Exchange-Traded Funds, Market Structure and the Flash Crash

Posted: 25 Sep 2011 Last revised: 12 Mar 2019

Date Written: October 10, 2011


The “Flash Crash” of May 6, 2010 saw some stocks and exchange-traded funds traded at pennies only to rapidly recover in price. We show that the impact of the Flash Crash across stocks is systematically related to prior market fragmentation. Interestingly, fragmentation measured based on quote competition – reflective of higher frequency activity – has explanatory power beyond a more standard volume-based definition. Using intraday trade data from January 1994-September 2011, we find that fragmentation now is at the highest level recorded. We also show divergent intraday behavior of trade and quote fragmentation on the day of the Flash Crash itself. The link to higher frequency quotation activity and the current high levels of fragmentation help explain why a Flash Crash did not occur before and offers a counterpoint to the view that the Flash Crash stemmed from an unlikely confluence of events. Controlling for fragmentation, exchange-traded products were differentially affected reflecting the difficulty in pricing component securities. Market structure reforms enacted since the Flash Crash should help mitigate future such market disruptions, but have not eliminated the possibility that another Flash Crash would occur, albeit with a different catalyst and perhaps in a different asset class.

Keywords: Flash Crash, Market Microstructure, Fragmentation, ETF

JEL Classification: G20

Suggested Citation

Madhavan, Ananth, Exchange-Traded Funds, Market Structure and the Flash Crash (October 10, 2011). Available at SSRN: or

Ananth Madhavan (Contact Author)

BlackRock, Inc. ( email )

400 Howard Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
United States

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