Monday, May 23, 2016

The CME Admits Futures Trading Was Rigged Under Old System

Ask any trader what they believe to be the hallmark feature of any "rigged market" and the most frequent response(in addition to flagrant crime of the type supposedly demonstrated every day by Deutsche Bank and which should not exist in a regulated market) will be an institutionally bifurcated and legitimized playing field, one in which those who can afford faster, bigger, more effective data pipes, collocated servers and response times - and thus riskless trades - outperform everyone else who may or may not know that the market is legallyrigged against them.
Think of it as baseball game for those who take steroids vs a 'roid free game, only here the steroids are perfectly legal for those who can afford them. Or like a casino where the house, or in this case the HFTs, always win.
However, as it turned out, the vast majority of the public had no idea that a small subset of the market was juicing, despite our constant reports on the topic since 2009, until the arrival of Michael Lewis' book Flash Boys, which explained the secret sauce that made all those HFT prop shops into unbeatable "trading titans": frontrunning.
That's really all one had to know about the mystical inner working of the modern market. All Reg NMS did was legitimize and legalize frontrunning at a massive scale for those who could afford (and hide) it, all the while the technology race ran in the background making it increasingly more expensive to stay at the top: fiber optics, microwaves, lasers, FPGAs, PCI-Express and so on.
And, as we have also discovered in recent years especially since the advent of IEX, for many exchanges providing a two-tiered marketplace was the lifeblood of the business model: the bulk of the revenues for "exchanges" such as BATS and Nasdaq would come from selling non-HFT retail and institutional orderflow to HFT clients. Since the HFTs made far more than the invested cost in permitting such perfectly legal frontrunning, they were happy, the exchanges were happy too as they betrayed only those clients who didn't pay up the "extra fee", and only the true outsiders lost. And any time they complained how rigged the system was against them, the HFTs would scream that "they provide liquidity" as they are the real modern-day market makers.
Except that's not true: the only time HFTs provide liquidity it when it is not needed. When liquidity is truly scarce and required in the market, such as on days like the May 2010 flash crash, or August 2015...  they disappear.
Meanwhile, nothing changes, because the regulators are just as corrupt as the exchanges and the HFTs, and their role is not to bring transparency to a broken, manipulated market, but to keep retail investors in the dark about just how rigged everything is.
It appears that the CME was doing just that as well.
According to Bloomberg, the CME Group - the world’s largest exchange operator - just completed an "upgrade" traders said would eliminate a shortcoming that gave some participants an advantage.
Under the old system, data connections that linked customers to CME - where key products like Treasury futures and contracts tied to the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index trade - had noticeably different speeds, opening up the potential for gaming, according to traders and other experts. Those who knew how to gain faster access could increase their odds of being first in line to trade.
The new design supposedly stamps that out.
Oh, so it was a design glitch that allowed those who "knew" how to frontrun everyone else to do so. That's the first time we have heard of the particular excuse. Usually the scapegoat is a "glitch", only in this case the CME didn't even bother.
"It’s an excellent step forward,” said Matthew Andresen, co-owner of Headlands Technologies LLC, a quantitative trading firm. “The new architecture is flat and fair, a great improvement,” said Andresen, whose knowledge of market infrastructure goes back to the 1990s, when he worked for electronic trading pioneer Island ECN.
But, wait... if it is an "excellent step" that some traders can no longer frontrun other traders on the CME, why is it not a "poor step" that virtually every other exchange still enables precisely this kind of tiered marketplace, which is neither flat nor fair?
Actually, scratch that: that's precisely what IEX is trying to resolve. The reaction? An exchange which explicitly profits from providing a two-tiered market and charging an arm and a leg for those who can afford it (and thus frontrun everyone else) namely the Nasdaq, has threatened to sue the SEC if it permits IEX to become a full-fledged stock exchange.
As Bloomberg adds, the situation involving CME’s data connections highlights a fresh set of difficulties ensuring a level playing field in the era of light-speed markets, in which even the smallest bits of a second matter. The race to shave off milliseconds has spurred efforts to carve through mountains, span continents with microwave networks and prompted a backlash championed by the likes of IEX Group Inc., the upstart stock market that delays trading to impose fairness.
Unlike some of today's state of the art means of being faster than everyone else, frontrunning orderflow on the CME was more of a "brute force" mechanism: CME customers are allotted data connections to the exchange. Some have more, some have less. Given that their speeds varied noticeably under the old architecture, the more lines a trading firm had, the better odds it could find a faster one. Trading firms with a lot of links had the chance to fish around for the fastest way to get trades done. Other firms that didn’t have as many connections or the computer programming resources to test around and find the quickest, most efficient way in were at the mercy of the connections they had.
“The performance could vary widely” with data connections under the former CME architecture, Andresen said. By which he meant that those who could afford to pay much more than everyone else, would also be able to frontrun almost everyone else.
But no more. The new system “is an important innovation that will set a new standard for fair and efficient access to the futures markets,” said Benjamin Blander, managing member of Radix Trading, a Chicago-based trading firm.
CME declined to comment on claims the old system was unfair, Bloomberg adds. “We are continuously enhancing our infrastructure in order to provide the latest and best technology architecture for our clients,” said Michael Shore, a spokesman for CME.
CME has been installing the new architecture since February. The last group of futures and options became available on the new system last week, according to CME. Traders aren’t required to switch over to the new system and can keep trading the old way if they want.
This isn’t the first time CME revamped its systems to stamp out an imperfection. Before an upgrade more than two years ago, traders were notified that their own orders were completed before everyone else found out, potentially giving initiators of transactions time to buy or sell on other exchanges with knowledge of their executions.
We expect more violations of "accidentally" rigged markets to be uncovered in time, both on the CME and elsewhere, although we wonder at this time does it even matter: besides central banks trading with other central banks (especially courtesy of the CME's own Central Bank Incentive Program), does anyone else even bother? If judging by the total collapse in trading volumes over the past decade in virtually every product class, the answer is clear.