From the July 01, 2010 issue of Futures Magazine • Subscribe!

High frequency trading: The speed-safety balance

Direct market access is a technological innovation that arrived on the scene as a way to speed up the execution of trades. Fueled by traders’ demands to adopt another cutting edge trading innovation, high-frequency trading (HFT), direct access shaves off inefficiencies from the traditional broker execution process. HFT and direct access have simultaneously become popular and infamous, and the debate rages on about their pros and cons. Some pundits call for an outright ban on HFT and direct access, claiming that the techniques are mindless speculative pursuits that cause market volatility and destroy legitimate profit of other, less technologically savvy, traders. Others argue that the technological innovations are designed to make markets even more efficient by enhancing transparency and adding liquidity. In this article, we examine the nature of direct access, its benefits and relationship with HFT, pro and con arguments for its existence, and related industry developments.

But first, a little detour into the history of trading innovations. In 1892, thousands of Americans petitioned the U.S. Congress to ban trading in futures. By eliminating trading in futures, the petitioners hoped to stop the “speculative gambling” that was creating volatility in the prices of commodities underlying the traded futures contracts, much akin to the sentiment displayed today by the opponents of HFT and direct access.

Why should we feel comfortable with futures today when a hundred years ago investors demanded their demise? Since the 19th century, a futures contract has remained largely the same: it is an obligation to transact a financial security at a designated time in the future. Back then, futures were a brand-new idea. Limited understanding of the technology fueled fears and further misinformation. In contrast, futures today are widely used to hedge risk, to lock in prices on inventory, and to reflect news in the underlying instruments. The information on how these products work has increased confidence in futures over the years, and few can imagine the modern trading world without futures contracts. The history of futures encourages the HFT and direct access practitioners to believe that information about the new trading techniques will help soothe fears of opponents of the new trading techniques.

Direct market access, as its name implies, is a way to connect to the execution venue with little, if any, “touch” from broker-dealers. Direct access is not a trading strategy, in the sense that direct access does not dictate which products to trade when, and at what price (the latter role being held by high-frequency trading). Instead, direct access is a computerized process to transmit trading and portfolio allocation decisions to an exchange or an alternative trading system. As with everything computerized, direct access enables faster, more accurate delivery of information, free of human errors, emotions, and misunderstandings.

Traditionally, broker-dealers offered their clients best execution services to route and execute trades in the least visible manner and at the best prices, in exchange for a fee. The advent of electronic trading and off-the-shelf algorithms has changed all that: not only do traders no longer need to pay brokers for services they can perform themselves, they also can save on execution time by avoiding brokers altogether. Direct access also addresses the situation where brokers compete with high-frequency traders by using their proprietary trading desks while providing market-making services.

A challenge with direct access is the potential for less rigorous pre-trade risk analytics. Broker-dealers perform a suite of risk management activities that would no longer take place if trades are routed directly to an exchange.

Specifically, the Futures Industry Association (FIA) Market Access Working Group, comprised of several prominent market players including CME Group, J.P. Morgan, Barclays Capital and Bank of America, has recently identified several sources of risk (see “Excedrin moments,” below).

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