Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Insanity of Stock Trading in the 21st Century

As anyone who's read my blog or otherwise knows me is aware, I have more than my share of criticisms of capitalism. I am not sure it is possible to come up with a better economic system than one that is market-driven. I am very certain, however, that our political system - whose sole purpose should be to protect and improve the quality of life of its citizens - must put boundaries around the behavior of capitalists.

In other words, the political system must taken priority over the economic system.

OK, well, let's put that aside for the moment. Let's just focus on the concept and then the current reality of the stock market.

The fundamental point of a stock market, from what I understand, is to provide a way for companies to obtain investment - and, closely related to that, allows an individual to make such an investment, to both express support for a company and benefit from its success.

That all sounds good to me, and I have certainly participated in the stock market over the last few decades. Now, my wife and I are contemplating selling any and all stock we have and avoiding the stock market like the plague.

Why? Because the entire system seems so fundamentally corrupted, so deeply oriented towards speculation (legalized gambling), so out of control, that it is now a destructive force in our society. And the aspect of the stock market that I think most clearly demonstrates all of this is computerized trading.

Here are a few quotes and links to articles that really drive this home for me:

Nanosecond Trading Could Make Markets Go Haywire

"It’s as if computerized trading has created a new world, one where the usual rules don’t apply, populated by algorithms and only dimly understood by the people who made them...."There’s this whole world below 650 milliseconds. It’s like landing on another planet,” said Neil Johnson, a complex systems specialist at the University of Miami and co-author of the study, released Feb. 7 on arXiv. “It’s an enormous part of the market which is out of human reach."

Yes, that's right folks - an "enormous part of the market which is out of human reach."

"One new computer chip built specifically for high-frequency trading can prepare trades in .000000074 seconds; a proposed $300 million transatlantic cable is being built just to shave 0.006 seconds off transaction times between New York City and London.)"

Think about this: a company spending $300 million to lay a cable across the Atlantic just to make stock transactions .006 seconds faster! Blows my mind to think about all the effort, all the money - and perhaps one or persons will die in accidents laying that cable? - just so some Wall Street and London firms can trade that tiny fraction of time faster!

"Verifiable figures are elusive and estimates vary wildly, but it is claimed that a one millisecond advantage could be worth up to $100m (£63m) a year to the bottom line of a large hedge fund."

It is now estimated that some 70% of all stock transactions occur through computerized trading and they happen so quickly and so frequently that they clearly have nothing at all to do with investment and economic growth.

These transactions are all about "gaming" the system, manipulating stock prices (and the conditions that drive stock prices up and down), to extract profit out of that system without providing any benefit to the stock market, the society, the world.

I know, I know - what a whiner. And I will keep on whining - all the way out of the stock market.