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...

...locate the trading machines' mid-cable span between financial markets - on a boat or in a submarine perhaps?

But if you haven't already spotted the travesty here, permit me a short rant.

All this effort does not benefit mankind in any way. It changes nothing fundamental and does not create one iota of value. All it does is shave off money from the wholly illusionary activity of creating virtual value. None of this technology existed until about 1995 and it's already been cited as contributing to numerous market flash crashes since.

The present global crisis came about through bankers and markets creating over $50 trillion of nothing. Monetary numbers not backed up by commodities, manufacturing, services or anything else - just numbers in a spreadsheet. And so it might be that high-speed trading is a small mechanism waiting to stimulate a big crash.

In the meantime, the race goes on. Faster and faster electronics and software speed up trades and make more virtual money. However, there is a snag.

These systems have multiple feed-forward and feed-back loops to the extent that they defy mathematical analysis. But we do know that such systems tend to be unstable. In fact, just like a helicopter they tend to be conditionally unstable, rather than well behaved like conditionally stable fixed-wing aircraft.

What does all this mean? If the system were analogue it would be prone to oscillate, while digital systems can go into limit-cycles and chaotic action.

Has this actually happened in a stock market in the past? Yes. Black Monday in 1987 was attributed to machine trading instabilities - and that was well before high-speed markets were established.

Since then there have been many more incidents, including flash crashes and chaotic transients rooted in high-speed trading. This problem isn't going to go away, and it's a risk being amplified by the continual removal of delay.

Based on recent evidence I think we can safely say no one understands how the financial system of the planet works. And in the case of automated trading, that lack of understanding is a sure-fire certainty.

Sadly, I fear that we are in for more of the same, powered by ignorance and greed - and the outcome will not be pretty.

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.