers, multiple exchanges and time to abuse the rules. Now that I’ve summarized that, let me back up a second and deconstruct the sentence. First, what are the rules? In 2007, after brokers were found to have been abusing customers’ trust once too often, the government came out with what’s called Reg NMS. This regulation (and here I am just going to quote Michael Lewis directly because I don’t think I can say it any better than he did). Reg NMS mandated that brokers buy shares at the best price. “To define best price, Reg NMS relied on the concept of the National Best Bid and Offer. If an investor wished to buy 10,000 shares of Microsoft, and 100 shares were offered on the BATS exchange at $30 a share, while the full 10,000 listed on the other twelve exchanges were offered at $30.01, his broker was required to purchase the 100 shares at Bats before moving on to other exchanges.”

This meant that anyone with a computer can see where a purchase is going to be made and for how much. So if you have a faster connection (and several exchanges where you can sell a few shares of a stock, you can already see how you can make money.) Sure, you won’t make a lot of money from any one trade. Maybe less than half a cent here and half a cent there. But that adds up. I know this from first-hand experience. The other day at work, I was trying to calculate what would the cost be of a service was excluded from a package of services. And my calculation kept being almost a billion off. I did it and re-did and re-did it every which way I could think of. I even pulled down my stats book to see if my math was off. Nothing. I got up and went for a cup of coffee just to take a break from this ridiculous problem and when I sat down again, I saw it. It was a rounding error. To be exact it was a rounding error in the one/thousandth decimal place. But I was dealing with billions of dollars and that rounding error made quite a difference. So yes, parts of pennies add up. But wait, there’s more.

The way the best price is computed is when an exchange computes all the bids and offers on a particular stock. This computation is done by a government computer and if you know one thing about government, you will know that it takes years to upgrade computers. That means that if you have your own, faster computer you can “front-run” the official best price and sell and buy 100s of shares at the “real” best price. Sure it will be a “rounding error” but as I said before, those rounding errors matter. So a rule that was intended to create equity and transparency in the market in fact institutionalized inequality between the traders who had access to the super-fast computers and those who did not. Only the former would make money from these rounding errors.

But wait, there is yet more. To make full use of Reg NMS you also need many different exchanges or dark pools and dark cables. And guess what, both exist. Dark cables are cables that are optimized for speed of transaction. Sure it’s a millisecond difference or even less but in that time you can get a lot of rounding errors. Dark pools are, in essence, proprietary exchanges. They exist to make it easier for institutional investors (like the folks to whom you entrust your pension and mortgage, for example) to trade in large blocks. So, for example if you have one million shares of Microsoft you want to sell (or buy) but don’t want your identity known, you would rather sell/buy those shares away from the glaring eye of the public transaction. Here’s the problem, if your are a high frequency trader, you (by definition) have a super-fast computer and access to dark cables. That means you can “ping” the many, many dark pools that have been set up. By some estimates, 40% of all trading is now done inside dark pools. And that in turn means you can know, well before the government-issued slow computers have finished calculating the best price what the real selling price is. That’s one heck of a rounding error in your pocket.

And finally, to make all this work, you need volatility. All volatility means is that the price of something moves up and down a lot. And obviously if it does that, there is a lot more room for a high-frequency trader to essentially insert him/herself in the middle of that trade. Basically here’s the way it works. You want to buy those 10,000 shares of Microsoft for $30. There’s a dark pool that will sell 100 of them to you for that price. I, as a high-frequency trader, ping that dark pool, know what the price you’re willing to buy for is and all the other prices out there and where you will buy from next. So I go and buy the next batch of Microsoft shares that are selling (as you will recall at $30.01). Now, your broker, by law, has to come and buy the shares from me. Except I sell the shares now at $30.1001. And right there, in less than the blink of an eye I have made almost $10. And that’s from a mere 9,900 shares—a small trade. So what high-frequency traders do in effect is charge a tax for trading. And that tax (like most taxes) makes economic activity, in this case people’s willingness to trade to decrease. It also means that flash crashes, caused when a front-running computer algorithm gets too clever by half, are inevitable.

