People respond to incentives, and so if we want to take on much bigger challenges, we need to collaborate across thousands and in some cases hundreds of thousands of people. How do you get 100,000 people to work together? It’s not that easy. In the old days, it was religion and before that it was simple fiat rules, tyranny. The Egyptians built some beautiful pyramids, but they did that with hundreds of thousands of slaves over decades. If we rule out slavery as a possible means of societal advances, there really isn’t any other choice. If we need 100,000 people to cure cancer, to deal with Alzheimer’s, to figure out fusion energy and climate change…I don’t know of any other way to do that other than financial markets: equity, debt, proper financing and proper payout of returns. I think that in many cases [finance] probably is the gating factor. That, to me, is the short answer to the question about why finance is so important.
Of course, honest traders change their minds all the time and cancel orders as economic conditions change. That’s not illegal. To demonstrate spoofing, prosecutors or regulators must show the trader entered orders he never intended to execute. That’s a high burden of proof in any market. One helpful fact is if most of a trader’s (canceled) orders were on one side (say to buy) when he was mostly actually trading on the other (selling). For instance Sarao allegedly put in huge orders to sell, so that he could buy a few contracts: All his trading was on one side, but most of his orders were on the other. Then he’d switch a little while later. That seems like a bad sign.
In the summer of 2014, Puzz had another puzzle to solve. From March to July, the frequency with which an IEX customer could have gotten a better price less than 10 milliseconds after a trade posted rose from about 3 percent to as much as 10 percent. This wasn’t meant to happen. IEX was supposed to protect investors from what’s known as stale quote arbitrage; that’s when a high-frequency trader takes advantage of milliseconds-long delays in how markets update prices to reflect movements on other exchanges. These tiny delays allow high-speed traders to see a price fluctuation on one exchange and then quickly send an order to another market—often a dark pool—that it knows updates its prices more slowly, hoping to pick off the orders resting there at stale prices. It’s a bit like betting on yesterday’s horse race against someone who doesn’t know the result.
IEX prevents stale quote arbitrage with its “magic shoe box,” a metal container in its data center in Weehawken, New Jersey. Crammed into it are 38 miles (61 kilometers) of coiled fiber-optic wire, creating IEX’s speed bump of 350 microseconds (about one one-thousandth of the time it takes to blink). The idea of countering super-fast traders by creating a slower market might seem like a paradox. It’s not. IEX uses the same high-speed data feeds as HFT firms do to monitor other exchanges for price changes. But because IEX didn’t want to be in a technological arms race with the high-frequency traders to process this information faster than they do, it uses the speed bump to slow down all new orders—just enough to ensure IEX has time to update its prices to reflect any movements on public exchanges. This prevents orders on IEX from being traded against at stale prices.
So how, Aisen wondered, could HFT firms be picking off IEX orders despite the magic shoe box? It didn’t take Puzz long to solve the riddle. He discovered that some HFT algorithms could predict price changes—like surfers sitting out past the break, scanning the swell for their next ride—and target orders before the magic shoe box’s speed bump could protect them.
In fact, there are four channels through which the real interest rate affects real commodity prices (aside from whatever effect it has via the level of economic activity).
First, high interest rates reduce the price of storable commodities by increasing the incentive for extraction today rather than tomorrow, thereby boosting the pace at which oil is pumped, gold is mined, or forests are logged.
Second, high rates also decrease firms’ desire to carry inventories (think of oil held in tanks).
Third, portfolio managers respond to a rise in interest rates by shifting out of commodity contracts (which are now an “asset class”) and into treasury bills.
Finally, high interest rates strengthen the domestic currency, thereby reducing the price of internationally traded commodities in domestic terms (even if the price has not fallen in foreign-currency terms).