You know that image of the trading floor? The sweaty guy screaming, yelling, shouting “Sell! Sell! Sell!” and waving at a big screen?
Author Michael Lewis says it’s all fake: “The New York Stock Exchange is really just a backdrop for TV shows.”
In his new book Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, Lewis tells the story of a shift to “computer time” on the markets, that “it’s all been automated in the last decade. All the meaningful stuff happens in black boxes,” which has serious implications on human high-frequency traders.
He tells the story through one trader, Brad Katsuyama. One night in 2008, Katsuyama pushed a button and realized the market seemed to anticipate what he was going to do before he did it. It was as though someone was “front-running” the whole process. As he investigated, he realized that, in fact, they were. High-frequency traders had begun using tricks to make money off other people’s trades, by making the same trades milliseconds earlier.
Kastsuyama called it “rigged” against individual investors. And Lewis agrees:
“Imagine a casino that wants to create a new poker game, and it wants to get people into the poker game. It goes to a handful of good poker players and it says, ‘Hey if you sit at this table you can deal the cards, and you alone will know that the decks have no fours, no nines and no queens in it. Then they go to tour bus companies and say ‘Bring in tourists to come play against these guys. We’re not going to tell those people that there are no queens or nines or fours in the decks.
Of course, the guys who know the missing cards have this huge tactical advantage over the suckers who roll into the casino…. Basically, in this analogy the casinos are the stock exchanges, they provide this unfair edge to the high-frequency traders who are the card sharks and investors are the guys on the tour bus.”
In short: The NYSE doesn’t look like this anymore.