In Flash Boys, Lewis explains all of this a little at a time. In some ways, the book reads like a great detective story. And like a great detective story, it is eminently readable because at its heart is a kind of hero: Brad Katsuyama. Brad sets out to hire a lot of computer programmers to beat the system. First he introduced Thor. This was a platform that enabled you to trade more slowly and then a brand new exchange called IEX (an exchange—and yes, it got the license to be an actual exchange) that did the same thing. The idea behind Thor and IEX seems counter-intuitive but in a high-frequency world it works. If you trade many thousands of shares per trade, then it makes sense that your order should arrive at all the exchanges/dark pools at the same time. That way no-one can ping/front-run you. You will not, in other words, be paying a tax on your trade. So to get the high-frequency traders out of the loop, you need to trade just slowly enough that your orders arrive at all exchanges at the same time.

This is the story of how Brad and the motley crew he gathered around him came up with that idea, the push-back they initially got from the industry and how they eventually sold the industry, including Goldman Sachs, on the concept. It is a story well worth reading. I highly recommend it.
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on June 21, 2017
This is a classic Michael Lewis book. It reads quickly. The topic is fascinating. The content is extremely insightful as the true technicalities of High Frequency Trading are either not covered or not understood even by the investment related media.

Michael Lewis book follows three intertwined narratives.

First, he opens the black box on what is high frequency trading (HFT). How it works, how it extracts rent profits from investors in the stock markets. There are currently over 50 stock market exchanges: 13 are public, and the rest are dark pools. The more market exchanges there are, the more arbitrage and front running opportunities there are for high frequency traders (HFTs) to exploit.

Second, it narrates the history of the Investors Exchange (IEX) founded by a righteous quant type bunch who decided to start a stock market exchange that would eliminate all the HFT rent seeking strategies so to deliver a fairer market price to institutional investors trading on their platform.

And, third it follows the strange life and career of the Russian computer programmer Sergey Aleynikov. He worked for two years for Goldman Sachs from 2007 to 2009 to render their computer trading systems faster and more competitive within the high speed world of HFT. He left Goldman Sachs with his computer codes that Goldman Sachs deemed proprietary. Goldman Sachs had him arrested by the FBI in 2009, and ever since he has been either engaged in trials prosecuted by Goldman Sachs or in jail.

This third narrative also covers the ambiguous and evolving engagement of Goldman Sachs in HFT. At first, it attempts to become an engaged competitive high frequency trader itself. And, that is when it hired Aleynikov to improve its trading computers’ speed. Later, it will realize that chasing the HFTs in a speed competition is a losing proposition. And, it will become the only major Wall Street investment bank to fully support the Investors Exchange (IEX) to counter and neutralize the nefarious impact of HFTs.

Going back to the first narrative, High Frequency Trading extracts rent profits from institutional investors (and their retail investors) in three ways.

The first way is by beating the investor to the stock market gateway and quickly buying and reselling the stock to the investor at a small profit. They call it “electronic front-running.” To do that, you need to be fast. That is where the nano second trading speed comes in. The “co-location” of the HFTs servers next to the ones of the exchanges plays a major role by reducing the electronic distance travelled and maximizing trading speed.

The second way is by exploiting a complex system of kickback and rebates on trades implemented by the various exchanges themselves. They call it “rebate arbitrage.”

The third way appears similar to electronic front-running, except that the HFTs exploit minute price discrepancies between the various exchanges before the exchanges themselves have had a chance of correcting those. They call it “slow market arbitrage”. Apparently, of the three rent seeking strategies this is the most lucrative one for the HFTs.

The above strategies are implemented within a market universe that is alien to individual investors and most institutional investors. This market universe has interesting characteristics. Its foundational one is an unfathomable stock trading speed measured in the 1/10000 of a second. Such speed relies on extra fast fiber optic networks and computer servers located extremely closely to the servers of the stock exchange themselves. Another characteristic is the HFTs purchasing customer order flows from the Wall Street brokerage houses. The latter now make more money from selling those customer order flows to HFTs than from trading itself. In essence, Wall Street sells proprietary customer order information to the HFTs, so the HFTs can front run these same customers (their stock orders). And, somehow SEC laws have still not caught up to this apparent infraction of the integrity of the stock markets. That’s even though the mentioned HFTs rent seeking strategies are at least a decade old.

