Peter Cochrane's Blog: High-speed trading? It's just a dangerous sham

There's no benefit to mankind and it fails to create one iota of real value...

Canary Wharf, London

London is the biggest financial market in the world but New York is the most automated with about 80 per cent of its trades completed by machinesPhoto: Lars Plougmann

Written in Greece at Ithaca harbour and dispatched to via a 2.3Mbps 3G connection three days later from a bay off Meganisi.

No doubt about it. Our world is speeding up and latency is being minimised. However, our past experience in the physical and virtual domains says instability usually lies at the end of this road, if not along the way.

A new undersea cable linking the UK and US is being planned to follow the great circle route for the first time, and may be dedicated to just one industry - finance.

How come? It will cut six milliseconds off the flight time for transiting photons - about a 10 per cent improvement - which could translate into hundreds of millions of pounds in profit in high-frequency trading markets.

As a precursor, a direct cable between New York and Chicago was laid last year to shave off three milliseconds from the existing more circuitous route.

While London is the biggest financial market in the world, New York is the most automated with about 80 per cent of its trades completed by machines. Each operation has its own trading algorithms and network, and traders know first-hand what a difference a few microseconds can make, let alone milliseconds.

High-speed traders make money from small transient offsets and instabilities in markets. In this fractional trading, fractions of a second matter, and the race is on for the fastest hardware, software and networks.

Chip, circuit and system designers have been making steady progress in this arena for decades, but their contributions in the race to zero latency are measured in nano- and microseconds.

The new transatlantic cable will eclipse everything that has gone before. But of course, as each institution signs up for this service, the end point is a zero-sum game with everyone back to square one.

Even the financial markets cannot speed up photons, or increase the speed of light - no amount of money affects the basic laws of physics - and zero latency will never be achieved.

In a vacuum, photons travel at 299,792,458 metres per second, but in an optical fibre the refractive index of glass slows photons down to around 200,000,000 metres per second. There is some latitude for adjusting this index to gain further small reductions in the transit time, but that's about it.

However, there is one obvious move that might be a really big winner. You could...

By Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.