As you know from reading the papers, Washington “powers that be” have two impulses when it comes to Wall Street and stock market activity:
- If it’s an activity where people can lose money, we need to regulate it.
- If it’s a thing where people can make too much money, we need to regulate it – and maybe just outright squash it.
Following the market’s unfortunate meltdown in 2007-09, and the even more unfortunate fact that Wall Streeters who remain are taking home big bonuses, Congress and the Obama Administration are in full rush to “do something.” You know, do something so “this will never happen again.” No one believes that last part – mostly it’s about casting blame and seeming to punish someone – but they are working on a wave of escalating regulation, which could be very real.
Update: On Jan. 21 President Obama pledged to go after big banks, again using that “never again” language. Among other things he proposed a ban on proprietary trading by banks, curbs on advising hedge funds and limits on involvement in “risky financial products.” Depending on how it’s structured, this might greatly reduce trading – or just drive traders out of mega-banks into smaller firms.
Earlier this week the Kansas City chapters of NIRI and the Security Traders Association put on an educational panel, “Not Your Grandma’s Market Anymore,” on how the new world of trading affects public companies. The Jan. 19 audience was a mix of 50 investor relations people, long-term investors and short-term traders, all in one room.
Speakers were Joe Ratterman, CEO of BATS Global Markets, the No. 3 US equity exchange behind Nasdaq and NYSE; Tim Quast, managing director of ModernIR, an analytics firm that tracks trading patterns for public companies; and Jeff Albright, VP and head of equity trading for mutual fund family Waddell & Reed. I moderated.
In another post, I’ll share ideas from the session on what investor relations people can do amid this new world of trading. But let’s start with Washington – because regulatory excess in trading could do a lot of damage to the markets our public companies depend upon. Some examples of what the power brokers are up to:
- The Securities and Exchange Commission issued a “concept release” on equity market structure on Jan. 14. It’s a good primer on changes in how stocks are traded. The SEC seeks public comment on how to beef up regulation of market structure, high-frequency trading and “undisplayed liquidity” such as the private markets called dark pools. That’s the start of a push for expanded regulation. I’ll post excerpts in a page called “Not Your Grandma’s Market,” but the full 74-page release is worth reading.
- Democrats in Congress are proposing a new tax of 0.25% to 0.5% on securities transactions – every trade of stocks, options, futures, etc. Proponents say the tax could raise as much as $354 billion a year for Uncle Sam and curb “speculative excess” by cutting total trading volume, say, 25% to 50%. Those last numbers are, well, speculative – no one knows what the actual impact of lobbing a new tax into the markets would be.
- The SEC proposes to regulate dark pools, whose very name suggests something sinister – should have sent that one to the branding consultant before going with “dark pools.” They’re generally platforms for securities firms to match orders and do proprietary trades without disclosing price and volume offers. The new SEC rules would bring that trading out into the open.
- Also targeted by the SEC are flash orders. Flash trading essentially is a way automated traders’ computers can get a peek at pending orders from other investors 30 milliseconds before those orders go to the broader market. The fear is that high-tech trading desks are gaining an unfair advantage.
- And, of course, the SEC has been tinkering with rules on short selling, a hot button for some companies that have felt victimized on the downside of the market – and another unpopular group of Wall Streeters.
Now, the opinions here are my own – I can’t speak for the other panelists. My takeaway from the discussion was that, yes, technological and regulatory changes of recent years have created a huge new realm that basically is automated trading.
Perhaps two-thirds of the trading volume in US stocks is short-term activity. The traders are math majors who program computers to make or withdraw offers from the market, hundreds or thousands of small trades at a time, in milliseconds. They use algorithms to implement strategies based on tiny anomalies in price, or theories about market movement. The activities go by a bunch of acronyms and names like “high-frequency trading.” They use ultra-fast technology.
And, yes, this trading activity makes life complicated – both for public companies trying to figure out what is happening with our stocks day-to-day, and for individual or institutional investors who may be trying to do a trade for long-term investment but encounter a flurry of “noise” moving the price or spiking volume.
The fact that life has become more complicated, however, doesn’t mean it’s worse – or that trading cries out for a regulatory crackdown. Automated trading certainly was not responsible for the financial meltdown we just came through, and those traders Washington likes to label “speculators” aren’t doing anything wrong.
The societal benefit of short-term trading, as it emerged in discussion, is that when a long-term investor is trying to put a trade on – say, buy 50,000 shares of your stock – the automated traders often are the ones putting up the offers that match that bid and form the other side of the trade. Liquidity comes from more offers, and this lubrication enables people to own stocks less risk of being stuck.
My bottom line: Let’s NOT squash trading. Taxing trades will only add costs, ultimately borne by the people who own equities or mutual funds. And we ought to be very careful about dictating market structure based on an understanding of today’s needs and technologies – which tomorrow will already be changing.
Capitalism thrives in free markets. Rigidity in capital markets will inhibit the flow of money and hinder investment in new technologies yet to be envisioned. And let’s face it, the equity markets (however bumpy) ultimately enable businesses to exist, grow … or in some cases disappear. We don’t want to lock in the status quo.
That’s my two-cents’ worth. What’s your opinion of regulating trading?