03 September 2009

"Let's Just Whack the Oil"

“The markets used to be about capital formation,” said Mr. Quast, the consultant. “Now 80 percent of trading is driven by some form of statistical arbitrage. We are buying into a statistical house of cards that could unravel very quickly.”

Reading the NY Times article excerpted below, one finds that Optiver is a rather small time operation with a wonkish bent operating out of the Netherlands, with profits that barely match a decent US tradering department's annual bonus.

But the method which they are using is similar to the techniques being used by many of the large 'market makers' who are 'providing liquidity' while reaping large and improbably consistent profits by manipulating markets.

The manipulation itself is nothing new. Large Wall Street banks have been using their size to push the markets around for many years, as in the case of Citigroup which was caught manipulating prices in European bond trading. Citigroup Fined Over 'Dr. Evil Bond Strategy

Then of course there was the manipulation of the energy markets by Enron, which held the state of California hostage.

The difference is that in the past the manipulation was implemented using the size of the trades and the deep pockets backing them. Size mattered, and the techiques were not elegant, more like an old-fashioned smash and grab.

Today the bias is towards stealth and speed, and colocation of your trading daemons with the Exchange to obtain an edge on information and execution. Having key regulators and politicians on your payroll is always a plus in any organized criminal activity.

No wonder China is so angry about the derivatives losses being realized by their State Owned Enterpises. The manipulation around key prices and dates in many US markets has been apparent for some time, with a wink and a nod around option expirations for example.

But now this manipulation is getting so blatant and widespread and regular that it is crippling daily market operation, not to mention robbing the general public of millions of dollars every day in their 401K's, pensions, and investment accounts. It has more of the appearance of organized crime than it does of a financial system.

Optiver was guilty of manipulation it appears, but also of being small and Dutch, and a competitor to the larger gangs of New York and London.

It will be more impressive when the CFTC and the SEC finally does something to clean up the markets by taking on the too big to fail banks that are sucking the life out of the US national economy and destroying the integrity of price discovery and the markets around the world.

To accomplish this, the US must dismantle the partnership in profits between Wall Street and the national government, which is morphing into a kind of velvet coup d'etat.

Yes, the markets used to be about capital formation. And capitalism used to involve risk management, with the consequence of profit and loss. But when Robert Rubin, then Treasury Secretary for Bill Clinton decided it was less expensive and more convenient to artificially buy the SP futures market through the Working Group on Markets, and manipulate prices rather than to suffer a messy stock market decline and clean up afterwards, moral hazard was unleashed. And so here we are today

We hope but do not believe that the impetus for reform will come from the US government, or financial industry, or even the voting public which the elites are now ignoring. After all, they don't pay the bills. It will come from the other governments and regulators of the world, who it appears have finally had enough interference and disruption of their economies and markets from US dollar colonialism.

NY Times
Inquiry Stokes Unease Over Trading Firms That Shape Markets
By Landon Thomas Jr.
Published: September 3, 2009

LONDON — Its superfast, supersecret oil trading software was called the Hammer.

And if the Commodity Futures Trading Commission is right, the name fit well with an intricate scheme that allowed commodity traders in Chicago working for Optiver, a little-known company based in Amsterdam, to put their orders first in line and subtly manipulate the price of oil to the company’s advantage.

Transcripts and taped conversations of actions that took place in 2007, included in the commission’s case, reveal the secretive workings of high-frequency trading, a fast-growing Wall Street business that is suddenly drawing scrutiny in Washington. Critics say this high-speed form of computerized trading, which is used in a wide range of financial markets, enables its practitioners to profit at other investors’ expense.

Traders in the Chicago office of Optiver openly talked among themselves of “whacking” and “bullying up” the price of oil. But when called to account by officials of the New York Mercantile Exchange, they described their actions as just “providing liquidity....”

Optiver describes itself as one of the world’s leading liquidity providers, a trading firm that uses its own capital to make markets. It seeks to profit on razor-thin price differences — which can be as small as half a penny — by buying and selling stocks, bonds, futures, options and derivatives. (Derivatives represent about 65 percent of its business, equities 25 percent, and commodities and others make up the remaining 10 percent.)

But the extent to which market making (providing liquidity to markets that need it) and proprietary trading (the pursuit of pure profit with a firm’s own money) can properly coexist has become a thorny question for regulators. They are grappling with an exploding business that makes up as much as half the overall trading in the United States and a growing share in Europe as well...

These are proprietary trading shops that are masquerading as market makers,” said Tim Quast of Modern IR, a consulting firm that advises corporations on market structure issues.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has opened up an investigation into high-speed-trading practices, in particular the ability of some of the most powerful computers to jump to the head of the trading queue and — in a fraction of a millisecond — capture the evanescent trading spread before the rest of the market does...

Called low-latency trading, this blend of speed and opportunism is the essence of Optiver’s business model.

It deploys a sophisticated software system called F1 that can process information and make a trade in 0.5 milliseconds — using complex algorithms that let its computers think like a trader. And the company is so careful about preserving its secrets that when some traders and engineers left for a rival operation recently, Optiver hired private investigators and subsequently sued the former employees on charges of making off with intellectual property...

Mr. Dowson acknowledges that Optiver was so aggressive in conducting its proprietary trades in some smaller stocks that their activities “were as big as the volume traded on the day.”

It is precisely this — high-powered computers and the swagger of those who operate them — that is causing worries over high-frequency trading’s increasing sway. (No one can touch 'the-bank-that-must-not-be-named' for swagger - Jesse)

“The markets used to be about capital formation,” said Mr. Quast, the consultant. “Now 80 percent of trading is driven by some form of statistical arbitrage. We are buying into a statistical house of cards that could unravel very quickly.