So, next time when you think your brokerage house is acting in your best interest, think again. It is acting in the best interest of the HFTs and itself by making money on selling your order information to the HFTs. And, we are talking millions if not billions of dollars in total annual revenues for the Wall Street brokerage houses.

Going back to the second narrative, to correct for all those markets flaws exploited by the HFTs, Brad Katsuyama, a former trader at Royal Bank of Canada, will create a “fair” exchange: the Investors Exchange (IEX) in 2012. This exchange takes specific infrastructure measures to entirely eliminate all the exploitative advantages of HFTs including: 1) ensuring market pricing data arrives at external points of presence simultaneously; 2) slightly delaying market pricing data to all customers (no co-location, HFTs servers are not allowed proximate to the IEX servers); and 3) IEX refuses to pay for order flow and does not offer related trade rebates of any kind. The majority of Wall Street banks and HFTs will do everything possible to kill this emerging “clean” exchange in its infancy. This is because they collectively extract yearly rent-profit in the $billions on the back of retail and institutional investors. However, as mentioned one of the main player will break rank as Goldman Sachs ultimately decides to support IEX by routing a good portion of its trades to IEX. Goldman Sachs understands that what IEX is doing to restoring integrity in the equity markets is critical. And, as a result IEX survives. Nevertheless, it is not entirely encouraging when evaluating how much impact IEX has in restoring the integrity of the US equities markets since it captures less than 3% of its volume to this day. In other words, over 97% of such market trading volume still is done under the exploitative rent-seeking system abused by the HFTs (electronic front running, etc.) and the other Wall Street banks (making more money from selling their customer order flows than actual trading).

The third narrative about Sergey Aleynikov and Goldman Sachs evolving position regarding HFT is very interesting because of its ambiguity. Aleynikov used mainly open source software to develop his codes to improve Goldman Sachs computer speed. When he accepts an offer to join Teza Technologies (who offered to triple his compensation from $400k to $1.2 million), he decides to copy and take his computer code on a USB drive. At such point, Goldman Sachs aggressively pursues him (gets him arrested by the FBI, tried, and jailed). At the time, Goldman Sachs considered the mentioned computer codes to be proprietary and critical to its competitive position within the HFT environment.

Michael Lewis will engage with many industry insiders (HFTs, computer programmers, etc.) and solicit their opinion on whether Aleynikov was truly guilty of stealing proprietary company codes or not. Almost unanimously this crowd of insiders advance that Aleynikov was innocent. And, that his practice of copying his own open source based codes when he moved to another employer is absolutely standard within the computer programming community. Aleynikov also indicated that he had no use for Goldman’s proprietary codes as they were very cumbersome catered to Goldman’s antiquated legacy computer systems. When Michael Lewis talked to outsiders like institutional investors, they were far less lenient. And, they typically considered that Aleynikov was clearly guilty of stealing proprietary codes.

As indicated, Goldman Sachs at first vigorously pursues Aleynikov in order to protect its position in terms of trading speed within the world of HFT. Much later, when it decides to give up on the speed competition and decides to do just the opposite by supporting IEX, Goldman Sachs does not pursue Aleynikov as adamantly anymore. But, by then the legal system takes a life of its own. As a result, some of the related lawsuits are still going on to this day. Aleynikov is nearly bankrupt and has an online legal defense fund to raise money to mount his defense and reclaim his innocence.
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on April 14, 2014
If you've seen the talking heads on the news and business cable channels or read their online comments pooh-poohing this book, after having read the book I can say with a fair amount of certainty the those talking heads probably haven't read this book. So don't let those naysayers turn you away from this book.

The naysayer will tell you that high frequency trading doesn't hurt the individual investor because it's just a few pennies to them. But multiply that by all the trades done by all the individual investors over a year and now you're talking billions of dollars that have been taken out of the hands of the investors and put into the pockets of the HFTs who basically contribute nothing to the market.

It's a compelling story and well written, although I found the organization of the book to be a little disjointed at times.

