This Is the End


Markets, Risk and Human Interaction

July 17, 2009

Goldman and High Frequency Trading

There is a funny attempt at logic going around in trying to explain Goldman’s high earnings:
1. Someone has been charged with stealing code from Goldman, code used for high frequency trading.
2. Goldman made tons of money last quarter.
3. Therefore, Goldman made its money from high frequency trading.

This argument not withstanding, I doubt that Goldman is making much of its money from high frequency trading. For one thing, high frequency trading does not have a lot of capacity. For another, why bother with high frequency trading, an area where there are relatively low barriers to entry and where you have no particular comparative advantage, when you have a screaming money-making franchise that is close to unassailable?

I even wonder if the code really was for a high frequency trading operation. Prosecutors want to paint the most extreme picture possible. So if you listen to them, you will come away thinking the code not only made untold millions for the firm, but if put in the wrong hands it could destroy the Western world. And the person accused of the theft, Sergey Aleynikov, would have had an interest in exaggerating the value of his work to potential future employers – at least before he was apprehended. Granted it might have been valuable for a high frequency shop, but it is more likely is that this code was one component of a broader trading operation, a way to efficiently execute trades, to add value to other systems. We do know, for example, that Goldman – like others – has substantial infrastructure for automated trade execution algorithms as a part of its market making and brokerage business.

More interesting than what this alleged code theft might tell us about how Goldman made money is that it highlights that we have no clue how the firm really did make money. And, more to the point, that the regulators have no clue.

Imagine if early into the current crisis the New York Fed’s Division of Bank Supervision had performed a routine analysis to see where the banks’ profits were coming from. That question would have led to the burgeoning structured products markets. The next questions would have been – or at least should have been – whether those profits came from cutting corners in terms of risk or compliance. Or, whether the scent of yet larger profits might lead to future corner cutting. I gather that such an exercise never took place. (I also wonder why there hasn’t been more finger pointing toward the Division of Bank Supervision, but that is a different matter).

Well, we missed on that one. But maybe it is worth learning from the past and begin asking those questions of the banks as part of the supervisory process. Banks have plenty of ways to make money through questionable means and through imprudent risk taking. Come to think of it, if we ever get to the point of having hedge fund regulation, maybe the regulators should ask the same sorts of questions there, too.

I am in the middle of writing a novel that begins in the midst of the 2008 crisis. In the novel there is an investment bank where one of the trading units gets requests from its clients to price their illiquid inventory. (This is an exercise that occurs in real life, because the clients have to mark to market, and for some assets there is no market. So they go out and get bids from a couple of banks, and then mark at the average of these two prices). This trader puts in incredibly low-ball prices. One bank prices a security at $92. He prices it at $50, leading to a mark to market price of $71. The trader knows that with such a low price, the client will be forced into liquidation mode. The trader positions his book for the forced sale that he helped precipitate, generating big profits from his scheme. This is fiction. But if we have learned one thing over the past couple of years, in the world of finance truth can be stranger than fiction.