Monday I received an unexpected gift: a brand new Michael Lewis book on a topic I’ve been obsessing on for quite a while now.
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The new book – Flash Boys – uncovers the world of high frequency trading and the efforts by a handful to create an honest exchange. I’ve barely cracked it but I’m already hooked. In fact, I’m going to go read it right now and so I’ll just leave you today with a couple of videos.
The first is a segment from 60 minutes. If you don’t understand high frequency trading, 60 Minutes does a decent job explaining it. The piece starts with Lewis indicating that the market is rigged – it is – but the money quote is about honesty and it comes at the very end.
Then Justin Burslie and I watched Lewis on CNBC in a piece that descended into one of the most ridiculous segments I’ve ever experienced on television. First you had one of the hosts, Sue Herera, seemingly more worried about giving people the (correct) impression that the markets are rigged and what impact that might have on people’s willingness to invest. (Ironically, she later claimed to be a journalist when she asked Michael Lewis if he owned stock in the new exchange he was reporting on.)
Then, if you watched that 60 Minutes piece, you caught a reference to the BATS exchange, a powerful exchange that is well positioned to enable the worst of the worst high frequency traders. Well, CNBC had the president of BATS on along with Brad Katsuyama, the guy who has started the honest exchange that thwarts the high frequency skimmers, and it was just surreal. CNBC later called it “The fight that stopped NYSE trading” (oh if that were only true) but it was more like a petulant baby caught with their hand in the cookie jar. See for yourself.
Why is this important? Our cities are being kept afloat, and the painfully hard choices we are facing at the local level kept distant, by an incredibly fragile – and massively deformed – global financial system. At some point this system is going down, and this time it is going to take governments with it. High frequency trading, along with the global derivatives market including credit default swaps, are the loaded trucks driving over the rickety bridge. Someday they are going to topple the bridge. We’ll blame the last overloaded truck even though it was really the systematic problems with the rickety bridge, but it won’t matter either way. We are still going to have a colossal mess and the day of reckoning for all of our local governments will arrive in earnest.
When I would say this years ago, many people thought I was crazy (many still do), but then we all woke up one morning to the Treasury Secretary, the President and the Speaker of the House telling us that, if Congress didn’t appropriate nearly a trillion dollars to Wall Street banks within 24 hours, grocery store shelves would be empty by week’s end. In a world where that is a possible outcome – and it is possible – the idea that we could be okay with turning the pricing mechanism of our markets over to front-running algorithms (essentially lines of code) is reckless beyond belief.
The gap between the rich and the poor in this country is not the problem we face. It is the symptom. The problem is a financial system, entwined with a system of governance, which protects and enriches the privileged, powerful and well-positioned. Michael Lewis is trying to sell books, no doubt, but if you’ve followed his writing career, you know he could have made a lot more money a lot easier by just playing the game he has now spent almost three decades exposing.