I've worked in the IT industry for four decades and am intimately familiar with the networking technology discussed in the book. While Michael does an admirable job explaining the technical issues clearly and concisely, those not familiar with the technology may find those parts of the book a bit overwhelming.

It's an interesting cast of characters that come together to try and make things right in the market.
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on June 1, 2014
It is interesting how the author Lewis is held in high regard but the overwhelming comments on both CNBC and Fox Business reflect a disregard for the way certain HFT traders do rig the market so that they skim. I do trade on a limited basis and I am allowed to use two decimal points while the speedy guys can use 4 decimal points. The comments made say that the spread is great and liquidity is wonderful. That may be true but I can watch a trade and if I leave my bid I can watch my bid being beat by the 3rd and 4th decimal point. the speedsters are shuffling the bids around, canceling them and sometimes buying but in any event it is obvious they are skimming the market. Why is it that the objective of the market is not forced into being long term. On the one hand I can understand liquidity but why can't that be accomplished without letting some HFTers skim. It is not reasonable that they would spend the money it took to beat everybody if there was no real gain.
The market is not rigged so that you should stay our of it but it is rigged for unnecessary gambling. Read the book and tell me Lewis is not onto something. Hopefully IEX can become an exchange and survive the onslaughts from the big powers.
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on March 3, 2015
Not as good as Moneyball (but that's a really high bar - 6 stars if Amazon allowed it); much better than The Big Short (which was unsatisfying to read on a plane without WiFi to look up all the technical stuff Mr. Lewis didn't make sufficiently clear) or Boomerang (which reads like a "clip show" of sorts to provide an outlet for all the material Mr. Lewis dug up but couldn't find a way to fit into The Big Short). It's nice to read a story about the financial crisis that actually has a hero after reading so many about villains, and fortunately (because in this case the hero is a bland Canadian who never quite jumps off the page like Billy Beane does) he's surrounded by a fascinatingly quirky supporting cast. The technical material is covered well, too. After two disappointing Lewis reads in a row, this is enough to ensure that I'll buy his next book.
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on September 5, 2017
Searching for a nanosecond advantage over competition...to game the system. Turns out to be fascinating and the people who keep trying to level the playing field is even better.
I continue to be drawn in as the people and their stories unfold.
I Highly recommend this book for anyone who has an IRA, 401k or owns stocks and bonds.
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on April 27, 2017
This book was great. Reading Michael Lewis is usually a sort of exercise in anger management for me, but he writes so well, I don't like to put him down. This story was almost a David and Goliath sort of underdog tale about some guys who took on Wall Street to found what they considered an honest stock exchange. Lewis also goes into great depth describing High Frequency Trading and how computers have completely changed our traditional notion of the stock market from a big room full of yelling people (think Trading Places) in colored blazers to an empty room full of servers all talking to each other. It was a fascinating book and I think anyone interested in learning how Wall Street works ought to read this book. Then, go out and get all Lewis' other books, too.
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on May 2, 2014
God Saved Us From Those Who Say They Are Just Trying to Help Us Have A Comfortable Retirement. I became curious about this book after the author was interviewed by Charlie Rose. I have an idea about sin. When we prayer the "Jesus Prayer" ... "Lord Jesus have mercy on me a sinner." And I admit I don't know much about other religions ... but in whatever terms we can agree on ... We could exchange the word sinner with "human" because we all screw up from time to time. But, those you plan, build, and prepetrate the kind of fraud described in this book are, below human and completely evil. It was go news that a few good men and women are trying to change an American Instution that is seeking sordid advantage with little regard to moral or legal bars.
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on September 18, 2015
A detailed financial treatise that reads like a white-knuckle thriller for anyone with ANY money in the stock market (which is just about everybody who works for a living). I'm just getting into careful investing after turning 66 and discovering that my 403b account lost 1/3 in 2008-2009, and never recovered its value--probably due to collusion between the fund managers and the so-called Flash Boys on Wall Street. I found the book depressing at first, because of the I-Got-It-First ethics of "investment advisors" on Wall Street, but the last half of the book is a success story for ethics and hope. Both as a learning tool and as a factual novel, this is my best read for 2015 so far. I'm sadder, wiser, and a little hopeful after reading this: a pretty good combination for living after 2008.
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