High Frequency Traders: Angels or Devils?

36 Pages Posted: 16 Oct 2013

See all articles by Jeffrey G. MacIntosh

Jeffrey G. MacIntosh

University of Toronto - Faculty of Law

Date Written: October 10, 2013


High frequency trading (HFT) is taking world capital markets by storm, notably in the United States and the United Kingdom, where it accounted for about 50 percent of equities trading in 2012, and to a growing extent in other parts of Europe and in Canada.

Are high frequency traders angels or devils in terms of the impact on capital markets? Critics claim the latter and charge that they put retail and institutional investors at a disadvantage. Critics also blame high frequency trading for the “flash crash” on the Dow of May 6 2010 and say it has increased the likelihood of such events happening again. A closer examination of these views is in order.

In this Commentary, I first look at what HF traders do and how HFT differs from traditional market making. I then explore the empirical evidence relating to the effect of HFT on capital markets, and canvass the policy issues that HFT raises. In the final section, I list some recommendations for policymakers with respect to HFT. After surveying empirical studies of HFT, I conclude that it enhances market quality. For example, it lowers bid/ask spreads, reduces volatility, improves short-term price discovery, and creates competitive pressures that reduce broker commissions. Despite being at a pronounced speed disadvantage, retail traders have realized a net gain from the presence of HF traders in the world’s capital markets.

Maintain the Order Protection Rule and Contain the Spread of Dark Pools: To prevent abusive trading practices, protect client interests, and create a level playing field among different trading venues, policymakers should defend the consolidated order book by maintaining and policing the order protection rule and minimizing the leakage of trading from the “lit” markets to “dark pools.”

Do Not Interfere with Maker/Taker Pricing Models: Some observers say maker/taker pricing raises higher trading costs for retail traders, because retail trade orders are typically on the active side of the market, and associated fees are passed on to customers. However, retail traders are about as likely to be on the active as the passive side of the market. Maker/taker pricing may raise costs on the margin, but also lowers bid/ask spreads.

Focus on Circuit Breakers to Prevent “Flash Crashes”: HF traders did not cause the “flash crash,” and instead supply liquidity when markets become volatile. Canadian regulators concerned with preventing similar events should focus on circuit breakers to stop market anomalies before they turn into “flash crashes.”

Keywords: Economic Growth and Innovation, Financial Services

JEL Classification: G10, G18

Suggested Citation

Macintosh, Jeffrey G., High Frequency Traders: Angels or Devils? (October 10, 2013). C.D. Howe Institute Commentary 391, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2340673 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2340673

Jeffrey G. Macintosh (Contact Author)

University of Toronto - Faculty of Law ( email )

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